Severe weather has many looking for refuge

Important Takeaways:

  • Northwest weather forces many into shelters.
  • Severe weather sweeping parts of the U.S. brought frigid temperatures to the Pacific Northwest and heavy snow to mountains in Northern California and Nevada. 
  • The region continued to break daily cold records. The National Weather Service said the low was 17 degrees F in Seattle on Monday, breaking a record set in 1968.
  • Utilities reported about 5,000 customers without power Tuesday morning, mostly in southwestern Oregon. 
  • Officials with the University of California, Berkeley’s Central Sierra Snow Laboratory on Monday said recent snowfall has smashed the snowiest December record of 179 inches, set in 1970. The record is now 193.7 inches as more snow is expected.
  • The storms that have been pummeling California and Nevada in recent days also brought rain and snow to Arizona. A record inch of rain in one day was reported at the airport in Phoenix.

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COVID cases break records across Europe as winter takes hold

By Krisztina Than and Nikolaj Skydsgaard

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Coronavirus infections are hitting record levels in many countries across Europe as winter takes hold, prompting a call for action from the World Health Organization which described the new wave as a “grave concern.”

Soaring numbers of cases, especially in Eastern Europe, have prompted debate on whether to reintroduce curbs on movement before the Christmas holiday season and on how to persuade more people to get vaccinated.

That conversation comes as some countries in Asia, with the notable exception of China, reopen their tourism sectors to the rest of the world.

“The current pace of transmission across the 53 countries of the European Region is of grave concern,” regional WHO head Hans Kluge said, adding that the spread was exacerbated by the more transmissible Delta variant.

The virus spreads faster in the winter months when people gather indoors.

Kluge warned earlier that if Europe followed its current trajectory, there could be 500,000 COVID-related deaths in the region by February.

“We must change our tactics, from reacting to surges of COVID-19, to preventing them from happening in the first place,” he said.

The region saw a 6% increase in new cases last week, with nearly 1.8 million new cases, compared to the week before. The number of deaths rose 12% in the same period.

Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, reported 33,949 new infections, the highest daily increase since the start of the pandemic last year. Cases in Russia and Ukraine are soaring.

Austria’s daily new coronavirus infections surged towards a record set a year ago, making a lockdown for the unvaccinated ever more likely.

COVID-19 prevalence in England rose to its highest level on record in October, Imperial College London said, led by a high numbers of cases in children and a surge in the southwest.

Slovakia reported 6,713 new cases, also a record, while daily new cases in Hungary more than doubled from last week to 6,268. Poland, Eastern Europe’s biggest economy, reported 15,515 daily cases on Thursday, the highest figure since April. Croatia and Slovenia on Thursday both reported record daily infections.

CHINA ON ALERT AHEAD OF OLYMPICS

China is also on high alert at ports of entry to reduce the risk of COVID-19 cases entering from abroad, and has stepped up restrictions amid a growing outbreak less than 100 days before the Beijing Winter Olympics.

Authorities have also tightened curbs in the capital ahead of a major gathering of the top members of the Communist Party next week.

Since mid-October, over 700 locally transmitted cases with confirmed symptoms have been reported in China. While the number is tiny compared with other countries, it has led to a growing wave of restrictions under Beijing’s zero-tolerance policy.

In Central Europe, Hungary has trimmed its 2021 GDP growth projection to 6.8% from 7.0-7.5% due to a rise in inflation, energy prices, and the risks stemming from COVID-19, the finance minister said, flagging the possibility of some new restrictions in a country where there are currently hardly any curbs in place.

Slovakia’s Finance Ministry cut its forecasts for 2021 and 2022 growth in September, saying a new wave of COVID-19 cases will hit consumer demand and the labor market at the end of the year although the impact will not be as strong as earlier in the pandemic. Poland’s central bank left its projections unchanged.

FRESH CURBS

The Hungarian government has urged people to take up vaccines and last week announced mandatory vaccinations at state institutions, also empowering private companies to make jabs mandatory for employees if they believe that is necessary.

Romania – where hospitals cannot cope with a surge in COVID-19 patients – the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland have all tightened rules on mask wearing and introduced measures to curb infections.

The Czech Republic has introduced a requirement for restaurant customers to show proof of vaccination or a test. It also has tough mask regulations and some children are again being tested in schools in areas where cases are higher.

In Poland, mask wearing is mandatory in enclosed public spaces while cinemas, theatres and hotels have a 75% capacity limit. The Hungarian government has not replied to Reuters questions on potential measures.

(Reporting by Krisztina Than in Budapest and Nicolaj Skydsgaard in Copenhagen; Additional reporting by Jason Hovet, Alan Charlish and bureaux worldwide; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Chinese stock up on staples after government ‘just in case’ advice prompts confusion

By Dominique Patton and Martin Quin Pollard

BEIJING (Reuters) – Beijing shoppers stocked up on cabbage, rice and flour for the winter on Wednesday, after the government urged people to keep stores of basic goods in case of emergencies, though it assured them there were sufficient supplies after some panic-buying.

The Ministry of Commerce on Monday published a seasonal notice encouraging authorities to do a good job in ensuring food supplies and stable prices ahead of the winter, following a recent spike in the prices of vegetables and a growing outbreak of COVID-19.

But the ministry’s advice to households to also stock up on daily necessities in case of emergencies prompted confusion, sending some rushing to supermarkets for extra supplies of cooking oil and rice.

China’s cabinet late on Wednesday said it would guarantee supplies of daily necessities, including meat and vegetables, and stabilize prices, state media reported.

China’s instructions also pushed up domestic edible oil futures as well as Malaysian palm oil.

“It’s going to be a cold winter, we want to make sure we have enough to eat,” said one woman loading rice on to a bicycle outside a supermarket in central Beijing.

A long line formed at the supermarket’s cabbage stall, as people bought supplies of the vegetable that is traditionally stored at home and consumed over the winter months.

But many residents said there was no need to buy more food than normal.

“Where could I stockpile vegetables at home? I get enough for my daily needs,” said a Beijing retiree surnamed Shi leaving another Beijing supermarket.

Others said they did not expect any shortages, particularly in the capital.

Government advice to residents to buy supplies ahead of the winter is issued every year, said Ma Wenfeng, an analyst at A.G. Holdings Agricultural Consulting.

“It is necessary because there is often heavy snowfall in the winter … and it seems there will be some uncertainty about the weather conditions this year. So I think this is quite a normal matter,” he said.

China’s National Meteorological Center is predicting a plunge in temperatures over the weekend in the northwest, southwest and most central and eastern regions.

China’s state broadcaster CCTV reported on Tuesday that there had been some “over-interpretation” of the ministry’s advice.

“Currently, the supply of daily necessities in various places is sufficient, and the supply should be fully guaranteed,” it quoted Zhu Xiaoliang, director of the ministry’s Department of Consumption Promotion, as saying.

Some cities including Tianjin in the north and Wuhan further south have released winter vegetables from stockpiles for sale at lower prices in supermarkets.

But some panic-buying appeared to continue on Wednesday, with several people complaining online of empty supermarket shelves, attributed largely to a growing COVID-19 outbreak.

China reported its highest number of new locally transmitted COVID-19 cases in almost three months on Wednesday, including nine new infections in Beijing, the biggest one-day increase in the capital this year.

“Even bulk rice has been stripped off (shelves),” said a resident in the southern city of Nanjing, writing on China’s microblog Weibo.

“There is uncertainty about the occurrence of the COVID-19 outbreaks. Once an outbreak occurs, people’s livelihoods will be affected. That’s why people are stocking up on winter supplies to avoid the impact of COVID-19,” said Ma at A.G. Holdings.

Chinese authorities typically respond to COVID-19 cases by locking down entire communities where they occur, restricting movement in and out of affected areas.

(Reporting by Dominique Patton and Martin Quin Pollard. Additional reporting by Beijing Newsroom. Editing by Karishma Singh, Christian Schmollinger and Nick Macfie)

NOAA expects U.S. Southwest drought to continue or worsen this winter

By Karl Plume

(Reuters) – A harsh drought is expected to continue or worsen across parts of the U.S. West and northern Plains this winter, including in central and southern California, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) winter outlook.

NOAA, however, expects the drought to lessen in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and northern California amid an emerging La Nina phenomenon, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center said on Thursday.

A drought spanning much of western North America has damaged crops from apples to wheat, and has cooked cattle grazing pastures, weakened bee colonies and fueled concerns about rising food prices.

Nearly the entire U.S. West is in some level of drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center, with almost half of major agricultural state California under exceptional drought, the most severe category.

“A major region of concern this winter remains the Southwest, where drought conditions remain persistent in most areas,” said Jon Gottschalck, chief of the Operational Prediction Branch of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

“The Pacific Northwest, northern California, the upper Midwest and Hawaii are likely to experience drought improvement,” he said during a webinar highlighting NOAA’s December-to-February outlook.

The conditions are expected to be fueled by an emerging La Nina pattern and its colder-than-normal Pacific Ocean surface water temperatures for a second straight winter.

(Reporting by Karl Plume in Chicago; Editing by David Gregorio)

Merkel warns Germany needs tougher lockdown to get through winter

By Andreas Rinke

BERLIN (Reuters) – German leaders came out on Monday in favor of stricter measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, a few days after the country posted its highest one-day death toll so far.

Chancellor Angela Merkel told party colleagues that existing lockdown measures – with bars and restaurants closed and shops admitting limited numbers – were too little to get the virus under control.

“The situation is getting very serious: these measures will not be enough to get us through the winter,” participants said she had told a meeting of her conservative bloc’s legislators.

Daily infections are no longer rising as sharply as previously in Germany, Europe’s largest economy, but they have stagnated at a high level and the highest single-day coronavirus death toll yet was reported last Wednesday.

Markus Soeder, premier of the southern state of Bavaria, which has the nation’s highest death toll, said he was certain regional and national leaders would agree tighter measures before Christmas. They had previously agreed not to revisit lockdown rules before Jan. 10.

Although vaccines that are expected to help contain the pandemic are on their way, available doses are limited, meaning that only certain groups, notably the very elderly, can expect to be inoculated during the winter, an expert panel ruled on Monday.

Meanwhile, some states are going further on their own initiative: Rhineland-Palatinate banned takeaway sales of mulled wine in a bid to discourage disease-spreading impromptu street parties.

From Wednesday, Bavaria will allow people to leave home only for essential reasons, while evening curfews are planned for hotspots with the highest infection rates.

Data from the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases on Monday morning showed the number of confirmed cases rose by 12,332 in the past 24 hours to 1,183,655. The reported death toll rose 147 to 18,919 – still well below that of large European peers such as Spain, France and Italy.

(Writing by Thomas Escritt and Caroline Copley Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Europe COVID death toll tops 300,000 as winter looms and infections surge

By Shaina Ahluwalia, Anurag Maan and Roshan Abraham

(Reuters) – More than 300,000 people have died of COVID-19 across Europe, according to a Reuters tally on Tuesday, and authorities fear that fatalities and infections will continue to rise as the region heads into winter despite hopes for a new vaccine.

With just 10% of the world’s population, Europe accounts for almost a quarter of the 1.2 million deaths globally, and even its well-equipped hospitals are feeling the strain.

After achieving a measure of control over the pandemic with broad lockdowns earlier this year, case numbers have surged since the summer and governments have ordered a second series of restrictions to limit social contacts.

In all, Europe has reported some 12.8 million cases and about 300,114 deaths. Over the past week, it has seen 280,000 cases a day, up 10% from the week earlier, representing just over half of all new infections reported globally.

Hopes have been raised by Pfizer Inc’s announcement of a potentially effective new vaccine, but it is not expected to be generally available before 2021 and health systems will have to cope with the winter months unaided.

Britain, which has imposed a fresh lockdown in England, has the highest death toll in Europe at around 49,000, and health experts have warned that with a current average of more than 20,000 cases daily, the country will exceed its “worst case” scenario of 80,000 deaths.

France, Spain, Italy and Russia have also reported hundreds of deaths a day and together, the five countries account for almost three quarters of the total fatalities.

Already facing the prospect of a wave of job losses and business failures, governments across the region have been forced to order control measures including local curfews, closing non-essential shops and restricting movement.

France, the worst-affected country in the EU, has registered more than 48,700 infections per day over the past week and the Paris region’s health authority said last week that 92% of its ICU capacity was occupied.

Facing similar pressures, Belgian and Dutch hospitals have been forced to send some severely ill patients to Germany.

In Italy, which became a global symbol of the crisis when army trucks were used to transport the dead during the early months of the pandemic, daily average new cases are at a peak at more than 32,500. Deaths have been rising by more than 320 per day over the past three weeks.

While the new vaccine being developed by Pfizer and German partner BioNTech will take time to arrive, authorities are hoping that once winter is passed, it will stem further outbreaks next year.

Citi Private Bank analysts described the news as “the first major advance toward a Post-COVID world economy”.

“More than any fiscal spending package or central bank lending program, a healthcare solution to COVID has the greatest potential to restore economic activity to its full potential…” it said in a note.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Monday said the European Union would soon sign a contract for 300 million doses of the vaccine, just hours after the drugmaker announced promising late-stage trials.

Yet health experts cautioned that the vaccine, should it be approved, was no silver bullet – not least because the genetic material it’s made from needs to be stored at temperatures of minus 70 degrees Celsius (-94 F) or below.

Such requirements pose a challenge for countries in Asia, as well as Africa and Latin America, where intense heat is often compounded by poor infrastructure.

(Reporting by Anurag Maan, Shaina Ahluwalia, Chaithra J and Roshan Abraham in Bengaluru, Sujata Rao-Coverley in London; editing by Jane Wardell, James Mackenzie, Nick Macfie and Mike Collett-White)

‘People are not animals’; stranded migrants freeze in Bosnian fores

‘People are not animals’; stranded migrants freeze in Bosnian forest
By Dado Ruvic

VUCJAK, Bosnia (Reuters) – Hundreds of migrants and refugees stuck in a makeshift camp in a Bosnian forest are struggling to survive in subzero temperatures as snow weighs down on their tents, spurring fears that some may die unless they are resettled soon.

A senior human rights envoy who visited the camp on Tuesday demanded its immediate closure, though a Bosnian government minister said it could take up to a month to move the refugees to a more secure location.

“People are people, not animals,” said Mauloddin, 24, an Afghan who set off for Europe 3-1/2 years ago. “You see, … it’s very cold weather, (there is) no sleeping, no food.”

Mauloddin is among some 600 migrants from the Middle East and Asia stuck in the camp at Vucjak, a former landfill site about 8 km (5 miles) from the Croatian border, because Bosnian authorities cannot agree on where to settle them.

Bosnia is struggling to deal with an upsurge in migrant numbers since Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia closed their borders against undocumented immigration. The migrants hope to get to wealthy western Europe and find work there.

Some lacked warm clothes and were wrapped in blankets, some traipsed through the snow and mud in flip-flops to collect firewood. One man brushed snow from the roof of his tent to prevent it collapsing.

“Vucjak must be shut down today,” said Dunja Mijatovic, commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe. “Otherwise the people here will start dying.”

Mijatovic added that as a Bosnian citizen whose country generated its own stream of refugees during the wars that tore apart Yugoslavia in the 1990s she was “ashamed” of the conditions in the camp, saying they were “not for human beings”.

Aid agencies have long urged the authorities to close the camp, which lacks running water and electricity. The forest is strewn with landmines left over from the wars of the 1990s. [L8N27G8O3]

“THEY STRIKE US, THEY HIT US”

Security Minister Dragan Mektic said on Tuesday the migrants would be moved to a location near the capital Sarajevo in the next month.

Until then, said Selam Midzic, head of the Red Cross from the nearby town of Bihac, the migrants will have to endure the freezing cold and many will fall sick. The Red Cross is the only organization providing food and medicines to the migrants.

Commenting on their plight, Rezwanullay Niazy, a 24-year-old Afghan, said: “We spent all our money… We came close to Europe, and now they closed the Croatian and Slovenian borders. When we go there they strike us, they hit us.”

Human rights groups have accused Croatian police of using violence to push the migrants back over the border into Bosnia, a charge denied by Croatian authorities.

“They (the Europeans) really don’t want refugees to come to their countries,” said Niazy.

(Reporting by Dado Ruvic and Reuters TV, writing by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Late winter snow hammers U.S. northeast, icy conditions ahead

A worker cuts away a tree that fell across Riverside Drive during a snow storm in upper Manhattan in New York City, New York, March 4, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Segar

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York faced its biggest snowstorm of the winter on Monday as snow spread across the northeastern United States, infuriating commuters who juggled canceled planes and trains and faced icy travels ahead as temperatures plunge.

A band of winter weather stretching from Maryland to Maine dumped 15 inches (38 cm) of snow overnight on downtown Boston and 5 inches (13 cm) on New York’s Central Park, said meteorologist Marc Chenard of the National Weather Service.

A woman makes her way through the snow on cross country skis during a winter storm in Pallisades, New York March 4, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Segar

A woman makes her way through the snow on cross country skis during a winter storm in Pallisades, New York March 4, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Segar

That was enough for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to take the rare step of shutting the nation’s largest public school system and for New Jersey Transit, the largest statewide public transportation system in the United States, to cancel about a dozen commuter trains.

“This is horrible!” said Steve Wesley, 56, as he shoveled snow from his driveway in Maplewood, New Jersey, a New York City suburb.

Wesley’s two-mile local commute by car was delayed nearly two hours by the four to six inches of snow. 

“This is not what I want to be doing,” said Wesley, a sales representative for a power equipment distributor. “I’m usually the first one into the office. And if I get there and the parking lot is not plowed, I’ll be shoveling that too.”

Nearly 1,000 U.S. flights were canceled, most at Boston Logan International and New York area airports, according to FlightAware.com.

Government offices and libraries in Boston were closed. In New Jersey, where Governor Phil Murphy declared a state of emergency ahead of the storm, state workers had a two-hour delay.

Commuting challenges may mount over the remainder of the work week as snows melt and then temperatures drop, icing over roadways.

“Each day is a little bit cooler,” said Chenard, noting the week’s highest temperatures for the Northeast will be in the low 30s. “You’ll get some melting during the day, especially when the sun is hitting the snow, and then at night, it’s going to be cold enough to refreeze. Any road surfaces that aren’t treated certainly could get icy at night into the morning.”

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Scott Malone and Steve Orlofsky)

EU says clock is running out on summer-winter time change

FILE PHOTO: A giant sculpture constructed with the faces of clocks is seen outside a Paris train station, March 27, 2009 on the weekend when France moves its clocks forward one hour early Sunday morning, marking daylight savings time. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photo

BERLIN/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union said on Friday it would propose a legal change that would end the ritual of switching between summer and winter time, leaving it up to governments across the bloc to agree on whether to permanently use summer time or winter time.

The proposal comes after a survey found 84 percent of 4.6 million citizens across the EU’s 28 member states opposed changing the clocks ahead in the summer or back in the winter or just opposed switching either way.

In response, the EU’s chief executive, Jean-Claude Juncker, said Brussels would propose scrapping an EU law requiring member states to change their clocks.

“Millions … believe that summertime should be all the time,” Juncker said on German television.

Since 1996, EU law has been moving clocks forward an hour on the last Sunday in March and back an hour on the final Sunday in October. The proposal would drop that requirement, a Commission spokesman said. He rebuffed suggestions that would lead to confusing variations in keeping time from one country to the next.

“It would be surprising if the outcome of the directive was one that doesn’t make sense for European citizens and for business,” spokesman Alexander Winterstein told a news briefing.

Spain backs the proposal to stick with just one time, government spokeswoman Isabel Celaa said on Friday. But it may have to use another time zone more in line with its western geographical position following the Commission’s proposal, Foreign Minister Josep Borrell told reporters in Vienna.

Critics of the clock change say it can cause long-term health problems, especially among young children and elderly people. Supporters say making the switch to give extra morning daylight in winter and evening light in summer can help reduce traffic accidents and save energy.

Any change would need approval from national governments and European Parliament to become law – a process that can take up to two years.

Participation in the EU’s survey varied country by country. Germans, Austrians and Luxembourgers were the most active – 3.79 percent of people in Germany took part. Elsewhere, less than 1 percent of citizens took part. Italy, Britain, Spain and the Netherlands had some of the lowest participation.

Outside the EU, a handful of European countries have stopped switching between summer and winter time, including Russia, Turkey, Belarus and Iceland.

(Reporting by Gernot Heller and Andrea Shalal; Additional reporting by Alissa de Carbonel in Brussels, Jesus Aguado in Madrid and Robin Emmott in Vienna; Editing by Larry King)

Storm to clobber U.S. Midwest with snow, wind and frigid temps

A jogger runs through the rain past the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, U.S., February 7, 2018.

By Brendan O’Brien

MILWAUKEE (Reuters) – A storm is expected to clobber Chicago, Detroit and Milwaukee with heavy snow, gusty winds and freezing temperatures that will slow travel for millions of commuters on Thursday evening and Friday.

The storm system that stretches from western Montana across parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois and east into southern Michigan will drop as much 12 inches (30 cm) of snow and produce 35 miles per hour (56 kph) winds, the National Weather Service said in several advisories.

“Periods of snow will cause primarily travel difficulties. Be prepared for snow covered roads and limited visibilities,” the service said in an advisory for southern Wisconsin.

Wind chill temperatures were expected to drop below 0 Fahrenheit (-18 C) in many areas across the region on Thursday night and into Friday morning.

United Airlines said on Twitter the storm was expected to impact operations this week and that travel waivers were in effect for areas affected by the snow.

Winter weather across the United States over the last several days has killed several people in accidents in the Midwest since Monday, including six in Iowa, two in Missouri and one in Montana, local media in those states reported.

(Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)