FBI arrests three alleged neo-Nazis ahead of Virginia gun rally

(Reuters) – The FBI has arrested three suspected members of a neo-Nazi group who had weapons and hopes of starting a U.S. race war, just days before a planned gun-rights rally in Virginia that was expected to draw thousands of people, officials said on Thursday.

The arrests came the day after Virginia Governor Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency banning any weapons around the grounds of the state capitol in Richmond, saying investigators had seen groups making threats of violence.

The men were arrested in Maryland and were expected to make an appearance in federal court later Thursday, a source familiar with the investigation told Reuters.

Several thousand gun rights supporters are planning a large rally in Richmond, Virginia’s capital, on Monday in response to the newly Democratic-controlled state legislature’s push to stiffen gun laws.

Virginia, where Democrats took control of the legislature by promising stronger gun laws, has become the latest focal point for the contentious American debate around the right to bear arms. Many gun-rights groups contend the U.S. Constitution guarantees their ability to possess any firearm. Those opposed say gun laws would help lessen the number of people killed by guns each year.

According to a criminal complaint filed before the U.S. District Court for Maryland, the men arrested were Brian Mark Lemley Jr.; Patrik Jordan Mathews, a former Canadian military reservist; and William Garfield Bilbrough.

They are accused of interstate commerce of weapons and, in the case of Lemley and Bilbrough, harboring illegal aliens.

The three are allegedly members of the neo-Nazi group The Base. In the court filing, the FBI said it had monitored encrypted chats among the group’s members, in which they discussed creating a white ethno-state and carrying out acts of violence against minorities.

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas, Mark Hosenball in Washington and Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Scott Malone)

Most Puerto Ricans without power, many sleep outdoors after quakes

By Ricardo Ortiz

GUANICA, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – More than half of Puerto Rico’s 3 million people remained without power on Wednesday and thousands slept outdoors after earthquakes toppled homes on the Caribbean island and raised fears more could collapse.

Tuesday’s quakes, including the most powerful one to strike the U.S. territory in 102 years, killed at least one person and destroyed or damaged about 300 homes. A state of emergency was declared.

The south of the island was hardest hit, dozens of homes collapsing in towns like Yauco, Guanica and Guayanilla during a 6.4 magnitude earthquake and 5.6 aftershock.

Tremors shook the island on Wednesday and thousands slept outdoors or in their cars, fearful their homes would collapse in the event of another major event.

“Horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible, everything fell on top of us,” said Josefina Pacheco who ran out onto the street during the quakes. “It’s really hard to see so many houses around you on the ground.”

Power was not expected to be restored to the whole island until the weekend after quakes knocked out its main generating facility, the Costa Sur plant, and damaged other energy infrastructure.

It will take at least a year to repair Costa Sur, which up until Tuesday supplied about a quarter of Puerto Rico’s power, the head of the AEE electricity agency, Jose Ortiz, told El Nuevo Dia newspaper.

About 600,000 of the island’s 1.5 million customers had power on Wednesday, up from 100,000 on Tuesday night, and the island was generating 955 megawatts of electricity, well short of the 2,300 megawatts it needed, AEE said on Twitter.

The power outages brought back memories of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017, when Puerto Ricans endured lengthy blackouts following a disaster that killed nearly 3,000 people.

On Wednesday, about 24% of the population still had no running water and more than 2,200 people left homeless had taken refuge in government shelters, said Carlos Acevedo, commissioner of disaster agency NMEAD.

In Guanica, supermarket owner Santo Manuel Ruiz Pietri began cleaning up collapsed shelves and surveying structural damage to his building.

“It was nearly complete devastation at our Guanica location, inside and outside,” said Ruiz Pietri, estimating the damage to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

PUBLIC HEALTH EMERGENCY

The earthquakes followed a series of natural and man-made disasters to afflict the U.S. territory in recent years. The island is also going through bankruptcy and its former governor resigned amid a political scandal and massive street protests last year.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday declared an emergency in Puerto Rico and authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief with Puerto Rican officials.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency on the island to ensure hospitals had funding to meet needs.

More than 500 tremors occurred in the south of the island between Dec. 28 and Tuesday, including 32 greater than magnitude 4.

The 6.4 magnitude quake on Tuesday morning was the most powerful to hit Puerto Rico since 1918, when a 7.3 magnitude quake and tsunami killed 116 people, according to the Puerto Rican seismology institute, Red Sismica.

Puerto Rico is accustomed to hurricanes, but powerful quakes are rare.

(Reporting by Ricardo Ortiz, Luis Valentin Ortiz, Marco Bello, Daniel Trotta and Andrew Hay; Editing by Richard Chang, Robert Birsel)

Puerto Rico declares emergency, activates National Guard after earthquakes

By Luis Valentin Ortiz

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vazquez declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard on Tuesday after a series of earthquakes including one of magnitude 6.4 struck the Caribbean island.

The temblors killed at least one person, knocked out power across much of the island and caused significant damage, authorities and media reported.

Vazquez said all public sector offices except for emergency services would remain closed on Tuesday while emergency plans were implemented. The emergency order and activation of the National Guard were later published on an official government website.

The island has been rocked by a series of quakes in recent days, including a 5.8-magnitude temblor on Monday that damaged a few homes on the southern coast.

The U.S. territory is still recovering from a pair of devastating 2017 hurricanes that killed about 3,000 people and destroyed significant infrastructure across an island working through a bankruptcy process to restructure about $120 billion of debt and pension obligations.

Vazquez, who assumed office in August after Ricardo Rossello stepped down in the face of massive street protests, tweeted pleas for people to remain calm.

“We want everyone to be safe. That is why all work in the public sectors has been suspended today, so that you can be with your family, implementing your emergency plans,” Vazquez tweeted.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center reported a small tsunami measuring around 20 centimeters (7.9 inches).

The first and biggest quake on Tuesday, of magnitude 6.4, struck at a depth of 10.0 km (six miles) at 4:24 am (0824 GMT) near Ponce on the island’s southern coast, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

A 73-year-old died there after a wall fell on him, newspaper El Nuevo Dia reported.

Witnesses on social media described the quake as “super strong” and lasting up to 30 seconds. It was followed by a number of hefty aftershocks including one measuring 5.8.

The impact along the country’s southern coast appeared significant.

Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority Chief Executive Jose Ortiz said its Central Costa Sur power plant was damaged, and the utility was checking other substations on the island.

PREPA had cut off power on safety grounds and hoped to reconnect supplies as soon as possible, it said on Twitter.

The quake severely damaged the Immaculate Conception church in Guayanilla, leaving about half of it standing and surrounded by piles of rubble, according to video posted by Wapa TV. A picture published by El Nuevo Dia showed people removing artifacts.

At least eight homes collapsed in Yauco, El Nuevo Dia reported, citing Mayor Angel Torres. Wapa TV video showed one home in Yauco flattened, its roof intact atop debris and slanting until it touched the ground.

The international airport in Carolina, just east of San Juan, continued normal service with the help of power generators, El Nuevo Dia reported, citing Jorge Hernandez, chief executive of Aerostar Airport Holdings.

In the town of Guanica, several buildings collapsed. Further east in Maunabo, video on social media showed people evacuating to higher ground following the tsunami warning.

“Persons along coastal areas near the earthquake should be observant and exercise normal caution, otherwise no action is required,” the PTWC said in its warning.

Monday’s quake off southern Puerto Rico knocked several houses off their supporting pillars in Guanica and Guayanilla, crushing vehicles beneath them.

That quake also destroyed the Window of the Caribbean, a rock formation on a beach that had been a tourist attraction, but there were no reports of injuries.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and David Gregorio)

Australia urges people to flee as fires set to surge at weekend

By Jill Gralow and Wayne Cole

BATEMANS BAY, Australia/SYDNEY (Reuters) – Authorities urged Australians on Friday to evacuate parts of the eastern states of Victoria and New South Wales to escape bushfires they fear are set to burn out of control this weekend.

In a harbinger of the searing conditions expected, a number of fires burnt out of control in South Australia as temperatures topped 40 degrees C (104 F) across much of the state and strong winds fanned flames.

Victoria declared a state of disaster across areas home to about 100,000 people, with authorities urging people to evacuate before a deterioration expected on Saturday.

“If they value their safety they must leave,” Michael Grainger of the state’s police emergency responders told reporters. “I’d suggest personal belongings are of very, very little value in these circumstances.

“These are dire circumstances, there is no doubt.”

At the summer holiday peak, authorities have advised tens of thousands of holidaymakers and residents to leave national parks and tourist areas on the south coast of New South Wales, where a week-long state of emergency has been called.

A death confirmed on Friday takes the state’s toll this week to eight. Two people have died in Victoria, and 28 are unaccounted for.

In Victoria, naval vessels Choules and Sycamore started evacuations of about a quarter of the 4,000 people stranded on a beach in the isolated town of Malla­coota.

 

With roads blocked, sea transport and some airlifts are the only way out of the stricken town, although heavy smoke prevented flights on Friday.

People in the fire-devastated New South Wales town of Cobargo angrily confronted Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a visit on Thursday, with one shouting that the leader should be “ashamed of himself” and had “left the country to burn”.

Morrison’s conservative government has long drawn criticism for not doing enough to battle climate change as a cause of Australia’s savage drought and fires.

This season’s fires have scorched more than 5.25 million hectares (13 million acres) of bushland, with 1,365 homes destroyed in New South Wales alone, including 449 this week on the south coast.

* Weather officials on Friday rated the danger from fire “very high” to “extreme” in most districts in South Australia, with a similar outlook for New South Wales and Victoria on Saturday.

 

* The head of the opposition Labor Party demanded a national response. “We haven’t, in my lifetime, had people on beaches waiting to be evacuated in life jackets…like it’s a peacetime version of something that we have seen during wartime,” Anthony Albanese told a news conference.

* Since Monday, wildfires have killed ten people in New South Wales and Victoria, with 28 still missing in the latter.

* Police and emergency officials urged tourists to leave the south coast and Snowy Mountains of New South Wales because of dangerous fire conditions, and set a Friday deadline of 10 a.m. (2300 GMT Thursday) to leave Kosciuszko National Park.

* Thousands of people had already been evacuated from East Gippsland in Victoria, one of the largest such exercises since more than 35,000 people evacuated from the northern city of Darwin in the aftermath of cyclone Tracy in 1974.

* A contingent of 39 firefighters from North America arrived in Melbourne this week, taking to almost 100 the number of U.S. and Canadians helping to tackle the crisis.

* New Zealand will send 22 more firefighters to Australia next week, adding to 157 sent since October.

* Morrison blamed a three-year drought and lack of hazard reduction for the unprecedented extent and duration of the bushfires.

* Morrison said he was inclined not to proceed with plans for a Jan. 13 visit to India because of the fires, following which he was to have visited Japan.

* United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned the world was “not winning” the race to tackle global warming.

(Reporting by Jill Gralow and Wayne Cole; Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Clarence Fernandez)

Ring of fire: Australian state declares emergency as wildfires approach Sydney

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s most populous state declared its second emergency in as many months on Thursday as extreme heat and strong winds stoked more than 100 bushfires, including three major blazes on Sydney’s doorstep.

A day after Australia recorded its hottest day on record, thick smoke blanketed the harbor city, shrouded the Opera House and brought many outdoor activities to a halt.

The state of emergency declaration gave firefighters broad powers to control government resources, force evacuations, close roads and shut down utilities across New South Wales, which is home to more than 7 million people.

Authorities said nearly 120 fires remained ablaze by late afternoon, more than half of which are uncontrolled, and with temperatures forecast to top 45 degrees Celsius (113°F) in some areas, officials warned residents to be on high alert.

“The firefront has been spreading very quickly and intensely,” NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters in Sydney, adding that two firefighters had been airlifted to hospital with burns to their faces and airways. “It’s still a very difficult and dangerous set of circumstances.”

Days out from Christmas, a time when many Australians head to the coast for the holidays, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian advised people to make sure “you are prepared to change your plans should circumstances change.”

In Shoalhaven, a popular coastal destination some 190 km (120 miles) south of Sydney, local mayor Amanda Findley said people were poised to evacuate.

“There is a large amount of smoke looming over the city, which shows how close the fire is,” Findley told Reuters by telephone. “It is extremely hot and windy now so we are all worried the fire could spread. People are really worried that they may lose everything.”

The RFS posted footage on its official Twitter account showing firefighters tackling one of the three blazes ringing Sydney. A waterbomber aircraft was dwarfed by thick grey and black billowing cloud as it attempted to douse flames in bushland just meters away from homes.

Australia has been battling wildfires across much of its east coast for weeks, leaving six people dead, more than 680 homes destroyed and nearly 3 million acres (1.2 million hectares) of bushland burnt. Berejiklian said as many as 40 homes had been destroyed on Thursday.

SMOKY SYDNEY

Australia on Wednesday broke all-time heat records for the second day running, with maximum temperatures reaching an average of 41.9 degree Celsius, the Bureau of Meteorology said.

Some 1,700 firefighters have been deployed across NSW, but officials warned that was still not enough to cover every potential danger and urged people in high risk areas to evacuate while it was still safe to do so.

The current state of emergency will last for seven days, while a total fire ban that has been in place since Tuesday will remain until midnight on Saturday.

The major fires around Sydney, which is home to more than 5 million people, have resulted in days of heavy pollution in the city usually known for its sparkling harbor and blue skies.

One megafire in the Kanangra Boyd National Park to the city’s southwest had crept to the very outskirts of Campbelltown, a suburb of 157,000 people.

By late afternoon, Sydney was sitting at No.4 on the IQAir AirVisual live rankings of pollution in global cities, above Dhaka, Mumbai, Shanghai and Jakarta.

Many commuters have donned breathing masks in recent weeks as air quality has plunged to hazardous levels not previously seen in the city.

NSW Ambulance Commissioner Dominic Morgan said the service had experienced a 10% surge in call-outs for patients suffering respiratory conditions over the past week and urged susceptible people to remain indoors and keep their medication close.

POLITICAL STORM

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has weathered a storm of criticism on social media in recent days for going on an overseas holiday during the emergency, adding to criticism that his government is failing to deliver adequate climate change policies.

As local media reported Morrison was in Hawaii on a family holiday, about 500 protesters gathered outside his official Sydney residence to demand urgent action on climate change. Morrison’s office refused to confirm his whereabouts.

One protestor, wearing an Hawaiian shirt, carried a sign reading, “ScoMo, where the bloody hell are you?” referencing the leader’s nickname and a decade-old international advertisement for Tourism Australia that was banned in several countries because the language was deemed offensive.

Australia’s low-lying Pacific neighbors have been particularly critical of the coal-rich nation’s climate policies following modest progress at the U.N. climate talks in Madrid.

“It was particularly disappointing to see our Pacific cousins in Australia actively standing in the way of progress at a time when we have been watching in horror as their own country is ablaze,” Marshall Islands president Hilda Heine said in a statement on Wednesday.

(Reporting by John Mair, Colin Packham and Jonathan Barrett; Writing by Wayne Cole; Editing by Jane Wardell)

Venice hit by another ferocious high tide, flooding city

By Riccardo Bastianello and Emily G Roe

VENICE (Reuters) – An exceptionally high tide hit Venice again on Friday just three days after the city suffered its worst flooding in more than 50 years, leaving squares, shops and hotels once more inundated.

Mayor Luigi Brugnaro closed access to the submerged St. Mark’s Square and issued an international appeal for funds, warning that the damage caused by this week’s floods could rise to one billion euros.

Local authorities said the high tide peaked at 154 cm (5.05 ft), slightly below expectations and significantly lower than the 187 cm level reached on Tuesday, which was the second highest tide ever recorded in Venice.

But it was still enough to leave 70% of the city under water, fraying the nerves of locals who faced yet another large-scale clean-up operation.

“We have been in this emergency for days and we just can’t put up with it any more,” said Venetian resident Nava Naccara.

The government declared a state of emergency for Venice on Thursday, allocating 20 million euros ($22 million) to address the immediate damage, but Brugnaro predicted the costs would be vastly higher and launched a fund to help pay for repairs.

“Venice was destroyed the other day. We are talking about damage totaling a billion euros,” he said in a video.

Sirens wailed across the city from the early morning hours, warning of the impending high tide. Sea water swiftly filled the crypt beneath St. Mark’s Basilica, built more than a thousand years ago.

Venice, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is spread over 118 islands and once presided over a powerful maritime empire. The city is filled with Gothic architectural masterpieces which house paintings by some of Italy’s most important artists.

Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said initial checks suggested the damage to St. Mark’s was not irreparable, but warned that more than 50 churches across the city had been flooded this week.

“Visiting here you see that the disaster is much bigger than you think when you watch the images on television,” he said.

CLIMATE CHANGE

After Friday’s high waters, forecasters predicted tides of up to 110-120 cm during the weekend. In normal conditions, tides of 80-90cm are generally seen as high but manageable.

The mayor has blamed climate change for the ever-increasing flood waters that the city has had to deal with in recent years, with the mean sea level estimated to be more than 20 cm higher than it was a century ago, and set to raise much further.

Groups of volunteers and students arrived in the city center to help businesses mop up, while schools remained closed, as they have been most of the week.

“When you hear the name Venice, it is always like sunsets and everything pretty but it is a bit crazy now that we are here,” said British tourist Chelsea Smart. “I knew it was going to flood … but I didn’t expect it to be this high.”

At the city’s internationally renowned bookshop Acqua Alta — the Italian for high water — staff were trying to dry out thousands of water-damaged books and prints, usually kept in boats, bath tubs and plastic bins.

“The only thing we were able to do was to raise the books as much as possible but unfortunately even that wasn’t enough … about half of the bookshop was completely flooded,” said Oriana, who works in the store.

Some shops stayed open throughout the high tide, welcoming in hardy customers wading through the waters in boots up to their thighs. Other stores remained shuttered, with some owners saying they had no idea when they could resume trade.

“Our electrics are burnt out,” said Nicola Gastaldon, who runs a city-center bar. “This is an old bar and all the woodwork inside is from the 1920s and earlier which we will have to scrub down with fresh water and then clean up again.”

A flood barrier designed to protect Venice from high tides is not expected to start working until the end of 2021, with the project plagued by the sort of problems that have come to characterize major Italian infrastructure programs — corruption, cost overruns and prolonged delays.

(Additional reporting by Giulia Segreti in Rome; Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

‘Leave now’: Australians urged to evacuate as ‘catastrophic’ fires loom

‘Leave now’: Australians urged to evacuate as ‘catastrophic’ fires loom
By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Authorities declared a state of emergency across a broad swath of Australia’s east coast on Monday, urging residents in high risk areas to evacuate ahead of looming “catastrophic” fire conditions.

Bushfires burning across New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland states have already killed three people and destroyed more than 150 homes. Officials expect adverse heat and wind conditions to peak at unprecedented levels on Tuesday.

Bushfires are a common and deadly threat in Australia’s hot, dry summers but the current severe outbreak, well before the summer peak, has caught many by surprise.

“Everybody has to be on alert no matter where you are and everybody has to be assume the worst and we cannot allow complacency to creep in,” NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney.

The country’s most populous city has been designated at “catastrophic fire danger” for Tuesday, when temperatures as high as 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) are forecast to combine with powerful winds for potentially deadly conditions. It is the first time Sydney has been rated at that level since new fire danger ratings were introduced in 2009.

Home to more than 5 million people, Sydney is ringed by large areas of bushland, much of which remains tinder dry following little rain across the country’s east coast in recent months.

“Tomorrow is about protecting life, protecting property and ensuring everybody is safe as possible,” Berejiklian said.

Lawmakers said the statewide state of emergency – giving firefighters broad powers to control government resources, force evacuations, close roads and shut down utilities – would remain in place for seven days.

On Monday afternoon, the fire service authorised use of the Standard Emergency Warning Signal, an alarm and verbal warning that will be played on radio and television stations every hour.

NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons urged people to evacuate before conditions worsened, warning that new fires can begin up to 20km (12 miles) ahead of established fires.

“Relocate while things are calm without the pressure or anxiety of fires bearing down the back door,” he said.

Authorities stressed that even fireproofed homes will not be able to withstand catastrophic conditions, which Fitzsimmons described as “when lives are lost, it’s where people die”.

More than 100 schools will be closed on Tuesday.

On Monday afternoon, rescue services were moving large animals from high risk areas, while health officials warned that air quality across NSW will worsen as winds blow smoke from the current mid-north coast bushfires south.

The fires have already had a devastating impact on Australia’s wildlife, with about 350 koalas feared dead in a major habitat.

CLIMATE CHANGE DEBATE

Australia’s worst bushfires on record destroyed thousands of homes in Victoria in February 2009, killing 173 people and injuring 414 on a day the media dubbed “Black Saturday”.

The current fires, however, come weeks ahead of the southern hemisphere summer, sharpening attention on the policies of Australia’s conservative government to address climate change.

Environmental activists and opposition lawmakers have used the fires to call on Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a supporter of the coal industry, to strengthen the country’s emissions targets.

Morrison declined to answer questions about whether the fires were linked to climate change when he visited fire-hit areas in the north of NSW over the weekend.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack on Monday accused climate activists of politicising a tragedy at the expense of people in the danger zones.

“What we are doing is taking real and meaningful action to reduce global emissions without shutting down all our industries,” McCormack told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.

“They don’t need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time, when they’re trying to save their homes.”

(Reporting by Colin Packham. Editing by Lincoln Feast and Jane Wardell)

Chile scrambles to clean up mess after weekend of chaos, violent protests

Chile scrambles to clean up mess after weekend of chaos, violent protests
By Dave Sherwood and Natalia A. Ramos Miranda

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Chilean authorities scrambled on Monday to clear wreckage and re-open public transportation in the capital Santiago after a weekend of chaos in which at least seven people were killed amid violent clashes, arson attacks and looting in cities throughout Chile.

Several Chilean cities were engulfed by days of riots, along with peaceful protests, after a hike in public transport costs. The violence prompted President Sebastian Pinera to declare a state of emergency, placing the military in charge of security in the city of six million.

Transportation officials in Santiago brought in more than 400 buses to reinforce the city’s fleet Monday morning, and re-opened the downtown line of the metro providing east-west transportation across the city.

Most schools in the city closed, citing concerns of the safety of their workers and students.

Pinera extended the state of emergency late on Sunday night, saying “we are at war,” against vandals who had turned out in droves throughout the capital over the weekend.

Javier Iturriaga, the general in charge of Santiago’s security, said in a televised broadcast early Monday he had conducted an overflight of Santiago and was “very satisfied” with the situation. He said the military would nonetheless continue to provide security.

When asked by a reporter if the country was at war, as Pinera had said late Sunday, Iturriaga responded, “I’m not at war with anyone. I’m a happy man,” he said.

The metro, which suffered multiple arson attacks at stations throughout the city, was operating smoothly during the morning rush, albeit with many fewer people than on a typical Monday morning. Many businesses told their workers to stay home.

In downtown Santiago, street sweepers cleaned up broken glass, scrap metal and barricades that accumulated over several nights of protests.

Newly inked graffiti covered the face of nearly every building along many city blocks. Tear gas lingered in the air, forcing pedestrians to walk with faces covered.

Chile’s mining minister said on Sunday that the country’s mines operated normally through the weekend.

A union of workers at BHP’s Escondida copper mine, the world’s largest copper mine, told Reuters early on Monday it would walk off the job for at least a shift on Tuesday in a show of support for the demands of protesters.

Chile is the world’s top copper producer.

(Reporting by Dave Sherwood, additional reporting by Fabian Cambero; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Florida extends state of emergency as Hurricane Dorian looms

Shoppers encounter empty bread shelves at a store while buying supplies ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Dorian in Kissimmee, Florida, U.S. August 29, 2019. REUTERS/Gregg Newton

By Zach Fagenson and Gabriella Borter

MIAMI (Reuters) – Florida’s governor on Thursday extended a state of emergency to the whole state ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Dorian, which is forecast to strengthen into a highly dangerous Category 4 storm during the weekend before hitting the Atlantic coast.

Governor Ron DeSantis took the step as authorities canceled some commercial flights, planned precautions at rocket launch sites along the Space Coast and prepared to give out sand to residents for sandbags ahead of the storm’s arrival.

Spurred on by warm late-summer waters, Dorian is predicted to pack winds reaching 130 mph (209 kph) in 72 hours, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said on Thursday.

That would make it a Category 4 storm, the second-strongest on the Saffir-Simpson scale for measuring hurricane intensity.

The center describes Category 4 storms as capable of causing “catastrophic damage” including severe damage to well-built homes. It said in such storms, “Most trees will be snapped or uprooted and power poles downed.”

Dorian is likely to make landfall on Florida’s eastern coast on Monday before lingering over central Florida on Tuesday but tropical storm-force winds from Dorian could begin in parts of Florida as early as Saturday evening, the hurricane center said. The storm could affect big population centers as well as major Florida tourist destinations.

“All residents, especially those along the east coast, need to be prepared for possible impacts,” DeSantis said in a statement. “As it increases strength, this storm has the potential to severely damage homes, businesses and buildings, which is why all Floridians should remain vigilant. Do not wait until it is too late to make a plan.”

The governor had declared a state of emergency for 26 counties on the east coast but extended it on Thursday to the whole of Florida.

Currently a Category 1 hurricane, Dorian was headed toward the Bahamas on Thursday after sideswiping Caribbean islands without doing major damage. Dorian is expected to strengthen and slam the Bahamas and the southeastern United States with rain, strong winds and life-threatening surf over the next few days.

Dorian was packing maximum sustained winds of 85 miles per hour (137 km per hour) on Thursday morning some 220 miles (355 km) north-northwest of San Juan, and about 370 miles (600 km) east of the Bahamas, the hurricane center said.

U.S. President Donald Trump urged Floridians to heed official warnings.

“Hurricane Dorian looks like it will be hitting Florida late Sunday night,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Be prepared and please follow State and Federal instructions, it will be a very big Hurricane, perhaps one of the biggest!”

Jim McKnight, city manager of Cocoa Beach on central Florida’s Atlantic coast, made sure construction sites were secured with possible dangers like scaffolding taken down to prevent flying objects.

“We’re worried. This is not looking good for us. We woke up a lot more scared than we went to bed last night, and the news is not getting any better,” said Angela Johnson, 39, bar manager at Coconuts On The Beach, a Cocoa Beach bar and restaurant on the town’s surfing beach.

Officials were making piles of sand available for Cocoa Beach residents to fill sandbags starting on Friday.

The biggest hurricane to have come ashore in the area in recent history was Jeanne in 2004, which made land around Port St. Lucie as a Category 3 storm.

‘EXTREMELY DANGEROUS’

“Dorian is expected to become a major hurricane on Friday, and remain an extremely dangerous hurricane through the weekend,” the hurricane center said, warning of an increasing likelihood of life-threatening storm surge along portions of Florida’s east coast late in the weekend.

Two flights from the Orlando International Airport to Puerto Rico were canceled.

The Universal Orlando Resort theme park, owned by Comcast Corp, said it was following the approaching storm closely. Walt Disney Co, which operates the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, did not return requests for comment.

The Cape Canaveral space center said it would close Saturday afternoon with a skeleton team of roughly 100 staff staying behind in the launch control room to monitor the storm and the site’s aerospace assets.

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center said it would move a 400-foot (122-meter) tall, $650-million mobile launcher structure used to assemble the agency’s rocket for future moon missions from a launchpad and into a building to take shelter during Dorian’s likely impact.

Nearby towns were checking storm drains and back-up generators for waste-water plants as well as setting up round-the-clock shifts for emergency personnel.

The University of Central Florida, one of the largest U.S. universities by student population, said its main campus in Orlando will close on Friday afternoon.

The storm was forecast to approach on Saturday the northwest of the Bahamas, a popular tourist spot, the hurricane center said. Officials of the nation’s northernmost island Grand Bahama urged residents on Wednesday evening to secure houses and businesses immediately.

(Reporting by Zach Fagenson in Miami and Gabriella Borter in New York; Additional reporting by Andrew Hay, Helen Coster in New York and Joey Roulette in Washington; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Will Dunham)

Fire resurges on Greece’s Evia, challenges firefighters

A firefighting plane makes a water drop as a wildfire burns near the village of Stavros on the island of Evia, Greece, August 14, 2019. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

ATHENS (Reuters) – Aircraft and firefighters on the ground fought a blaze that burned large tracts of pristine pine forest on the Greek island of Evia on Wednesday as the wildfire flared up again at different spots.

A state of emergency has been declared in regions of the densely forested island east of Athens, after the blaze broke out on Tuesday, fanned by strong winds and high temperatures.

The wildfire had prompted the evacuation of villages and spurred an appeal for help from elsewhere in Europe.

Italy sent two aircraft after an appeal for airborne firefighting equipment from Greek authorities. Although conditions had improved by Wednesday morning, new blazes continued to challenge firefighting efforts.

Water dumping by specially equipped aircraft started at first light. “It is a difficult fire, that’s the reality … there is no danger to human life and that is what is important,” Kostas Bakoyannis, the regional governor for central Greece, told Skai TV.

Fire officials said four villages and hundreds of people were evacuated as a precaution on Tuesday and one firefighter was hospitalized after suffering burns.

“The situation in Evia was very difficult and remains difficult,” Christos Stylianides, the European Union’s aid commissioner, said after meeting Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Drawing upon his experience from other forest fires around Europe, Stylianides said he was impressed at the coordination shown among authorities dealing with the emergency, calling firefighters heroes.

“We managed to protect lives and to save people’s property,” Civil Protection Minister Michalis Chrysohoidis said.

Greece has bitter memories of a horrific blaze that tore through the seaside town of Mati near Athens in July 2018, killing 102 people in a matter of hours. Authorities were accused then of poor coordination and a slow response.

Mitsotakis, a conservative elected last month, interrupted his holiday on Crete to return to Athens where he was briefed on the situation.

Television images showed flames and plumes of black smoke on mountainsides carpeted in pine. State television said about 28,000 hectares of pine forest was turned to ashes. The smoke was also captured by Copernicus EU satellite imagery.

Copernicus, the European Union’s eyes on earth with two Sentinel-3 satellites in orbit, said it had activated its emergency management service to assist in tracking the wildfire.

Greece often faces wildfires during its dry summer months, and authorities have warned of the high risk of blazes this week. Environmental campaigners see an increasing number of wildfires around the world as a symptom of climate change.

(Reporting by Michele Kambas and George Georgiopoulos; Editing by Larry King and Stephen Powell)