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)

Groundhog Phil predicts more cold weather, Chuck says spring is coming

Groundhog co-handler A.J. Derume holds Punxsutawney Phil at Gobbler's Knob on the 132nd Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, U.S. February 2, 2018. REUTERS/Alan Free

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – Punxsutawney Phil, the weather-forecasting groundhog, emerged from his burrow in Pennsylvania on Friday, saw his shadow and predicted six more weeks of winter, despite his rival Staten Island Chuck in New York predicting an early spring.

Phil’s prognostication, which was delivered at about 7:20 am EST, was met with a mix of cheers and groans from thousands of revelers on Friday who gathered in the town of Punxsutawney about 80 miles (120 km) northeast of Pittsburgh.

Even though they have endured record-breaking freezing temperatures and an unusually powerful winter storm known as a “bomb cyclone,” North Americans should expect winter to stretch on, according to the furry Pennsylvania critter.

But another celebrated groundhog, Chuck in the New York City borough of Staten Island, did not see his shadow on Friday and instead predicted an early spring. Chuck is known for biting then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg during the ceremony in 2009.

According to legend, if the groundhog emerges from his dwelling and sees his shadow, six more weeks of winter should be expected. But if there is no shadow, spring will make an early arrival.

Groundhogs, portly animals belonging to the squirrel family, have been offering weather predictions in Punxsutawney, which has a population of about 6,000 people, since 1887.

The town’s annual Groundhog Day event, made more popular by the 1993 comedy film “Groundhog Day” starring Bill Murray, draws people from as far away as Australia and Russia. This year was the 132nd ceremony.

Canada has its own share of weather-forecasting mascots, including Wiarton Willie, an albino groundhog who is also due to make his spring prediction on Friday in southern Ontario.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Sandra Maler and Bill Trott)

Migrants risk death crossing Alpine mountains to reach France

Abdullhai, 38, from Guinea, is helped by a friend as they try to cross part of the Alps mountain range from Italy into France, near the town of Bardonecchia, in northern Italy, December 21, 2017.

By Siegfried Modola

BARDONECCHIA, Italy (Reuters) – It took Abdullhai almost three years to get from his home in Guinea to a rocky, snow-covered Alpine mountain pass in the dead of winter, for what he hopes will be the final stage of his journey into France.

The terrain is steep and dangerous and he and a group of five other migrants face risks ranging from losing their footing on steep drops, being struck by falling rocks or succumbing to the -9C (15°F) temperatures in clothing ill-suited to the terrain.

Abdullhai, 38, is one of hundreds of migrants who over the last year have attempted to cross from Italy into France through high mountain passes, in a bid to evade increased border security put in place at easier crossing points. His group crossed into France in December.

In Guinea, he left behind his wife and three children, including a two-year old son whom he has never seen.

“Our life in Guinea is not good,” said Abdullhai, 38, who like his friends asked that his last name not be published in this story.

“There is no work there and no future for my children. Here in Europe we can have a future. We can find work and live a life with some dignity. This is worth a try for me.”

A migrant rests after crossing part of the Alps mountain range from Italy into France, near the town of Nevache in southeastern France, December 21, 2017.

A migrant rests after crossing part of the Alps mountain range from Italy into France, near the town of Nevache in southeastern France, December 21, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola

The number of migrants making perilous journeys has fallen since over one million arrived in Europe from the Middle East and Africa in 2015. There were 171,635 arrivals by boat officially recorded in 2017, down from 363,504 in 2016.

As the group huddled around a fire in a cave during a rest on their journey, others told stories of being jailed and tortured, or of being orphaned and looking at uncertain futures in their home country.

The crossings have become more perilous with heavy snowfall.

On Jan. 10, Reuters spoke with three migrants, a 24-year-old Senegalese man, a 31-year-old man from the Democratic Republic of Congo and a 37-year-old from Pakistan who were attempting to cross into France.

They managed to cross the border, but abandoned their trek, exhausted and despondent, and were returned to Italy.

But they are at least alive. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that 20,000 people have died in the Mediterranean itself while trying to reach Italy.

Nor does it compare to the hardships that some of those making the journey have already endured to get as far as they have.

Discarded clothes are seen by a mountain pass near the Italian-French border from where migrants have attempted to pass into France, near the Mediterranean coastal town of Ventimiglia in northern Italy,

Discarded clothes are seen by a mountain pass near the Italian-French border from where migrants have attempted to pass into France, near the Mediterranean coastal town of Ventimiglia in northern Italy, December 2, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola

“I was imprisoned and tortured in Libya for many months. I was forced to work for free. Just look at my scars,” said Kamarra, 28, from Guinea, lifting his shirt and pulling down his trousers at the side to show marks on his body and hip.

“After all that, crossing the Alps is not a big deal for me.”

For a photo essay about the migrant crossings, click here:http://reut.rs/2EyeDmR

(Additional reporting by Eleanor Biles; Writing by Mark Hanrahan in London; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Storms slam U.S. Southeast as bitter cold drags on

A woman stops to photograph the frozen Josephine Shaw Lowell Memorial Fountain in New York, U.S., January 3, 2018.

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – Winter storms swept up the U.S Southeast toward New England on Wednesday as snow, freezing rain and strong winds added to record-shattering cold that had much of the eastern United States in its grip.

The wintry mix and low wind chills could cause widespread power outages and leave roads icy, making commuting treacherous for millions of Americans from northern Florida to southern Virginia, the National Weather Service said in a series of warnings.

Some schools and universities in those states were closed on Wednesday in anticipation of the storm. Many flights out of the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport in Georgia and Tallahassee Airport in Florida were canceled.

The weather service said its Tallahassee office measured a snow and sleet accumulation of 0.1 inch (2.5mm) on its roof early in the day, the first time Florida’s capital has had snow in nearly 30 years.

The service said travel in northeastern Florida was likely to be difficult and dangerous.

Two to 3 inches of snow was expected in northeastern Florida, coastal Georgia and South Carolina, according to early morning forecasts, said weather service meteorologist Bob Oravec.

Some Florida and Georgia residents shared images on social media of light snow accumulating.

“So a #SnowDay in #Florida. We know hurricanes. Snow? Not sure what to do here. How do you luge?,” wrote one Twitter user, @thejalexkelly.

On Tuesday, Florida Governor Rick Scott urged residents in the north of the state to brace themselves for the cold. He said cold weather shelters have either opened or would be opened in 22 of the state’s 67 counties.

Some coastal areas of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia could ultimately receive up to 6 inches (15 cm) of snow, along with an accumulation of ice, while parts of New England could see 12 to 15 inches (30-38 cm) of snow and wind gusts of 35 miles per hour (55 km per hour) by the end of week, the weather service said.

Late on Tuesday, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for 28 of the state’s 159 counties.

As the storm bears down, an arctic air mass will remain entrenched over the eastern two-thirds of the country through the end of the week, forecasters said. The record-low temperatures were to blame for at least eight deaths in Texas, Wisconsin, West Virginia, North Dakota and Michigan over the past several days, officials said.

A large swath of the Midwest was under a wind chill warning on Wednesday as places like Cleveland and Indianapolis had temperatures in the wind of 5 to 20 degrees below zero in Fahrenheit (minus 20 to minus 29 degrees Celsius), while the Deep South faced deep-freeze temperatures that threatened crops and pipes, the weather service warned.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Jonathan Oatis)

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)

Punxsutawney Phil sees shadow, foresees long North American winter

Groundhog Club President Bill Deeley listens to Punxsutawney Phil for his forecast while handler Ron Ploucha holds him at Gobbler's Knob on the 131st Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, U.S. February 2, 2017.

By Laila Kearney

(Reuters) – Punxsutawney Phil, the famous Pennsylvania groundhog that can supposedly forecast when the North American winter will end, dashed hopes for an early spring on Thursday when he emerged from his tree stump and saw his squirmy shadow.

Each year on Groundhog Day, Feb. 2, thousands of revelers gather in the town of Punxsutawney, about 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, to witness a groundhog that has been designated as “Phil” make his prediction.

As legend has it, if the little rodent sees his shadow on Groundhog Day, Feb. 2, frigid and blustery weather will continue for six weeks. If it is cloudy and no shadow appears, the onset of spring is near.

“It don’t look good guys,” Bill Deeley, president of The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, told the crowd early on Thursday after pulling Phil from his lair at Gobbler’s Knob. “Ladies and gentlemen, he has made his prediction.”

The portly animal squirmed and bared his tiny teeth as his audience cheered. One woman shouted, “We love you, Phil!”

As Phil appeared to gnaw on the glove of his handler, a presenter wearing a top-hat and red bow tie read the weather outlook: “My faithful followers, I clearly see, a perfect clear shadow of me. Six more weeks of winter it shall be.”

Groundhogs have been offering weather predictions in the tiny Punxsutawney since 1887.

The annual Groundhog Day event, made more popular by the 1993 comedy film “Groundhog Day” starring Bill Murray, draws faithful followers from as far away as Australia and Russia.

(Editing by Frances Kerry)

U.N. alarmed at migrants dying of cold, ‘dire’ situation in Greece

refugee boy rides bike through snow

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Refugees and migrants are dying in Europe’s cold snap and governments must do more to help them rather than pushing them back from borders and subjecting them to violence, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said on Friday.

“Children are particularly prone to respiratory illnesses at a time like this. It’s about saving lives, not about red tape and keeping to bureaucratic arrangements,” Sarah Crowe, a spokeswoman for the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF told a U.N. briefing in Geneva. “The dire situation right now is Greece.”

UNHCR spokeswoman Cecile Pouilly cited five deaths so far from cold and said about 1,000 people including children were in unheated tents and dormitories on the Greek island of Samos, calling for them to be transferred to shelter on the mainland.

Hundreds of others had been moved to better accommodation on the islands of Lesbos and Chios in the past few days.

In Serbia, about 80 percent of the 7,300 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are staying in heated government shelters, but 1,200 men were sleeping rough in informal sites in Belgrade.

The bodies of two Iraqi men and a young Somali woman were found close to the Turkish border in Bulgaria and two Somali teenagers were hospitalized with frostbite after five days in a forest, Pouilly said. The body of a young Pakistani man was found along the same border in late December.

A 20-year-old Afghan man died after crossing the Evros River on the Greece-Turkey land border at night when temperatures were below -10 degrees Celsius. The body of a young Pakistani man was found on the Turkish side of the border with Bulgaria.

“Given the harsh winter conditions, we are particularly concerned by reports that authorities in all countries along the Western Balkans route continue to push back refugees and migrants from inside their territory to neighboring countries,” Pouilly said.

Some refugees and migrants said police subjected them to violence and many said their phones were confiscated or destroyed, preventing them from calling for help, she said.

“Some even reported items of clothing being confiscated thus further exposing them to the harsh winter conditions,” she said. “These practices are simply unacceptable and must be stopped.”

Joel Millman, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said migrant movements across the Mediterranean had “started out in a big way” in 2017, and the death toll for the year was already 27.

The World Meteorological Organization said a movement of cold Siberian air into southeastern Europe had driven temperatures in Greece, Italy, Turkey and Romania 5-10 degrees Celsius lower than normal. Such cold outbreaks happen about once in 35 years on average, the WMO said.

(additional reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Mosul residents fear cold and hunger of winter siege

People fleeing Islamic State stronghold in Mosul

By Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – No food or fuel has reached Mosul in nearly a week and the onset of rain and cold weather threatens a tough winter for more than a million people still in Islamic State-held areas of the city, residents said on Saturday.

Iraqi troops waging a six-week-old offensive against the militants controlling Mosul have advanced into eastern city districts, while other forces have sealed Mosul’s southern and northern approaches and 10 days ago blocked the road west.

But their advance has been hampered by waves of counter-attacks from the ultra-hardline Islamists who have controlled the city since mid-2014 and built a network of tunnels in preparation for their defense of north Iraq’s largest city.

The slow progress means the campaign is likely to drag on throughout the winter, and has prompted warnings from aid groups that civilians face a near complete siege in the coming months.

A trader in Mosul, speaking by telephone, said no new food or fuel supplies had reached the city since Sunday.

Despite attempts by the militants to keep prices stable, and the arrest last week of dozens of shopkeepers accused of hiking prices, the trader said food had become more expensive and fuel prices had tripled.

“We’ve been living under a real state of siege for a week,” said one resident of west Mosul, several miles (km) from the frontline neighborhoods on the east bank of the Tigris river.

“Two days ago the electricity generator supplying the neighborhood stopped working because of lack of fuel. Water is cut and food prices have risen and it’s terribly cold. We fear the days ahead will be much worse”.

A pipeline supplying water to around 650,000 people in Mosul was hit during fighting this week between the army and Islamic State. A local official said it could not be fixed because the damage was in an area still being fought over.

Winter conditions will also hit the nearly 80,000 people registered by the United Nations as displaced since the start of the Mosul campaign. That number excludes many thousands more who were forcibly moved by Islamic State, or fled from the fighting deeper into territory under its control.

MILITANTS COUNTER ATTACK

Islamic State authorities, trying to portray a sense of normality, released pictures which they said showed a Mosul market on Friday. It showed a crowd of people and a stall selling vegetable oil and canned food but no fresh produce.

They also said they carried out several counter attacks in the last 24 hours against Iraqi troops in eastern Mosul and the mainly Shi’ite Popular Mobilisation forces who have taken territory to the west of the city.

Amaq news agency, which is close to Islamic State, said they retook half of the Shaimaa district in southeast of the city on Friday, destroyed four army bases in the eastern al-Qadisiya al-Thaniya neighborhood and seized ammunition from fleeing soldiers in al-Bakr district, also in the east.

A source in the Counter Terrorism Services, which are spearheading the army offensive, said Islamic State exploited the bad weather and cloud cover, which prevented air support from a U.S.-led international coalition.

He said the militants had taken back some ground, but predicted their gains would be short-lived.

“This is not the first time it happens. We withdraw to avoid civilian losses and then regain control. They can’t hold territory for long,” the source said.

Amaq also said Islamic State fighters waged attacks on Saturday against the Popular Mobilisation paramilitary units near the town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, showing footage of two damaged vehicles, one with interior ministry markings on it.

A spokesman for the militias said those attacks had been repelled. “Daesh attacked at dawn to try to control the village Tal Zalat,” said Karim Nouri. “Clashes continued for two hours, until Daesh withdrew, leaving bodies (of dead fighters) behind.”

In Baghdad, a car bomb blew up in a crowded market in the center of the city on Saturday, killing seven people and wounding 15, police and medical sources said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but Islamic State fighters have stepped up attacks in the Iraqi capital and other cities since the start of the Mosul operations.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi launched the Mosul offensive on Oct. 17, aiming to crush Islamic State in the largest city it controls in Iraq and neighboring Syria.

The campaign pits a 100,000-strong U.S.-backed coalition of army troops, special forces, federal police, Kurdish fighters and the Popular Mobilisation forces against a few thousand militants in the city.

Defeat would deal a heavy blow to Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate in Iraq and Syria, announced by its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from a Mosul mosque two years ago.

(Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Clelia Oziel)

Northeastern Blizzard Not As Strong As Feared

Some areas of the northeast are digging out from up to two feet of snow today but that total is far less than was anticipated from a massive winter storm.

Officials say that New York City was spared a large wave of the storm when less than a foot of snow fell on the city.  The bans on car travel were lifted early Tuesday and the New York City subway system returned to regular operation after being shut down 10 hours out of caution.

Snow is expected to fall into Wednesday morning through upper New England, leaving some towns in danger of tying or breaking record snowfall amounts for this time of year.  Snow drifts are the biggest issue, with Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker saying some drifts are over six feet in height.

Only one death has been reported from the storm so far.  A teenager died Monday when he was snow-tubing on Long Island and crashed into a lamppost.

While schools and other businesses remain closed throughout the region, the National Weather Service lifted the blizzard warning for all areas below Boston Tuesday.

New York’s governor defended his decision to issue a travel ban ahead of the storm.

“I would rather, if there is a lean one way or another, lean towards safety because I have seen the consequences the other way and it gets very frightening very quickly … we have had people die in storms,” Cuomo told reporters. “I would rather be in a situation where we say ‘We got lucky.'”