Schools shut, flights canceled as storm sweeps U.S. Midwest, East Coast

A local resident removes snow from a car during a winter storm in Washington, U.S., February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

(Reuters) – A winter storm swept across much of the U.S. Midwest and East Coast on Wednesday, hampering air travel and prompting officials to close federal offices in Washington and several large public school systems.

The National Weather Service warned the storm could make travel very difficult, with snow, sleet and freezing rain potentially causing downed branches and power outages.

The storm reached from northern Minnesota down through Missouri and east into the Mid-Atlantic region and could bring as much as 6 inches (15 cm) of snow along with sleet and freezing rain, the National Weather Service said in an advisory.

The storm forced the closing of federal agencies in Washington as well as schools in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington.

Hundreds of flights were delayed or canceled in and out of major airports in Washington, Philadelphia and Chicago, according to Flightaware.com. Airports told passengers on social media to check their airlines for delays and cancellations.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Heavy snow hammers U.S. Midwest after holiday weekend

A driver clears the snow off his car during an early season snowfall in the Boston suburb of Medford, Massachusetts, U.S., November 15, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

(Reuters) – Commuters in Chicago and across the Midwest faced inches of heavy, wet snow as they headed back to work on Monday after the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend, with the storm knocking out power, icing roads and canceling some flights.

The National Weather Service ended blizzard warnings early on Monday in northeast Missouri through the Chicago metropolitan area and northeast into Michigan, but noted strong winds of up to 45 miles per hour (72 kph) would continue to blow around drifts of the snow accumulated overnight.

“Snow will continue to taper off to flurries and then end this morning,” the service’s Chicago office said in a statement, warning drivers to take extra caution on slippery roads in low visibility.

“The drive into work was NASTY,” Diane Pathieu, an ABC7 Chicago news anchor, wrote on Twitter of her pre-dawn commute. “Roads barely plowed, wind blowing snow everywhere. Proceed with caution!”

North of Chicago, the city of Evanston’s police department said in a statement its power had been knocked out by the storm, although it was still able to receive 911 calls.

Dozens of school districts in Illinois, Missouri, Iowa and Kansas canceled classes due to the weather. Chicago public schools were expected to open.

The storm canceled 1,270 flights on Sunday, a busy day for travelers trying to get home after the Thanksgiving weekend.

That included about 900 flights to and from Chicago O’Hare International Airport and Chicago Midway Airport and almost 200 flights at Kansas City International Airport.

On Monday morning, about 500 flights to and from O’Hare had been canceled, about 17 percent of all scheduled flights, according to the FlightAware flight tracking service.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Sunil Nair, Louise Heavens and Frances Kerry)

Deadly Missouri duck boat to be raised, most survivors leave hospital

July 22, 2018; Springfield, MO, USA; Family of victims of the duck boat accident on Table Rock Lake embrace after a community wide memorial service for the families, friends and victims at College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Missouri on Sunday, July 22, 2018. Nathan Papes/News-Leader via USA TODAY NETWORK

By Jon Herskovitz

(Reuters) – The duck boat that sank in a Missouri lake last week, killing 17 people, was set to be raised on Monday and taken to a secure facility as part of a federal investigation into one of deadliest U.S. tourist accidents for years.

The U.S. Coast Guard said on Sunday it will oversee the salvage operations for the amphibious vessel that was carrying 31 people when it went down on Thursday in a fierce and sudden storm on Table Rock Lake outside of the tourist destination of Branson.

Seven of the 14 survivors were taken to a local hospital, and all but one had been discharged as of Sunday. That person is in good condition, a spokeswoman for the Cox Medical Center Branson hospital said.

Two of the World War Two-style amphibious duck boat vehicles were out on the lake and headed back to shore when the storm struck, but only one made it. The dead were aged one to 70 and came from six U.S. states.

Readings near Branson when the boat went down showed winds of up to 73 miles per hour (117 kph), two miles (3.2 km) shy of hurricane force, the National Transportation Safety Board said on Saturday.

Tia Coleman, who lost nine family members including her husband and three children, told a news conference on Saturday from a Branson hospital that she does not know how she will recover from the loss.

“Going home is going to be completely difficult. I don’t know how I am going to do it. Since I have had a home, it has always been filled with little feet and laughter,” she said, choking back tears.

Coleman said the boat’s captain, who was among the survivors, pointed out the life jackets but told those aboard there was no need for them.

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley was in Branson over the weekend talking with investigators. He has said the state is contemplating whether to bring criminal charges.

Jim Pattison, president of Ripley Entertainment, which owns the Branson “Ride The Ducks” tour company, told CBS This Morning on Friday that the strength of the storm was unexpected and the duck boats should not have been on the lake.

More than three dozen people have died in incidents involving duck boats on land and water in the United States over the past two decades.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Coast Guard to raise Missouri tourist boat after deadly sinking

Rescue personnel work after an amphibious "duck boat" capsized and sank, at Table Rock Lake near Branson, Stone County, Missouri, U.S. July 19, 2018 in this still image obtained from a video on social media. SOUTHERN STONE COUNTY FIRE PROTECTION DISTRICT/Facebook/via REUTERS

(Reuters) – The U.S. Coast Guard was preparing on Monday morning to recover the “duck boat” that sank beneath storm-whipped waves in a Missouri lake last week, drowning 17 people in one of the deadliest tourist accidents in the United States in years.

After raising the World War Two-style amphibious landing craft from Table Rock Lake outside the popular vacation town of Branson, the Coast Guard said, it will hand boat over to federal investigators.

Thirty-one people were aboard the Ride the Ducks boat last Thursday when a sudden, intense storm struck, with winds just shy of hurricane strength churning the lake’s waters. Less than half survived the accident and officials are looking into what the boat’s operators knew about the weather forecast before setting out.

FILE PHOTO: A duck boat is seen at Table Rock Lake in Branson, Missouri, U.S., July 19, 2018 in this picture grab obtained from social media video. Ron Folsom/via REUTERS

FILE PHOTO: A duck boat is seen at Table Rock Lake in Branson, Missouri, U.S., July 19, 2018 in this picture grab obtained from social media video. Ron Folsom/via REUTERS

Among the dead were the boat’s driver and nine members of a single family. A memorial service was held in Branson on Sunday for the victims.

More than three dozen people have died in incidents involving duck boat vehicles in the United States over the past two decades, both on water and land.

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley has said the state is contemplating whether to bring criminal charges.

Ripley Entertainment, which owns the duck boat ride, has said the boats should not have been out in such bad weather and that the intensity of the storm was unexpected.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which will determine the causes of the accident, will look into what the boat operators knew about the weather forecast before taking the boat out.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Scott Malone and Steve Orlofsky)

Seventeen dead after Missouri tourist boat sinks in storm

By Brendan O’Brien and Andrew Hay

(Reuters) – Divers on Friday pulled the last four bodies from the wreckage of a “duck boat” that sank in a storm in a Missouri lake, killing 17 people in one of the deadliest U.S. tourist incidents in recent years.

The World War Two-style amphibious vehicle was filled with 31 passengers including children when a microburst storm hit Table Rock Lake outside the tourist city of Branson, Missouri, on Thursday. A video of the incident showed it battered by waves.

Wendy Doucey, an office manager at the Stone County sheriff’s office, said that divers had recovered the four bodies from the sunken duck boat. The vehicle was 80 feet (24 m) underwater.

“It’s important that we find out for sure what events did occur,” Governor Michael Parson said at a Friday morning news conference. “Today it’s just still early.”

The incident began around 7 p.m. (0000 GMT) on Thursday after thunderstorms rolled through the area when two duck boats were out on the lake, officials said. Both headed back to shore but only one made it.

“From what I understand there were life jackets in the duck,” Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader told the press conference. He declined to answer questions about whether passengers on the duck had been wearing them at the time.

The National Transportation Safety Board and U.S. Coast Guard are investigating, officials said. Rader noted that the boat’s captain survived the sinking but the driver did not.

Officials did not comment on the identities or ages of the other people who drowned.

Rescue personnel are seen after an amphibious "duck boat" capsized and sank, at Table Rock Lake near Branson, Stone County, Missouri, U.S. July 19, 2018 in this still image obtained from a video on social media. SOUTHERN STONE COUNTY FIRE PROTECTION DISTRICT/Facebook/via REUTERS

Rescue personnel are seen after an amphibious “duck boat” capsized and sank, at Table Rock Lake near Branson, Stone County, Missouri, U.S. July 19, 2018 in this still image obtained from a video on social media. SOUTHERN STONE COUNTY FIRE PROTECTION DISTRICT/Facebook/via REUTERS

‘NOTHING YOU COULD DO’

Jennie Carr witnessed the last moments of the tourist duck boat while on a lake cruise aboard the Showboat Branson Belle.

“The one that sunk, it was having trouble. You could tell that it couldn’t go very fast. He kept sinking down in the water a little bit. The waves went over the top of it,” Carr told NBC’s “Today” show. “There wasn’t really nothing you could do.”

Carr could not be reached for further comment.

The company that owned the duck boat, Ripley Entertainment, said that it was working with families of the victims.

“Our number one priority is the families and our employees that were affected by this tragic accident,” spokeswoman Suzanne Smagala-Potts said Thursday.

Table Rock Lake is a 67-square-mile (174 sq km) reservoir containing water impounded by the Table Rock Dam on the White River.

Duck vehicles, used on sightseeing tours around the world, have been involved in a number of fatal accidents on land and in the water in the past two decades.

Thirteen people died in 1999 when the duck boat they were riding near Hot Springs, Arkansas, sank suddenly.

The company that builds ducks, Ride the Ducks International LLC, agreed in 2016 to pay a $1 million fine after one of the vehicles, which operate on land as well as water, collided with a bus in Seattle, killing five international students.

The company admitted to failing to comply with U.S. vehicle manufacturing rules.

Two tourists died in Philadelphia in 2010 when the duck boat they were riding in was struck by a tugboat in the Delaware River.

Branson, in southwestern Missouri, is a family-friendly tourist destination whose attractions include “Dolly Parton’s Stampede” dinner theater, the Amazing Acrobats of Shanghai and a Titanic museum with a model of the sunken vessel’s front half.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg and Gina Cherelus in New York and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, Writing by Scott Malone; Editing Bernadette Baum and Steve Orlofsky)

CDC warns residents in eight U.S. states of cut-fruit Salmonella outbreak

Under a very high magnification of 12000X, this colorized scanning electron micrograph shows a large grouping of Gram-negative Salmonella bacteria. REUTERS/Janice Haney Carr/CDC/Handout

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Sunday urged residents of eight U.S. states to check for recalled pre-cut melon that is linked to an outbreak of Salmonella.

The FDA and U.S. Centers for Disease Control are investigating an outbreak linked to 60 illnesses and at least 31 hospitalizations in five states. No deaths have been reported and the agencies urged residents in the eight states to throw out any melon that may have been recalled.

On Friday, Caito Foods LLC, a unit of SpartanNash Co, recalled fresh-cut watermelon, honeydew melon, cantaloupe and fresh-cut mixed fruit products containing one of those melons produced at a Caito Foods facility in Indianapolis.

The recalled products were distributed to Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio and sold in clear, plastic containers at stores including Costco Wholesale Corp, Kroger Co, Payless, Owen’s, Sprouts, Trader Joe’s, Walgreens, Walmart Inc, and Whole Foods, a unit of Amazon.com Inc.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb in a Twitter post late on Sunday urged people in the eight states to check the “fridge and freezer for recalled pre-cut melon linked to Salmonella outbreak.”

Of the 60 cases reported to date, 32 were reported in Michigan.

“Reports of illnesses linked to these products are under investigation, and Caito Foods is voluntarily recalling the products out of an abundance of caution,” the company said in a statement, adding it “has ceased producing and distributing these products as the company and FDA continue their investigation.”

Salmonella can result in serious illness and produce significant and potentially fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people and others with weakened immune systems the company said.

The CDC said evidence suggested that melon supplied by Caito Foods “is a likely source of this multistate outbreak.”

The investigation is ongoing to determine if products went to additional stores or states, the agencies said.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Peter Cooney)

In Missouri, J&J faces biggest trial yet alleging talc caused cancer

FILE PHOTO: A Johnson & Johnson building is shown in Irvine, California, U.S., January 24, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

By Tina Bellon

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A lawsuit by 22 ovarian cancer patients against Johnson & Johnson went to trial on Wednesday in Missouri state court, marking the largest case the company has faced over allegations its talc-based products contain cancer-causing asbestos.

The women and their families suing in the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis say decades-long use of J&J’s Baby Powder and other cosmetic talc products caused their disease. They allege the company knew its talc was contaminated with asbestos since at least the 1970s but failed to warn consumers about the risks.

J&J denies both that its talc products cause cancer and that they ever contained asbestos.

J&J is battling some 9,000 cases brought by users of its Baby Powder and Shower to Shower talc products, the latter of which was sold to Valeant Pharmaceuticals in 2012.

The majority of those lawsuits claim talc caused ovarian cancer in women who used it for feminine hygiene. A smaller number of cases allege talc contaminated by asbestos in the mining process caused mesothelioma, a tissue cancer closely linked to asbestos exposure.

The cases that went to trial on Wednesday effectively combine those claims by alleging the women’s ovarian cancer was caused by asbestos in J&J talc products.

J&J lawyer Peter Bicks told the jury on Wednesday that the causes for ovarian cancer are often unknown, according to an online broadcast of the trial by Courtroom View Network.

He said gene mutations and a family history of cancer played an important role and that asbestos was not known to cause ovarian cancer.

Bicks added that testing done by independent laboratories, universities, government agencies, talc suppliers and J&J itself has shown that there is no asbestos in the company’s talc.

But plaintiff’s lawyer Mark Lanier said asbestos and talc, which are closely linked minerals, are intermingled in the mining process, making it impossible to remove the carcinogenic substance. Lanier said there was “no doubt” that talc caused his clients’ ovarian cancer.

“This case is as simple as asbestos breathed in or put inside of you,” Lanier told the jury.

J&J has lost two talc mesothelioma jury trials in the past weeks. Those cases are currently under appeal.

Juries in California and Missouri have also issued verdicts in ovarian cancer cases totaling more than $720 million in damages. Those decisions have either been tossed out or are still under appeal.

(Reporting by Tina Bellon; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Deadly South Carolina prison riot exposes staffing shortage

FILE PHOTO: The Lee Correctional Institution is seen in Bishopville, Lee County, South Carolina, U.S., April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Randall Hill/File Photo

By Ian Simpson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A gang-related melee at a South Carolina prison that ended with seven dead and 17 injured, the deadliest U.S. prison riot in a quarter century, exposed the vulnerability of an understaffed system.

Forty-four guards were on duty overseeing 1,583 inmates at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina, when the violence broke out, and it took eight hours to put an end to the riot early on Monday.

Across the country, cuts to state budgets have left state prison systems understaffed, a reality that prison officials and law enforcement experts say increases the risk of being unable to contain any outbreaks of violence quickly.

“We’re grossly understaffed at many facilities across the United States,” said Brian Dawe, executive director of the American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network, a clearinghouse for best practices and information for corrections officers and others.

The South Carolina riot was sparked by a fight among prison gangs over turf and contraband around the time of a shift change in three cell blocks. That meant more staffers than usual were present, but the melee still went unchecked for hours, Bryan Stirling, South Carolina’s prison director, told a news conference.

About a quarter of South Carolina’s state prison guard jobs are unfilled, Stirling told The State newspaper in January. South Carolina is far from alone in having double-digit vacancy rates.

There are no national figures on prison staffing, but state records show that 16 percent of guard jobs are unfilled in Delaware and 31 percent in Oklahoma, as well as 15 percent of all corrections jobs, including guards, in Arkansas.

Similarly, 16 percent of guard positions in North Carolina prisons and 14 percent in Texas were unfilled late last year, according to local media. Missouri had a shortage of more than 400 guards and officers were being bused from one prison to another on overtime to cover shifts.

The federal system had a ratio of 10.3 inmates per correctional officer in 2005 and a ratio of 4.9 inmates per prison staff, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In some states facing staff shortages, there might be one officer for every 40 or 50 inmates, union officials said.

The ratio at the Lee Correctional Institution Sunday evening was 35.9 inmates per guard.

Dawe put the ideal ratio at about five to one, but Michele Deitch, a lecturer on corrections at the University of Texas, said it depended on layout of the prison and the type of facility, such as whether it was minimum or maximum security.

“It’s not like you can take one number and apply it to every facility,” Deitch said. “It’s not really a great indicator.”

Compounding the chaos, when the fighting erupted in South Carolina on Sunday, all the guards pulled out to await police backup. It took four hours for officers to move into the first dorm, and their response was slowed by having to deal with wounded inmates, Stirling said.

Shaundra Scott, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in South Carolina, said the mayhem underscored that state prisons lack personnel to keep inmates safe, as well as protocols to quell unrest.

“They don’t have the staff to keep things running in the prison,” she said. Scott added that mixing juvenile with adult inmates, the use of solitary confinement and a lack of mental health treatment also fed violence.

South Carolina Department of Corrections spokesman Jeffrey Taillon declined to comment on Wednesday. He referred a reporter to Stirling’s Monday statement that the state was beginning to retain staff through extra pay, bonuses and overtime after years of losing about 150 officers annually.

The number of Americans in state prisons fell to 1.38 million in 2016, down about 4 percent from a decade earlier, according to U.S. Department of Justice data. But experts say the drop was not enough to close the guard shortage substantially.

Budgets have been cut for several years, with a survey of 45 states by the Vera Institute of Justice in New York showing a 0.5 percent decline in prison expenditures from 2010 through 2015. South Carolina’s spending dropped 2.4 percent over that period, with the sharpest declines in Nevada, down 14.7 percent, and Michigan, down 12.4 percent.

Oklahoma Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh, citing the South Carolina violence, said he recognized the risks potentially facing prisons in his cash-strapped state, which announced a hiring freeze on corrections officers in February.

“This could have easily been us,” Allbaugh, who has been critical of a funding shortage in a state with one of the highest rates of incarceration, said on Twitter.

Plagued by high turnover, some prisons are turning to overtime to make up for staffing gaps as they struggle to fill low-paying jobs seen as dangerous and undesirable in a growing U.S. economy with a tight labor market.

Jackie Switzer, a former prison guard and executive director of the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals lobbying group, said officers often were asked to work overtime or double shifts.

“They are not as responsive as they would be if they were fresh. That in turn creates a dangerous situation,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Storms unleash tornadoes in U.S. east, record snow in Midwest

Dark clouds hover above buildings amidst tornadoes in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the U.S., April 10, 2018 in this still image obtained from a social media video. Emmet Finneran/via REUTERS

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – Deadly slow-moving storms generated record or near-record snowfall and low temperatures in the U.S. Midwest and tornadoes further east on Sunday, leaving airline travelers stranded and thousands without power.

In Michigan, where snowfall was expected to reach 18 inches in some areas, about 310,000 homes and businesses were without power because of an ice storm, most of them in the southeast of the state.

Large areas of Detroit were without power and customers were not expected to have it back on Sunday night, utility DTE Energy said. It was working to have 90 percent of outages restored by Tuesday, DTE spokeswoman Carly Getz said in a statement.

Cars are seen on a road during a tornado in Mountainburg, Arkansas, U.S., April 13, 2018 in this picture grab obtained from social media video. JOSHUA COLEMAN/via REUTERS

Cars are seen on a road during a tornado in Mountainburg, Arkansas, U.S., April 13, 2018 in this picture grab obtained from social media video. JOSHUA COLEMAN/via REUTERS

The weight of ice on power lines, coupled with high winds, caused more than 1,000 power lines to fall in Detroit and Wayne County, DTE said.

The worst of the snow was focused on the upper Great Lakes, with Green Bay, Wisconsin, seeing its second largest snowstorm ever after 23.2 inches fell as of Sunday afternoon, the National Weather Service said.

For the twin cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, the April monthly record for snowfall of 21.8 inches (55 cm) was surpassed on Saturday, the National Weather Service said.

Two tornadoes tore up trees and ripped apart homes in Greensboro and Reidsville, North Carolina, killing a motorist who was hit by a tree, according to Greensboro’s city manager, local media reported.

The storms stretched from the Gulf Coast to the Midwest and were moving into the Northeast and New England.

Record low temperatures for the date were expected in Oklahoma City on Monday at 30 degrees F (-1 C), and in Kansas City, Missouri, at 25 F (-4 C), Hurley said.

On Friday, the weather system produced 17 reports of tornadoes in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri and Texas, with four people injured and 160 buildings damaged in a possible tornado in northwest Arkansas, local media reported.

The weather was blamed for two traffic deaths in western Nebraska and Wisconsin, according to National Public Radio.

The storms also killed a one-year-old girl when a tree fell on a recreational vehicle where she was sleeping, the sheriff’s office in Bossier Parish, Louisiana, said.

By Sunday night, 1,804 flights had been canceled into or out of U.S. airports, the website flightaware.com reported, including 148 flights in or out of the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. and Andrew Hay in Taos, N.M.; Editing by Adrian Croft and Peter Cooney)

Killer Storm brings freezing rain and snow to U.S. Northeast

(Reuters) – A winter storm packing freezing rain and heavy snow was expected to sweep across much of the U.S. Northeast on Wednesday, snarling transportation, closing dozens of schools and threatening power outages.

The same storm system has killed several people in accidents in the Midwest since Monday, including six in Iowa, two in Missouri and one in Montana, local media in those states reported.

Much of the region from southern Indiana northeast through Maine was under either a winter storm watch or warning. Some 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) of snow and a 1/4 inch (.5 cm) of ice accumulation were in the forecast, the National Weather Service said.

“Travel will be dangerous and nearly impossible,” the service said, warning that ice may cause widespread power outages.

Dozens of school districts in the East Coast, including in Pittsburgh and Albany, New York canceled classes on Wednesday while Baltimore schools delayed the start of school for two hours. Federal agencies in Washington D.C. were also opening two hours later than normal.

About 800 flights within, into or out of the United States were canceled on Wednesday nationwide, according to the FlightAware tracking service.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Frances Kerry)