Most Americans huddle indoors as coronavirus deaths keep spiking

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Four new states imposed sweeping stay-at-home directives on Wednesday in response to the coronavirus pandemic, putting over 80% of Americans under lockdown as the number of deaths in the United States nearly doubled in three days.

The governors of Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Nevada each instituted the strict policies on a day when the death toll from COVID-19 shot up by 925 to more than 4,800 nationwide, with 214,000 confirmed cases, according to a Reuters tally.

President Donald Trump said he saw no need for the federal government to issue a nationwide decree, with 39 states and the District of Columbia now requiring residents to stay home except for essential outings to the doctor or grocery store.

He also told a White House briefing on Wednesday he was considering a plan to halt flights to coronavirus hot spots.

“We’re certainly looking at it, but once you do that you really are clamping down on an industry that is desperately needed,” Trump told a White House news briefing.

Such a plan might conceivably shut down traffic at airports in hard-hit New York, New Orleans and Detroit.

“We’re looking at the whole thing,” Trump said of curtailing domestic flights already greatly reduced as demand has fallen.

White House medical experts have forecast that even if Americans hunker down in their homes to slow the spread of COVID-19, some 100,000 to 240,000 people could die from the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

A Pentagon official who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity said the U.S. Department of Defense was working to provide up to 100,000 body bags for use by civilian authorities in the coming weeks.

Since 2010, the flu has killed between 12,000 and 61,000 Americans a year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The 1918-1919 flu pandemic killed 675,000 in the United States, according to the CDC.

A healthcare worker walks outside a newly constructed field hospital in the East Meadow of Central Park during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., April 1, 2020. REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid

New York state remained the epicenter of the outbreak, accounting for more than a third of the U.S. deaths. Governor Andrew Cuomo told police on Wednesday to enforce rules more aggressively for social distancing.

“Young people must get this message, and they still have not gotten the message. You still see too many situations with too much density by young people,” Cuomo, a Democrat, said in imposing rules to close playgrounds, swing sets, basketball courts and similar spaces.

“How reckless and irresponsible and selfish for people not to do it on their own,” Cuomo said.

CALIFORNIA CASES SURGE

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told a news conference the city was contracting with hotels as part of a massive effort to add 65,000 additional hospital beds by the end of the month.

De Blasio, also a Democrat, said the city had arranged to add 10,000 beds at 20 hotels, which have lost most of their guests as travel has stopped.

“This is going to be an epic process during the month of April to build out all that capacity,” de Blasio said. “But this goal can be reached.”

California saw the number of coronavirus cases surge by roughly 1,300 over the day before to nearly 10,000 as Governor Gavin Newsom warned that even as stay-at-home policies appeared to be having some effect, the state would run out of intensive- care hospital beds equipped with ventilators within six weeks.

Newsom said California could still manage to “bend” the state’s infection curve more, saving the need for additional beds, if residents were rigorous in staying home and avoiding contact with others.

“We are in a completely different place than the state of New York and I hope we will continue to be, but we won’t unless people continue to practice physical distancing and do their part,” the Democratic governor told a news conference in the state capital, Sacramento.

But Americans under lockdown and largely unable to work struggled with making ends meet as rent came due on Wednesday, the first day of the month.

In Oakland, California, Alfa Cristina Morales said she had been surviving on money saved for a U.S. citizenship application since losing her job at a coffee shop. Morales had sought unemployment benefits to support her two-year-old son.

“We’re worried that it won’t be enough,” she said.

Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont said a six-week-old baby had died from COVID-19, in what he called “a reminder that nobody is safe from this virus.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis told Fox News that Broward County would likely allow two cruise ships with coronavirus outbreaks carrying a total of 2,500 people to dock in Fort Lauderdale, despite his misgivings about potentially contagious foreign nationals.

“We were concerned about a deluge into the hospitals, but I think it turns out that there will probably be some who need to go, but it’s very manageable and the local hospital system thinks that they can handle it,” DeSantis, a Republican, told Fox.

At Fort Lauderdale, Floridians aboard the ships would be taken home and flights arranged for foreigners, he said.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu, Tim Ahmann, Daniel Trotta, Maria Caspani, Nathan Layne, Stephanie Kelly, Peter Szekely, Lisa Shumaker, Sharon Bernstein, Jeff Mason, Mohammad Zargham, Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Cynthia Osterman and Peter Cooney)

Allegations of labor abuses dogged Mississippi plant years before immigration raids

FILE PHOTO: Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) look on after executing search warrants and making arrests at an agricultural processing facility in Canton, Mississippi, U.S. in this August 7, 2019 handout photo. Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

By Mica Rosenberg and Kristina Cooke

(Reuters) – Long before U.S. immigration authorities arrested 680 people at agricultural processing facilities in Mississippi this week, one of the five targeted companies faced allegations of serious labor violations including intimidation, harassment and exploitation of its largely immigrant work force, according to a federal lawsuit.

Last August, Illinois-based poultry supplier Koch Foods settled a multi-year lawsuit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of more than 100 workers at the Morton, Mississippi, plant over claims the company knew – or should have known – of sexual and physical assaults against its Hispanic workers.

The workers’ complaints spanned 2004 to 2008, when the plant employed more than 500 people. They allege that a manager would grope women from behind while they were working, punch employees and throw chicken parts at them. Workers also alleged that supervisors coerced payments from them for everything from medical leave and promotions to bathroom breaks.

Privately-held Koch Foods, run by billionaire Joseph Grendys, did not respond to requests for comment. In court filings, the company called the claims of abuse and harassment “baffling” and “outrageous.” Koch said the plaintiffs made claims against the company as a means to obtain U.S. visas for crime victims who collaborate with law enforcement, according to the court documents.

The company settled the allegations last year by paying a $3.75 million and entering into a three-year consent decree to prevent future violations. It agreed to implement new policies such as creating a 24-hour complaint hot line and publicly posting anti-discrimination policies, according to the EEOC.

Some workers at the Mississippi plant who lacked legal immigration status alleged in court documents that supervisors threatened to turn them in to authorities if they spoke out about their concerns, according to the EEOC complaint.

Former federal officials and immigration attorneys said mass deportation operations like the ones conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on Wednesday in Mississippi can have a chilling effect on future labor complaints.

“If workers are being threatened with being turned over to ICE, and then here comes ICE and arrests workers,” people could be more reluctant to speak up, said John Sandweg, a former acting ICE director during the Obama administration.

In the EEOC lawsuit, one Koch Foods employee without legal immigration status alleged that a manager sexually harassed his wife and made him pay to use the bathroom, once waiting until he had soiled himself to give him permission to leave his spot on the production line.

“If he found out that I had talked about anything that he was doing, charging money, the way he mistreated us, the dirty words he used, he told me that if I went to complain in the office that he had contacts in immigration,” the worker said in a 2012 deposition that was filed as part of the suit. “And that he knew where I lived.”

Maria Cazorla, a Cuban immigrant and lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the company that was wrapped into the EEOC case, said in an interview Thursday that a manager inappropriately touched her and hit her then-husband, also a co-worker, in the ribs while he was working.

According to Cazorla’s interview and court documents, her husband at the time was targeted by management and fired over his immigration status after she filed her lawsuit against the company in 2010. Cazorla, now a U.S. citizen, left the company and Mississippi and now renovates houses in Florida.

Even after the manager accused of some of the most serious violations was fired in 2008, workers continued to be subjected to threats of violence and reprisals in the workplace, the lawsuit said.

The EEOC enforces federal anti-discrimination laws and can investigate employee complaints. The agency tries to settle the claims but, if unsuccessful, it can file a lawsuit against employers for workplace discrimination.

Marsha Rucker, EEOC Regional Attorney based in Birmingham, Alabama who oversaw the lawsuit, said she did not believe the EEOC’s civil complaint was connected to the ICE action this week.

SCENES OF MASS ARRESTS

The dramatic operation on Wednesday was the biggest workplace immigration sweep since December 2006, when ICE targeted meatpacking plants in six states and arrested almost 1,300 people.

Some children of workers were left traumatized by their parents’ detention on what was for many the first day of school, according to local media reports.

“Government, please,” an 11-year-old girl said on a CBS News segment, weeping in front of a community center where she and other children were sent to spend the night. “My dad didn’t do nothing. He’s not a criminal.”

ICE officials told reporters on a call on Thursday that they had released 303 people for humanitarian reasons – if they were pregnant or a primary caretaker of children, for example. Among those released pending a hearing before an immigration judge were 18 “juveniles” who had been working in the plants, ICE said, including one 14-year-old.

Koch Foods has been the target of worksite enforcement in the past.

In August 2007, immigration agents arrested more than 160 employees of a Koch Foods chicken plant in Fairfield, Ohio, and paid about a half-million dollars in fines. At the time, ICE said Koch Foods was being investigated for federal crimes including encouraging, inducing or harboring immigrants in the United States illegally.

The company, which according to its website is not affiliated with Koch Industries or the Koch brothers, started with 13 employees deboning and cutting up chicken in one room in 1985. It now counts more than 13,000 employees and bills itself as one of the biggest poultry processors in the United States, with facilities in Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee and Illinois as well as Mississippi.

In a letter to President Donald Trump, who has made cracking down on immigration a centerpiece of his administration, the National Chicken Council – a lobbying group – said the poultry industry “uses every tool available to verify the identify and legal immigration status of all prospective employees” but said there was no government system available to “confirm with confidence that new hires are legally authorized to work in the United States.”

(Mica Rosenberg reported from New York and Kristina Cooke from San Francisco; Editing by Julie Marquis and Marla Dickerson)

Mexico minister says 107 Mexicans detained in Mississippi operations

Mexico's Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard speaks at the Mexican consulate, two days after a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, U.S. August 5, 2019. REUTERS/Julio-Cesar Chavez

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said on Thursday that 107 Mexicans had been detained in the southern U.S. state of Mississippi, part of sweeping U.S. immigration operations.

U.S. immigration authorities arrested nearly 700 people at seven agricultural processing plants across the state on Wednesday in what federal officials said could be the largest worksite enforcement operation in a single state.

(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz; writing by Julia Love; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)

Some 156 people in 10 states infected with E. coli from ground beef: CDC

FILE PHOTO: A general view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia September 30, 2014. REUTERS/Tami Chappell/File Photo

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – A total of 156 people in 10 states have been infected with E. coli after eating tainted ground beef at home and in restaurants since the beginning of March, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Tuesday.

No deaths have been reported but 20 people have been hospitalized after they were infected with the strain E. coli O103 since March 1, the CDC said on its website.

The agency said an investigation is ongoing to determine the source of the contaminated ground beef that was supplied to grocery stores and restaurants.

“At this time, no common supplier, distributor, or brand of ground beef has been identified,” the CDC said.

The investigation began on March 28, when officials in Kentucky and Georgia notified the CDC of the outbreak. Since then, some 65 cases have been reported in Kentucky, 41 in Tennessee and another 33 in Georgia.

E. coli cases have also been reported in Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio and Virginia.

The CDC said that illnesses after March 26 may not have been reported yet because the lead time is two to three weeks.

People infected with the bacteria get sick two to eight days after swallowing the germ, and may sometimes develop a type of kidney failure.

Many of the infected people had bought large trays or chubs of ground beef from grocery stores and used the meat to make dishes like spaghetti sauce and Sloppy Joes, the agency said.

The regulator said it is not recommending that consumers avoid eating ground beef at this time, but said that consumers and restaurants should handle ground beef safely and cook it thoroughly to avoid foodborne illnesses.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Wis.; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Matthew Lewis)

Second wave of twisters in U.S. South turns deadly as storm pushes east

4-19-2019 Twitter photograph of Macron, MS twitter - Bryce Jones

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – A second wave of tornadoes and thunderstorms to hit the U.S. South and Midwest this week turned deadly on Thursday with three people reported killed, as the storms pushed eastward on Friday, officials and media accounts said.

One person was killed after a tree fell on his vehicle in Neshoba County, Mississippi, Thursday afternoon, the local paper, the Neshoba Democrat, reported.

A second death was reported in St. Clair County, Mississippi, after a tree fell on a home, late Thursday, according to AccuWeather.

A third death was reported late Thursday in the Wattsville community, north of Pell City, Alabama, the National Weather Service (NWS) reported, after a tree fell on a home.

The deaths come in the wake of at least five people, including three children, who were killed last weekend in a storm system that drove more than three dozen tornadoes across the U.S. South.

Communities in central Texas and western Louisiana, already hit by flash floods and twisters in the first round last weekend, were hit once more by high winds, twisters, egg-sized hail and intense rain Thursday and Friday, according to AccuWeather and the NWS.

In the latest storm system, multiple possible tornadoes hit southwest and central Mississippi Thursday night and early Friday, the NWS said, but the damage will have to be surveyed before confirmation of twisters.

“We’re still under some severe storm warnings, tornado watches and flood warnings into this morning and the afternoon across a broad swipe of the U.S.,” said NWS meteorologist Bob Oravec early Friday.

“The severe thunderstorms will impact the deep South and southeastern U.S., through Georgia and the Florida panhandle, before it heads up the Atlantic Coast,” he said.

Flash flooding could remain a threat in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts on Saturday, the weather service said.

The storm system will lose much of its punch late in the weekend, but the East Coast should expect a soggy Easter, Oravec said.

Power outages were reported early Friday in Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, affecting a total of about 91,800 homes and businesses, according to the tracking site PowerOutage.Us.

(Reporting by Rich McKay; Editing by Mark Potter)

Deadly storms leave thousands without power in eastern U.S

A view of clouds, part of a weather system seen from near Franklin, Texas, U.S., in this still image from social media video dated April 13, 2019. TWITTER @DOC_SANGER/via REUTERS

(Reuters) – Tornadoes, wind gusts of up to 70 mph and pounding hail remained threats early on Monday from eastern New York and into New England, as the remnants of a deadly storm push out to sea, the National Weather Service said.

More than 79,000 homes and businesses were without power in Virginia, according to the tracking site PowerOutage.US, with 89,000 more outages reported across Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan, Maryland and New York.

The affected areas will get heavy rains, winds with gusts of up to 70 mph (110 kph) and the possibility of hail, NWS Weather Prediction Center in Maryland said.

“This is an ongoing threat,” said Brian Hurley, from the center.

“There are short spin-ups, pockets of heavy rain and damaging winds that can still hit before this pushes off shore.”

The weekend’s storm brought tornadoes that killed at least five people, including three children, in the U.S. South, officials said.

The massive storm system sped from Texas eastward with dozens of twisters reported as touching down across the South from Texas through Georgia into Pennsylvania.

Nearly 2,300 U.S. flights were canceled by Sunday evening, more then 90 percent of them at airports in Chicago; Houston, Texas; Charlotte, North Carolina; Pittsburgh; Columbus, Ohio and a dozen major airports on the Eastern Seaboard, according to FlightAware.com.

But no major flight delays were reported on the east coast before 6 a.m. Monday.

The storm’s cold front brought snow to Chicago on Sunday, with 1 to 3 inches (2.5-7.6 cm) reported in central Illinois.

Two children, siblings aged three and eight, were killed on Saturday when a tree fell on the car in which they were sitting in Pollok, Texas, said a spokeswoman for the Angelina County Sheriff’s Department.

A third child, Sebastian Omar Martinez, 13, drowned late on Saturday when he fell into a drainage ditch filled with flash floodwaters near Monroe, Louisiana, said Deputy Glenn Springfield of the Ouachita Parish Sheriff’s Office.

In another storm death nearby, an unidentified victim’s body was trapped in a vehicle submerged in floodwaters in Calhoun, Louisiana, Springfield said.

In Mississippi, Governor Phil Bryant said one person was killed and 11 injured over the weekend as tornadoes ripped through 17 counties and left 26,000 homes and businesses without electricity.

In addition, three people were killed when a private jet crashed in Mississippi on Saturday, although Bryant said it was unclear whether it was caused by the weather.

Soaking rains could snarl the Monday morning commute on the East Coast before the storm moves off to sea.

“The biggest impact rush hour-wise probably will be Boston, around 7 to 8 o’clock in the morning, and around New York City around 5 or 6 o’clock, before sunrise,” NWS meteorologist Bob Oravec said.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, and Barbara Goldberg and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Alison Williams)

Mississippi governor signs ‘heartbeat’ abortion ban

FILE PHOTO: Phil Bryant, governor of Mississippi, speaks during an election night party for Republican U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith in Jackson, Mississippi, U.S., November 27, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

(Reuters) – Mississippi’s Republican governor signed one of America’s strictest abortion bills on Thursday banning women from obtaining an abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can often occur before a woman even realizes she is pregnant.

Dubbed the ‘heartbeat bill,’ this is the second legislative attempt in less than a year aimed at restricting abortions in a state with a single abortion clinic.

In a tweet earlier this week, Governor Phil Bryant thanked the state’s legislature for “protecting the unborn” by passing the bill and sending it to him for his signature.

The Mississippi law joins a wave of similar Republican-backed measures recently introduced in Iowa, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia.

Conservative Republican proponents say these bills are intended to challenge Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark ruling that women have a constitutional right to an abortion.

U.S. states are jostling for a showdown on abortion rights in 2019, with all eyes on the conservative-dominated Supreme Court.

Just last November, a U.S. federal judge struck down a Mississippi law banning most abortions after 15 weeks, ruling that it “unequivocally” violates women’s constitutional rights.

The new Mississippi bill prohibits the abortion of a fetus with a detectable heartbeat, before the point where a woman may be aware she is pregnant.

It also states that any physician who violates the restriction is subject to losing the license to practice medicine.

The law makes exceptions for women whose health is at extreme risk. It is a victory for anti-abortion groups, but abortion rights advocates have promised to pursue legal action to overturn it.

“This ban is one of the most restrictive abortion bans signed into law, and we will take Mississippi to court to make sure it never takes effect,” Hillary Schneller, staff attorney at the global abortion rights advocacy group Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement.

“This ban, just like the 15-week ban the Governor signed a year ago is cruel and clearly unconstitutional.”

A fetus that is viable outside the womb, usually at 24 weeks, has widely been considered the threshold in the United States to prohibit an abortion.

Last week, a federal judge blocked Kentucky’s fetal heartbeat abortion law. An Iowa judge overturned that state’s heartbeat law in January after declaring it violated the state’s constitution.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Nick Carey and Richard Chang)

Flooding will go on in storm-ravaged U.S. Midwest; $1 billion in damage, 4 dead

FILE PHOTO: A flooded parcel of land along the Platte River is pictured in this aerial photograph at La Platte, south of Omaha, Nebraska, U.S. March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Drone Base

(Reuters) – The flooding that devastated the U.S. Midwest is likely to last into next week, as rain and melted snow flow into Kansas, Missouri and Mississippi, the National Weather Service said.

Floods driven by melting snow in the Dakotas will persist even as Nebraska and Iowa dig out from storms that have killed four people, left one missing and caused more than a billion dollars in damage to crops, livestock and roads.

“It’s already not looking good downstream for the middle and lower Mississippi and Missouri (rivers) into Kansas, Mississippi and Missouri,” Bob Oravec, a meteorologist with the NWS’s Weather Prediction Center, said early Wednesday.

The floodwaters have inundated a swath of Iowa and Nebraska along the Missouri River, North America’s longest river. Half of Iowa’s 99 counties have declared states of emergency.

“That snowpack is still there and it’s going to keep melting, and that’s bad news,” Oravec said.

About an inch of rain is predicted for Saturday in the region, Oravec said. “It’s not a lot, but any precipitation is bad right now.”

Vice President Mike Pence toured some of Nebraska Tuesday and promised to help expedite federal help to the region.

FILE PHOTO: Homes sit in flood waters after leaving casualities and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, with waters yet to crest in parts of the U.S. midwest, in Peru, Nebraska, U.S., March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Karen Dillon

FILE PHOTO: Homes sit in flood waters after leaving casualities and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, with waters yet to crest in parts of the U.S. midwest, in Peru, Nebraska, U.S., March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Karen Dillon

Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin and Mississippi all declared states of emergency after the floods, which stemmed from a powerful winter hurricane last week. The flooding killed livestock, destroyed grains and soybeans in storage and cut off access to farms because of road and rail damage.

Authorities said they had rescued nearly 300 people in Nebraska alone, with some rivers continuing to rise. Rescuers could be seen in boats pulling pets from flooded homes. Some roadways crumbled to rubble and sections of others were submerged. In Hamburg, Iowa, floodwaters covered buildings.

$1 BILLION IN DAMAGE

Nebraska officials estimated flood damage for the state’s agriculture at more than $1 billion so far, according to Craig Head, vice president of issue management at the Nebraska Farm Bureau. Head said that was likely to grow as floodwaters recede.

“It’s really too early to know for sure how bad this is going to get. But one thing we do know: It’s catastrophic for farmers,” said Matt Perdue, government relations director for the National Farmers Union. “We’re hoping it’s only $1 billion, but that’s only a hope.”

Nebraska officials estimate the floods have also caused $553 million in damage to public infrastructure and other assets, and $89 million to privately owned assets, according to the state’s Emergency Management Agency on Tuesday.

The water covered about a third of Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska, home to the U.S. Strategic Command, whose responsibilities include defending against and responding to nuclear attacks.

The Army Corps of Engineers is distributing 400,000 sandbags to operators of 12 levees along the Missouri River in Missouri and Kansas that are threatened by flooding, the Army Corps said in a news release on Tuesday.

Roads leading to the Nebraska Public Power District’s Cooper nuclear plant near Brownville were engulfed by floodwaters from the Missouri, but the facility was still operating safely at full power on Tuesday.

The plant operator was flying staff members and supplies to the plant by helicopter, power district spokesman Mark Becker said.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; additional reporting by Karen Dillon in Brownville, Neb., Gina Cherelus in New York, Jarrett Renshaw in Philadelphia, P.J. Huffstutter and Mark Weinraub in Chicago and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; editing by Larry King)

Storm Gordon starts kicking up waves on U.S. Gulf Coast

Tropical Storm Gordon is pictured nearing Florida, U.S. in this September 2, 2018 NASA satellite handout photo. NASA/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – Waves began to batter parts of the U.S. Gulf Coast on Tuesday as the region felt the first hit of Tropical Storm Gordon, which is expected to become a hurricane before it comes ashore with high winds and heavy rain, forecasters said.

The storm also caused a jump in global oil prices after the evacuation of two oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

Gordon was due to come ashore late on Tuesday near the border between Louisiana and Mississippi, and drop as much as 12 inches (30 cm) of rain in areas still recovering from last year’s hurricanes, the National Hurricane Center said.

Currently carrying winds of around 65 miles per hour (105 km per hour), the storm was expected to pack hurricane-force winds – of at least 74 mph (119 kph) – when it reached the north-central Gulf Coast, the center said.

High surf was already hitting Alabama’s Dauphin Island early Tuesday, the National Weather Service office in Mobile said on Twitter.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency and said 200 Louisiana National Guardsmen were being deployed, along with 63 high-water trucks, 39 boats, and four helicopters.

Trees sway as Storm Gordon descends on Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S., September 3, 2018 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. @Saralina77/via REUTERS

Trees sway as Storm Gordon descends on Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S., September 3, 2018 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. @Saralina77/via REUTERS

New Orleans’ mayor, LaToya Cantrell, declared her own state of emergency and closed all non-essential government offices.

Storm surge of as much as 5 feet (1.5 m) could hit a stretch of coast from Shell Beach, Louisiana, to Dauphin Island, Alabama, forecasters said. The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency told South Mississippi residents to be prepared to evacuate.

As of Tuesday morning, Gordon was located about 190 miles (305 km) east-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, and was heading west-northwest, the Miami-based hurricane center said.

U.S. oil producer Anadarko Petroleum Corp evacuated workers and shut production at two offshore oil platforms on Monday, and other companies with production and refining operations along the Gulf Coast said they were securing facilities.

The Gulf of Mexico is home to 17 percent of U.S. crude oil and 5 percent of natural gas output daily, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. More than 45 percent of the nation’s refining capacity is located along the Gulf Coast.

The U.S. Coast Guard said the ports of New Orleans as well as Gulfport and Pascagoula, Mississippi, may have to close within 48 hours.

Maintenance crew work near power lines during an outage after Storm Gordon descended on Miami Beach, Florida, U.S., September 3, 2018 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. @ZwebackHD/via REUTERS

Maintenance crew work near power lines during an outage after Storm Gordon descended on Miami Beach, Florida, U.S., September 3, 2018 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. @ZwebackHD/via REUTERS

Last year, powerful hurricanes hit Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, causing thousands of deaths, hundreds of billions of dollars worth of damage and massive power outages.

Gordon passed over Florida’s southern tip on Monday afternoon. There were no reports of any injuries or deaths or any damage to buildings, said Alberto Moscoso, a spokesman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

(Reporting Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Scott Malone in Boston; Editing by Louise Heavens, Andrew Heavens and Frances Kerry)

Battle for control of U.S. Congress advances in seven states

FILE PHOTO: A woman wears a sticker in multiple languages after voting in the primary election at a polling station in Venice, Los Angeles, California, U.S. June 5, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A bitterly personal matchup in New York between a convicted felon seeking to reclaim his congressional seat from a former prosecutor is among dozens of key races in seven U.S. states on Tuesday, as voters pick candidates for November elections that will determine control of Congress.

Voters in Colorado, Maryland, South Carolina, Utah, Oklahoma and Mississippi will also select competitors for the Nov. 6 elections, when Democrats will seek to wrest control of Congress from U.S. President Donald Trump’s Republican Party.

Democrats need to flip 23 of 435 seats to gain control of the House of Representatives, which would stymie much of Trump’s agenda while opening up new avenues of investigation into his administration. They would have to net two seats to take the Senate, but face longer odds there, according to analysts.

Residents of New York City’s Staten Island borough will decide whether to give Republican Michael Grimm, fresh off a prison term for tax fraud, a chance to return to his old seat in Congress, three years after he resigned following his guilty plea.

The race has seen the candidates trade personal insults and accusations of lying, with Trump’s presence looming above it all.

Grimm, a bombastic former FBI agent known for once threatening to toss a television reporter off a balcony, has attacked incumbent Republican Representative Dan Donovan, the borough’s former district attorney, for not sufficiently supporting Trump.

Donovan, who earned Trump’s endorsement in May, has responded by calling attention to Grimm’s criminal conviction.

The district is considered within reach for Democrats in November.

“They should have a reality show: ‘The Real Candidates of Staten Island,'” said Douglas Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College. “It’s nasty, it’s personal – and it’s enjoyable to watch.”

DEMOCRATIC BATTLES

Voters in upstate New York will pick among seven Democrats in one of this year’s most expensive House campaigns. Republican first-term incumbent John Faso is considered vulnerable in November, and his potential challengers have collectively raised more than $7 million.

In Colorado, an establishment-backed Democrat and a liberal insurgent are vying to take on incumbent Republican Representative Mike Coffman, whose district favored Democrat Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016.

Jason Crow, an Iraq war veteran backed by the national party, is facing Levi Tillemann, who was endorsed by Our Revolution, a group born out of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid. Tillemann earned attention this month with an anti-gun violence video in which he blasted himself in the face with pepper spray.

South Carolina’s Republican contest for governor is the latest test of Trump’s sway among party voters. The president campaigned on Monday alongside Governor Henry McMaster, who is in a tight nominating battle with businessman John Warren. The winner is likely to prevail in November.

Voters will also pick Senate candidates in states including Utah and Maryland. Analysts say Democrats face a steep climb trying to take that chamber, as they are defending seats in states like Indiana, Montana and North Dakota that supported Trump two years ago.

Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is expected to earn his party’s Senate nomination in Utah, while Chelsea Manning, who served seven years in military prison for leaking classified data, is a long shot in Maryland’s Democratic nominating contest against incumbent Senator Ben Cardin.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney)