Supreme Court rejects limits to partisan gerrymandering

By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In a major blow to election reformers, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday rejected efforts to rein in the contentious practice of manipulating electoral district boundaries to entrench one party in power by turning away challenges to political maps in Maryland and North Carolina.

The justices, in a 5-4 decision with the court’s conservative in the majority and liberals in dissent, ruled in a decision with nationwide implications that judges do not have the ability to curb the practice known as partisan gerrymandering. The court sided with Republican lawmakers in North Carolina and Democratic legislators in Maryland who drew electoral district boundaries that were challenged by voters.

The ruling, authored by Chief justice John Roberts, delivered a huge setback to election reformers who had hoped the court would intervene over a growing trend in which parties that control state legislatures use the electoral district line-drawing process to cement their grip on power and dilute the voting power of people who support the rival party.

The court ruled for the first time that federal courts have no authority to curb partisan gerrymandering – a decision that could give lawmakers who control state legislatures even more incentive to draw maps after the 2020 census that disadvantage voters who tend to back the rival party.

“We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” Roberts wrote.

Justice Elena Kagan, one of the court’s liberals, took the unusual step of reading her dissent from the bench.

“For the first time ever, this court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities,” Kagan said.

In the Maryland case, the court sided with Democratic legislators in Maryland who reconfigured the U.S. House of Representatives district at issue.

In the North Carolina case, the justices overturned a lower court decision that ordered that the state’s 13 U.S. House of Representatives districts be reconfigured before the 2020 U.S. election to remove the partisan bias. The lower court had decided that the Republican-drawn districts were so politically biased that they violated the rights of voters under the U.S. Constitution.

The decision could have a major impact in states across the country. Critics have said gerrymandering is becoming more extreme and can better engineer election outcomes with the use of precise voter data and powerful computer software. The justices on May 24 blocked lower court rulings that had struck down Republican-drawn electoral maps in Michigan and Ohio and had ordered new ones to be drawn for the 2020 election.

The high court previously had struggled to resolve the legality of partisan gerrymandering, a longstanding practice in which boundaries of legislative districts are reworked with the aim of tightening one party’s grip on power. The justices in June 2018 failed to issue definitive rulings on partisan gerrymandering in two cases – this same one from Maryland and another involving a Republican-drawn electoral map in Wisconsin.

The boundaries of legislative districts across the country are redrawn to reflect population changes contained in the census conducted by the federal government every decade, a head count mandated by the U.S. Constitution.

This redistricting in most states is carried out by the party in power, though some states in the interest of fairness assign the task to independent commissions. Gerrymandering typically involves politicians drawing legislative districts to pack voters who tend to favor a particular party into a small number of districts to diminish their statewide voting power while dispersing others in districts in numbers too small to be a majority.

Critics have said partisan gerrymandering, when taken to extremes, warps democracy by intentionally diluting the power of some voters and the electability candidates they support.

Gerrymandering is a practice dating back two centuries in the United States. But critics have said it is becoming more extreme with the use of precision computer modeling to guide the creation of district boundaries that maximize the clout of one party’s voters at the expense of other voters.

While the Supreme Court has ruled against gerrymandering intended to harm the electoral clout of racial minorities, it has never curbed gerrymandering carried out purely for partisan advantage.

Democrats have said partisan gerrymandering by Republicans in such states as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania helped President Donald Trump’s party maintain control of the U.S. House and various state legislatures for years, although Democrats seized control of the House in last November’s elections and made inroads in state legislatures.

For a graphic on major Supreme Court rulings, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2V2T0Uf

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung)

U.S. Supreme Court rules for cross-shaped war memorial on public land in Maryland

A concrete cross commemorating servicemen killed in World War One, that is the subject of a religious rights case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, is seen in Bladensburg, Maryland, U.S., February 11, 2019. Picture taken on February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Lawrence Hurley

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A 40-foot-tall (12 meters) cross-shaped war memorial standing on public land in Maryland does not represent an impermissible government endorsement of religion, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday in a major decision testing the boundaries of the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state.

The justices, in a 7-2 decision, overturned a lower court ruling that had declared the so-called Peace Cross in Bladensburg unconstitutional in a legal challenge mounted by the American Humanist Association, a group that advocates for secular governance. The concrete cross was erected in 1925 as a memorial to troops killed in World War One.

The challengers had argued that the cross violated the Constitution’s so-called Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from establishing an official religion and bars governmental actions favoring one religion over another.

The American Humanist Association did not immediately comment on the ruling.

The fractured decision saw two of the court’s liberals, Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Elena Kagan, joining the five conservatives in parts of the majority. The ruling made it clear that such a monument in the shape of a Christian cross on public land was permissible but the justices seemed divided over whether other types of religious displays and symbols on government property would be allowed.

Justice Samuel Alito, a conservative, wrote for the majority that although the cross is a religious symbol, “its use in the Bladensburg memorial has special significance” because it functions as a war memorial.

“For nearly a century, the Bladensburg cross has expressed the community’s grief at the loss of the young men who perished, its thanks for their sacrifices, and its dedication to the ideals for which they fought,” he added.

To tear the cross down now could be seen as an act of hostility against religion, Alito said.

Where the justices differ is on what kinds of other displays, including ones built more recently, would violate the Constitution.

“A newer memorial, erected under different circumstances, would not necessarily be permissible under this approach,” Breyer wrote in a concurring opinion.

Liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

The Peace Cross was funded privately and built to honor 49 men from Maryland’s Prince George’s County killed in World War One. The property was in private hands when the cross was erected, but is now on land owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, a governmental agency.

The cross had the backing of Republican President Donald Trump’s administration. The American Legion holds memorial events at the site. Veterans and their relatives have said the monument has no religious meaning despite being in the shape of a cross, calling the lawsuit misguided and hurtful.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; editing by Will Dunham and Grant McCool)

In major religion case, U.S. top court weighs Maryland cross case

Advocates for the separation of church and state participate in a rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court ahead of oral arguments over whether a concrete cross commemorating servicemen killed in World War One in Bladensburg, Maryland, is an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion, in Washington, U.S., February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Lawrence Hurley

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday takes up one of the biggest cases of its current term when it weighs whether a cross-shaped war memorial on public land in Maryland is an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.

The so-called Peace Cross, a 40-foot-tall (12 meters) concrete memorial to 49 men from Maryland’s Prince George’s County killed in World War One, is situated on public land at a busy road intersection in Bladensburg just outside Washington.

Fred Edwords and two other plaintiffs filed a 2014 lawsuit challenging the cross as a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from establishing an official religion and bars governmental actions favoring one religion over another.

Edwords, who is retired, is a long-time member and previous employee of the American Humanist Association, which advocates for the separation of church and state.

Supporters of the group participated in a small rally in front of the court before the arguments, with some holding signs saying, “Protect the Constitution they fought for,” in reference to military veterans. Supporters of the cross, including members of the American Legion, a private veterans’ group, also gathered outside the building.

The cross was funded privately and built in 1925. The property where it stands was in private hands when it was erected, but it is now on land owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, a governmental agency.

The nine justices on the high court, which has a 5-4 conservative majority, are due to hear a 70-minute oral argument, with a ruling due by the end of June.

The Establishment Clause’s scope is contested, so comments by the justices suggesting a willingness to allow greater government involvement in religious expression will be closely scrutinized.

The cross has the backing of President Donald Trump’s administration and members of the American Legion, who hold memorial events at the site. Veterans and their relatives have said the monument has no religious meaning despite being in the shape of a Christian cross, calling the lawsuit misguided and hurtful.

Aside from its shape, the cross has no other religious themes or imagery.

The Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the cross was unconstitutional, reversing a Maryland-based federal judge’s decision allowing the monument.

The Supreme Court will hear appeals by the park commission and the American Legion, which is represented by the conservative religious rights group First Liberty Institute.

The Supreme Court has sent mixed messages about parameters for government-approved religious expression, including in two rulings issued on the same day in 2005.

In one, it ruled that a monument on the grounds of the Texas state capitol building depicting the biblical Ten Commandments did not violate the Constitution. But in the other, it decided that Ten Commandments displays in Kentucky courthouses and schools were unlawful.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

War memorial or religious symbol? Cross fight reaches U.S. high court

A concrete cross commemorating servicemen killed in World War One, that is the subject of a religious rights case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, is seen in Bladensburg, Maryland, U.S., February 11, 2019. Picture taken on February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Lawrence Hurley

By Lawrence Hurley

BLADENSBURG, Md. (Reuters) – When Fred Edwords first drove by the 40-foot-tall (12 meters) concrete cross that has stood for nearly a century on a busy intersection in suburban Maryland outside the U.S. capital, his first reaction was, “What is that doing there?”

To Edwords, who believes there should be an impermeable wall separating church and state, the location of the so-called Peace Cross – a memorial to Americans killed in World War One situated on public land, with vehicles buzzing by on all sides – seemed to be a clear governmental endorsement of religion.

“It’s so obviously part of the town and a centerpiece. It just popped out at me. There was nothing about it that made me think it was anything other than a Christian cross,” Edwords, 70, said in an interview.

Edwords and two other plaintiffs filed a 2014 lawsuit challenging the cross as a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from establishing an official religion and bars governmental actions favoring one religion over another.

A concrete cross commemorating servicemen killed in World War One, that is the subject of a religious rights case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, is seen in Bladensburg, Maryland, U.S., February 11, 2019. Picture taken on February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Lawrence Hurley

A concrete cross commemorating servicemen killed in World War One, that is the subject of a religious rights case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, is seen in Bladensburg, Maryland, U.S., February 11, 2019. Picture taken on February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Lawrence Hurley

The conservative-majority court will hear arguments in the case next Wednesday, with a ruling due by the end of June.

While the Establishment Clause’s scope is a matter of dispute, most Supreme Court experts predict the challenge to the Peace Cross will fail, with the justices potentially setting a new precedent allowing greater government involvement in religious expression.

The Peace Cross, now aging and crumbling a bit, was funded privately and built in Bladensburg in 1925 to honor 49 men from Maryland’s Prince George’s County killed in World War One. The property where it stands was in private hands when it was erected, but later became public land.

Its supporters include President Donald Trump’s administration and members of the American Legion veterans’ group, who hold memorial events at the cross. At a recent gathering at a nearby American Legion post, veterans and their relatives said the monument has no religious meaning despite being in the shape of a Christian cross, calling the lawsuit misguided and painful.

To Mary Ann Fenwick LaQuay, 80, the cross respectfully chronicles the war sacrifice of her uncle Thomas Notley Fenwick, one of 49 honored.

“It hurts people who have family members there. Every time I go by there, I think of my uncle. It hurts to think people would take it away,” she said.

Stan Shaw, 64, a U.S. Army veteran, said it appeared the challengers were going out of their way to take offense.

“If you don’t want to see it, take another route,” Shaw added.

Aside from its shape, the cross has no other religious themes or imagery. At its base is a barely legible plaque listing the names of the dead. Every year, ceremonies with no religious content are held at the site, lawyers defending the cross said.

Edwords, who is retired, is a long-time member and previous employee of the American Humanist Association, which advocates for the separation of church and state. He and his fellow challengers said they support veterans and that the lawsuit concerns only the symbolism of the cross, not the fact that it honors war dead.

The Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the cross was unconstitutional, reversing a Maryland-based federal judge’s decision allowing the monument.

The Supreme Court will hear appeals by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, the public agency that owns the cross, and the American Legion, which is represented by the conservative religious rights group First Liberty Institute.

TEN COMMANDMENTS

The Supreme Court has sent mixed messages about the extent to which there can be government-approved religious expression, including in two rulings issued on the same day in 2005.

In one case, it ruled that a monument on the grounds of the Texas state capitol building depicting the biblical Ten Commandments did not violate the Constitution. But in the other, it decided that Ten Commandments displays in Kentucky courthouses and schools were unlawful.

More recently, the court in 2014 ruled that government entities do not automatically violate the Constitution when they hold a prayer before legislative meetings.

In some other recent cases, the court has taken an expansive view of religious rights. In 2014, it ruled that owners of private companies could object on religious grounds to a federal requirement to provide health insurance that included coverage for women’s birth control.

It ruled in 2017 that churches and other religious entities cannot be flatly denied public money even in states whose constitutions ban such funding. In a narrow 2018 ruling, the court sided with a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, citing his Christian beliefs.

The American Legion’s lawyers are asking the court to decide that government endorsement of religion is not the appropriate test in the Peace Cross case. Instead, they said, courts should conclude that the government violates the Constitution only when it actively coerces people into practicing religion.

Such a ruling would give public officials “carte blanche to have symbols anywhere,” said Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania expert on law and religion who joined a legal brief supporting Edwords.

Edwords conceded that the lawsuit could end up backfiring on his side with a ruling against him but stands by his decision to challenge the cross.

“We are not trying to be revolutionary here,” Edwords said.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Maryland judge to weigh Obamacare case

FILE PHOTO: A sign on an insurance store advertises Obamacare in San Ysidro, San Diego, California, U.S., October 26, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

By Sarah N. Lynch

(Reuters) – Days after a judge in Texas declared that the Obamacare healthcare law is unconstitutional, Maryland’s Democratic attorney general on Wednesday will pursue his request that another judge rule the opposite way.

The lawsuit brought by Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh also seeks to challenge President Donald Trump’s appointment of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general, another bone of partisan contention.

Frosh is asking U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander in Baltimore to declare that the 2010 health law, known as the Affordable Care Act, is lawful in a bid to counter attempts by the Trump administration to undermine it.

Hollander will weigh the Whitaker claim along with the government’s motion to dismiss the case on the grounds that Maryland does not have legal standing to bring the case.

On Friday, a judge in Texas ruled that the entire healthcare law was unconstitutional following revisions to the tax code by the Republican-controlled Congress last year, which removed the tax penalty for failing to buy health insurance. Trump, who has worked for years to undermine Obamacare, on Twitter called the Texas judge’s decision “a great ruling for our country.”

The Texas judge ruled in favor of 20 states, including Texas.

The original lawsuit by the 20 states prompted Maryland to sue the federal government over then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ refusal to defend the portions of the Obamacare law being challenged in Texas.

Trump forced Sessions out of office in early November and named Whitaker to replace him as acting attorney general.

In response to that, Maryland asked Judge Hollander to issue an injunction barring Whitaker from serving, saying his appointment violated both the Constitution and a federal law that governs the line of succession at the Justice Department.

Then on Dec. 7, Trump nominated William Barr to become attorney general on a permanent basis. He would replace Whitaker, pending Senate review, likely in early 2019.

Maryland has asked Hollander to issue a declaratory judgment upholding Obamacare’s constitutionality.

If Hollander rules on whether Obamacare is constitutional, her decision could potentially be at odds with the decision in Texas. That could create a conflict among lower courts of the sort the U.S. Supreme Court often likes to tackle.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and James Dalgleish)

‘Multiple victims’ reported in shooting in Maryland

Pol;ice on scene at work place shooting. Active shooter

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – Several people were shot on Thursday in Perryman, Maryland, near an Army facility, and residents were asked to avoid the area, according to authorities.

“The situation is still fluid,” the Harford County Sheriff’s Office wrote on Twitter, adding that officers were dispatched to the incident shortly after 9 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT).

Agents from the Baltimore offices of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the FBI were also responding, the agencies said.

Perryman is 34 miles (55 km) northeast of Baltimore. The area of the reported shooting includes a church and a business district, and is near the Aberdeen Proving Ground, an Army facility.

Details of the shooting were still largely unknown around 10:30 a.m. (1430 GMT).

A witness told NBC’s affiliate in Baltimore that the shooting occurred in a warehouse and that 20 to 30 officers, as well as ambulances, responded to the scene.

“They’re telling that there is an active shooter,” said the witness, whom the station identified as a man named Bo who did not want to provide his last name.

Governor Larry Hogan said his office was “closely monitoring the horrific shooting.”

“Our prayers are with all those impacted, including our first responders,” Hogan wrote on Twitter. “The State stands ready to offer any support.”

The shooting occurred a day after a man shot and wounded four people, including a police officer, at a Pennsylvania court building before he was killed by police, according to Pennsylvania State Police.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Storm Florence’s drenching rains kill 23 in the Carolinas

Members of the Coast Guard launch rescue boats into the neighborhood of Mayfair in the flood waters caused by Hurricane Florence in Lumberton, North Carolina, U.S. September 16, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Miczek

By Ernest Scheyder and Patrick Rucker

WILMINGTON/FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (Reuters) – Deeper flooding loomed in the hours and days ahead from rivers in the Carolinas swollen by Tropical Depression Florence, which has killed 23 people, even if rain-weary residents got a brief glimpse of sunshine on Monday.

The slow-moving storm, a hurricane when it hit the North Carolina coast, has dumped up to 36 inches (91 cm) of rain on the state since Thursday, displacing thousands. The flooding could persist for several weeks in some areas.

The coastal city of Wilmington remained cut off by floodwaters from the Cape Fear River on Monday. Further inland, the same river, running through Fayetteville, a city of 200,000, was expected to reach major flood levels later on Monday, and would not crest until Tuesday.

Florence was headed through Virginia and toward New England and flash flood watches extended from Maryland through New York and southern New England.

In the Carolinas, the National Weather Service continued to warn people the floods were worsening.

“The worst is yet to come,” as river levels rise to historic levels, said Zach Taylor, an NWS meteorologist. “The soil is soaked and can’t absorb any more rain so that water has to go somewhere, unfortunately.”

Major rivers are expected to remain flooded for the next two to three weeks, said Steve Goldstein, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration liaison to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The death toll from Florence, which came ashore in North Carolina on Friday, rose to 23 on Monday.

The dead included a 1-year-old boy who was swept away from his mother as they tried to escape their car amid floodwaters. The woman had driven around barricades to get on a closed road, the sheriff’s office in Union County, near North Carolina’s border with South Carolina, said on Facebook.

North Carolina officials reported 1,200 road closures, including a stretch of Interstate 95, a major transportation artery running the length of the U.S. East Coast.

About 509,000 homes and businesses were without electricity on Monday in North and South Carolina and surrounding states.

POWER OUTAGES, BLOCKED ROADS

The sun appeared in some areas for the first time in days, allowing some people who had been forced to leave their homes to return home to assess damage.

Eric Tryggeseth, 59, found his home in Leland, North Carolina, without power and with a tree lying in his front yard. He had been evacuated a day before by troops in a truck.

“The floodwaters were rising so I figured I better get out of there,” he said. “I can’t thank the first responders enough.”

There were currently 2,000 federal workers working on storm response, supporting state efforts, said Tom Fargione, FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer, during a press conference.

Sean Adams, 29, a contractor from Leland, said his home suffered only minor damage but he had no idea when power might be restored.

With so many roads in and out of the region flooded, he could not access supplies to help start rebuilding.

“We really can’t get much done right now. It’s getting frustrating,” he said.

The storm killed 17 people in North Carolina, including a mother and child hit by a falling tree, state officials said. Six people died in South Carolina, including four in car accidents and two from carbon monoxide from a portable generator.

(Reporting by Patrick Rucker and Ernest Scheyder; Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Miami; Jessica Resnick-Ault and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Anna Mehler Paperny in North Carolina; and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Writing by Bill Trott; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Frances Kerry)

Hurricane Florence makes landfall, set to inundate Carolinas

Water from Neuse River floods houses as Hurricane Florence comes ashore in New Bern, North Carolina, September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

By Ernest Scheyder

WILMINGTON, N.C. (Reuters) – Hurricane Florence, weakened but still dangerous, crashed into the Carolinas on Friday as a giant, slow-moving storm that stranded residents with floodwaters and swamped part of the town of New Bern at the beginning of what could be a days-long deluge.

The center of the hurricane’s eye came ashore at about 7:15 a.m. EDT (1115 GMT) near Wrightsville Beach close to Wilmington, North Carolina, with sustained winds of 90 miles per hour (150 kph), the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.

Flood waters are seen in Belhaven, North Carolina, U.S., September 14, 2018 in this still image from video obtained from social media. Courtesy of Ben Johnson/via REUTERS

Flood waters are seen in Belhaven, North Carolina, U.S., September 14, 2018 in this still image from video obtained from social media. Courtesy of Ben Johnson/via REUTERS

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said Florence was set to cover almost all of the state in several feet of water.

As of Friday morning, Atlantic Beach, a town on North Carolina’s Outer Banks barrier island chain, already had received 30 inches (76 cm) of rain, the U.S. Geological Service said.

On the mainland in New Bern, authorities said more than 100 people had to be saved from floods and that the downtown area was underwater. The town’s public information officer, Colleen Roberts, told CNN 150 more people were awaiting rescue and that citizens were going out in their

boats to help, despite blowing waters and swift currents.

“WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU,” New Bern city officials said on Twitter. “You may need to move up to the second story, or to your attic, but WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU.”

There were no immediate reports of storm-related deaths or serious injuries but more than 60 people, including many children and pets, had to be evacuated from a hotel in Jacksonville, North Carolina, after strong winds caused parts of the roof to collapse, local officials said.

National Weather Service forecaster Brandon Locklear predicted Florence would drop up to eight months’ worth of rain in two or three days.

More than 440,000 homes and businesses were without power in North and South Carolina early on Friday, utility officials said. Utility companies said millions were expected to lose power and that restoring it could take weeks.

The roof of a house is seen affected by winds from Hurricane Florence as it hits the town of Wilson, North Carolina, U.S., September 14, 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

The roof of a house is seen affected by winds from Hurricane Florence as it hits the town of Wilson, North Carolina, U.S., September 14, 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Florence had been a Category 3 hurricane with 120 mph winds on Thursday but dropped to Category 1 before coming ashore. But forecasters said its extreme size meant it could batter the U.S. East Coast with hurricane-force winds for nearly a full day.

It is expected to move across parts of southeastern North Carolina and eastern South Carolina on Friday and Saturday, then head north over the western Carolinas and central Appalachian Mountains early next week, the NHC said. Significant weakening is expected over the weekend.

About 10 million people could be affected by the storm and more than 1 million were ordered to evacuate the coasts of the Carolinas and Virginia.

Almost 20,000 people had taken refuge in 157 emergency shelters, Cooper said.

Emergency declarations were in force in Georgia, South and North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Still, some residents ignored calls to evacuate.

“I had a lot of fear initially but I’m glad to be inside and safe,” said Zelda Allen, 74, a retired tax accountant from Hampstead, North Carolina, who was riding out the storm at Wilmington’s Hotel Ballast with her husband.

“I’m worried about what I might find when I go home, though,” she said.

 

(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Additional reporting by Gene Cherry in Raleigh and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Nick Zieminski)

North Carolina feels first bite of mammoth Hurricane Florence

A man walks his dogs before Hurricane Florence comes ashore on Carolina Beach, North Carolina, U.S., September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Ernest Scheyder

WILMINGTON, N.C. (Reuters) – Coastal North Carolina felt the first bite of Hurricane Florence on Thursday as winds began to rise, a prelude to the slow-moving tempest that forecasters warned would cause catastrophic flooding across a wide swath of the U.S. southeast.

The center of Florence, no longer classified as a major hurricane but still posing a grave threat to life and property, is expected to hit North Carolina’s southern coast Friday, then drift southwest before moving inland on Saturday, enough time to drop feet of rain, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Businesses and homes in the storm’s path were boarded up and thousands of people had moved to emergency shelters, officials said, urging anyone who remained near the coast to flee. Millions were expected to lose power, perhaps for weeks.

“There is still time to leave,” North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper told “CBS This Morning” on Thursday. “This is an extremely dangerous situation.”

Florence’s maximum sustained winds were clocked on Thursday at 110 miles per hour (175 kph) after it was downgraded to a Category 2 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, according to the NHC. The storm was about 170 miles (275 km) east of Wilmington, North Carolina.

Tropical storm-force winds of at least 39 miles per hour (63 kph) extended outward up to 195 miles (315 km) from its center and were due to begin raking North Carolina’s Outer Banks barrier islands around 8 a.m. (1200 GMT) before stretching over low-lying areas reaching from Georgia north into Virginia.

The rain posed a greater danger, forecasters warned, with some spots getting as much as 40 inches (1 m) of precipitation, enough to cause devastating flash floods miles from the coast.

In all, an estimated 10 million people live in areas expected to be placed under a hurricane or storm advisory, according to the U.S. Weather Prediction Center. More than one million people had been ordered to evacuate the coastlines of the Carolinas and Virginia.

Besides inundating the coast with wind-driven storm surges of seawater as high as 13 feet (four meters) along the Carolina coast, Florence could dump 20 to 30 inches (51-76 cm) of rain over much of the region.

If it stalls over land, downpours and flooding would be especially severe. Heavy rains were forecast to extend into the Appalachians, affecting parts of Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia.

 

TEST FOR TRUMP

The storm will be a test of President Donald Trump’s administration less than two months before elections that will determine control of Congress. After facing severe criticism for its handling of last year’s Hurricane Maria, which killed some 3,000 people in Puerto Rico, Trump has vowed a vigorous response.

“We are completely ready for hurricane Florence, as the storm gets even larger and more powerful. Be careful!” Trump said on Twitter.

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is in charge of disaster response, has come under investigation over his use of government vehicles, Politico reported on Thursday.

Emergency declarations were in force in North and South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Emergency preparations included activating more than 2,700 National Guard troops, stockpiling food, setting up shelters, switching traffic patterns so major roads led away from shore, and securing 16 nuclear power reactors in the Carolinas and Virginia.

Some in Wilmington could not resist getting one last look at their downtown before the storm hit.

“We just thought we’d go out while we still can,” said Amy Baxter, on a walk near the city’s waterfront with her husband, two sons, and dog.

Baxter, a 46-year-old homemaker, and her family plan to ride out Florence at home with board games and playing cards.

“We live in a house that’s more than 100 years old,” Baxter said. “We feel pretty safe.”

(For graphic on forecast rainfall in inches from Hurricane Florence, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2oZFKSb)

(Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Scott Malone)

Arizona to mourn Senator John McCain at state capitol

A makeshift memorial stands outside the offices of the late U.S. Senator John McCain in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S., August 28, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) – The body of John McCain, who endured 5-1/2 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and went on to become a lion of the U.S. Senate and a two-time Republican candidate for president, will lie in state on Wednesday in the Arizona state capitol.

The daylong public viewing of his casket was the start of five days of memorial tributes in Phoenix and Washington for McCain, who died of brain cancer on Saturday at his ranch in Cornville, Arizona. He was 81.

“We are privileged as a state to have called him a fellow Arizonan, and we are honored to have the opportunity to celebrate his life,” Governor Doug Ducey said on Twitter early Wednesday.

McCain parlayed his status as a Vietnam War hero into a decades-long political career. Over the past two years he has stood out as a key rival and critic of U.S. President Donald Trump. The bad blood between the two persisted after McCain’s death, with his family asking Trump not to attend his funeral and the White House waffling on how to mourn a prominent fellow Republican.

McCain will be just the third person to lie in state in the Rotunda of the Arizona statehouse over the past 40 years, organizers of the ceremony said. The two others were state Senator Marilyn Jarrett in 2006 and Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens, a Tucson resident, in 1980.

Following a Thursday memorial at a Phoenix church, McCain’s body will be flown to Washington where he will lie in state on Friday at the U.S. Capitol before a Saturday funeral at the Washington National Cathedral.

On Sunday, McCain is to be buried in a private ceremony at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where he graduated as a U.S. Navy officer in 1958 before going on to become a fighter pilot.

Ducey, a Republican, has said he will wait until after McCain’s burial to name a successor.

His pick will come from McCain’s party, leaving intact the Republican 51-49 majority in the Senate. It was unclear whether any successor would be inclined or able to play the role of public foil to Trump that McCain did, most notably in July 2017 when he cast the vote that blocked a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.

Arizona Republicans on Tuesday picked a candidate to succeed retiring Senator Jeff Flake, another vocal Trump critic. Their choice, U.S. Representative Martha McSally, is a staunch Trump supporter, as were her two rivals for the nomination. She will face Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in the Nov. 6 general election.

 

(Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)