Colombia landslide kills at least 17 as rains lash Andes

View of a neighborhood destroyed after mudslides, caused by heavy rains leading several rivers to overflow, pushing sediment and rocks into buildings and roads, in Manizales, Colombia April 19, 2017. REUTERS/Santiago Osorio

BOGOTA (Reuters) – At least 17 people were killed and seven are missing after a landslide sent mud and rocks crashing into several neighborhoods in Manizales, Colombia, the government said on Wednesday, the second deadly landslide in the country this month.

Recent heavy rains have endangered residents in dozens of provincial towns, where makeshift construction on the slopes of the Andes mountains makes neighborhoods particularly susceptible to avalanches and flooding.

The landslide in Manizales, capital of coffee-growing Caldas province west of Bogota, followed a similar disaster in Mocoa, Putumayo earlier this month that killed more than 320 people and displaced thousands from their homes.

“We are helping to find the disappeared … and unfortunately the number will rise,” President Juan Manuel Santos said of the death toll after arriving in Manizales.

At least 57 houses have been affected, the government said. Local media reported that Manizales received a month’s average rainfall just overnight.

Rescuers from the Red Cross, civil defense, firefighters and armed forces are searching for the disappeared in the mud and debris of destroyed buildings.

Running water, electricity and gas services have been suspended in the areas affected by the landslides.

“The situation in Manizales is very worrying. The toll is saddening,” Transport Minister Jorge Eduardo Rojas said after meeting with the province’s governor and the mayor of the city.

The forecast is for at least another two days of rain in the area.

Even in a country where rains, a mountainous landscape and informal construction combine to make landslides a common occurrence, the scale of the Mocoa disaster far surpassed recent tragedies, including a 2015 landslide that killed nearly 100 people.

Colombia’s deadliest landslide, the 1985 Armero disaster, killed more than 20,000.

(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb and Helen Murphy; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)

Asylum seekers crossing into Canada increase with warmer weather

A family that says they are from Colombia walks down Roxham Road toward the U.S.-Canada border leading into Hemmingford, Quebec, Canada March 26, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

(Reuters) – Canadian authorities caught 887 asylum seekers crossing unlawfully into Canada from the United States in March, nearly triple the number in January, according to numbers released by the government Wednesday.

This brings the total number of asylum seekers caught walking across the border to 1,860 so far this year. The new statistics suggest those numbers could rise further as the weather warms.

Canada is on track to see the highest number of asylum claims in six years, given the pace of claims filed so far, as increasing numbers of people cross into Canada to make refugee claims in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s election and his crackdown on refugees and illegal immigrants.

Under the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, Canada is required to turn asylum seekers away if they try to file refugee claims at land border crossings. But if people cross the border in between formal crossings, they are taken into custody and questioned by both police and border authorities, then allowed to file claims and stay in Canada while they await the outcome.

Refugee advocates have argued that were it not for the Safe Third Country Agreement, people would file claims at border crossings instead.

The people caught crossing unlawfully comprise a fifth of everyone who has filed asylum claims in Canada so far this year but they loom large in Canadian politics, with the federal government taking fire for its wait-and-see approach. Nearly half of the people surveyed in a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll released in March wanted to deport people illegally crossing into Canada from its southern neighbor.

“The majority of irregular migrants are holders of visas for the United States,” according to a statement released Wednesday from the office of Canada’s Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.

“Canadian authorities are managing the increase in asylum seekers in a sound and measured way. … To be clear – trying to slip across the border in an irregular manner is not a ‘free’ ticket to Canada.”

Almost three-quarters of the asylum seekers caught crossing so far this year were taken into custody in Quebec, the government data showed. Roxham Road, which straddles Champlain, New York and Hemmingford, Quebec, has become such a common spot that photographers cluster there and would-be refugees refer to it by name.

Most of the others were taken into custody in Manitoba and British Columbia – 331 and 201, respectively.

Police said Wednesday they have charged 43-year-old Michelle Omoruyi with human smuggling and conspiracy to commit human smuggling. Police allege they found Omoruyi driving nine west African asylum seekers across the U.S. border into the prairie province of Saskatchewan Friday night. The nine asylum seekers have filed refugee claims and are not in custody.

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; editing by Diane Craft)

U.S. Southeast, Midwest face threat of severe storms, potential tornadoes

Stock photo of a thunderstorm that could produce tornadoes. Courtesy of Pixabay

(Reuters) – A dangerous weather system packing severe thunderstorms was expected to roll through the U.S. Southeast and parts of the Midwest on Wednesday, bringing with it the threat of tornadoes, forecasters said.

The region faced the threat of supercells developing throughout the day as very large hail and damaging straight-line wind appear to be likely, the National Weather Service said in an advisory.

At about 5:30 a.m. local time, a thunderstorm was moving northeast of Anniston, Alabama, at 55 miles (89 km) per hour, bringing with it hail the size of golf balls and 60 mile (98 km) per hour wind gusts, the Weather Service reported.

“For your protection move to an interior room on the lowest floor of a building,” the National Weather Service warned in an advisory.

Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina faced a heightened chance of tornadoes and potential flash flooding during the day.

The 5.7 million people who live in the Atlanta metro area should expect as much as 2-1/2 inches (6 cm) of rain throughout the day and into the evening, the service said.

Dozens of school districts in Alabama and Georgia canceled classes while Alabama Governor Robert Bentley issued a state of emergency ahead of the storm front.

“Alabama is no stranger to the impact severe weather can have on communities and the devastation that can occur when the weather takes a turn for the worse,” Bentley said in a statement.

The severe weather comes days after a powerful storm system in the southeastern U.S. killed four people, including a woman who was swept away by flood waters while she called 911.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Four dead, about 200,000 without power after Texas, Oklahoma storms

Stock photo of a thunderstorm that could produce tornadoes. Courtesy of Pixabay

By Jon Herskovitz

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – Four people were killed and nearly 200,000 customers were without electric power on Wednesday morning after overnight storms pounded Texas and Oklahoma, bringing tornadoes, torrential rain and hail to large parts of the states.

Three of those killed were storm chasers trying to track tornadoes in the Texas Panhandle region. They died after their cars slammed into each other near Spur on Tuesday night, police said.

In Oklahoma, a truck driver was killed near El Reno in a roll-over crash likely caused by high winds, police said.

There were 15 reports of tornadoes from the storms in Texas, with most of the twisters in the Panhandle and western parts of the state, the National Weather Service said. Hail, some as large as baseballs, pounded Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas overnight causing damage to cars.

The storm system weakened on Wednesday and was forecast to hit the Houston area.

The system took a heavy toll on utilities in North Texas, where provider Oncor said about 150,000 of its customers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area were without power on Wednesday morning. There were also tens of thousands of other customers in Texas and Oklahoma without power, various utilities reported.

The storms did not cause any major delays in flights through Dallas and Houston, two of the nation’s busiest air hubs, tracking service FlightAware.com reported.

But it did cause a number of school closures in North Texas where schools were without electricity. Elementary schools in Dallas and Tarrant County, home to Fort Worth, were closed. This caused delays for students taking an annual achievement test in the state known as STAAR, or the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness.

“Storms throughout Texas yesterday and today? Proof that God doesn’t like #STAAR either! #imateacher,” Twitter user @kekis26 wrote on the social media site.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Additional reporting by Lisa Maria Garza in Dallas; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

Army assesses damage after storm ‘absolutely smashes’ north Australia

A damaged building is seen behind a boat that was pushed onto a bank due to Cyclone Debbie in the township of Airlie Beach, located south of the northern Australian city of Townsville, March 29, 2017. AAP/Dan Peled/via REUTERS

By Tom Westbrook and Benjamin Weir

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Cyclone Debbie wrought widespread but moderate damage in Australia’s northeast, authorities said on Wednesday, as flooding rain and fallen trees slowed troops and emergency workers reaching the worst-hit areas.

No deaths were reported a day after Debbie smashed tourist resorts, flattened canefields and shut down coal mines in tropical Queensland state as a category four storm, one rung below the most dangerous wind speed level.

“It’s looking promising in terms of being able to rebuild promptly with most of the major infrastructure intact,” Queensland state police deputy commissioner Steve Gollschewski told Australian Broadcasting Corporation television.

“We’re still struggling to get in there, however,” he said, adding planes and boats were being used to bring army personnel and emergency workers to places cut-off by road.

And as poor weather persisted and several Bowen Basin collieries stayed shut, analysts said Debbie could push coking coal prices higher – while tourism operators, even in unaffected regions, reported canceled bookings.

Resorts along the world-famous Great Barrier Reef and coastal areas bore the brunt of the storm with wind gusts stronger than 260 kph (160 mph).

One family near Airlie Beach, over which the eye of the storm passed, had a particularly dramatic night. Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the family welcomed a baby girl who was born inside the Whitsunday Ambulance Station as the storm raged outside.

Pictures from Hamilton Island and Airlie Beach showed streets stacked with snapped trees, roof tiles and furniture, with wrecked yachts washed ashore.

“Nature has flung her worst at the people of Queensland,” Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told reporters at the Crisis Coordination Centre in Canberra.

Electricity was cut for more than 63,000 people, and Wilmar said its sugar mills were stilled at Proserpine and Sarina.

Hundreds of hectares of sugarcane crops had been flattened, Dan Galligan, chief executive of industry body Canegrowers, said in a statement.

In the Bowen Basin, the world’s single-largest source of coal used to make steel, BHP Billiton, Glencore, and Stanmore Coal all said work at mines there was halted until further notice.

But Glencore added its Collinsville and Newlands mines were not damaged and it anticipated production would resume within 48 hours, with no impact on annual targets. Prices lifted, but other factors also contributed.

Ports operator North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation also said it had no reports of significant damage.

Whitsunday Islands resorts were battered, running short on fresh water and closed to bookings until at least next week, but mostly intact.

Hoteliers hundreds of kilometers away at Cairns and Rockhampton were seeing cancellations for upcoming Easter holidays and operators worried that bad press would prolong the recovery, Queensland Tourism Industry Council chief executive Daniel Gschwind said.

“These are places that are entirely unaffected by these circumstances and that’s the kind of collateral damage we suffer sometimes in our industry,” he said.

Townsville Airport reopened, although airlines Qantas and Virgin said flights to Hamilton Island, Proserpine and Mackay were canceled.

Only two injuries were reported, police said.

(Reporting by Tom Westbrook; Writing by Jane Wardell; Editing by Toni Reinhold, Paul Tait and Michael Perry)

Thousands shelter as “screaming, howling” Cyclone Debbie hits north Australia

Strong wind and rain from Cyclone Debbie is seen effecting trees at Airlie Beach, located south of the northern Australian city of Townsville. AAP/Dan Peled/via REUTERS

By Tom Westbrook and Benjamin Weir

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Howling winds, heavy rain and huge seas pounded Australia’s northeast on Tuesday, damaging homes, wrecking jetties and cutting power to thousands of people as Tropical Cyclone Debbie tore through the far north of Queensland.

Wind gusts stronger than 260 km per hour (160 mph) were recorded at tourist resorts along the world-famous Great Barrier Reef as the storm made landfall as a category four, one rung below the most dangerous wind speed level.

It was later downgraded to category two. Forecasters said high winds would likely persist overnight, although the storm would then weaken rapidly and was expected to be downgraded to category one by dawn on Wednesday.

Police said one man was badly hurt when a wall collapsed at Proserpine, about 900 km (560 miles) northwest of the Queensland capital, Brisbane, and was taken to hospital.

But the weather was still too bad to assess damage fully or mount an emergency response.

“We will also receive more reports of injuries, if not deaths. We need to be prepared for that,” Queensland Police Commissioner Ian Stewart told reporters in Brisbane.

As the storm forged slowly inland after nightfall, state premier Annastacia Palaszczuk urged people to stay indoors.

“It is a serious event and we do not want to see loss of life,” she told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

“It will be a difficult night for people across our state.”

Cyclone Debbie made landfall at Airlie Beach, north of Proserpine, shortly after midday local time (0200 GMT), knocking out telephone services.

“It’s very noisy: Screaming, howling wind … sounds like a freight train,” Jan Clifford told Reuters by text from Airlie Beach as the cyclone made landfall.

“Still blowing like crazy,” she said four hours later.

Authorities had urged thousands of people in threatened areas to flee their homes on Monday, in what would have been the biggest evacuation seen in Australia since Cyclone Tracy devastated the northern city of Darwin on Christmas Day, 1974.

CATASTROPHE DECLARED

Torrential rain flooded streets and wind smashed windows, uprooted trees and tossed debris down streets, while jetties at Airlie Beach marina were wrecked, Nine Network television pictures showed.

Power was cut for 48,000 people in a wide area between the towns of Bowen and Mackay, north and south of Airlie Beach, Ergon Energy spokesman John Fowler said.

Ports at Abbot Point, Mackay and Hay Point were shut and Townsville airport was closed. Airlines Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Australia suspended flights to and from the region and said planes may also be grounded on Wednesday, although Townsville airport said it would reopen.

BHP Billiton and Glencore halted work at their coal mines in the storm’s path.

The Insurance Council of Australia declared Cyclone Debbie a catastrophe, making it easier to make claims, but said in a statement it was too early to estimate the cost of damage.

With an eye 50 km (30 miles) wide, the cyclone had earlier damaged tourist resorts, washed away beaches and tore boats from moorings as it swept through the Whitsunday islands, guests told Reuters by telephone.

Cyclone Debbie is the strongest storm to hit Queensland since Cyclone Yasi destroyed homes and crops and devastated island resorts in 2011.

Authorities had feared tidal surges in low-lying areas as the storm whipped up waves and currents and lifted sea levels, but said later that danger had eased.

Holidaymakers tried to make the best of it as they bunkered down in resort buildings. “Go to the Whitsundays they said, it’d be fun they said, beautiful weather over here,” holidaymaker Kurt Moore told the Sydney Morning Herald.

“I’m so glad we got evacuated out of the place we were staying at, I think we’d be pooping watermelons right now to be honest,” he said.

Despite issuing evacuation orders, police said they were not sure how many people had heeded their advice.

That did not deter some thrill-seeking bodyboarders who paddled out to surf in the heaving seas at Airlie Beach, television footage showed.

(Additional reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Paul Tait)

Severe storm kills one as it sweeps northern Georgia

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – Strong winds, quarter-sized hail and lightning ripped through towns in northern Georgia, killing one man and leaving several cities with severe damage and power outages on Wednesday, local media and officials said.

The man died when a tree fell on a home near Braselton, about 53 miles northeast of Atlanta, just before 9 p.m. on Tuesday, according to Fox 5, a local news affiliate, citing the Jackson County Emergency Management office.

The name of the deceased was not immediately released.

As the storm slowly crossed the state on Tuesday afternoon, gusts of winds of about 60 miles per hour toppled trees and power lines, the National Weather Service said. Photos on social media showed large balls of hail and massive fallen trees.

A severe thunderstorm warning was issued until 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday for about 10 counties. By Wednesday morning there were no active storm watches, warnings or advisories for the area.

Several school systems in the north of the state said they would begin classes two hours late on Wednesday due to the power outages and large number of downed trees.

More than 170,000 residents in north Georgia and the Atlanta metro area lost power at the height of the storm, according to Georgia Power. Most of them were reconnected before dawn.

“Service restored to more than 135k overnight, additional crews moving in from other parts of state. Thank you for your continued patience,” Georgia Power (@GeorgiaPower) wrote on Twitter.

Georgia Electric Membership Corporation (EMC) reported that only about 15,000 customers were without power in north Georgia and the Atlanta area by early Wednesday.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

After weird winter, U.S. forecasters see warm, wet spring

A couple embraces in front of an ice-covered fountain in Bryant Park in New York City, U.S.

By Barbara Goldberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) – If you liked the balmy weather that dominated on the U.S. East Coast and much of the South this winter, you will probably enjoy the spring of 2017, too.

The new season, which officially begins on Monday, should bring more of the same in both regions, forecasters say, though for the East, a final twist of winter weirdness will have to play out before the region basks in the warmth again.

Spring, which starts with the vernal equinox at 6:28 a.m. EDT on Monday, will begin warmly but Wednesday’s temperatures are predicted to plunge into the 20s (-1 to -6 Celsius) and teens in the U.S. Northeast, with a snowstorm possible in the Midwest, according to Accuweather.com.

After the warmest February on record in New York City and other parts of the Northeast, winter returned with a vengeance last week with a paralyzing snowstorm and sustained stretch of sub-freezing temperatures.

“That was our three days of winter,” said Jon Gottschalck, chief forecaster at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In New York, where pedestrians are still navigating deep piles of snow and ice, the mercury was expected to dip below the freezing mark overnight and then climb to about 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) on the first day of spring.

“Hang tight, bear with it, because our forecast for spring is above-average temperatures,” Gottschalck said.

That may come as cold comfort for the nation’s capital. Last week’s cold snap annihilated half of the pink-and-white cherry blossoms that typically draw 1.5 million tourists to Washington in early April. Lured to an early bloom by historic warmth, they were dangerously exposed, said National Park Service officials, who soldiered on with a festival celebrating survivors expected to reach peak bloom around March 25.

While the East Coast luxuriated in the mild temperatures, and Texas and Louisiana had the warmest winter in more than a century, the West Coast enjoyed a welcome stretch of wet weather after years of drought.

Nevada and Wyoming set records for precipitation, while California had the second wettest winter in the 123 years of record-keeping, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said.

Temperatures for April, May and June were expected to be above normal in the Southern Plains, lower Mississippi Valley and the East Coast, said NOAA meteorologist Dan Petersen. For the West Coast, the long-range forecast was still unclear.

But NOAA is calling for a wetter-than-normal spring on the Gulf Coast and in the Northern Plains, where above-average snowfall in North Dakota and Idaho could trigger flooding.

On the final day of winter, almost 110,000 animal lovers worldwide remained glued to a YouTube streaming video of a pregnant giraffe named “April,” who is overdue to give birth at Animal Adventure Park in upstate New York.

Much more of a wait may mean a spring birth amid winter temperatures.

(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington; Editing by Frank McGurty and Sandra Maler)

Late-season snowstorm weakens in the Northeast

Residents clear their cars and street of snow in Weehawken, New Jersey, as the One World Trade Center and lower Manhattan are seen after a snowstorm in New York, U.S. March 14, 2017. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

(Reuters) – A late-season snowstorm that swept the mid-Atlantic and northeastern United States began to weaken on Wednesday after killing six people, grounding thousands of flights and closing schools.

Still, millions of people on the East Coast faced temperatures 10 to 25 degrees below average, wind gusts of 30 mph (50 kph) and slick roads and sidewalks as they returned to work and classes on Wednesday.

“Residual snow and slush will refreeze early this morning, resulting in hazardous conditions,” the National Weather Service said in an advisory, urging those who ventured out early to use extra caution.

The rare mid-March “nor’easter” was tapering off over upstate New York and northern New England after dumping as much as a foot (30 cm) of snow with gale-force winds throughout the region on Tuesday, the weather service said.

As life returns to normal for many, students in Boston Public Schools will have the day off while the city and surrounding area continue to dig out from heavy snowfall.

Amtrak said its trains would operate on a modified schedule between New York City and Boston and between New York City and Albany on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, snow fell from the lower Great Lakes and central Appalachians to the Eastern Seaboard and as far south as North Carolina.

Some cities, such as Washington, D.C., and New York, got just a few inches of snow, far less than the anticipated amounts that forced public officials to close schools, stop commuter trains and warn people to stay indoors on Tuesday.

Governors in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia declared states of emergency before the storm.

“Mother Nature is an unpredictable lady sometimes,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told a news conference on Tuesday. “She was unpredictable today.” More than 6,000 commercial airline flights across the United States were canceled for the day, said tracking service FlightAware.com. Utility companies said more than 220,000 homes and businesses were without power at the storm’s peak.

Six weather-related fatalities included the death of a 16-year-old girl in a single-car crash in Gilford, New Hampshire, according to the city police department.

A snowplow driver was killed in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, local police said, and four older people died clearing snow in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, the local medical examiner said.

The storm capped an unusually mild winter, with otherwise below-normal snowfall on much of the Atlantic coast.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)

U.S. wildfires ravage ranches in three states

Rancher Nancy Schwerzenbach walks with dogs through pasture burned by wildfires near Lipscomb, Texas, U.S., March 12, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

By Lucas Jackson

LIPSCOMB, Texas (Reuters) – When the Schwerzenbach family saw a wildfire racing toward their remote ranch in Lipscomb, Texas, there was no time to run.

“We had a minute or two and then it was over us,” said 56-year-old Nancy Schwerzenbach.

The fire, moving up to 70 miles per hour (112 kph), was one of several across more than 2 million acres (810,000 hectares) that hit the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma and Kansas last week, causing millions of dollars of damage and killing thousands of livestock.

Burning through nearly all 1,000 acres of the Schwerzenbach ranch, the fire killed some 40 cattle. A mile away, a young man in the rural community was killed.

“The fire was about two miles away before we knew what happened to us,” she said.

Numerous smaller fires burned in Colorado, Nebraska and the Florida Everglades, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas ranchers are returning home to survey the damage from the fires, fueled by tinder-dry vegetation and high winds. Local farmers from the Great Plains have helped those who have been affected by the wildfires by donating hay and fencing material.

In Oklahoma, the fires scorched a Smithfield Foods Inc. hog farm in Laverne, killing some 4,300 sows.

“When we drive down the road and look out on the pasture lands, there’s no grass. There’s dead deer, dead cows, dead wildlife, miles of fence gone away. It looks like a complete desert,” said Ashland Veterinary Center co-owner Dr. Randall Spare, who is helping in relief efforts in Clark County, Kansas.

Oklahoma Department of Agriculture State Veterinarian Rod Hall said bulldozers were being used to bury dead animals.

“They’re digging large pits and burying the animals in there,” he said.

In Texas, state government agencies estimate about 1,500 cattle were lost, according to Steve Amosson, an economist at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.

“When we value the deaths of cattle at market value, including disposal costs, we’re talking about $2.1 million at this point, and I expect that to go up,” he said. “We’re still dealing with chaos, they’re still trying to find cattle.”

Amosson estimates it could cost $6 million to recover 480,000 acres burned in Texas fires along with $4.3 million to replace and repair fences in the northern Texas Panhandle either destroyed by the fire or by cattle trampling them to escape the blaze.

Texas is the top U.S. cattle producing state with some 12.3 million head and Kansas is third at 6.4 million.

For Troy Bryant, 34, a rancher in Laverne, Oklahoma, the impact from the fires has been devastating. He lost livestock

worth about $35,000 and fencing worth about $40,000.

“We saw 4,000 acres burned here. Some places further west of here lost much more,” he said.

Click on http://reut.rs/2lXlAZK to see a photo related essay

(Reporting by Lucas Jackson in Lipscomb, Texas; Additional reporting by Renita D. Young and Theopolis Waters in Chicago; Writing and additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Melissa Fares and Diane Craft in New York)