Panama City, Oct 12 (AP/UNB) — The devastation inflicted by Hurricane Michael came into focus Thursday with rows upon rows of homes found smashed to pieces, and rescue crews struggling to enter stricken areas in hopes of accounting for hundreds of people who may have stayed behind.
At least three deaths were blamed on Michael, the most powerful hurricane to hit the continental U.S. in over 50 years, and it wasn't done yet: Though reduced to a tropical storm, it brought flash flooding to North Carolina and Virginia, soaking areas still recovering from Hurricane Florence.
Under a clear blue sky, families living along the Florida Panhandle emerged from shelters and hotels to a perilous landscape of shattered homes and shopping centers, wailing sirens and hovering helicopters.
Gov. Rick Scott said the Panhandle awoke to "unimaginable destruction."
"So many lives have been changed forever. So many families have lost everything," he said.
The full extent of Michael's fury was only slowly becoming clear, with some of the hardest-hit areas difficult to reach with roads blocked by debris or water. An 80-mile (130-kilometer) stretch of Interstate 10, the main east-west route, was closed.
Video from a drone revealed some of the worst damage in Mexico Beach, where the hurricane crashed ashore Wednesday as a Category 4 monster with 155 mph (250 kph) winds and a storm surge of 9 feet (2.7 meters).
Entire blocks of homes near the beach were obliterated, leaving concrete slabs in the sand. Rows and rows of other homes were rendered piles of splintered lumber. Entire roofs were torn away in the town of about 1,000 people, now a scene of utter devastation.
State officials said 285 people in Mexico Beach had defied a mandatory evacuation order ahead of Michael. More than 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast were ordered or urged to clear out as Michael closed in. But emergency authorities lamented that many ignored the warnings.
National Guard troops made their way into the ground-zero town and found 20 survivors Wednesday night, and more rescue crews arrived Thursday. But the fate of many residents was unknown.
Mishelle McPherson and her ex-husband searched for the elderly mother of a friend. The woman lived in a small cinderblock house about 150 yards (meters) from the Gulf and thought she would be OK. The home was found smashed, with no sign of the woman.
"Do you think her body would be here? Do you think it would have floated away?" McPherson asked.
Linda Marquardt, 67, rode out the storm with her husband at their home in Mexico Beach. When the house filled with storm surge water, they fled upstairs. "All of my furniture was floating," she said. "''A river just started coming down the road. It was awful, and now there's just nothing left."
As thousands of National Guard troops, law enforcement officers and medical teams spread out, the governor pleaded with people in the devastated areas to stay away because of hazards such as fallen trees and power lines.
"I know you just want to go home. You want to check on things and begin the recovery process," Scott said. But "we have to make sure things are safe."
More than 900,000 homes and businesses in Florida, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas were without power.
The Coast Guard said it rescued at least 27 people before and after the hurricane's landfall, mostly from coastal homes. Nine people had to be rescued by helicopter from a bathroom of a home in hard-hit Panama City after their roof collapsed, Petty Officer 3rd Class Ronald Hodges said.
In Panama City, most homes were still standing, but no property was left undamaged. Downed power lines and twisted street signs lay all around. Roofs had been peeled off. Aluminum siding was shredded and homes were split by fallen trees. Hundreds of cars had broken windows. Pine trees were stripped and snapped off about 20 feet (7 meters) high.
In neighboring Panama City Beach, Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford reported widespread looting of homes and businesses. He imposed a curfew and asked for 50 members of the National Guard for protection.
The hurricane also damaged hospitals and nursing homes in the Panama City area, and officials worked to evacuate hundreds of patients. The damage at Bay Medical Sacred Heart included blown-out windows and a cracked exterior wall though no patients were hurt.
The state mental hospital in Chattahoochee, which has a section for the criminally insane, was cut off by land, and food and supplies were being flown in, authorities said. All phone communicaiton was cut off to the complex of nearly 1,000 residents and more than 300 staff, leaving emergency radios as their only link out.
A man outside Tallahassee, Florida, was killed by a falling tree, and an 11-year-old girl in Georgia died when the winds picked up a carport and dropped it on her home. One of the carport's legs punctured the roof and hit her in the head. A driver in North Carolina was killed when a tree fell on his car.
As the storm charged north, it spun off possible tornadoes and downed power lines and trees in Georgia. Forecasters said it could drop up to 7 inches (18 centimeters) of rain over the Carolinas and Virginia before pushing out to sea in coming hours. Street flooding was reported in Roanoke and other southwestern Virginia cities that reported motorists caught in flooding had to be rescued.
In North Carolina's mountains, drivers also had to be plucked from cars in high water. Michael's winds also toppled trees and power lines, leaving hundreds of thousands without power and flash flooding also was reported in North Carolina's two largest cities, Charlotte and Raleigh.
Forecasters said Michael was still a potent tropical storm Thursday evening, centered about 5 miles (8 kilometers) northwest of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, and packing top sustained winds of 50 mph (80 kph). It was racing to the northeast at 24 mph (39 kph) amid warnings it could spread damaging winds and more flash flooding in the region before moving offshore.
Cincinnati, Oct 12 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump is returning to Ohio to try to boost GOP candidates in a Republican-dominated area.
Trump will headline a Friday evening rally at the Warren County Fairgrounds in Lebanon, northeast of Cincinnati. The county is a GOP stronghold, and Trump won two out of every three votes there in 2016 as he decisively carried Ohio.
The Warren County Sheriff's Office is warning drivers to expect heavy traffic and road closures in the city of 21,000. The Lebanon High School football team moved up its game against Miamisburg High to Thursday night to ease congestion.
U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, a Cincinnati Republican whose district encompasses Warren County, is in a hotly contested race with Democrat Aftab Pureval, the Hamilton County clerk of courts.
Trump's pick for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate, Rep. Jim Renacci, is in an uphill battle to unseat two-term U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown.
Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine and Democratic former federal consumer watchdog Richard Cordray are in a tight race to succeed term-limited GOP Gov. John Kasich (KAY'-sik), a frequent Trump critic who unsuccessfully challenged him for the 2016 presidential nomination.
Former President Barack Obama campaigned for Democratic candidates last month in Cleveland. Obama carried Ohio twice.
Trump was the keynote speaker for a state Republican Party fundraising dinner in Columbus in August, after campaigning earlier in the month for state Sen. Troy Balderson, who narrowly won a special election over Franklin County official Danny O'Connor for Ohio's open 12th Congressional District. The two have a November rematch for a full term.
Buenos Aires, Oct 11 (AP/UNB) — A court convicted a former Argentine federal planning minister Wednesday of contributing to a deadly 2012 train crash by failing to oversee the operations of commuter railways.
Julio De Vido was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison for defrauding the public administration. The court also banned him from ever again holding a state job.
De Vido is already serving time in prison on a corruption case. He was a key official during the administrations of former President Cristina Fernandez and her late husband and predecessor Nestor Kirchner. The couple governed Argentina in 2003-2015.
The latest conviction involved a packed morning commuter train that smashed into a platform at the busy Once station in Buenos Aires on Feb. 22, 2012. More than fifty people died and about 700 were injured in Argentina's deadliest train accident in decades.
Argentina's independent auditor general later delivered a blistering report on the causes of the crash, suggesting that the problems are systemic, due to many years of mismanagement, corruption and disrepair.
Two former transportation secretaries were convicted to prison sentences in 2015. The Federal Criminal Court convicted Juan Pablo Schiavi to eight years for defrauding the public administration and involuntary manslaughter because of the high number of deaths. Ricardo Jaime got six years for a defrauding charge.
The train operator and other several officials from the company that oversaw the train line were given sentences ranging from three to nine years.
Washington, Oct 11 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump demanded answers Wednesday from Saudi Arabia about the fate of a missing Saudi writer as lawmakers pushed for sanctions and a top Republican said the man was likely killed after entering a Saudi consulate in Turkey.
Trump said he didn't know what happened to Jamal Khashoggi and expressed hope that the 59-year-old writer, who went missing a week ago, was still alive. But senior members of Congress with access to U.S. intelligence reporting feared the worst.
More than 20 Republican and Democratic senators instructed Trump to order an investigation into Khashoggi's disappearance under legislation that authorizes imposition of sanctions for perpetrators of extrajudicial killings, torture or other gross human rights violations.
While no suspects were named, and the lawmakers' letter to the president is only a preliminary step toward taking punitive action, it marked a departure from decades of close U.S.-Saudi relations that have only intensified under Trump. Riyadh has supported the administration's tough stance toward Iran, a key rival of Saudi Arabia in the volatile Middle East.
Republican Sen. Bob Corker, who as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has reviewed the U.S. intelligence into what happened to Khashoggi, said "the likelihood is he was killed on the day he walked into the consulate." He said that "there was Saudi involvement" in whatever happened with the journalist, who wrote columns for The Washington Post.
"The Saudis have a lot of explaining to do because all indications are that they have been involved at minimum with his disappearance," Corker told The Associated Press. "Everything points to them."
Khashoggi, a wealthy former government insider who had been living in the U.S. in self-imposed exile, had gone to the consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to get paperwork he needed for his upcoming marriage while his Turkish fiancee waited outside.
Turkish authorities have said he was killed by members of an elite Saudi "assassination squad," an allegation the Saudi government has dismissed.
The Washington Post reported Wednesday evening that U.S. intelligence intercepts outlined a Saudi plan to detain Khashoggi. The Post, citing anonymous U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence, said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered an operation to lure Jamal Khashoggi from his home in Virginia to Saudi Arabia and then detain him.
Trump told reporters in the Oval Office that he has a call in to Khashoggi's fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, who has appealed to the president and first lady Melania Trump for help.
Trump said he had spoken with the Saudis about what he called a "bad situation," but he did not disclose details of his conversations. He also said the U.S. was working "very closely" with Turkey, "and I think we'll get to the bottom of it."
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said national security adviser John Bolton and presidential senior adviser Jared Kushner spoke Tuesday to Crown Prince Mohammed about Khashoggi. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo then had a follow-up call with the crown prince to reiterate the U.S. request for information and a thorough, transparent investigation.
While angry members of Congress likely won't cause the administration to end decades of close security ties with Saudi Arabia, the initiation on Wednesday of possible sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act indicated the depth of concern on Capitol Hill over Khashoggi's case. Lawmakers could also throw a wrench into arms sales that require their approval and demand the U.S. scale back support for the Saudi military campaign against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said if Saudi Arabia had lured a U.S. resident into a consulate and killed him, "it's time for the United States to rethink our military, political and economic relationship with Saudi Arabia."
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a longtime critic of the Saudi government, said he'll try to force a vote in the Senate this week blocking U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He told local radio in his home state Tuesday that he wants to end the arms shipments if there's "any indication" the Saudis are "implicated in killing this journalist that was critical of them."
The Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, has described the allegations as "malicious leaks and grim rumors" and said the kingdom is "gravely concerned" about Khashoggi. Saudi officials maintain he left the consulate shortly after entering, though it has failed to provide evidence to back that up, such as video footage.
Trump's comments Wednesday were the toughest yet from his administration. The reaction from European governments has also been cautious — in part because of uncertainty over whether strained relations between Ankara and Riyadh might have colored Turkey's reporting of events.
The Trump administration, from the president on down, is heavily invested in the Saudi relationship. That's unlikely to change, said Robin Wright, a scholar at the Wilson Center think tank and close friend of the missing writer. The administration's Middle East agenda heavily depends on the Saudis, including efforts to counter Iranian influence in the region, fight extremism and build support for an expected plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Indication of those stakes came within four months of Trump taking office, when Saudi Arabia became his first destination on a presidential trip and he announced $110 billion in proposed arms sales.
Crown Prince Mohammed has introduced some economic and social reforms, allowing women to drive and opening movie theaters in the deeply conservative Muslim nation. The flip side, however, is that he's also squelched dissent and imprisoned activists. He has championed the three-year military campaign against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen that has pushed that nation toward famine and caused many civilian deaths.
Still, the Trump administration last month stood behind its support for that campaign with weapons, logistics and intelligence, certifying that the Saudis were taking adequate steps to prevent civilian deaths despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
Karen Elliott House, a veteran writer on Saudi affairs and chairwoman of the board of trustees at RAND Corp., said U.S. support for the Yemen war is likely to be the focus of congressional criticism but won't endanger a relationship that has endured for decades, underpinned by shared strategic interests. Even under the Obama administration, which had difficult relations with Riyadh compared with Trump, there were some $65 billion in completed arms sales.
"The U.S.-Saudi relationship is certainly not about shared moral values," House said. "It's about shared security interests."
Panama City, Oct 11 (AP/UNB)— The most powerful hurricane on record to hit Florida's Panhandle left wide destruction and at least two people dead and wasn't nearly finished Thursday as it crossed Georgia, now as a tropical storm, toward the Carolinas, that are still reeling from epic flooding by Hurricane Florence.
A day after the supercharged storm crashed ashore amid white sand beaches, fishing towns and military bases, Michael was no longer a Category 4 monster packing 155 mph (250 kph) winds. As the tropical storm continued to weaken it was still menacing the Southeast with heavy rains, blustery winds and possible spinoff tornadoes.
Authorities said at least two people have died, a man killed by a tree falling on a Panhandle home and according to WMAZ-TV, an 11-year-old girl was also killed by a tree falling on a home in southwest Georgia. Search and rescue crews were expected to escalate efforts to reach hardest-hit areas and check for anyone trapped or injured in the storm debris.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said the eye of Michael was about 25 miles (40 kilometers) east of Macon in central Georgia at 2:00 a.m. Thursday. The storm had top sustained winds of 60 mph (96 kph) and was moving to the northeast at 20 mph (32 kph).
After daylight Thursday residents of north Florida would just be beginning to take stock of the enormity of the disaster.
Damage in Panama City near where Michael came ashore Wednesday afternoon was so extensive that broken and uprooted trees and downed power lines lay nearly everywhere. Roofs were peeled away, sent airborne, and homes were split open by fallen trees. Twisted street signs lay on the ground. Palm trees whipped wildly in the winds. More than 380,000 homes and businesses were without power at the height of the storm.
Vance Beu, 29, was staying with his mother at her home, Spring Gate Apartments, a complex of single-story wood frame buildings where they piled up mattresses around themselves for protection. A pine tree punched a hole in their roof and his ears even popped when the barometric pressure went lower. The roar of the winds, he said, sounded like a jet engine.
"It was terrifying, honestly. There was a lot of noise. We thought the windows were going to break at any time," Beu said.
Sally Crown rode out Michael on the Florida Panhandle thinking at first that the worst damage was the many trees downed in her yard. But after the storm passed, she emerged to check on the cafe she manages and discovered a scene of breathtaking destruction.
"It's absolutely horrendous. Catastrophic," Crown said. "There's flooding. Boats on the highway. A house on the highway. Houses that have been there forever are just shattered."
A Panhandle man was killed by a tree that toppled on a home, Gadsden County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Anglie Hightower said. But she added emergency crews trying to reach the home were hampered by downed trees and debris blocking roadways. The debris was a problem in many coastal communities and still hundreds of thousands of people were also left without power.
Gov. Rick Scott announced afterward that thousands of law enforcement officers, utility crews and search and rescue teams would now go into recovery mode. He said "aggressive" search and rescue efforts would get underway.
"Hurricane Michael cannot break Florida," Scott vowed.
Michael sprang quickly from a weekend tropical depression, going from a Category 2 on Tuesday to a Category 4 by the time it came ashore. It forced more than 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast to evacuate as it gained strength quickly while crossing the eastern Gulf of Mexico toward north Florida. It moved so fast that people didn't' have much time to prepare, and emergency authorities lamented that many ignored the warnings and seemed to think they could ride it out.
In Panama City, plywood and metal flew off the front of a Holiday Inn Express. Part of the awning fell and shattered the glass front door of the hotel, and the rest of the awning wound up on vehicles parked below it.
"Oh my God, what are we seeing?" said evacuee Rachel Franklin, her mouth hanging open.
Based on its internal barometric pressure, Michael was the third most powerful hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland, behind the unnamed Labor Day storm of 1935 and Camille in 1969. Based on wind speed, it was the fourth-strongest, behind the Labor Day storm (184 mph, or 296 kph), Camille and Andrew in 1992.
It also brought the dangers of a life-threatening storm surge.
In Mexico Beach, population 1,000, the storm shattered homes, leaving floating piles of lumber. The lead-gray water was so high that roofs were about all that could be seen of many homes.
Hours earlier, meteorologists watched satellite imagery in complete awe as the storm intensified.
"We are in new territory," National Hurricane Center Meteorologist Dennis Feltgen wrote on Facebook. "The historical record, going back to 1851, finds no Category 4 hurricane ever hitting the Florida panhandle."
The storm is likely to fire up the debate over global warming. Scientists say global warming is responsible for more intense and more frequent extreme weather, such as storms, droughts, floods and fires. But without extensive study, they cannot directly link a single weather event to the changing climate.
After Michael left the Panhandle late Wednesday, Kaylee O'Brien was crying as she sorted through the remains of the apartment she shared with three roommates at Whispering Pines apartments, where the smell of broken pine trees was thick in the air. Four pine trees had crashed through the roof of her apartment, nearly hitting two people.
Her biggest worry: finding her missing 1-year-old Siamese cat, Molly.
"We haven't seen her since the tree hit the den. She's my baby," a distraught O'Brien said, her face wet with tears.