Justices debate abortion rights in U.S. Supreme Court showdown

By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday began hearing arguments in a case on whether to gut abortion rights in America as it weighs Mississippi’s bid to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized the procedure nationwide.

The court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, is hearing at least 70 minutes of oral arguments in the southern state’s appeal to revive its ban on abortion starting at 15 weeks of pregnancy. Lower courts blocked the Republican-backed law.

Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the only abortion clinic in Mississippi, challenged the law and has the support of Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration. A ruling is expected by the end of next June.

Roe v. Wade recognized that the right to personal privacy under the U.S. Constitution protects a woman’s ability to terminate her pregnancy. The Supreme Court in a 1992 ruling called Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey reaffirmed abortion rights and prohibited laws imposing an “undue burden” on abortion access.

Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer quoted from the Supreme Court’s Casey ruling, which stated that the court should not bow to political pressure in overturning Roe and that such a ruling would “subvert the court’s legitimacy.”

“The right of a woman to choose, the right to control her own body, has been clearly set since Casey and never challenged. You want us to reject that line of viability and adopt something different,” liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor said.

Sotomayor said Mississippi brought its new challenge purely because of changes on the Supreme Court, which has become more conservative.

“Will this institution survive the stench this creates?” Sotomayor asked, saying that it would give the impression that the Constitution and its interpretation is based purely on politics. “If people think it is all political … how will the court survive?”

Anti-abortion advocates believe they are closer than ever to overturning Roe, a longstanding goal for Christian conservatives.

Mississippi’s is one of a series of restrictive abortion laws passed in Republican-governed states in recent years. The Supreme Court on Nov. 1 heard arguments over a Texas law banning abortion at around six weeks of pregnancy but has not yet issued a ruling.

Hundreds of protesters from both sides of the abortion debate rallied outside the white marble neoclassical courthouse ahead of the arguments. Anti-abortion protesters held huge signs reading “abortion is murder,” some carrying Christian crosses. Abortion rights activists chanted “what do we want? Abortion access. When do we want it? Now.”

FETAL VIABILITY

The Roe and Casey decisions determined that states cannot ban abortion before a fetus is viable outside the womb, generally viewed by doctors as between 24 and 28 weeks.

Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts questioned whether viability was a central issue in the Roe or Casey rulings.

Mississippi’s 15-week ban directly challenged the viability finding. Even if the court does not explicitly overturn Roe, any ruling letting states ban abortion before fetal viability outside the womb would raise questions about how early states could prohibit the procedure. In the 1992 Casey ruling, the court said Roe’s “central holding” was that viability was the earliest point at which states could ban abortion.

While urging the court to overturn Roe, Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch, a Republican, has said the justices could uphold its law by finding that a 15-week ban does not impose an undue burden. Such a ruling would wipe out the viability standard embraced in the Roe and Casey decisions, meaning the justices would have to consider where to draw the line.

Abortion rights advocates have said such a decision would eviscerate Roe, making it easier for conservative states to impose sweeping abortion restrictions.

Mississippi is among 12 states with so-called trigger laws designed to ban abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned. Additional states also likely would move quickly to curtail abortion access.

If Roe were overturned or limited, large swathes of America could return to an era in which women who want to end a pregnancy face the choice of undergoing a potentially dangerous illegal abortion, traveling long distances to a state where the procedure remains legal and available or buying abortion pills online. The procedure would remain legal in liberal-leaning states, 15 of which have laws protecting abortion rights.

Abortion remains a contentious issue in the United States, as in many countries. In a June Reuters/Ipsos poll, 52% of U.S. adults said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 36% said it should be illegal in most or all cases.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter, Jan Wolfe and Julia Harte; Editing by Will Dunham)

In U.S. Supreme Court case, the past could be the future on abortion

By Lawrence Hurley

OXFORD, Miss. (Reuters) – Just months before she was set to start law school in the summer of 1973, Barbara Phillips was shocked to learn she was pregnant.

Then 24, she wanted an abortion. The U.S. Supreme Court had legalized abortion nationwide months earlier with its landmark Roe v. Wade ruling recognizing a woman’s constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy. But abortions were not legally available at the time in Mississippi, where she lived in the small town of Port Gibson.

Phillips, a Black woman enmeshed in the civil rights movement, could feel her dream of becoming a lawyer slipping away.

“It was devastating. I was desperate,” Phillips said, sitting on the patio of her cozy one-story house in Oxford, a college town about 160 miles (260 km) north of Jackson, Mississippi’s capital.

At the time of the Roe ruling, 46 of the 50 U.S. states had some sort of criminal prohibitions on abortion. Access often was limited to wealthy and well-connected women, who tended to be white.

With a feminist group’s help, Phillips located a doctor in New York willing to provide an abortion. New York before Roe was the only state that let out-of-state women obtain abortions. She flew there for the procedure.

Now 72, Phillips does not regret her abortion. She went on to attend Northwestern law school in Chicago and realize her goal of becoming a civil rights lawyer, with a long career. Years later, she had a son when she felt the time was right.

“I was determined to decide for myself what I wanted to do with my life and my body,” Phillips said.

U.S. abortion rights are under attack unlike any time since the Roe ruling, with Republican-backed restrictions being passed in numerous states. The Supreme Court on Dec. 1 is set to hear arguments in a case in which Mississippi is seeking to revive its law, blocked by lower courts, banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Mississippi has raised the stakes by explicitly asking the court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Such a ruling could turn back the clock in Mississippi, which currently has just one abortion clinic, and other states to the kind of environment on abortion access that Phillips experienced nearly a half century ago.

Large swathes of America could return to an era in which women who want to end a pregnancy face the choice of undergoing a potentially dangerous illegal abortion, traveling long distances to a state where the procedure remains legal and available or buying abortion pills online.

Mississippi’s abortion law is not the only one being tested at the Supreme Court. The justices on Nov. 1 heard arguments in challenges to a Texas law banning abortion at about six weeks of pregnancy, but have not yet ruled.

TRIGGER LAWS

Mississippi is one of a dozen states with so-called trigger laws that would immediately ban abortion in all or most cases if Roe is overturned, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights.

Many are in the South, so a Mississippi woman would be unable to obtain an abortion in neighboring Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee or Alabama. The nearest states where abortion would remain legal, at least in the short term, would be Illinois and Florida.

The average distance a Mississippi woman would need to drive to reach a clinic would increase from 78 miles to 380 miles (125 to 610 km) each way, according to Guttmacher.

While some abortion rights advocates fear a return to grisly illegal back-alley abortions, there has been an important development since the pre-Roe era: abortion pills. Mississippi is among 19 states imposing restrictions on medication-induced abortions.

Mississippi officials are cagey on what a post-Roe world might look like. Republican Attorney General Lynn Fitch, who asked the court to overturn Roe, declined an interview request, as did Republican Governor Tate Reeves.

Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Andy Gipson, who as a Republican state legislator helped shepherd the 2018 passage of the 15-week ban, called Roe v. Wade “antiquated, old law based on antiquated and old science.”

Gipson in an interview declined to answer questions about what Mississippi – or the southeastern United States – would be like without abortion rights, focusing on the specifics of the 15-week ban.

“It’s a false narrative to paint this as a picture of an outright ban throughout the southeast,” Gipson said, noting that the Supreme Court does not have to formally overturn Roe to uphold Mississippi’s law.

In court papers, Fitch said scientific advances, including contested claims that a fetus can detect pain early in a pregnancy, emphasize how Roe and a subsequent 1992 decision that reaffirmed abortion rights are “decades out of date.”

Abortion rights advocates have said any ruling upholding Mississippi’s law would effectively gut Roe, giving states unfettered power to limit or ban the procedure.

Phillips worries about a revival of dangerous, unregulated abortions that imperil women’s lives.

“I’m afraid that many more women and girls will be in back alleys,” Phillips said. “I’m worried we are going to find them in country roads, dead.”

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham and Scott Malone)

Mississippi set to carry out state’s first execution since 2012

(Reuters) – Mississippi is scheduled to carry out its first execution in nine years on Wednesday when it puts to death a man convicted of killing his estranged wife and sexually assaulting his stepdaughter during a standoff with police in 2010.

David Cox, 50, is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at 6 p.m. local time at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman for the death of his wife Kim Cox.

Cox would be the first inmate executed in Mississippi since 2012 and the ninth executed in the United States in 2021. Mississippi is among the U.S. states that have had recent difficulties in buying lethal-injection drugs from pharmaceutical companies unwilling to supply them for executions.

Cox had petitioned the Mississippi Supreme Court for all attorneys to be removed from the case and all appeals on his behalf to be halted. In 2018, Cox wrote a letter to the court’s chief justice, saying that he was “a guilty man worthy of death.”

On May 14, 2010, Cox bought a gun and went to his sister-in-law’s Sherman, Mississippi, home where his estranged wife, their two children and his stepdaughter lived. Cox shot his way into the home and took his wife and two of the children hostage for more than eight hours, prosecutors said.

During the standoff with police, Cox shot his wife in the stomach and arm. As she lay dying for several hours, he sexually assaulted his stepdaughter three times in front of her. He also refused medical treatment for his wife, forcing her to beg for her life to hostage negotiators, court documents showed.

Police entered the home early the next morning and arrested Cox. A jury sentenced him to die in 2012 after he pleaded guilty to all eight charges he faced, including capital murder.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Aurora Ellis)

U.S. Supreme Court to hear challenge to Texas abortion ban

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear on Nov. 1 a challenge by President Joe Biden’s administration and abortion providers to a Texas law that imposes a near-total ban on the procedure – a case that will determine the fate of the toughest abortion law in the United States.

It is the second major abortion case that the court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, has scheduled for the coming months, with arguments set for Dec. 1 over the legality of a restrictive Mississippi abortion law.

The Texas and Mississippi measures are among a series of Republican-backed laws passed at the state level limiting abortion rights – coming at a time when abortion opponents are hoping that the Supreme Court will overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade that legalized the procedure nationwide.

Mississippi has asked the justices to overturn Roe v. Wade, and the Texas attorney general on Thursday signaled that he also would like to see that ruling fall.

The justices on Friday deferred a decision on the Biden administration’s request that the justices block the Texas law while the litigation continues, prompting a dissent from liberal Justice Sotomayor. Lower courts already have blocked the Mississippi law.

It is rare that the Supreme Court would, as it did in this case, decide to hear arguments while bypassing lower courts that were already considering the Texas dispute, indicating that the justices have deemed the matter of high public importance and requiring immediate review.

The Texas measure bans abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy, a point when many women do not yet realize they are pregnant. It makes an exception for a documented medical emergency but not for cases of rape or incest.

The Biden administration sued in September, challenging the legality of the Texas law. In taking up the case, the Supreme Court said it will resolve whether the federal government is permitted to bring a lawsuit against the state or other parties to prohibit the abortion ban from being enforced.

The other challenge that the justices took up, filed by Texas abortion providers, asks the court to decide whether the design of the state’s law, which allows private citizens rather than the government to enforce the ban, is permissible. The providers, as well as the administration, have said the law is designed to evade federal court review.

Mississippi’s law bans abortions starting at 15 weeks of pregnancy. Rulings in that case and the Texas case are due by the end of June 2022, but could come sooner.

The Supreme Court previously allowed the Texas law to be enforced in the challenge brought by abortion providers. In that 5-4 decision on Sept. 1, conservative Chief Justice John Roberts expressed skepticism about how the law is enforced and joined the three liberal justices in dissent.

The Texas law is unusual in that it gives private citizens the power to enforce it by enabling them to sue anyone who performs or assists a woman in getting an abortion after cardiac activity is detected in the embryo. That feature has helped shield the law from being immediately blocked as it made it more difficult to directly sue the state.

Individual citizens can be awarded a minimum of $10,000 for bringing successful lawsuits. Critics have said this provision lets people act as anti-abortion bounty hunters, a characterization its proponents reject.

The Biden administration had asked the Supreme Court to quickly restore a federal judge’s Oct. 6 order temporarily blocking the law. The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put that order on hold a few days later.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)

In political crosshairs, U.S. Supreme Court weighs abortion and guns

By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Just before midnight on Sept. 1, the debate over whether the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority will dramatically change life in America took on a new ferocity when the justices let a near-total ban on abortion in Texas take effect.

The intense scrutiny of the court will only increase when the justices – six conservatives and three liberals – open their new nine-month term on Monday. They have taken up cases that could enable them to overturn abortion rights established in a landmark ruling 48 years ago and also expand gun rights – two cherished goals of American conservatives.

In addition, there are cases scheduled that could expand religious rights, building on several rulings in recent years.

These contentious cases come at a time when opinion surveys show that public approval of the court is waning even as a commission named by President Joe Biden explores recommending changes such as expanding the number of justices or imposing term limits in place of their lifetime appointments.

Some justices have given speeches rebutting criticism of the court and questions about its legitimacy as a nonpolitical institution. Its junior-most member Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative confirmed by Senate Republicans only days before the 2020 presidential election, said this month the court “is not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks.”

“There’s no doubt that the court’s legitimacy is under threat right now,” lawyer Kannon Shanmugam, who frequently argues cases at the court, said at an event organized by the conservative Federalist Society. “The level of rhetoric and criticism of the court is higher than I can certainly remember at any point in my career.”

The court’s late-night 5-4 decision not to block the Republican-backed Texas law banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy put abortion-rights advocates including Biden on high alert.

The justices now have a chance to go even further. They will hear a case on Dec. 1 in which Mississippi is defending its law banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Mississippi’s Republican attorney general is asking the court to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide and ended an era when some states banned it.

In another blockbuster case, the justices could make it easier for people to obtain permits to carry handguns outside the home, a major expansion of firearms rights. They will consider on Nov. 3 whether to invalidate a New York state regulation that lets people obtain a concealed-carry permit only if they can show they need a gun for self-defense.

CONGRESSIONAL HEARINGS

Former President Donald Trump was able to appoint three conservative justices including Barrett who tilted the court further rightward, with the help of maneuvering by a key fellow Republican, Senator Mitch McConnell.

The Democratic-led Congress has held two hearings in recent months on how the court has increasingly decided major issues, including the Texas abortion one, with late-night emergency decisions using its “shadow docket” process that lacks customary public oral arguments.

“The Supreme Court has now shown that it’s willing to allow even facially unconstitutional laws to take effect when the law is aligned with certain ideological preferences,” Democrat Dick Durbin, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s chairman, said on Wednesday.

Conservative Justice Samuel Alito in a speech on Thursday objected to criticism that portrays the court’s members as a “dangerous cabal that resorts to sneaky and improper methods.”

“This portrayal feeds unprecedented efforts to intimidate the court or damage it as an independent institution,” Alito said.

Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas last month said judges are “asking for trouble” if they wade into political issues. Thomas has previously said Roe v. Wade should be overturned, as many conservatives have sought.

Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer noted in a May speech that the court’s legitimacy relies in part on avoiding major upheavals in the law when people have come to rely on existing precedents.

“The law might not be perfect but if you’re changing it all the time people won’t know what to do, and the more you change it the more people will ask to have it changed,” Breyer said.

Abortion rights advocates have cited the fact that Roe v. Wade has been in place for almost a half century as one reason not to overturn it.

Breyer, at 83 the court’s oldest member, himself is the focus of attention. Some liberal activists have urged him to retire so Biden can appoint a younger liberal who could serve for decades. Breyer has said he has not decided when he will retire.

George Mason University law professor Jenn Mascott, a former Thomas law clerk, said the justices should not be swayed by public opinion.

“What the justices have said they want to do is decide each case on the rule the law,” Mascott said. “I don’t think they should be thinking that the perception would be that they are too partisan one way or another.”

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham and Scott Malone)

In Ida’s wake, Louisiana residents could face a month without power

By Devika Krishna Kumar and Nathan Layne

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) – Residents in southern Louisiana braced for weeks without electrical power and disruption to their water systems in the wake of Hurricane Ida, one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the U.S. Gulf Coast.

By early Tuesday, about 1.3 million customers in the region were without power about 48 hours after the storm made landfall, most of them in Louisiana, according to PowerOutage, which gathers data from U.S. utility companies.

The storm killed at least two people in the state, officials said, a death toll that may have been much larger if not for a fortified levee system around New Orleans, which had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina 16 years earlier.

Entergy Corp, a major power supplier in the region, said it could take weeks before electricity is restored in the hardest-hit areas.

Damage to eight high-voltage lines shut off electricity in New Orleans and nearby parishes, and parts of a transmission tower toppled into the Mississippi River on Sunday night.

The power outages have brought commerce to a standstill in New Orleans. The Hyatt Regency downtown was operating under a state of emergency and not accepting customers outside of emergency personnel, according to an automated message.

Restaurants, many of which had closed ahead of the storm, also faced an uncertain future due to a lack of electricity and other infrastructure, mirroring – at least for now – the issues that plagued businesses for weeks in the wake of Katrina.

“This is definitely feeling like Katrina,” said Lisa Blount, the public relations director at Antoine’s, a French Quarter landmark and the city’s oldest eatery. “To hear the power is potentially out for two to three weeks, that is devastating.”

Power officials have told leaders in Jefferson Parish that its roughly 440,000 residents may have to manage without electricity for a month or longer after utility poles toppled across the county, Councilman Deano Bonano told Reuters in a telephone interview.

“The damage from this is far worse than Katrina from a wind standpoint,” said Bonano. “We are going to be without with power for four to six weeks.”

Bonano said an elderly woman in the parish was found under her refrigerator on Monday and pronounced dead, and that he expected the death toll to rise, although not dramatically, once the water levels come down and full-fledged recovery efforts can get underway.

‘THEY HAVE NOTHING’

Some communities outside the levee system, including Lafitte and Grand Isle, were hit especially hard and the damage is still being assessed, the official said. More than half of the parish’s residents rode out the storm at home, Bonano said, and many were left with nothing.

“There are no grocery stores open, no gas stations open. So they have nothing,” he said.

Downed trees damaged underground water lines in the parish, and a majority of households were having to boil drinking water or cope with low pressure, according to Brett Lawson, chief of staff to a parish councilman.

Compounding the suffering, parts of Louisiana and Mississippi were under heat advisories, with temperatures forecast to reach up to 105 Fahrenheit (40.6 Celsius) on Tuesday, the National Weather Service said.

“The heat advisory for today does pose a big challenge,” the agency’s New Orleans outpost said on Twitter. “While you need to keep hydrated, know if you’re under a boil water advisory.”

Widespread flooding and power outages also slowed efforts on Tuesday by energy companies to assess damages at oil production facilities, ports and refineries.

HIGHWAY ‘WASHED OUT’

As the weather system traveled north on Tuesday and weakened, it unleashed heavy rain in neighboring Mississippi. At least two people were killed and 10 injured when a deep crevasse opened up on Highway 26 in George County, about 50 miles (80 km) northeast of Biloxi.

“We’ve had a lot of rain with Ida, torrential,” Mississippi Highway Patrol officer Calvin Robertson said. “Part of the highway just washed out.”

Seven vehicles plunged into the ditch, which was 50 feet (15 meters) long and 20 feet (6 meters) deep, Robertson said on CNN.

Officials warned residents about the hidden dangers of flood waters that might bring wildlife closer to neighborhoods.

Sheriff’s deputies in St. Tammany Parish were investigating the disappearance of a 71-year-old man after an apparent alligator attack in the flood waters brought on by the storm.

The man’s wife told authorities that she saw a large alligator attack her husband on Monday in the tiny community of Avery Estates, about 35 miles (55 km) northeast of New Orleans on Monday. She stopped the attack and pulled her husband out of the flood water.

Seeing that his injuries were severe, she took a small boat to get help, and came back to find her husband gone, the sheriff’s office said in a statement.

MEMORIES OF KATRINA

Ida made landfall on Sunday as a Category 4 hurricane, 16 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina, evoking memories of a disaster that killed more than 1,800 people in 2005 and devastated New Orleans.

But a $14.5 billion system of levees, flood gates and pumps designed in the wake of Katrina’s devastation largely worked as designed during Ida, officials said, sparing New Orleans from the catastrophic flooding that devastated the area 16 years ago.

The state’s healthcare systems also appeared to have largely escaped catastrophic damage at a time when Louisiana is reeling from a resurgence of COVID-19 infections that has strained hospitals.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, Peter Szekely in New York, Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut and Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey; Additional reporting and writing by Maria Caspani in New York; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Lisa Shumaker)

Ida loses punch, levees hold, but Louisiana expects more rain and flooding

By Devika Krishna Kumar

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) -Ida lost some of its punch over southwestern Mississippi on Monday after making landfall in Louisiana as one of the most powerful hurricanes to hit the region, but it could still trigger heavy flooding, the National Hurricane Center said.

Ida, the first major hurricane to strike the United States this year, made landfall around noon on Sunday as a Category 4 storm over Port Fourchon, a hub of the Gulf’s offshore oil industry, packing sustained winds of up to 150 miles per hour (240 km per hour).

Although weakened to a tropical storm, heavy downpours could bring life-threatening flooding, the NHC said.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator Deanne Criswell said the full impact of the storm would become clear later in the day.

“We’re hearing about widespread structural damage,” Criswell said in an interview with CNN. “I don’t think there could have been a worse path for this storm. It’s going to have some significant impacts.”

Federal levees installed to reduce the risk of flooding appeared to have held, according to preliminary reports.

“Daylight will bring horrific images as the damage is assessed. More than 20,000 linemen will work to restore the deeply damaged power lines,” Shauna Sanford, communications director for Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards wrote in a tweet.

“The good news: no federal levee failed or was overtopped.”

Kevin Lepine, president of Plaquemines Parish, home to 23,000 residents and one of Louisiana’s southern most communities, said he had had little sleep overnight as he braced for first light and the chance to go and assess the damage.

“We’re worried about the levees down the road,” he said.

On Sunday night, the sheriff’s office in Ascension Parish reported the first known U.S. fatality from the storm, a 60-year-old man killed by a tree falling on his home near Baton Rouge, the state capital.

President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in the state, ordering federal assistance to bolster recovery efforts in more than two dozen storm-stricken parishes.

Ida crashed ashore as Louisiana was already reeling from a resurgence of COVID-19 infections that has strained the state’s healthcare system, with an estimated 2,450 COVID-19 patients hospitalized statewide, many in intensive care units.

Its arrival came 16 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina, one of the most catastrophic and deadly U.S. storms on record, struck the Gulf Coast, and about a year after the last Category 4 hurricane, Laura, battered Louisiana.

A loss of generator power at the Thibodaux Regional Health System hospital in Lafourche Parish, southwest of New Orleans, forced medical workers to manually assist respirator patients with breathing while they were moved to another floor, the state Health Department confirmed to Reuters.

Within 12 hours of landfall, Ida had plowed a destructive path that submerged much of the state’s coastline under several feet of surf, with flash flooding reported by the National Hurricane Center across southeastern Louisiana.

Nearly all offshore Gulf oil production was suspended in advance of the storm, and major ports along the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts were closed to shipping.

WIDESPREAD OUTAGES

Power was knocked out Sunday night to the entire New Orleans metropolitan area following the failure of all eight transmission lines that deliver electricity to the city, the utility company Entergy Louisiana reported.

One transmission tower collapsed into the Mississippi River, the Jefferson Parish Emergency Management Department said.

More than 1 million Louisiana homes and businesses in all were without electricity early on Monday, as well as some 120,000 in Mississippi, according to the tracking site Poweroutage.US.

Residents of the most vulnerable coastal areas were ordered to evacuate days ahead of the storm. Those riding out the storm in their homes in New Orleans braced for the toughest test yet of major upgrades to a levee system constructed following devastating floods in 2005 from Katrina, a hurricane that claimed some 1,800 lives.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the newly reinforced New Orleans levees were expected to hold, though they said they said the flood walls could be overtopped in some places.

Hundreds of miles of new levees were built around New Orleans after flooding from Katrina inundated much of the low-lying city, especially historically Black neighborhoods.

Inundation from Ida’s storm surge – high surf driven by the hurricane’s winds – was reported to be exceeding predicted levels of 6 feet (1.8 m) along parts of the coast. Videos posted on social media showed storm surge flooding had transformed sections of Highway 90 along the Louisiana and Mississippi coast into a choppy river.

(Reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar in New Orleans; Additional reporting by Jessica Resnick-Ault and Jonathan Allen in New York, Erwin Seba in Houston, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Laura Sanicola, Linda So and Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington, Liz Hampton in Denver, and Arpan Varghese, Kanishka Singh, Bhargav Acharya and Nakul Iyer in Bengaluru; Writing by Steve Gorman and Maria Caspani; Editing by Richard Pullin and Nick Macfie)

Five U.S. states had coronavirus infections even before first reported cases

By Mrinalika Roy

(Reuters) -At least seven people in five U.S. states were infected with the novel coronavirus weeks before those states reported their first cases, a large new government study showed, pointing to the presence of the virus in the country as early as December 2019.

Participants who reported antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 were likely exposed to the virus at least several weeks before their sample was taken, as the antibodies do not appear until about two weeks after a person has been infected, the researchers said.

The positive samples came from Illinois, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and were part of a study of more than 24,000 blood samples taken for a National Institutes of Health research program between Jan. 2 and March 18, 2020.

Of the seven samples, three were from Illinois, where the first confirmed coronavirus case was reported on Jan. 24, while the remaining four states had one case each. Samples from participants in Illinois were collected on Jan. 7 and Massachusetts on Jan. 8.

The data suggests that the coronavirus was circulating in U.S. states far from the initial hotspots and areas that were considered the virus’ points of entry into the country, the study noted.

The data also backs a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that suggested the virus may have been circulating in the United States well before the first COVID-19 case was diagnosed on Jan. 19, 2020.

“This study allows us to uncover more information about the beginning of the U.S. epidemic,” said Josh Denny, one of the authors of the study, which was published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

The United States has so far reported 33.6 million cases, according to a Reuters tally.

The infections were confirmed using two antibody tests, which were granted emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

(Reporting by Mrinalika Roy in Bengaluru; Editing by Anil D’Silva)

Tornado rips through Mississippi, damages buildings, power lines

(Reuters) -A tornado tore through the southern U.S. city of Tupelo on Sunday, blowing the roofs off homes and tearing down trees and power lines, but there were no immediate reports of injuries.

“Emergency crews are currently assessing the degree of damage,” the mayor’s office said in a statement on Facebook, urging people to stay in their homes.

Social media images and videos showed the roofs of many homes and buildings blown away, electricity lines down and streets in the Mississippi city swamped with debris.

The tornado also wreaked damage in southeast Pontotoc County and Calhoun City, television station WTVA said.

“Calhoun City was hit hard tonight,” the county sheriff, Greg Pollan, said on Facebook. “Light poles have been snapped off. Trees in a few homes. Trees on vehicles. Damage to several businesses.”

Strong storms are expected to continue moving east across north Mississippi and southwest Tennessee early on Monday, weather authorities said.

(Reporting by Bhargav Acharya in Bengaluru; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Mississippi governor signs law banning transgender athletes from women’s sports

(Reuters) – Mississippi’s Republican governor on Thursday signed legislation banning transgender athletes from competing in women and girls’ sports, the first U.S. state to pass such legislation this year.

Governor Tate Reeves had vowed earlier this month he would sign the bill, tweeting that the measure was needed “to protect young girls from being forced to compete with biological males for athletic opportunities.”

Some 37 bills regulating transgender athletes have been introduced in 20 states this year, according to LGBTQ advocates at the Human Rights Campaign.

“Governor Reeves’ eagerness to become the face of the latest anti-transgender push is appalling, as he chooses fear and division over facts and science,” said Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David.

Idaho passed the first-of-its-kind “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act” last year, but it was blocked by a federal judge who found it unconstitutional.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)