Dangerous dry winds forecast to sweep into fire-plagued Los Angeles

Dangerous dry winds forecast to sweep into fire-plagued Los Angeles
By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Extraordinarily dry, prolonged Santa Ana winds are predicted to gust through Southern California on Wednesday, prompting strong warnings from meteorologists as residents contend with damaging wildfires.

It was a daunting forecast for firefighters battling a 600-acre (240-hectare) blaze consuming the shrub-covered hills near the Getty Center museum in Los Angeles that has displaced thousands of residents. A new brush fire erupted on Wednesday morning in nearby Simi Valley in Ventura County, prompting officials to order mandatory evacuations in the suburbs around the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

The National Weather Service issued an “extreme red flag” warning for wildfires in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen us use this warning,” said forecaster Marc Chenard. “It’s pretty bad.”

Statewide, the weather service issued warnings of dangerous fire weather conditions covering more than 34,000 square miles (88,000 square km), encompassing some 21 million people. Scientists have linked an increase in frequency and intensity of wildfires to climate change.

The Santa Ana winds are a regional weather phenomenon that sends gusts westward off the desert out to the Southern California coast. They are forecast to reach sustained speeds of 50 to 70 miles per hour (80 to 110 km per hour) on Wednesday and Thursday, raising the risk of sparks and embers being whipped into fresh wildfires in unburned areas.

Los Angeles Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas said extremely high winds could also force the grounding of water-dropping helicopters, a vital component of the firefighting arsenal.

City arson investigators say the Getty fire was likely caused by a broken tree branch being blown into power lines during high winds on Monday morning.

Electricity remained cut off to roughly half a million homes and businesses in Northern and Central California on Tuesday as a precaution by the state’s largest utility.

Governor Gavin Newsom has accused utilities of failing to adequately modernize and safely maintain their power systems.

GAINING GROUND

An army of some 1,100 firefighters battled the Getty fire Tuesday in a narrow window of slower winds. By early Wednesday, crews had managed to contain about 15 percent of the blaze.

In Northern California, where firefighters struggled for a sixth day against a 76,000-acre (30,760-hectate) blaze in Sonoma County’s winemaking region, high-wind forecasts prompted Pacific Gas and Electric Co <PCG.N> to impose a new round of blackouts for nearly 600,000 homes and business.

That included about 400,000 customers blacked out in a power shutoff that PG&E instituted days earlier, the company said.

Early Wednesday, PG&E announced that it had restored about 73 percent of the 970,000 or so customers affected in earlier shutoffs.

Utilities serving Southern California’s more highly urbanized areas have imposed smaller-scale outages.

PG&E has been implicated in the Sonoma County blaze, dubbed the Kincade fire. The utility acknowledged last week that the Kincade fire broke out near a damaged PG&E transmission tower at about the time a live high-voltage line carried by that tower malfunctioned.

The company filed for bankruptcy in January, citing $30 billion in potential liability from a series of deadly fires sparked by its equipment in 2017 and 2018.

Citing progress made against the Kincade fire, Newsom said the number of evacuees in Northern California had diminished from 190,000 at the peak of that blaze to 130,000 on Tuesday.

Property losses from the Kincade, listed at 15% contained, were put at 189 homes and other structures, double Monday’s tally.

The size of the Getty fire’s evacuation zone was reduced by roughly 3,000 homes on Tuesday but residents of about 7,000 homes remained displaced, fire officials said. At least a dozen homes have been destroyed so far.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Jonathan Allen in New York; additional reporting by Rollo Ross in Los Angeles and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Jonathan Oatis)

As wildfire rages in Los Angeles, city tells wealthy to warn staff of dangers

As wildfire rages in Los Angeles, city tells wealthy to warn staff of dangers
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – A wildfire raged through some of Los Angeles’ upscale neighborhoods on Tuesday, prompting city officials to chide wealthy evacuees to remember to tell their housekeepers and gardeners not to enter the danger zone.

Wind-driven blazes were burning largely uncontrolled in tinder-dry areas around Los Angeles as well as further north in California’s wine country.

Firefighters were battling to try to save thousands of imperiled homes as thousands of residents fled the area.

Los Angeles officials reminded wealthy evacuees to alert their service employees of the danger in light of news reports that several turned up for work at some of the 10,000 homes and businesses under smoky skies in the mandatory evacuation zone.

“I want to encourage people to be reaching out to anybody who may be showing up at their home and urge them to stay away,” Councilmember Mike Bonin told a news conference on Tuesday morning.

The brush fire that broke out early on Monday near the Getty Center art museum on the city’s West Side grew about 40 acres (16 hectares) overnight to 658 acres (266 hectares), Mayor Eric Garcetti told a news conference.

“That’s a good sign, actually, that it didn’t grow by more,” he said. Eight homes have been destroyed so far.

Across the state, hundreds of thousands of people were left in the dark as power companies cut off electricity to try to prevent more fires from being sparked by snapped cabling in the brushland.

Los Angeles Lakers basketball great LeBron James, “Terminator” actor and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, as well other celebrities, said on Twitter they had been forced to evacuate their homes.

Weather forecasters say there could be worse to come, with the National Weather Service (NWS) predicting gusting winds in the mountains around Los Angeles, where planes have been dousing the fire from the air.

The Santa Ana winds in the south could hit their worst levels of the season and last into late Thursday, according to Marc Chenard of the NWS Weather Prediction Center.

Until at least Wednesday, in the bone-dry wine country about 70 miles (113 km) north of San Francisco, winds will hit up to 65 mph (101 kph) in the mountain areas and 35 mph (56 kph) in the valleys and coast around where the Kincade Fire, the state’s biggest, is burning, he said.

POWER CUTS

Pacific Gas and Electric Company <PCG.N> said early on Tuesday that almost 600,000 more electric customers would have their power shut off, starting early in the day, as a fire prevention measure ahead of the wind storms.

This is on top of the 970,000 PG&E customers already shut off, although about half of those were restored by Monday night, the company announced.

After four days of sharp declines, PG&E shares rebounded, up 17% at $4.49 on the New York Stock Exchange on Monday.

As of early Tuesday, the Kincade fire had scorched more than 75,000 acres (30,351 hectares), destroyed 123 homes and other structures and was 15 percent contained as it burned across parts of Sonoma County’s wine country, state fire officials said.

California Governor Gavin Newsom said he was confident that firefighters had secured enough perimeters around the Kincade fire that it no longer posed an imminent threat to two communities north of Santa Rosa, although he conceded the fight was not over.

The cause of the Kincade fire in Sonoma County, where 190,000 people were ordered to evacuate, remains under investigation.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman, Dan Whitcomb and Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles; additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Noel Randewich in San Francisco; Editing by Scott Malone and Sandra Maler)

California power cutoff begin as wildfire risks rise

California power cutoff begin as wildfire risks rise
By Steve Gorman

(Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of California homes and businesses started to lose electric power early Wednesday as part of an unprecedented effort by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to prevent wildfires, the utility said.

Nearly 800,000 northern and central California homes and businesses can expect to lose electricity for up to several days, starting on Wednesday, PG&E said.

State investigators determined in May that PG&E transmission lines had caused last year’s Camp Fire. That fire killed 85 people, making it the deadliest in California’s history.

The company had already filed for bankruptcy protection by then, citing potential liabilities of more than $30 billion from the Camp Fire and the 2017 North Bay Fires.

Conditions before the fires were about the same then as they are now in the region. Gale-force winds are expected to last through midday Thursday, with gusts up to 70 miles per hour, PG&E said. Humidity is low, leaving the air extremely dry.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said “red-flag” warnings were posted across the entire state for what was shaping up to be the strongest wind so far this season.

Consequently, PG&E said on Tuesday it was extending a previously announced “public safety power shutoff” to 34 counties, more than half of all the counties in California. It’s the largest such precautionary outage the utility has undertaken to date.

Once power is turned off, it cannot be restored until the winds subside, allowing the utility to inspect equipment for damage and make any repairs, PG&E said.

The first phase of the outages, affecting about 513,000 customers in northern California, began after midnight, PG&E said in an early morning release. Depending on the weather, additional outages will continue at noon, the company said.

“We’re telling customers to be prepared for an outage that could last several days,” PG&E spokeswoman Tamar Sarkissian told Reuters.

SOME OBJECT

Some consumer advocates have objected to the precautionary disruptions, saying they can harm people who need electricity for medical equipment.

But PG&E promised to open community centers in 30 locations across the planned outage zone to furnish restrooms, bottled water, battery charging and air-conditioned seating during daytime hours.

Sarkissian said PG&E had placed 45 helicopter crews and 700 extra ground personnel on standby for inspections and repairs once the wind dies down. Some equipment locations will require workers to hike into remote or mountainous areas, she said.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; additional reporting Jim Christie in San Francisco and Rich McKay in Atlanta; editing by Larry King)

Months before shooting, parent warned Colorado school could be next ‘Columbine’

Crime scene tape is seen outside the school following the shooting at the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, U.S., May 8, 2019. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

By Andrew Hay

(Reuters) – Five months before Tuesday’s deadly shooting at a Colorado school, a district official urged the school’s director to investigate allegations of student bullying and violence by a parent who feared they could lead to the next “Columbine.”

In a Dec. 19 letter to the director of the STEM School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, the district official said the anonymous parent raised “concerns about student violence due to a high-pressure environment” and referred to the massacre at a nearby school in 1999.

One student was killed and eight injured when two classmates opened fire with handguns at the school on Tuesday.

The district official’s letter, seen by Reuters, said the parent told Douglas County School Board of Education Director Wendy Vogel by telephone that “many students are suicidal and violent in school. Several students have reported sexual assault and nothing is being done.”

Referencing an alleged bomb threat and “an extremely high drug culture at STEM,” the parent said the environment at the school was “the perfect storm,” according to the letter.

The parent expressed concerns about a repeat of what happened at Columbine when 12 students and one teacher were killed, about five miles northwest of the STEM school.

Douglas County School District official Daniel Winsor’s letter to STEM Executive Director Penelope Eucker asked the school to investigate the parent’s “very serious” concerns, determine their “legitimacy, and “take any remedial action that may be appropriate.”

The district informed police of the allegations, it said. Cocha Heyden, a spokeswoman for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, said on Thursday that the district filed a police report about the complaints.

Winsor did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Eucker said in a statement on Thursday that STEM contacted the school’s 2,800 parents seeking information on the complaints.

“While STEM took the allegations seriously, our investigation revealed no evidence to support any of the allegations,” the statement said.

On January 17, the school filed a lawsuit in Douglas County District Court seeking to establish the identity of the anonymous parent, who it said defamed the school and Eucker.

On Feb. 1, the school told parents their attorney was seeking “full remedy” for the “outrageous accusations,” which also included embezzling public funds and teaching children how to build bombs.

“We want you to know the depth of this depravity and apologize if you find this as offensive as we did,” said that letter, seen by Reuters.

(Reporting By Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Chizu Nomiyama)

Exclusive: Sri Lanka warned of threat hours before suicide attacks – sources

People react during a mass burial of victims, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, at a cemetery near St. Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

By Shihar Aneez, Ranga Sirilal, Joe Brock and Sanjeev Miglani

COLOMBO (Reuters) – Sri Lankan intelligence officials were tipped off about an imminent attack by Islamist militants hours before a series of suicide bombings killed more than 300 people on Easter Sunday, three sources with direct knowledge of the matter said.

Three churches and four hotels were hit by suicide bombers on Sunday morning, killing 321 people and wounding 500, sending shockwaves through an island state that has been relatively peaceful since a civil war ended a decade ago.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks on Tuesday, without providing evidence of its involvement.

Indian intelligence officers contacted their Sri Lankan counterparts two hours before the first attack to warn of a specific threat on churches, one Sri Lankan defense source and an Indian government source said.

Another Sri Lankan defense source said a warning came “hours before” the first strike.

One of the Sri Lankan sources said a warning was also sent by the Indians on Saturday night. The Indian government source said similar messages had been given to Sri Lankan intelligence agents on April 4 and April 20.

Sri Lanka’s presidency and the Indian foreign ministry both did not respond to requests for comment.

Sri Lanka’s failure to effectively respond to a looming Islamist threat will fuel fears that a rift between Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena is undermining national security.

The president fired Wickremesinghe last October over political differences, only to reinstate him weeks later under pressure from the Supreme Court.

Opposing factions aligned to Wickremesinghe and Sirisenahave often refuse to communicate with each other and blame any setbacks on their opponents, government sources say.

Sri Lankan police had been warned weeks ago about possible attacks by a little-known domestic Islamist group, according to an Indian intelligence report given to Sri Lankan state intelligence services, and seen by Reuters.

Sirisena, announcing plans on Tuesday to change the heads of the defense forces, said his office never received the Indian report.

Junior Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardene, an ally of Wickremesinghe, told Reuters that he was also not privy to the Indian intelligence findings.

(Reporting by Shihar Aneez, Ranga Sirilal, Joe Brock and Sanjeev Miglani; Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Alex Richardson)

U.S. trial tests claims Roundup weed killer caused cancer

By Jim Christie

(Reuters) – Bayer AG on Monday faced a second U.S. jury over allegations that its popular glyphosate-based weed killer Roundup causes cancer, six months after the company’s share price was rocked by a $289 million verdict in California state court.

The lawsuit by California resident Edwin Hardeman against the company began on Monday morning in federal rather than state court. The trial is also a test case for a larger litigation. More than 760 of the 9,300 Roundup cases nationwide are consolidated in the federal court in San Francisco that is hearing Hardeman’s case.

Bayer denies all allegations that Roundup or glyphosate cause cancer, specifically non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, saying decades of independent studies have shown the world’s most widely used weed killer to be safe for human use and noting that regulators around the world have approved the product.

During the first phase in the trial, the nine-person jury is asked to weigh scientific evidence to determine whether Roundup caused Hardeman’s lymphoma.

Aimee Wagstaff, a lawyer for Hardeman, told a packed courtroom during her opening statement on Monday that chemicals in Roundup made the weed killer more toxic than glyphosate alone, causing the man’s cancer.

But U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria, who presides over the federal litigation, repeatedly scolded her for “crossing the line” by referring to internal corporate communications the judge has said have no bearing on the science in the case.

“You completely disregarded the limitations,” Chhabria said.

In a January ruling, Chhabria called evidence by plaintiffs that the company allegedly attempted to influence regulators and manipulate public opinion “a distraction” from the scientific question of whether glyphosate causes cancer.

If the jury determines Roundup caused Hardeman’s cancer, the judge said such evidence could be presented in a second trial phase.

Plaintiffs criticized Chhabria’s order dividing the trial and restricting evidence as “unfair,” saying their scientific evidence allegedly showing glyphosate causes cancer is inextricably linked to Monsanto’s alleged wrongful conduct.

Evidence of corporate misconduct was seen as playing a key role in the finding by a California state court jury in August that Roundup caused another man’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and that Bayer’s Monsanto unit failed to warn consumers about the weed killer’s cancer risks. That jury’s $289 million damages award was later reduced to $78 million.

Bayer’s share price dropped 10 percent following the verdict and has remained volatile.

Brian Stekloff, a lawyer for Bayer, in his opening statement attacked the idea of a link between Roundup and cancer. He noted U.S. rates of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma have remained steady over time, even when Roundup use began to soar in the 1990s.

Hardeman began using the Roundup brand herbicide with glyphosate in the 1980s to control poison oak and weeds on his property and sprayed “large volumes” of the chemical for many years on a regular basis, according to court documents. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 66 in February 2015 and filed his lawsuit a year later. Hardeman is currently in remission.

But Stekloff on Monday said Hardeman’s age and his history of chronic hepatitis C were known risk factors for developing lymphoma. The lawyer also said the majority of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma incidents are idiopathic, or have no known cause.

(Reporting by Jim Christie in San Francisco, Writing by Tina Bellon; editing by Anthony Lin, Lisa Shumamker and Tom Brown)

‘Life-and-death’ cold grips eastern, Midwest United States

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Capitol is seen behind a snow pile in Washington, U.S., January 16, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Photo

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – Winter winds brought extreme cold and ice-slicked roads to the Midwestern and Eastern United States on Monday, with the U.S. Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday and an ongoing government shutdown allowing many to heed official advice to stay indoors.

The arctic blast of frigid air has followed a January storm that dumped more than a foot (30 cm) of snow and sleet across the Northeast, which started melting Sunday.

Pedestrians walk in the rainy day at Time Square in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., January 20, 2019.REUTERS/Jeenah Moon

Pedestrians walk in the rainy day at Time Square in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., January 20, 2019.REUTERS/Jeenah Moon

Temperatures fell to single-digits Fahrenheit (about -20 C) from New York City to Boston and through northern New England and froze melting snow late on Sunday and early Monday, said Marc Chenard at the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland. Winds up to 30 to 40 miles per hour (48-64 kph) added possibly deadly wind chill.

“This is definitely dangerous, life-and-death kind of weather happening,” Chenard said. “Minnesota and Wisconsin will see temperatures in the negative 20s.”

“Boston will be just 3 degrees (Fahrenheit) this morning, with wind chills of minus 12 or more,” he said. “New York City and D.C. will be in that same range, maybe hitting the teens later today. It’ll be record or near-record cold.”

The NWS issued wind-chill advisories and warnings for more than 10 states, from North Dakota and to East Coast metropolitan centers.

High temperatures for Monday are forecast at 17 Fahrenheit (minus 8 Celsius) for New York City and 12 F (minus 11 C) for Boston.

Many Americans had the day off work on Monday, either because of the holiday or because they are among the furloughed federal government workers who find themselves in the longest shutdown in U.S. history, caused by an impasse over funding U.S. President Donald Trump’s plans to build more barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border. [nL1N1ZK05R]

More than 6,000 flights were delayed, mostly in New York and New England, according to FlightAware.com, down from more than 14,000 on Sunday. More than 500 flights were canceled early Monday compared with more than 2,000 Sunday, the website reported.

Tuesday’s weather will be only slightly warmer, Chenard said, with temperatures reaching the low 20s Fahrenheit in the Northeast. By Wednesday, some areas such as Boston will be in the high 30s or low 40s. Washington D.C. temperatures might reach 50 degrees, he said.

But the relatively warmer temperatures won’t last. Another arctic blast is on its way in time for next weekend.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Nick Zieminski)

Macron administration warns of ‘great violence’ in Paris from hard core ‘yellow vests’

Trash bins burn as youths and high-school students clash with police during a demonstration against the French government's reform plan in Marseille, France, December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

By Richard Lough and Marine Pennetier

PARIS (Reuters) – French authorities warned another wave of “great violence” and rioting could be unleashed in Paris this weekend by a hardcore of ‘yellow vest’ protesters, as senior ministers sought to defuse public anger with conciliatory languages on taxes.

Despite capitulating this week over plans for higher fuel taxes that inspired the nationwide revolt, President Emmanuel Macron has struggled to quell the anger that led to the worst street unrest in central Paris since 1968.

Rioters torched cars, vandalized cafes, looted shops and sprayed anti-Macron graffiti across some of Paris’s most affluent districts, even defacing the Arc de Triomphe. Scores of people were hurt and hundreds arrested in battles with police.

French police stand guard as youth and high school students burn a trash container during a protest against the French government's reform plan, in Bordeaux, France, December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

French police stand guard as youth and high school students burn a trash container during a protest against the French government’s reform plan, in Bordeaux, France, December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

An official in Macron’s office said intelligence suggested that some protesters would come to the capital this Saturday “to vandalize and to kill.”

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said 65,000 security personnel would be deployed across the country on that day to keep the peace.

In a bid to defuse the three-week crisis, Philippe had told parliament late on Wednesday that he was scrapping the fuel-tax increases planned for 2019, having announced a six-month suspension the day before.

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told a conference he was prepared to bring forward tax-cutting plans and that he wanted workers’ bonuses to be tax-free.

But he added: “In this case, it must go hand-in-hand with a decrease in spending.”

He also said France would impose a tax on big internet firms in 2019 if there was no consensus on a European Union-wide levy, seeking to appeal to the “yellow vests'” anti-business sentiment.

SOCCER MATCHES CANCELED

The threat of more violence poses a security nightmare for the authorities, who make a distinction between peaceful ‘yellow vest’ protesters and violent groups, anarchists and looters from the deprived suburbs who they say have infiltrated the movement.

On Facebook groups and across social media, the yellow vests are calling for an “Act IV”, a reference to what would be a fourth weekend of disorder.

“France is fed up!! We will be there in bigger numbers, stronger, standing up for French people. Meet in Paris on Dec. 8,” read one group’s banner.

Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer urged people to stay at home during the coming weekend. Security sources said the government was considering using troops currently deployed on anti-terrorism patrols to protect public buildings.

Several top-league soccer matches on Saturday have been canceled and the Louvre museum said it and others were awaiting word from Paris officials on whether to close their doors.

The protests, named after the fluorescent jackets French motorists are required to keep in their cars, erupted in November over the squeeze on household budgets caused by fuel taxes. Demonstrations swiftly grew into a broad, sometimes-violent rebellion against Macron, with no formal leader.

Their demands are diverse and include lower taxes, higher salaries and Macron’s resignation.

France’s hard-left CGT trade union on Thursday called on its energy industry workers to walk out for a 48 hours from Dec. 13, saying it wanted to join forces with the yellow vests. The movement, with no formal leader, has so far not associated itself with any political party or trade union.

A French riot policeman stands next to a burning car as youth and high school students protest against the French government's reform plan, in Nantes, France, December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

A French riot policeman stands next to a burning car as youth and high school students protest against the French government’s reform plan, in Nantes, France, December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

STREET POLITICS

The fuel-tax volte-face was the first major U-turn of Macron’s 18-month presidency.

The unrest has exposed the deep-seated resentment among non-city dwellers that Macron is out-of-touch with the hard-pressed middle class and blue-collar laborers. They see the 40-year-old former investment banker as closer to big business.

Trouble is also brewing elsewhere for Macron. Teenage students on Thursday blocked access to more than 200 high schools across the country, burning garbage bins and setting alight a car in the western city of Nantes.

Meanwhile, farmers who have long complained that retailers are squeezing their margins and are furious over a delay to the planned rise in minimum food prices, and truckers are threatening to strike from Sunday.

Le Maire said France was no longer spared from the wave of populism that has swept across Europe.

“It’s only that in France, it’s not manifesting itself at the ballot box, but in the streets.”

(Reporting by Richard Lough and Marine Pennetier; additional reporting by Leigh Thomas, Michel Rose and Myriam Rivet; Editing by Toby Chopra)

En route to Florida, ‘monster’ Hurricane Michael strengthens

Hurricane Michael in a satellite image taken Tuesday. NOAA/via REUTERS

By Devika Krishna Kumar

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Reuters) – U.S. authorities ordered tens of thousands of people to heed warnings of life-threatening coastal floods, wind and rain and get out of harm’s way as Hurricane Michael churned over the Gulf of Mexico toward the Florida Panhandle on Tuesday.

Residents and tourists were told to evacuate coastal areas in at least 20 counties in Florida. The Category 2 storm, which has already disrupted oil production in the Gulf of Mexico, strengthened as it headed north, carrying winds of 110 miles per hour (175 km per hour).

It was forecast to become a Category 3 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale before coming ashore on Wednesday over the Florida Panhandle or the Big Bend area in the northwest of the state, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said. At that strength, it would rank as the most powerful storm to strike the Panhandle in more than a decade.

“Hurricane Michael is a monster storm and it keeps getting more dangerous,” Florida Governor Rick Scott told a news conference on Tuesday. “The time to prepare is now.”

The Republican governor, who is campaigning for a U.S. Senate seat in the November congressional elections, warned of the potential for a deadly storm surge that could be as much as 12 feet (3.7 meters) over normal sea water levels.

People in areas that could be affected should take no chances against such a powerful surge, Scott said, adding, “No one’s going to survive,” such a wall of water.

As Michael moved over open water, energy companies halted nearly one-fifth of Gulf of Mexico oil production and evacuated personnel from 10 platforms on Monday.

The Gulf of Mexico produces 17 percent of daily U.S. crude oil output and 5 percent of daily natural gas output, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The partial shutdown ahead of Michael helped push oil prices slightly higher on Tuesday.

Scott declared a state of emergency in 35 counties along the Panhandle and Florida’s Big Bend regions, mostly rural areas known for small tourist cities, beaches and wildlife reserves, as well as the state capital, Tallahassee.

A hurricane warning was in effect for a more than 300-mile (480-km) stretch of coastline from the Florida-Alabama border to the Suwannee River in Florida.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency had numerous teams deployed and ready to respond, said FEMA spokesman Jeff Byard. About 1,250 National Guard soldiers were assisting and more than 4,000 troops were on standby.

President Donald Trump, speaking to reporters at the White House, said the country was very well prepared for the hurricane, adding it was much bigger than had been expected.

Alexander Charnicharo fishes at the seafront in Havana as Hurricane Michael passes by western Cuba on October 8, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

Alexander Charnicharo fishes at the seafront in Havana as Hurricane Michael passes by western Cuba on October 8, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

CLOSURES AND LINES FOR GAS

State offices, schools and universities were closed through the end of the week in Panhandle counties. Lines at gasoline stations grew as people left. Those who stayed emptied grocery store shelves of water and other supplies.

Regus, an international office provider, offered temporary space for rent in Birmingham, Alabama, for businesses evacuating neighboring Florida.

“If you’re evacuating #HurricaneMichael and need a place to work, come visit a business lounge at any of our 5 locations in Birmingham! #evacuate #HurricanePrep #Michael,” the company wrote on Twitter.

The last major hurricane – Category 3 or above – to hit the Panhandle was Hurricane Dennis, which made landfall near Pensacola in 2005, according to hurricane center data.

Torrential downpours and flash flooding caused by the storm over the weekend caused 13 deaths in Central America.

At 11 a.m. ET (1500 GMT) on Tuesday, Michael’s center was about 335 miles (535 km) south-southwest of Apalachicola, Florida, heading north at around 12 mph (19 kph), the NHC said.

On its current track, it would make landfall somewhere along a coastline that includes the cities and towns of Fort Walton Beach, Panama City Beach, Port St. Joe, St. Teresa and the wildlife reserves bordering Apalachee Bay. However, forecasters always note it is not possible to predict where a hurricane will land until it is closer to the coast.

The storm was forecast to move through the southeastern United States on Wednesday and Thursday, passing through the Carolinas, which are still recovering from Hurricane Florence last month. It would head off the Mid-Atlantic coast by Friday, the NHC said.

The Miami-based center forecast as much as 1 foot (30 cm) of rain in parts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

(Reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Roberta Rampton in Washington, Gina Cherelus and Barbara Goldberg in New York, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Frances Kerry)

Flooding on the horizon for South Carolina, a week after Florence

A closeup of flooded homes and roads near the River Landing Country Club, in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, is seen in this satellite image over the area in Wallace, North Carolina, U.S., September 20, 2018. Satellite image ©2018 DigitalGlobe, a Maxar company/Handout via REUTERS

By Anna Mehler Paperny

KINSTON, N.C. (Reuters) – Residents in Georgetown County, South Carolina, where five rivers flow into the ocean, will prepare on Friday for a deluge of water in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, which has killed more than 40 people.

Lying on Atlantic Ocean between Myrtle Beach and Charleston, the county of about 60,000 people is one of several areas across the Carolinas waiting anxiously for rivers to crest, a week after Florence dumped some three feet of rain in the region.

Flooding could begin early next week, officials said during a community meeting on Thursday. The city of Georgetown on Friday will hand out 15,000 sandbags as the county develops plans to evacuate residents.

Local residents walk along the edge of a collapsed road that ran atop Patricia Lake's dam after it collapsed in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, in Boiling Spring Lakes, North Carolina, U.S., September 19, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

Local residents walk along the edge of a collapsed road that ran atop Patricia Lake’s dam after it collapsed in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, in Boiling Spring Lakes, North Carolina, U.S., September 19, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

“Please heed the warnings,” Sheriff Lane Cribb said. “Protecting lives and property will be our goal … You better pray. I think we all need to pray that it don’t happen.”

More than three dozen flood gauges in North and South Carolina showed flooding. Some rivers had still not crested by Friday morning, according to the National Weather Service.

Thirty-one deaths have been attributed to the storm in North Carolina, eight in South Carolina and one in Virginia.

Michael Ziolkowski, a Field Operations Supervisor for the National Disaster Response K-9 Unit and his partner, Morty, are transported to support relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in Spring Lake, North Carolina, September 16, 2018. Spc. Austin T. Boucher/U.S. Army/Handout via REUTERS

Michael Ziolkowski, a Field Operations Supervisor for the National Disaster Response K-9 Unit and his partner, Morty, are transported to support relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in Spring Lake, North Carolina, September 16, 2018. Spc. Austin T. Boucher/U.S. Army/Handout via REUTERS

Some 4,700 people across North Carolina have been rescued by boat or helicopter since the storm made landfall, twice as many as in Hurricane Matthew two years ago, according to state officials. About 10,000 remain in shelters.

The coastal city of Wilmington, North Carolina, remained cut off by floodwaters on Thursday. More than 200 roads across the state were closed or blocked as residents. Over 60,000 customers were without power in North Carolina early on Friday, according to Poweroutage.us.

As floodwaters continue to rise, concerns are growing about the environmental and health dangers lurking in the water.

The flooding has caused 21 hog “lagoons,” which store manure from pig farms, to overflow in North Carolina, creating a risk that standing water will be contaminated, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. North Carolina is one of the leading hog-producing states in the country.

Several sewer systems in the region also have released untreated or partly treated sewage and storm water into waterways over the last week, local media reported.

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny in Kinston, North Carolina; Additional reporting by Jeff Mason in Conway, South Carolina, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Scott DiSavino in New York and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; writing by Dan Whitcomb; editing by Larry King)