Dozens of CEOs call on Senate to tackle gun violence: reports

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – More than 100 chief executives of some of the nation’s most well-known companies on Thursday called on the U.S. Senate to take action to tackle gun violence, including expanding background checks and strengthening so-called red flag laws, according to media reports.

In a letter to lawmakers, 145 company heads urged meaningful action following a string of mass shootings across the United States that have most recently left communities reeling in Texas, Ohio, Nevada and South Carolina.

“Doing nothing about America’s gun violence crisis is simply unacceptable and it is time to stand with the American public on gun safety,” the letter to the Republican-led U.S. Senate said, according to the New York Times, which first reported the correspondence.

Those signing the missive include the heads of Gap Inc, Levi Strauss & Co, and Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc. They also included Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd, Uber Technologies Inc, Twitter Inc, and Amalgamated Bank, among others.

“We are writing to you because we have a responsibility and obligation to stand up for the safety of our employees, customers and all Americans in the communities we serve across the country,” they said, according to the Times. The Washington Post also reported the letter.

Lawmakers have struggled to address gun violence after the 2012 killing of 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut stoked the debate over gun control in America.

More mass shootings followed, including at a church in South Carolina, a music festival in Las Vegas and a high school in Florida. This summer, shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas – including in a Walmart – sparked fresh debate.

Walmart Inc and other stores have since called on patrons not to openly carry firearms in their stores, prompting protests from opponents who object to curbing gun rights.

The U.S. House of Representatives, led by Democrats, quickly took up measures addressing gun violence as lawmakers returned to Washington this week. These include three bills that seek to remove guns from people deemed a risk, ban high-capacity ammunition magazines and prohibit people convicted of violent hate crime misdemeanors from possessing firearms.

The Senate, led by President Donald Trump’s fellow Republicans, has so far stayed on the sidelines, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell looking to the White House for guidance.

On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators said they wanted to revive a failed 2013 bill to close loopholes in the law requiring gun sale background checks, but it remained unclear whether Trump would support it.

Polls have shown that nearly half of all Americans expect another mass shooting to happen soon in the United States.

(Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Hurricane Dorian hits North Carolina’s Outer Banks

A fallen tree and flood waters sit in a hotel parking lot after Hurricane Dorian swept through, in Wilmington, North Carolina, U.S., September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

By Amanda Becker

ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. (Reuters) – Hurricane Dorian made landfall on the Outer Banks of North Carolina on Friday, hitting the beach resort area with powerful winds and battering waves days after reducing parts of the Bahamas to rubble.

The storm, packing 90-mile-per-hour winds (150 km-per-hour) made landfall at Cape Hatteras at about 9 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT), according to the National Hurricane Center.

It lashed the Outer Banks with hurricane-force winds as far as 45 miles (72 km) from the center of the hurricane and sent tropical storm winds farther than 200 miles (320 km) from its center, the NHC said.

It has already dumped up to 10 inches (25 cm) of rain along the coast between Charleston, South Carolina, to Wilmington, North Carolina, about 170 miles (275 km) away, forecasters said.

“The rain is moving up north,” said National Weather Service forecaster Alex Lamers early on Friday. “Even the Raleigh-Durham area inland will get 3 inches today.”

Dorian is expected to push out to sea later on Friday and bring tropical storm winds to Nantucket Island and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, early on Saturday.

But it will likely spare much of the rest of the East Coast the worst of its rain and wind, before likely making landfall in Canada’s Nova Scotia that night, the NHC said.

“It’s in the process of moving out, going north,” Lamers said.

The howling west flank of Dorian has soaked the Carolinas since early Thursday, flooding coastal towns, whipping up more than a dozen tornadoes and cutting power to hundreds of thousands of people.

Floodwaters rose to a foot (30 cm) or more in parts of the historic South Carolina port city of Charleston, where more than 7 inches (18 cm) of rain fell in some areas, officials said. Another half-inch or more was expected overnight Friday.

More than 330,000 homes and businesses were without power in North Carolina and South Carolina on Friday morning. Power had mostly been restored to thousands of people in Georgia, tracking site poweroutage.us showed.

But as Dorian is expected to pick up speed from its 14 mph (22 kph) crawl on Friday, life-threatening storm surges and dangerous winds remain a threat for much of the area and Virginia, the National Hurricane Center said.

Governors in the region declared states of emergency, shut schools, opened shelters, readied National Guard troops and urged residents to heed warnings, as news media circulated fresh images of the storm’s devastation in the Bahamas.

At least 70,000 Bahamians needed immediate humanitarian relief after Dorian became the most damaging storm ever to hit the island nation.

A city park and playground are inundated with flood waters from Hurricane Dorian in Wilmington, North Carolina, U.S., September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

A city park and playground are inundated with flood waters from Hurricane Dorian in Wilmington, North Carolina, U.S., September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

In the Carolinas alone, more than 900,000 people had been ordered to evacuate their homes. It was unclear how many did so.

In Kill Devil Hills in the Outer Banks, Mark Jennings decided to ignore the order, lining his garage door with sandbags and boarding up his home with plywood.

The retired firefighter planned to stay put with his wife and two dogs, saying: “We are ready to go. If something happens, we can still get out of here.”

Dorian whipped up at least three tornadoes in the region, officials said. One in North Carolina damaged scores of trailers at a campground in Emerald Isle, but no one was injured, the News & Observer said.

Of at least four storm-related deaths reported in the United States, three were in Orange County, Florida, during storm preparations or evacuation, the mayor’s office said.

In North Carolina, an 85-year-old man fell off a ladder while barricading his home for Dorian, the governor said.

(Reporting by Nick Carey in Charleston, South Carolina, and Amanda Becker in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen, Peter Szekely, Matt Lavietes and Scott DiSavino in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Alison Williams, Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Floodwaters rise on Charleston’s streets as Hurricane Dorian skirts U.S. coast

Nathan Piper, 11, is swamped by increasingly rough waves while body surfing as Hurricane Dorian approaches, in Carolina Beach, North Carolina, U.S., September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

By Nick Carey and Amanda Becker

CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) – Deserted, rain-lashed streets in Charleston, South Carolina, vanished beneath water on Thursday as Hurricane Dorian churned a few dozen miles offshore after reducing parts of the Bahamas to rubble.

Water pooled a few inches deep near the centuries-old waterfront. In certain low-lying blocks, it rose to a foot or more, as high tide approached and forecasters warned of storm surges of up to 8 feet (2 meters).

John Rivers, 74, and his three children were among the few to be seen in the streets on Thursday. They cleared drains of branches, leaves and debris, using a shovel, a rake and their bare hands.

“We’re giving the water somewhere to go,” Rivers said, sheltering temporarily from the driving rain and gusts of wind under a covered walkway. His daughter Caroline, 12, pulled off her rubber boots one at a time, emptying a stream of water from each. “I see this as a good life lesson for my kids,” Rivers said.

Officials said Thursday afternoon that more than 7 inches (18 cm) of rain had fallen in parts of Charleston.

Dorian was about 50 miles (80 kilometers) off Charleston on Thursday, wavering in strength between a Category 2 and 3 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson wind scale. It was forecast to possibly make landfall in North Carolina late Thursday or early Friday.

Life-threatening storm surges and dangerous winds were possible in much of the coast of South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia, the National Weather Service said.

Dorian whipped up at least three tornados in the region, officials said. One in North Carolina damaged scores of trailers in a campground in Emerald Isle, but no one was injured, North Carolina’s News & Observer reported.

Governors in the region declared states of emergency, closed schools, opened shelters, readied national guard troops and implored residents to take warnings seriously, as fresh images of the devastation wrought by the storm in the Bahamas earlier this week continued to circulate in the media.

At least 70,000 Bahamians needed immediate humanitarian relief after Dorian became the most damaging storm ever to hit the island nation.

In the Carolinas alone, more than 900,000 people had been ordered to evacuate their homes. It was unclear how many did so.

In Kill Devil Hills, in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Mark Jennings decided to ignore the order, lining his garage door with sandbags and boarding up his home with plywood.

The retired firefighter planned to stay put with his wife and two dogs: “We are ready to go. If something happens, we can still get out of here.”

FOUR DEATHS IN THE U.S.

At least four storm-related deaths have already been reported. Three people died in Orange County, Florida, during storm preparations or evacuation, according to the Orange County mayor’s office. In North Carolina, an 85-year-old man fell off a ladder while barricading his home for Dorian, the governor said.

More than 210,000 homes and businesses were without power in South Carolina and Georgia early on Thursday, according to local electric companies.

On Charleston’s historic South Battery Street, which runs down to the harbor, Brys Stephens tried to keep the water away from his stately home, built in the veranda-wrapped Southern style that lures crowds of tourists to the city.

He and his family pumped water out of the yard and tried to reattach metal flood gates into the perimeter wall.

“The gates worked pretty well so far and we’ve managed to keep water away from the house,” Stephens said. “But we’ve got another storm surge coming later on, so we’ll see then if it holds.”

(Reporting by Nick Carey in Charleston, South Carolina, and Amanda Becker in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen, Peter Szekely, Matt Lavietes and Scott DiSavino in New York; Writing by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Scott Malone and Bernadette Baum)

Some Florida boat residents to ride out Dorian, hoping for the best

By Gabriella Borter

MERRITT ISLAND, Fla. (Reuters) – Ned and Lisa Keahey were well aware that the second-most powerful Atlantic hurricane on record was heading for them, having watched the weather radar on Sunday at a Florida marina from the boat they have called home for the past 20 years.

Even so, the couple had no intention of evacuating their sailboat as the monster Category 5 storm churned westward with maximum sustained winds of 185 miles per hour (295 kph).

“I will not get off this boat during the hurricane for any reason at all, save a human life,” said Ned, 56. “It’s home.”

Dozens of Floridians who live in boats in marinas along the Atlantic Coast in Brevard County were rushing to secure their vessels on Sunday, strapping them to docks and removing canvas coverings from decks as Dorian spun toward the state.

Brevard County emergency officials said mandatory evacuations were issued beginning on Monday at 8 a.m. for residents in low-lying areas, on barrier islands and in mobile homes. Mandatory evacuations in Martin, Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties went into effect on Sunday.

Several boat residents said they had decided to leave their vessels and stay with family on shore rather than ride out the storm, even if they knew their entire livelihoods might have been washed away when they returned.

“When you live in a boat and it’s your house, FEMA’s not going to do anything for you,” said Christopher Warren, who has lived on a boat in the Titusville marina for more than two years and planned to stay at his brother’s house 30 miles (48 km) inland during the storm.

The Keaheys, who share their boat with their dog, Princess Leia, and cat, Kitty Bear, said they could not afford to lose their home and felt it had the best chance of weathering the storm if they were present to tend to it.

Millions of people from Florida to North Carolina were bracing for Dorian’s possible landfall or for the storm, which crashed into the Bahamas on Sunday, to veer north into the Atlantic Ocean.

The National Hurricane Center said that even a glancing blow from Dorian could bring torrential rains and damaging winds to Florida.

‘FAITH IT WILL BE OK’

The Keaheys had stocked up on food for themselves and their pets, and had a 60-gallon water tank as well as a generator and solar panel to ensure the power stayed on.

“We made it through Irma, we made it through Matthew, by holding on,” said Ned.

They lost power twice for about three minutes each time during Irma, which hit Florida in 2017 as a powerful Category 4 hurricane, and they stayed up all night then tying the boat down with lines.

“It looked like we had spiderwebs out on the boat because we had so many lines out,” said Lisa, 49.

Marvin and Marilyn Foster also intended to ride out Dorian in their boat home, parked in the Barge Canal on Brevard County’s Merritt Island. The couple moved on Friday from a condo to their small yacht, called “Current Adventure,” to fulfill their lifelong dream of living on a boat.

“We have faith that it will be OK,” said Marilyn, 61, who said it would be her first hurricane aboard a boat.

Her husband, Marvin, 52, said he had spent a hurricane on a boat before and knew his plan for surviving Dorian would be the same this time: “Pay attention, have provisions, get rest, stay sober, help out your neighbor.”

 

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Frank McGurty and Peter Cooney)

NHC sees 80% chance of cyclone off North Carolina

Location map, National Hurricane Center

(Reuters) – A low pressure area located about 280 miles (451 km) south-southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina has an 80% chance of becoming a tropical cyclone over the next 48 hours, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said on Monday.

The system is forecast to move slowly north-eastward, well offshore of the southeastern United States, the Miami-based weather forecaster added.

(Reporting by K. Sathya Narayanan in Bengaluru; Editing by Jacqueline Wong)

Supreme Court rejects limits to partisan gerrymandering

By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung)

Heavy snowstorm kills three, snarls travel in U.S. Southeast

An aerial view shows snow over the Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, U.S. in this still image taken from a social media video. Nelson Aerial Productions/via REUTERS

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – An intense snowstorm headed out to sea on Monday after dumping up to 2 feet (60 cm) of snow on parts of the Southeastern United States, leaving three people dead in North Carolina and some 138,000 customers in the region still without power.

School districts across North and South Carolina and Virginia canceled classes for the day and emergency officials warned that heavy snow and icy roads were slowing their responses to problems such as hundreds of stranded motorists.

The storm dropped its heaviest snow in the appropriately named Whitetop, Virginia, tucked in the Appalachian Mountains along the western end of the Virginia-North Carolina border, the U.S. National Weather Service said. Whitetop received 2 feet of snow, while Greensboro, North Carolina, had 16 inches (41 cm) and Durham, North Carolina, got 14 inches (36 cm).

Slippery conditions on roadways in central and western North Carolina and southwest Virginia were expected on Monday night as temperatures were forecast to drop below freezing, Daniel Petersen, NWS meteorologist, said.

But temperatures were expected to rise later in the week, reaching into the 50s F in North Carolina east of the mountains on Friday, when there is a chance of rain.

There were three storm-related deaths, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper’s office said in a statement. A person died from a heart-related condition while en route to a shelter, and a terminally ill woman died when her oxygen device stopped working.

A motorist also died and a passenger was injured in Matthews in southwestern North Carolina on Sunday when a tree fell on their vehicle as it was traveling, Matthews police officials said in a statement.

The number of customers without power in the Carolinas and Virginia had decreased to about 138,000 by Monday evening from more than 220,000, Poweroutage.us reported.

The storm prompted the cancellation of one in four flights into and out of Charlotte/Douglas International Airport, the sixth-busiest in the country, and other airports across the region, flight-tracking website FlightAware said.

The mayor of Greensboro, North Carolina, Nancy Vaughan, who declared a state of emergency for the city on Sunday, said online that its police and fire departments had responded to over 100 accidents and 450 stranded motorists.

“Stay off the roads if you can,” Vaughan tweeted on Monday.

More than 100 counties across Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia delayed or canceled classes on Monday because of severe weather.

(Reporting by Rich McKay; Additional reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago, Gina Cherelus and Maria Caspani in New York and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Richard Chang and Peter Cooney)

Snowstorm kills one, thousands without power in U.S. southeast

Snow hits a porch in Banner Elk, North Carolina, U.S., December 9, 2018 in this still image from a time-lapse video obtained from social media. Rod Wilbourn/via REUTERS

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – An intense snowstorm was easing up on Monday after it dumped up to two feet of snow in Virginia, left one motorist dead in North Carolina and cut off power for more than 300,000 people in the U.S. southeast.

The storm headed out to sea but the region will stay cold this week, the U.S. National Weather Service said.

A man cuts a fallen tree blocking a road in Landrum, South Carolina, U.S., December 9, 2018 in this still image from video obtained from social media. Off-Road Adventures/via REUTERS

A man cuts a fallen tree blocking a road in Landrum, South Carolina, U.S., December 9, 2018 in this still image from video obtained from social media. Off-Road Adventures/via REUTERS

Motorists in northern Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia can expect snow and ice to taper off on Monday, NWS meteorologist Bob Oravec said.

“It’s fairly light and some of it is actually mixing with rain in North Carolina, so it won’t be as bad as it was in the last 24 hours,” Oravec said.

The storm dropped its heaviest snow in the appropriately named Whitetop, Virginia, tucked in the Appalachian Mountains along the western end of the Virginia-North Carolina border, the NWS said. Whitetop received two feet (60 cm) of snow, while Greensboro, North Carolina saw 16 inches (41 cm) and Durham, North Carolina got 14 inches (36 cm).

“Some of the higher totals occurred in higher elevations, but there were high totals in the more populated area of North Carolina as well,” Oravec said.

A motorist died and a passenger was injured in Matthews, North Carolina, on Sunday when a tree fell on their vehicle as it was traveling, causing the driver to plow through the front lawn of a church and slam into the building, Matthew police officials said in a statement.

In Kinston, North Carolina, divers searched for a driver whose 18-wheeler was found in a river, an NBC affiliate in Raleigh reported.

More than 300,000 customers were without power in the Carolinas, Tennessee and Virginia, Poweroutage.us reported.

The storm prompted more than 1,000 flight cancellations at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport, the sixth-busiest airport in the country, and other airports across the region, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware, early Monday.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said on Sunday a state of emergency would remain in effect and the North Carolina National Guard had been activated to help with the response.

(Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus and Maria Caspani in New York and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Scott Malone and Steve Orlofsky)

U.S. pastor Brunson arrives home in Turkey after release by court

U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson arrives home after his trial in Izmir, Turkey October 12, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

By Ezgi Erkoyun and Emily Wither

IZMIR, Turkey (Reuters) – The American evangelical Christian pastor at the center of a row between Ankara and Washington arrived at his home in Turkey on Friday after a Turkish court ruled he could go free, a move that may signal a major step toward mending ties between the allies.

Andrew Brunson arrived at his home in Turkey’s coastal province of Izmir, a Reuters cameraman said, having left the courthouse in a convoy of cars.

He was released after the court sentenced him to three years and 1-1/2 months in prison on terrorism charges but said he would not serve any further jail time. The pastor has lived in Turkey for more than 20 years and was put in prison two years ago and has been under house arrest since July.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has imposed sanctions on Turkey in an attempt to secure Brunson’s freedom, tweeted: “PASTOR BRUNSON JUST RELEASED. WILL BE HOME SOON!”

Dressed in a black suit, white shirt and red tie, the North Carolina native wept as the decision was announced, witnesses said. Before the judge’s ruling he had told the court: “I am an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey.”

After the ruling, Brunson’s lawyer told reporters the pastor was likely to leave Turkey. The U.S. military has a plan to fly Brunson back to America on a military aircraft, officials told Reuters.

The diplomatic stand-off over Brunson, who had been pastor of the Izmir Resurrection Church, had accelerated a sell-off in Turkey’s lira currency, worsening a financial crisis.

Brunson had been accused of links to Kurdish militants and supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the cleric blamed by Turkey for a coup attempt in 2016. Brunson denied the accusation and Washington had demanded his immediate release.

Witnesses told the court in the western town of Aliaga that testimonies against the pastor attributed to them were inaccurate.

Brunson’s wife Norine looked on from the visitors’ area.

Supporters of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson wait near his house in Izmir, Turkey October 12, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

Supporters of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson wait near his house in Izmir, Turkey October 12, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

‘GREAT CHRISTIAN’

Brunson’s mother told Reuters she and his father were elated at the news. “We are overjoyed that God has answered the prayers of so many people around the world,” she said.

Trump has scored points with evangelical Christians, a large part of his political base, by focusing on the Brunson case. The release could boost Trump’s ability to encourage such voters to support Republicans in large numbers in Nov. 6 elections, which will determine whether the party keeps control of Congress.

The heavily conservative constituency voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016. He has called Brunson a “great Christian”, and Vice President Mike Pence, the White House’s top emissary to evangelicals, had urged Americans to pray for Brunson.

“We thank God for answered prayers and commend the efforts of @SecPompeo & @StateDept in supporting Pastor Brunson and his family during this difficult time,” Pence wrote on Twitter. “@SecondLady and I look forward to welcoming Pastor Brunson and his courageous wife Norine back to the USA!”

U.S. broadcaster NBC said on Thursday that Washington had done a secret deal with Ankara to secure Brunson’s release.

“After an unjust imprisonment in Turkey for two years, we can all breathe a sigh of relief,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Twitter.

The lira stood at 5.9600 to the dollar at 1530 GMT, slightly weaker on the day after firming 3 percent on Thursday on expectations that Brunson would be freed.

NATO ALLIES

Relations between the two NATO allies are also under strain over U.S. support for Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, Turkey’s plans to buy a Russian missile defense system, and the U.S. jailing of an executive at a Turkish state bank in an Iran sanctions-busting case.

With Brunson’s release, attention may now turn to the fate of a Turkish-U.S. national and former NASA scientist in jail in Turkey on terrorism charges, as well as three local employees of the U.S. consulate who have also been detained.

Washington wants all these people released, while Ankara has demanded the extradition of Gulen. The cleric, who was lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999, denies any role in the attempted coup.

Friday’s decision could be a first step to ease tensions, although Turkey’s presidency took aim at what it said was a prolonged U.S. effort to put pressure on its courts.

“It is with great regret that we have been monitoring U.S. efforts to mount pressure on Turkey’s independent court system for some time,” Fahrettin Altun, the presidency’s communications director, said.

Further moves which have been discussed include the return to Turkey of bank executive Mehmet Hakan Attila to serve out his sentence, the release of the U.S. consular staff, and agreement that the U.S. Treasury avoid draconian steps against Halkbank, the state lender.

“Like the Turkish courts, the Republic of Turkey does not receive instructions from any body, authority, office or person,” Altun, the Turkish official, said. “We make our own rules and make our own decisions that reflect our will.”

(Additional reporting by Mehmet Emin Caliskan in Izmir, Ali Kucukgocmen and Sarah Dadouch in Istanbul and Matt Spetalnick, Susan Heavey and Jonathan Allen in Washington, Writing by Daren Butler, David Dolan and Dominic Evans; Editing by Angus MacSwan, David Stamp, William Maclean)

Hurricane Michael’s death toll could rise as Florida searches intensify

First responders and residents walk along a main street following Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Devika Krishna Kumar

PORT ST. JOE, Fla. (Reuters) – Rescuers used heavy equipment to clear debris in the Florida Panhandle towns hit hardest by Hurricane Michael, searching for survivors amid expectations the death toll of 12 from the powerful storm likely will climb.

Rescuers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) used dogs, drones and global positioning satellites in the search.

Bianna Kelsay is consoled by member of rescue personnel after being saved from her business damaged by Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

Bianna Kelsay is consoled by member of rescue personnel after being saved from her business damaged by Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

So far, no counties along the devastated northwest Florida coast have reported deaths related to the storm. That could change, as efforts to assess damage and look for casualties in the worst-hit communities have been hampered by downed utility lines and roads blocked by debris and fallen trees.

“I think you’re going to see it climb,” FEMA Administrator Brock Long said of the death count at a news conference. “We still haven’t gotten into some of the hardest-hit areas.”

Michael charged ashore on Wednesday near the small Florida Panhandle town of Mexico Beach as one of the most powerful storms in U.S. history, with top sustained winds of 155 miles per hour (250 km per hour). It pushed a wall of seawater inland and caused widespread flooding.

Many of the houses in Mexico Beach were reduced to naked concrete foundations or piles of debris.

Aerial photo shows boats laying among the debris from homes destroyed after Hurricane Michael smashed into Florida's northwest coast in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 11, 2018. Chris O'Meara/Pool via REUTERS

Aerial photo shows boats laying among the debris from homes destroyed after Hurricane Michael smashed into Florida’s northwest coast in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 11, 2018. Chris O’Meara/Pool via REUTERS

Although weaker as it pushed over the southeastern United States, the storm carried high winds and delivered drenching rains to Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia. It killed at least 12 people in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia, officials said.

In Virginia, the remnants of the hurricane swept away four people in floodwaters. A firefighter also was killed when hit by a truck as he was trying to help an accident victim, the Washington Post reported.

About 1.5 million homes and businesses were without power from Florida to Virginia early on Friday, according to utility companies.

It could be weeks before power is restored to the most damaged parts of Florida, such as Panama City.

Long urged communities such as Mexico Beach, where many homes were obliterated by 12 to 14 feet (3.7 to 4.3 meters) of storm surge, to rebuild to withstand future storms.

“It’s OK if you want to live on the coast or on top of a mountain that sees wildfires or whatever but you have to build to a higher standard,” he said. “If we’re going to rebuild, do it right.”

By early Friday morning the remnants of Michael had moved into the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Norfolk, Virginia, the National Hurricane Center said.

A collapsed building damaged by Hurricane Michael is pictured in Callaway, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

A collapsed building damaged by Hurricane Michael is pictured in Callaway, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

HOSPITAL PROBLEMS

The storm, which came ashore as a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, tore apart entire neighborhoods in the Panhandle.

Many of the injured in Florida were taken to Panama City, 20 miles (32 km) northwest of Mexico Beach.

Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center treated some people but the hospital evacuated 130 patients as it was dealing with its own hurricane effects.

The hospital was running on generators after the storm knocked out power, ripped off part of its roof and smashed windows, according to a spokesman for the hospital’s owner, HCA Healthcare Inc.

Much of downtown Port St. Joe, 12 miles (19 km) east of Mexico Beach, was flooded by Michael, which snapped boats in two and hurled a large ship onto the shore, residents said.

“We had houses that were on one side of the street and now they’re on the other,” said Mayor Bo Patterson, estimating that 1,000 homes were completely or partially destroyed in his town of 3,500 people.

The number of people in emergency shelters was expected to swell to 20,000 across five states by Friday, said Brad Kieserman of the American Red Cross. The Coast Guard reported rescuing 129 people.

Michael severely damaged cotton, timber, pecan, and peanut crops, causing estimated liabilities as high as $1.9 billion and affecting up to 3.7 million crop acres (1.5 million hectares), said Brad Rippey, a meteorologist for the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Michael also disrupted energy operations in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico as it approached land, cutting crude oil production by more than 40 percent and natural gas output by nearly a third as offshore platforms were evacuated.

It was the third strongest storm on record to hit the continental United States, behind only Hurricane Camille on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1969 and the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 in the Florida Keys.

(Reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar in Port St. Joe, Fla.; Additional reporting by Rod Nickel in Panama City, Fla., Gina Cherelus and Scott DiSavino in New York, Gary McWilliams and Liz Hampton in Houston, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Alex Dobuzinskis and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb and Bill Trott; Editing by Frances Kerry)