Remnants of Hurricane Laura drench Arkansas as storm heads east

(Reuters) – The remnants of Hurricane Laura were dousing Arkansas on Friday morning and due to bring rain to the East Coast over the weekend.

Now a tropical depression, Laura had proved less damaging than feared, despite arriving in Louisiana this week as one of the most powerful hurricanes recorded in the United States.

The storm killed at least six people in Louisiana, including four who were killed when trees fell into homes, damaged buildings in Louisiana and Texas and knocked out power for hundreds of thousands of residents.

U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to head to the Gulf Coast over the weekend to survey the damage.

The storm was forecast to drop heavy rain over Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri and Kentucky as it headed out to the East Coast, the National Weather Service said.

At its peak upon making landfall on Thursday morning, Laura had maximum sustained winds of 150 miles per hour (241 km per hour), faster than even Hurricane Katrina, which sparked deadly levee breaches in New Orleans in 2005 after arriving with wind speeds of 125 mph.

What would have been a dangerous 20-foot (6-m) storm surge that forecasters had predicted could move 40 miles (64 km) inland was avoided when Laura tacked east just before landfall, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said. That meant a mighty gush of water was not fully pushed up the Calcasieu Ship Channel, which would have given the storm surge an easy path far inland.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

Ballot drop boxes are latest battleground in U.S. election fight

By Andy Sullivan and Jarrett Renshaw

(Reuters) – Welcome to the latest partisan flash point in the U.S. presidential election: the ballot drop box.

As U.S. election officials gird for a dramatic expansion of mail voting in the Nov. 3 election, Democrats across the country are promoting drop boxes as a convenient and reliable option for voters who don’t want to entrust their ballots to the U.S. Postal Service.

President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, meanwhile, has sued to prevent their use in Pennsylvania, a key battleground state, alleging that the receptacles could enable voting fraud.

Republican officials in other states have prevented their use. Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett told a U.S. Senate committee in July that drop boxes could enable people to violate a state law against collecting ballots.

In Missouri, Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft decided not to distribute 80 drop boxes he had purchased because state law requires those ballots to be returned by mail.

“We didn’t want to cause confusion with voters,” spokeswoman Maura Browning said.

Drop boxes have taken on new urgency after cost-cutting measures at the U.S. Postal Service slowed mail delivery nationwide and Trump has repeatedly attacked the legitimacy of mail ballots. Polls show the Republican president trailing Democratic challenger Joe Biden in a race that some experts say could see half of all votes cast absentee.

Some say the drop box battle is a lot of fuss over a piece of civic furniture — typically a heavily constructed metal box placed in a public location, often monitored by video.

In Connecticut, Secretary of State Denise Merrill is recommending that voters return their ballots via drop box rather than through the mail for the November election, after receiving reports that some ballots mailed a week before the state’s Aug. 11 nominating contests arrived too late to be counted.

Three-quarters of ballots in that August primary were cast absentee, she said, up from roughly 4% in prior years. Merrill, a Democrat, said the state’s 200 newly installed drop boxes had proven a safe and popular option.

“I do not understand why people think they’re such a problem,” Merrill said. “They’re more secure than mailboxes.”

Republicans in Pennsylvania don’t share that sentiment. Trump won that competitive state by less than 1 percentage point in 2016. Winning there again could prove pivotal in his quest to secure a second term in office.

The Trump campaign is suing to force the state to pull all drop boxes used in the June primary. It argues that people could drop off multiple ballots in boxes that are unstaffed, which is an illegal practice in Pennsylvania. State officials “have exponentially enhanced the threat that fraudulent or otherwise ineligible ballots will be cast and counted,” the lawsuit states.

The Trump campaign said in a court filing on Saturday that it had complied with a judge’s order to provide evidence of alleged fraud to the defendants. That evidence has not been made public. Trump lawyers did not respond to a request by Reuters to see it.

Bruce Marks, a former Republican state senator in Pennsylvania, said drop boxes do not provide a clear chain of custody for the ballots deposited inside.

“There’s no one watching or tracking,” he said.

Proponents say stuffing a ballot into a locked drop box is no different from dropping one into a Postal Service letter box. Pennsylvania Republicans oppose drop boxes because Democrats have had much more success in getting their voters to sign up for mail ballots this year, greater than a two-to-on margin, said Brendan Welch, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party.

“(Republicans) know the easier it is for everyday people to vote, the more likely it is that they will lose,” Welch said. “Maybe they should spend their energy trying to match Pennsylvania Democrats’ organizing efforts in the Keystone State instead.”

Democratic Governor Tom Wolf has defended Pennsylvania’s use of drop boxes, arguing they are legal and essential, particularly in the age of the coronavirus.

ONE BOX, 864,000 VOTERS

In neighboring Ohio, Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose said last week that he did not want to risk a similar lawsuit as he announced that he would authorize one drop box for each of the state’s 88 counties. He said the Republican-controlled legislature had not given him the authority to provide more.

Democrats are pressing LaRose to revise his decision, pointing out that it leaves the 864,000 registered voters of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County, a Democratic stronghold, with the same number of drop boxes as the 8,400 registered voters of Republican Vinton County.

“You can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach with our counties,” said Kathleen Clyde, a senior adviser for the Biden campaign in Ohio. “One drop box doesn’t cut it.”

LaRose in the meantime is trying to secure prepaid postage for mail ballots, spokeswoman Maggie Sheehan said, “effectively making every mailbox its own drop box.”

Michigan, another battleground state, has added drop boxes this year.

Wisconsin’s five largest cities, including Milwaukee, are setting up drop boxes as part of a secure-voting plan funded by the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit group.

In hotly contested Florida, Democrats in Miami-Dade County, the state’s largest, are seeking to remove some procedural hurdles to make it easier for voters to use drop boxes.

Unlike other counties in the state, Miami-Dade voters must provide election officials with valid identification when dropping off a ballot at a drop box. Election workers also manually record a 14-digit number printed on the voter’s envelope into a log.

The whole process can take up to three minutes, the Democratic Party said in a letter to local election officials seeking to allow voters to drop their ballots quickly without the processing requirements.

“Trump has sabotaged the post office deliberately and we have to find ways around that. We think making it easier to use a drop box, and avoid the post office, is part of the solution,” said Steve Simeonidis, chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party.

The White House has said Trump never told the Postal Service to change its operations.

NOT TENSE EVERYWHERE

Security measures required for ballot drop boxes vary by state. In Montana, these receptacles must be staffed by at least two election officials, while in New Mexico they must be monitored by video, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Before 2020, eight states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington — had laws detailing how and where drop boxes could be used.

Returning ballots this way proved popular: In Colorado, Oregon and Washington, more than half of mail ballots were returned either to a drop box or to an election office in the 2016 presidential election, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology survey.

Drop boxes haven’t been controversial in those states.

“Both parties use it at a really high rate, so a lot of those tensions don’t exist here,” said Murphy Bannerman of Election Protection Arizona, a nonpartisan voting-rights group.

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan in Washington and Jarrett Renshaw in Philadelphia; Editing by Marla Dickerson)

Trump ousts TVA board members over outsourcing jobs; targets CEO salary

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Monday he was formally removing two members from the board of the Tennessee Valley Authority for seeking to outsource U.S. jobs to foreign workers, and criticized its chief executive as overpaid.

In remarks during a White House event, Trump threatened to remove the agency’s chief executive, Jeff Lyash, and called on the board of the nation’s largest public utility to do so. Trump has previously been critical of the agency and threatened firm disciplinary action against it.

“Let this serve as a warning to any federally appointed board. If you betray American workers, then you will hear two simple words ‘you’re fired,'” Trump said, before signing an executive order aimed at preventing federal agencies from using foreign workers and offshore labor to displace U.S. workers.

Trump said he was removing TVA board chairman James Thompson and Richard Howorth from their positions on the board.

U.S. Tech workers, a nonprofit formed to fight the growth of H1-B visas to foreign workers, had criticized TVA in a series of television ads. The group urged Trump, who has the authority to appoint the TVA board, to fire Lyash for laying off U.S. workers and replacing them with contractors hiring foreign workers.

The Chattanooga Free Press reported in June that TVA had laid off 62 IT workers in Chattanooga and Knoxville as it moved to outsource more data and programming work.

A spokesman for the TVA had no immediate comment.

During the meeting, attended by several TVA workers, Trump said he had been informed that Lyash had contacted the White House and indicated a strong willingness to reverse course.

Trump has sparred with the TVA in the past over its efforts to close coal-fired power plants. He has also previously proposed selling parts of the government-owned entity to the private sector.

The U.S. Tech workers’ group aired an ad on cable television that said Lyash received an $8.1 million compensation package, making him the “highest-paid federal employee in America.”

Trump said the position was overpaid, and the CEO should not make more than $500,000 annually. “He gets $8 million a year,” said of Lyash’s package. “That was just a succession of deep swamp things happening and it’s a disgrace.”

(Reporting by Jeff Mason, Pete Schroeder and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Tom Brown)

COVID-19 outbreak in hard-hit U.S. states may be peaking, Fauci says

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A coronavirus surge in Florida, California and a handful of other hard-hit states could be peaking while other parts of the country may be on the cusp of growing outbreaks, the top U.S. infectious diseases official said on Tuesday.

A spike in cases in Florida, along with Texas, Arizona and California this month has overwhelmed hospitals, forced a U-turn on steps to reopen economies and stoked fears that U.S. efforts to control the outbreak are sputtering.

“They may be cresting and coming back down,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” program regarding the state of the outbreak in several Sunbelt states.

Fauci said there was a “very early indication” that the percentage of coronavirus tests that were positive was starting to rise in other states, such as Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee and Kentucky.

“That’s a surefire sign that you’ve got to be careful.”

He urged the states with rising positivity rates to act quickly now to prevent a surge and other states to reopen carefully following guidelines established by U.S. officials and health experts.

Fauci has become a lightning rod for some supporters of President Donald Trump who accuse the 79-year-old health official of exaggerating the extent and severity of the U.S. outbreak and playing down possible treatments.

Trump, who is seeking a second term in the White House in the Nov. 3 election, retweeted a post accusing Fauci and Democrats of suppressing the use of the drug hydroxychloroquine to treat the virus. The post included a link to a video of a group discounting the need for face masks.

A Twitter spokesman confirmed that tweets with the video were in violation of the company’s COVID-19 misinformation policy, and the tweets shared by Trump were deleted.

In his interview with ABC, Fauci defended his work to protect Americans’ health.

“I have not been misleading the American public under any circumstances,” he said.

RISING TOLL

The number of people in the United States who have died of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, rose to 148,446 on Monday, with more than 4.3 million confirmed cases, according to the latest Reuters tally.

Florida had 191 coronavirus deaths in the last 24 hours, the highest single-day increase since the start of the epidemic, its state health department reported on Tuesday.

Texas became the fourth state with more than 400,000 total cases, joining California, Florida and New York in the grim club. But in a glimmer of hope, Texas’ current hospitalizations due to COVID-19 fell on Monday, according to its state health department.

The rise in deaths and infections has dampened early hopes that the country was past the worst of the economic fallout in March and April when lockdowns brought business activity to a near standstill and put millions out of work.

The U.S. Congress on Tuesday was locked in difficult talks over another coronavirus aid package to help American families and businesses recover from the crisis.

In late March, as the economy was beginning to crater, Congress passed a $2.3 trillion stimulus package that included enhanced unemployment benefits to blunt the pain of lockdowns that were being adopted to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Senate Republicans announced on Monday a $1 trillion coronavirus aid package hammered out with the White House, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell touted as a “tailored and targeted” plan to reopen schools and businesses, while protecting companies from lawsuits.

But the proposal sparked immediate opposition from both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats decried it as too limited compared with their $3 trillion proposal that passed the House of Representatives in May. Some Republicans called that one too expensive.

The Republican proposal would give many Americans direct payments of $1,200 each, provide billions in loans to small businesses and help schools reopen. But it would slash the current expanded unemployment benefit from $600 per week in addition to state unemployment to $200 per week. The enhanced unemployment benefit expires on Friday.

The supplemental benefit has been a financial lifeline for laid-off workers and a key support for consumer spending.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Daniel Trotta, Patricia Zengerle and Lisa Shumaker; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Howard Goller)

Where U.S. coronavirus cases are on the rise

By Chris Canipe and Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – Most U.S. states reported a drop in new cases of COVID-19 for the week ended May 17, with only 13 states seeing a rise in infections compared to the previous week, according to a Reuters analysis.

Tennessee had the biggest weekly increase with 33%. Louisiana’s new cases rose 25%, and Texas reported 22% more cases than in the first week of May, according to the Reuters analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

(Open https://tmsnrt.rs/2WTOZDR in an external browser for a Reuters interactive)

Michigan saw new cases rise 18% after five weeks of declines. Michigan was hit hard early in the outbreak and has seen more than 4,800 deaths.

Nationally, new cases of COVID-19 are down 8% in the last week, helped by continued declines in New York and New Jersey. Nearly all 50 U.S. states, however, have allowed some businesses to reopen and residents to move more freely, raising fears among some health officials of a second wave of outbreaks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended states wait for their daily number of new COVID-19 cases to fall for 14 days before easing social distancing restrictions.

As of May 17, 13 states had met that criteria, down from 14 states in the prior week, according to the Reuters analysis.

WHERE NEW CASES ARE FALLING

Kansas and Missouri saw the biggest declines in new cases from the previous week, after an outbreak at a St. Joseph, Missouri meatpacking plant resulted in over 400 cases in the first week of May. St. Joseph sits on the Kansas-Missouri border, just north of Kansas City.

Washington D.C. saw a 32% decline after several weeks of growth.

Georgia, one of the first states to reopen, saw new cases fall 12% in the past week and now has two consecutive weeks of declining cases.

Globally, coronavirus cases top 4.5 million since the outbreak began in China late last year. On a per-capita basis, the United States has the third-highest number of cases, with about 45 for every 10,000 people, according to a Reuters analysis.

(Reporting by Chris Canipe in Kansas City, Missouri, and Lisa Shumaker in Chicago)

U.S. states from Minnesota to Mississippi to reopen despite health warnings

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. states from Minnesota to Mississippi this week prepared to join other states that have eased coronavirus restrictions to try to revive their battered economies, although some business owners voiced reluctance in the face of health warnings.

Colorado, Montana and Tennessee were also set to allow some businesses deemed nonessential to reopen after being shut for weeks even as health experts advocated for more diagnostic testing to ensure safety.

Georgia, Oklahoma, Alaska and South Carolina previously restarted their economies following weeks of mandatory lockdowns that have thrown millions of American workers out of their jobs.

The number of known U.S. infections kept climbing on Monday, topping 970,000 as the number of lives lost to COVID-19, the highly contagious respiratory illness caused by the virus, surpassed 54,800.

Public health authorities warn that increasing human interactions and economic activity may spark a new surge of infections just as social-distancing measures appear to be bringing coronavirus outbreaks under control.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said in a Twitter message late on Sunday that he would announce a roadmap for “responsibly reopening” the state at a Noon ET (1600 GMT) news conference on Monday.

Although unprecedented stay-at-home orders have put many businesses in jeopardy, many owners have expressed ambivalence about returning to work without more safeguards.

‘I WOULD STAY HOME’

“I would stay home if the government encouraged that, but they’re not. They’re saying, ‘Hey, the best thing to do is go back to work, even though it might be risky,’” Royal Rose, 39, owner of a tattoo studio in Greeley, Colorado, told Reuters.

The state’s Democratic governor, Jared Polis, has given the green light for retail curbside pickup to begin on Monday. Hair salons, barber shops and tattoo parlors may open on Friday, with retail stores, restaurants and movie theaters to follow.

Business shutdowns have led to a record 26.5 million Americans filing for unemployment benefits since mid-March and the White House has forecast a staggering jump in the nation’s monthly jobless rate.

President Donald Trump’s economic adviser Kevin Hassett told reporters on Sunday the jobless rate would likely hit 16% or more in April, and that “the next couple of months are going to look terrible.”

On Monday, White House adviser Peter Navarro said the Trump administration is focusing on protocols to keep U.S. factories open as the country grapples with the coronavirus outbreak, including screening workers for potential cases.

“You’re going to have to reconfigure factories,” Navarro told Fox News. “You’re going to have to use things like thermoscanners to check fever as they come in.”

Trump was scheduled to hold a video call with the country’s governors on Monday afternoon before the White House coronavirus task force’s daily briefing.

The rise in the number of U.S. cases has been attributed in part to increased diagnostic screening. But health authorities also warn that testing and contact tracing must be vastly expanded before shuttered businesses can safely reopen widely.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Nicholas Brown and Brendan O’Brien; Writing by Maria Caspani; Editing by Howard Goller)

 

Tornadoes tear through Nashville, Tennessee on Super Tuesday, killing 22

By Timothy Ghianni

NASHVILLE (Reuters) – Powerful tornadoes tore through Nashville, Tennessee and surrounding counties early on Tuesday, killing at least 22 people, leaving others missing and reducing homes and businesses to rubble even as voters throughout the state cast ballots in the Super Tuesday presidential primary.

The death toll may rise given the number of people who remain unaccounted for following the twisters, which struck about 1 a.m. central standard time (2 p.m. eastern) Governor William Lee said at a news briefing.

Lee did not estimate how many people remained missing following his visit to devastated neighborhoods of Nashville, the state capitol, but said rescue teams were going door to door searching for trapped or injured residents.

“We encourage all Tennesseans to join us in praying for the families across our state that are facing tragedy today. Thank you to our first responders for working around the clock to keep us safe on this difficult day, Lee said on Twitter, describing the damage as “surreal.”

The National Weather Service said eight tornadoes reportedly touched down in Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky but that number could change following further analysis. It was not yet clear how many landed a direct hit on Nashville.

In addition to the fatalities, at least 30 people were injured and about 48 buildings were destroyed in Nashville, with many more damaged, Fire Department Director Chief William Swann said. Tens of thousands of people were left without power.

“Severe weather and tornados have impacted several counties in Tennessee. Counties with the greatest impacts include Davidson, Wilson, and Putnam Counties,” the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said in a post on its website.

The storm struck as many were sleeping in Nashville, home to 691,000 people and one of the fastest growing cities in the United States.

POLLING STATIONS STAY OPEN

Pictures and video posted on Twitter showed lightning illuminating the dark sky as the twisters roared through the country music capital, and daybreak revealed dozens of leveled houses and businesses.

Tennessee is one 14 U.S. states holding presidential primary elections on Super Tuesday and despite the destruction, polling sites were mostly open for voting, officials said.

Crushed vehicles, piles of debris and broken power lines littered streets blocked by rescue vehicles. Residents carried away belongings from ravaged homes.

Greg Poulson, a 61-year-old man who lives in a Nashville homeless encampment with about 85 other people, said wind gusts lifted him off the ground as he ran underneath a bridge.

“I had a tree fall on my tent,” Poulson said. “The storm dropped right on top of us. We were ground zero.”

Charlotte Cooper, a French teacher at a Nashville Classical Charter School, said she felt lucky a twister had skipped over her house, which still suffered cracked windows and a downed fence.

“It’s like a war zone,” she said.

Apart from the public buildings set to be used for polling, schools, district offices and courts were closed.

Lee said he had spoken to the Trump administration about federal assistance. President Donald Trump said that he will go to Tennessee on Friday.

The twister knocked down power lines, and one utility pole dangled horizontally in the street in the Donelson area, home to country music’s most famous concert stage, the Grand Ole Opry.

Nashville Electric, the city’s public utility, said there were more than 47,000 customers without power, with damage to four substations, 15 primary distribution lines, and multiple power poles and lines.

John C. Tune Airport, about 8 miles from downtown Nashville, “sustained significant damage” and several hangars were destroyed, the airport said on its website.

Another 25,000 homes and businesses were without power elsewhere in Tennessee, emergency officials said.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bernadette Baum and David Gregorio)

Tornadoes rip Tennessee, leaving at least 19 dead, many missing

By Timothy Ghianni

NASHVILLE (Reuters) – At least 19 people were killed early on Tuesday after powerful tornadoes ripped through Nashville and other parts of Tennessee, flattening buildings and leaving tens of thousands of people without power, authorities said.

The death toll, provided by the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, may rise given the number of people who remain missing statewide, Governor William Lee said at a news briefing.

Debris covers a car near after a tornado touched down at Donelson Christian Academy in Nashville, Tennessee March 3, 2020. Shelley Mays/The Tennessean via USA TODAY via REUTERS

Rescue teams were going door to door, searching damaged structures for trapped or injured individuals, the Nashville Fire Department said.

At least 30 people were injured in Nashville, the state capital, and least 48 buildings were destroyed, with many more damaged, Fire Department Director Chief William Swann said.

Tennessee is one 14 states that will be holding primary elections on Super Tuesday. Despite the widespread destruction, polling sites at schools and elsewhere will be open for voting unless otherwise noted, officials said.

“We want people to exercise their rights and get out there and vote,” Lee said.

Lightning that accompanied the tornado lit up the darkened sky as the storm rumbled through central Nashville, video posted on Twitter showed.

At daybreak, video footage on local television revealed leveled houses and crumbled businesses in Nashville, a city of 691,000.

Crushed vehicles, piles of debris and power lines snapped in two were strewn about, and rescue vehicles blocked streets as residents carried their belongings away from their destroyed homes.

The police department in the Mt. Juliet suburb east of Nashville reported multiple homes damaged and people injured.

“This was obviously a very strong tornado. There are multiple homes damaged, multiple people injured, multiple people still trapped,” Mt. Juliet Police Captain Tyler Chandler said in a video posted on Facebook. “We need your help. And that means if you can stay at your house, please stay home.”

SUPER TUESDAY

Schools, district offices and courts will close on Tuesday due to the tornado damage throughout Nashville, apart from the public buildings set to be used for polling.

Voting in Nashville and the surrounding area will start an hour later at 8 a.m. local time due to extensive storm damage, state election officials said. Polling will still close at 7 p.m., as earlier planned. Authorities will relocate some polling places.

Officials told residents of Nashville, among the country’s fastest-growing cities, to try not to travel, especially through the damaged areas.

Lee said he had spoken to the White House about federal assistance and that he planned to assess the damage in a helicopter on Tuesday.

“Prayers for all of those affected by the devastating tornadoes in Tennessee,” President Donald Trump said on Twitter. “We will continue to monitor the developments.”

The twister knocked down power lines, and one utility pole dangled horizontally in the street in the Donelson area, home to country music’s most famous concert stage, the Grand Ole Opry, news pictures showed.

Nashville Electric, the city’s public utility, said http://bit.ly/38dQBMo there were more than 44,000 customers without power early in the morning, with reported damage to four substations, 15 primary distribution lines, and multiple power poles and lines.

John C. Tune Airport (JWN), located 8 miles from downtown Nashville, “sustained significant damage” and several hangars were destroyed, the airport said on its website.

The National Weather Service said there were eight reported tornadoes that touched down in Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky.

This is not the first tornado to occur on Super Tuesday in Tennessee. In 2008, a nighttime tornado caused significant damage across the middle part of the state, the weather service said in a Twitter post.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

‘Very strong’ tornado rips through Nashville, killing at least nine

By Bhargav Acharya

(Reuters) – At least nine people were killed by a powerful tornado that struck Nashville, Tennessee in the early hours of Tuesday morning, flattening buildings, damaging an airport and leaving tens of thousands of people without power.

The fatalities included four people in Putnam County, two in the state capital Nashville, two in Wilson County and one in Benton County, ABC News reported, citing the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.

Search and rescue teams were out searching damaged structures for trapped or injured individuals, the Nashville Fire Department said. Earlier in the morning, the department had said it was responding to reports of approximately 40 collapses of structures around the city.

The police department in the Mt. Juliet suburb east of Nashville reported multiple homes damaged and people injured.

“This was obviously a very strong tornado. There are multiple homes damaged, multiple people injured, multiple people still trapped,” Mt. Juliet Police Captain Tyler Chandler said in a video posted on Facebook. “We need your help. And that means if you can stay at your house, please stay home.”

Schools, district offices and courts will be closed on Tuesday due to the tornado damage throughout Nashville, officials said, but election polling sites at schools and elsewhere will be open “unless otherwise noted.”

Tennessee is one 14 states that will be holding primary elections on Super Tuesday, but voting in Nashville and the surrounding area will start an hour later at 8 a.m. local time due to extensive storm damage, state election officials said. Polling will still close at 7 p.m., as earlier planned.

Some polling places will also be relocated, they said.

Nashville Electric, the city’s public utility, said http://bit.ly/38dQBMo there were more than 44,000 customers without power early in the morning, with reported damage to four substations, 15 primary distribution lines, and multiple power poles and lines.

John C. Tune Airport (JWN), located 8 miles from downtown Nashville, “sustained significant damage” due to severe weather and several hangars had been destroyed, the airport said on its website.

Lightning that accompanied the tornado lit up the darkened sky as the storm rumbled through central Nashville, according to video posted by Twitter user Brian Bates.

The twister knocked down power lines, and one utility pole dangled horizontally in the street in the Donelson area, home to country music’s most famous concert stage, the Grand Ole Opry, news pictures showed.

Images also showed rubble and debris scattered across the parking lot of the Donelson Christian Academy in Nashville.

This is not the first tornado to occur on Super Tuesday in Tennessee, according to the National Weather Service in Nashville.

“The one many remember is the 2008 Tornado Outbreak. That was also a nighttime tornado event (but AFTER the voting) that caused significant damage across Middle Tennessee,” the NWS said in a post on Twitter.

Nashville, with a population of 691,000, is among the country’s fastest-growing cities and is the informal country music capital of the United States.

(Reporting by Bhargav Acharya in Bengaluru; additional reporting by Daniel Trotta and Maria Caspani; Editing by Peter Graff and Bernadette Baum)

At least 24 police officers hurt in Memphis street clashes after marshals kill black man

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – At least two dozen police officers were injured in overnight clashes with protesters, some throwing rocks, in Memphis, Tennessee, after U.S. Marshals Service agents fatally shot a black man during an attempted arrest, officials said on Thursday.

The man, identified as 20-year-old Brandon Webber, was shot by the agents after he rammed his vehicle into their vehicles as they sought to arrest him on multiple warrants at about 7 p.m. on Wednesday in the working-class neighborhood of Frayser, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Public records show that Webber was arrested five times, for driving violations and on charges that included possession of drug paraphernalia and marijuana. The outcome of those arrests was not clear from the records. The bureau said Webber was carrying an unspecified weapon when he got out of his vehicle.

At least 24 officers and deputies were injured, with six hospitalized, during the confrontation, Mayor Jim Strickland said in a statement, adding that two journalists also were injured. The injuries were mostly minor, police said, and the crowd eventually dispersed. It was not clear how many civilians were hurt or whether anyone was arrested.

Shortly before he was shot, Webber posted a live video on Facebook that showed him in a car, rapping and apparently smoking a marijuana cigarette. In the video, he looked out the window and said he saw police. With a laugh, he looked directly into the camera and said the officers would “have to kill me.”

Authorities did not state the reason for the arrest warrants.

The tense scene afterward raised the possibility of more disturbances in the predominantly black city, evoking memories of a string of sometimes violent protests against police brutality that broke out in other cities in recent years. Those clashes, notably many days of protests after an unarmed black man was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Marshals Service, an arm of the U.S. Justice Department, arrests fugitives, among other roles.

As news of the death spread, an angry crowd estimated at about 300 people gathered in the streets. Some threw rocks and spat at the police, the mayor said in his statement. Police strapped on protective riot gear and tried to control the crowd by spraying chemicals, according to officials and media reports. Video footage of the protests showed one man bashing a police car with a chair. The mayor said “multiple police cars” were vandalized.

Leslie Earhart, a spokeswoman for the bureau, declined to provide further information about the shooting while the investigation was ongoing, including the type of weapon Webber was reported to have had, the reason for the arrest warrants, and whether Webber’s father and neighbors were correct when they said Webber had been shot between 16 and 20 times.

Dave Oney, a spokesman for the Marshals Service, declined to say why marshals were seeking to arrest Webber.

The Facebook page for Webber, who was a father, was filled with tributes from friends mourning his death.

“The U.S. Marshals killed my son,” Sonny Webber, Brandon Webber’s father, said in a brief telephone interview. “He just had his first daughter a couple of weeks ago, and another daughter on the way.”

The younger Webber was also the father of a 2-year-old son, and had planned to attend the University the Memphis in August, his father said.

Tami Sawyer, an elected member of the board of county commissioners, said on Twitter many people in the crowd were enraged by the belief that Webber had been shot more than a dozen times.

The mayor chastised the protesters in his statement. “Let me be clear,” Strickland wrote, “the aggression shown towards our officers and deputies tonight was unwarranted.”

(Reporting by Rich McKay and Jonathan Allen in New York; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)