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)

Air strike warning app helps Syrians dodge death from the skies

Dave Levin, one of two co-founders of Hala System, an early warning alert system linked to sirens inside rebel-held areas in Syria that warns people ahead of an airstrike, displays the mobile phone application of Sentry at his office in Turkey September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

By Sarah Dadouch

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – A Russian military aircraft thunders into the skies at 4.47 pm from Russia’s air base at Hmeimim in western Syria, veering to the east.

An observer takes note of all three details, opens a phone app and enters the information into three designated fields.

Fourteen minutes later and 100 kilometers away, Abdel Razzaq sees the aircraft flying over his town of Maaret al-Numan. He opens his own app and types: Maaret al-Numan, Russian military aircraft, headed northeast.

The data is processed by a program, known as Sentry, that estimates the plane’s trajectory and sends a warning, triggering Facebook and Telegram messages, Tweets and, most importantly, loud sirens throughout cities in opposition-held Syria.

Air strikes have been a fact of daily life for millions of Syrians living in rebel-held areas, becoming far more intense since Russia joined the war in 2015.

Before Sentry was introduced, the main warning people had of an air strike was when they heard the planes themselves — when it was already too late, said Omayya, 50, who was displaced from Aleppo to its northwestern countryside.

“There was no use for one to do anything. Sometimes we would actually see the barrels as they fell,” she said by Skype, referring to the barrel bombs — oil drums filled with shrapnel and explosives — dropped across rebel areas. “We would watch and see the barrels fall and the children would cry.”

Omayya attended a course run by volunteers about Sentry and how best to survive air strikes. She now knows to open her window so blast pressure doesn’t shatter the glass and that her bathroom, in the middle of the house, is the best place to hide.

John Jaeger and Dave Levin, co-founders of Hala System, an early warning alert system linked to sirens inside rebel-held areas in Syria that warns people ahead of an airstrike, work at their office in Turkey September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

John Jaeger and Dave Levin, co-founders of Hala System, an early warning alert system linked to sirens inside rebel-held areas in Syria that warns people ahead of an airstrike, work at their office in Turkey September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

The volunteers taught Omayya’s six grandchildren, three of whose fathers have died, what to do if they are told an air strike may hit their school. Naela, one of the volunteers, said they trained children to duck under desks and curl up in the fetal position if they hear the alarm. If the warning is early enough, teachers can take the children down to basements.

Women have emerged as one of the main targets of the campaign, Naela said: “Women always carry their mobiles with them, so they get the message wherever they are, whether they are at home, in the kitchen, with their neighbor.”

The warning system was founded by two Americans, John Jaeger and his business partner Dave Levin, after Jaeger had held a job working with Syrian civilians for the U.S. State Department.

“I recognized that the biggest threat to peace inside of Syria was the indiscriminate bombing of civilians,” Jaeger explained. “We simply thought that there was more that the international community could and should do to warn civilians in advance of this indiscriminate violence.”

Their company, Hala Systems, says it has received funding from countries including Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and the United States as well as private donors.

The White Helmet rescue workers operating in opposition-held Syria work with Sentry to operate and maintain air raid sirens.

“Before, whenever there was bombardment, we wouldn’t have knowledge of a strike until the wounded reach us,” said Yousef, a 23-year old nurse in a field hospital outside Aleppo.

“But now with Sentry, we immediately find out through our mobile that a strike happened. So we know that it’s in this area, where there are civilians. So we know there are wounded for sure.” The hospital can notify doctors, make sure materials are prepped, and wait for the wounded.

“We hugely depend on (the system) because it’s become the foundation of our work,” he said.

Around three million people live in Syria’s last major rebel stronghold in northwest Syria. Half are already displaced, having fled government advances in other parts of Syria.

In preparation for an expected army offensive, civilians have been readying food and digging shelters. Some even improvised gas masks in case of chemical attacks.

PLANE SPOTTING

Last week, the Syrian government and allied forces resumed air and ground bombardments, although recent days have been relatively quiet, said Abdel Razzaq, who watches for aircraft and enters the information into the Sentry app.

He clicks on the image of a plane to identify what type of aircraft he saw. He chooses the location and what the plane is doing or where it’s headed. This dispatches messages on channels like Telegram, sometimes with time-stamped warnings for specific towns and villages.

“9:37 pm: Shahshabo Mountain – transport aircraft now heading northeast. Can reach the following areas: Maaret al-Numan: two minutes from now/ Kafranbel: one minute from now.”

A former English teacher, Abdel Razzaq has been diligently watching planes since 2011, later joining Sentry as an observer.

“We’re a bunch of guys who are everywhere. Each of us holds a specific district,” he said. “We see the plane, the type of plane, with the naked eye and then send the warning.”

As well as providing warning of attacks that come out of the blue, the system has also helped indicate brief pauses during more sustained attacks, said Hala Systems co-founder Levin. During the offensive on Ghouta, near Damascus, earlier this year, civilians relied on the system to time their brief forays from basements and shelters to get food and water.

“That was a big relief for us, that we were actually having impact even when it’s raining bombs,” Levin said.

(Editing by Dominic Evans and Peter Graff)

Carolina coast battening down, boarding up as hurricane nears

Caitie Sweeney of Myrtle Beach texts her family while visiting the beach ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Florence in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. REUTERS/Randall Hill

By Ernest Scheyder

WILMINGTON, N.C. (Reuters) – Beach communities in North and South Carolina emptied out on Wednesday as Hurricane Florence threatened to unleash pounding surf and potentially deadly flooding as the most powerful storm to make a direct hit on the southeastern states in decades.

Florence had maximum sustained winds of 130 miles per hour (215 km per hour) and was on a trajectory that showed its center most likely to strike the southern coast of North Carolina by Friday, the National Hurricane Center said.

Updated NHC forecasts showed the storm lingering near the coast, bringing days of heavy rains that could bring intense inland flooding from South Carolina, where some areas could see as much as 40 inches (1m) of rain, to Virginia.

Florence is rated a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale. Jeff Byard of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) invoked a former boxing champion to warn residents that it would bring “a Mike Tyson punch to the Carolina coast.”

“The time to prepare is almost over,” said North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper at a Wednesday morning news conference. “Disaster is at the doorstep and it’s coming in.”

More than 1 million people have been ordered to evacuate the coastline of the three states, while university campuses, schools and factories were being shuttered.

The NHC said the first tropical storm-force winds of at least 39 miles per hour (63 kph) would hit the region early on Thursday with the storm’s center reaching the coast Friday. At 8 a.m. (1200 GMT) on Wednesday the storm was located about 530 miles (855 km) southeast of Cape Fear, North Carolina.

The storm surge, or wind-driven seawater, poses a huge danger, FEMA Administrator Brock Long warned on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

“People do not live and survive to tell the tale about what their experience is like with storm surge,” he said. “It’s the most deadly part of the hurricane that comes in.”

FEMA FUNDS MOVED

MSNBC reported the Trump administration had diverted nearly $10 billion from FEMA to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which leads border enforcement. But that has not affected the response to Florence, Byard told a news conference.

He said there was “well over $20 billion” in FEMA’s disaster relief fund.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Twitter warned of the storm’s dangers and praised his administration’s handling of past hurricanes, rejecting criticism for its response to Hurricane Maria last year in Puerto Rico. Some 3,000 people died in the aftermath of that storm.

“Hurricane Florence is looking even bigger than anticipated,” Trump said. “We got A Pluses for our recent hurricane work in Texas and Florida (and did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan). We are ready for the big one that is coming!”

State and federal officials have frequently urged residents in the target zone to evacuate but there was resistance along the coast.

“I’m not approaching Florence from fear or panic,” said Brad Corpening, 35, who planned to ride out the storm in his boarded-up delicatessen in Wilmington. “It’s going to happen. We just need to figure out how to make it through.”

The last hurricane rated a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson to plow directly into North Carolina was Hazel in 1954, a devastating storm that killed 19 people.

Emergency preparations in the area included setting up shelters, switching traffic patterns so that all major roads led away from shore and getting 16 nuclear reactors ready in the three-state region for the storm.

(For graphic on Hurricane Florence heads toward Carolinas, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2oZ5m1v)

(For graphic on forecast rainfall in inches from Hurricane Florence, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2oZFKSb)

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, writing by Bill Trott; Editing by Scott Malone and Nick Zieminski)

Japan PM visits flood disaster zone, promises help as new warnings issued

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meets local residents staying at an evacuation center in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo July 11, 2018. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

By Kiyoshi Takenaka and Issei Kato

KUMANO, Japan (Reuters) – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited flood-stricken parts of Japan on Wednesday as the death toll from the worst weather disaster in 36 years reached 176 and health concerns rose amid scorching heat and the threat of new floods.

Torrential rain caused floods and triggered landslides in western Japan last week, bringing death and destruction to neighborhoods built decades ago near steep mountain slopes.

At least 176 people were killed, the government said, with dozens missing in Japan’s worst weather disaster since 1982.

Rescue workers and Japan Self-Defense Force soldiers search for missing people at a landslide site caused by a heavy rain in Kumano Town, Hiroshima Prefecture, western Japan, July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

In Kumano, a mountainside community in Hiroshima prefecture that was hit by a landslide last week, Ken Kirioka anxiously watched rescuers toiling through mud, sand and smashed houses to find the missing, including his 76-year-old father, Katsuharu.

“He is old and has a heart condition. I prepared myself for the worst when I heard about the landslide on Friday night,” he said, pointing at a pile of mud and rubble where he said his father was buried.

“He is an old-fashioned father who is hard-headed and does not talk much,” Kirioka said, adding he would stay until his father was found. “It would be too bad for him if a family member were not around”.

Rescuers working under a scorching sun combed through heaps of wood and thickly caked mud in a search for bodies, helped by sniffer dogs. In some cases only the foundation of homes remained as they cut through debris with chain saws.

With temperatures of 33 degrees Celsius (91 degrees Fahrenheit) or higher in the devastated areas in Okayama and Hiroshima prefectures, attention turned to preventing heat-stroke among rescue workers and in evacuation centers where thousands of people have sought shelter.

People sat on thin mats on a gymnasium floor in one center, plastic bags of belongings piled around them and bedding folded off to the side. Portable fans turned slowly as children cried.

A family member of missing people watches search and rescue operations at a landslide site caused by a heavy rain in Kumano Town, Hiroshima Prefecture, western Japan, July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

A family member of missing people watches search and rescue operations at a landslide site caused by a heavy rain in Kumano Town, Hiroshima Prefecture, western Japan, July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

ABE PLEDGES SUPPORT

Abe, who canceled an overseas trip to deal with the disaster, was criticized after a photograph posted on Twitter showed Abe and his defense minister at a party with lawmakers just as the rains intensified.

After observing the damage from a helicopter flying over Okayama, one of the hardest-hit areas, Abe visited a crowded evacuation center. He crouched down on the floor to speak with people, many of them elderly, and asked about their health. He clasped one man’s hands as they spoke.

Later he told reporters the government would do everything it could to help the survivors.

“We’ll cut through all the bureaucracy to secure the goods people need for their lives, to improve life in the evacuation centers – such as air conditioners as the hot days continue – and then secure temporary housing and the other things people need to rebuild their lives,” he said.

Abe is up for re-election as party leader in September and has seen his popularity ratings edge back up after taking a hit over a cronyism scandal earlier this year.

His government pledged an initial $4 billion toward recovery on Tuesday, and a later special budget if needed.

Officials turned to social media to warn of the additional danger of food-borne illnesses, urging people to wash their hands and take other measures against food poisoning.

Evacuation orders were issued for 25 households in the city of Fukuyama after cracks were found in a reservoir.

Water accumulating behind piles of debris blocking rivers also posed a danger after a swollen river rushed into a Fukuyama residential area on Monday, prompting more evacuation orders.

The intensifying heat was expected to trigger thunderstorms on Wednesday, with authorities warning new landslides could be set off on mountainsides saturated with water.

Japanese media on Wednesday focused on the timing of evacuation orders issued in the hard-hit Mabi district of Kurashiki city just minutes before a levee broke and water poured into the residential area.

A number of the dead in Mabi were found in their homes, suggesting they did not have enough time to flee, media reports said.

(Additional reporting by Ritsuko Ando and Hideyuki Sano; Writing by Elaine Lies; Editing by Paul Tait and Darren Schuettler)