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Archive for September 1st, 2010

Island evacuations start as Earl nears East Coast

Posted by Admin on September 1, 2010

NASA Satellite Captures Hurricane Danielle, Hu...

Image by NASA Goddard Photo and Video via Flickr

RALEIGH, N.C. – Powerful Hurricane Earl wheeled toward the East Coast, driving the first tourists Wednesday from North Carolina vacation islands and threatening damaging winds and waves up the Atlantic seaboard over Labor Day weekend.

Visitors were taking ferries off Ocracoke Island and told to leave neighboring Cape Hatteras in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, and federal authorities have warned people all along the Eastern seaboard to be prepared to evacuate.

Virginia’s Gov. Bob McDonnell declared a state of emergency as a precaution, allowing the state to position staff and resources ahead of the storm. Emergency officials as far north as Maine urged people to have disaster plans and supplies ready.

Earl was still more than 700 miles south-southeast of Cape Hatteras, with top sustained winds of 125 mph. It was on track to near the North Carolina shore late Thursday or early Friday and then blow north along the coast, with forecasters cautioning that it was still too early to tell how close the storm may come to land.

The National Weather Service issued a hurricane warning for much of the North Carolina coast and hurricane watches from Virginia to Delaware.

Not since Hurricane Bob in 1991 has such a powerful storm had such a large swath of the East Coast in its sights, said Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center.

“A slight shift of that track to the west is going to impact a great deal of real estate with potential hurricane-force winds,” Feltgen said.

Even if Earl stays well offshore, it will kick up rough surf and dangerous rip currents up and down the coast through the Labor Day weekend, a prime time for beach vacations, forecasters said.

The only evacuation orders so far affected parts of the Outer Banks, thin strips of beach and land that face the open Atlantic.

Tourist cars, some with campers in tow, lined up for the first ferries of the day from Ocracoke to the mainland. Another car ferry connects to Hatteras, which has a bridge to the mainland and came under the second evacuation order a little later Wednesday morning.

The evacuation orders are called mandatory, but Julia Jarema, spokeswoman for the state Division of Emergency Management, said it doesn’t mean people will be forced from their homes. Local law enforcement officials may do something such as going door-to-door and asking people who stay behind for their information about their next of kin.

Emergency officials said they hoped Ocracoke’s 800 or so year-round residents would heed the call to leave. But Carol Paul said she and husband Tom would stay put if the current forecasts hold. Only a direct hit from a stronger storm would drive them from the island where they’ve lived for seven years, running an antiques store.

“There’s never been a death on Ocracoke from a hurricane, so we feel pretty comfortable,” Carol Paul 57, said as tourists departed on ferries and her husband, also a construction contractor, worked to board up the windows of clients and friends’ homes. “Everything here is made pretty much with hurricanes in mind.”

The approaching storm troubled many East Coast beach towns that had hoped to capitalize on the BP oil spill and draw visitors who normally vacation on the Gulf Coast.

Carl Hanes of Newport News, Va., kept an eye on the weather report as he headed for the beach near his rented vacation home in Avon, N.C. He, his wife and their two teenage children were anticipating Earl might force them to leave on Thursday, a day ahead of schedule.

“We’re trying not to let it bother us,” Hanes said before enjoying the calm surf.

In Rehoboth Beach, Del., Judy Rice said she has no plans to leave the vacation home where she has spent most of the summer. In fact, the Oak Hill, Va., resident plans to walk around town in the rain if it comes.

“I kind of enjoy it actually. You know, it’s battling the elements,” Rice said. “I have seen the rain go sideways, and, yeah, it can be scary, but I have an old house here in Rehoboth, so it’s probably more important that I am here during a storm than anywhere.”

In the Florida Panhandle, which has struggled all summer to coax back tourists scared away by the Gulf oil spill, bookings were up 12 percent over last year at the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. The resort is nowhere near Earl’s projected path, and spokeswoman Laurie Hobbs said she suspects the increase in reservations was partly because of a discount the hotel is offering and partly because of the hurricane.

“Weather drives business,” she said. “They go to where the weather is best.”

If Earl brings rain farther inland, it could affect the U.S. Open tennis tournament, being played now through Sept. 12 in New York City.

“We’re keeping our eye on it very closely,” said United States Tennis Association spokesman Chris Widmaier.

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Associated Press Writers Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, Jack Jones in Columbia, S.C., Kathleen Miller in Washington; David Sharp in Portland, Maine; Suzette Laboy in Miami; Bob Lewis in Bristol, Va., contributed to this report.

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US moves into final military phase in Iraq

Posted by Admin on September 1, 2010

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BAGHDAD – The U.S. on Wednesday moved into the final phase of its military involvement in Iraq, with administration officials saying the war was ending even as the new commander of the remaining 50,000 troops warned of the ongoing threat from “hostile elements.”

The transfer of authority came a day after President Barack Obama announced the shift from combat operations to preparing Iraqi forces to assume responsibility for their own security. Obama made clear in Tuesday’s speech that this was no victory celebration.

A six-month stalemate over forming a new Iraqi government has raised concerns about the country’s stability and questions over whether the leadership can cope with a diminished but still dangerous insurgency.

Newly promoted Army Gen. Lloyd Austin also maintained a somber tone as he took the reins of the some 50,000 American troops who remain in Iraq, with a deadline for a full withdrawal by the end of next year.

He noted “hostile enemies” continue to threaten Iraq and pledged that “our national commitment to Iraq will not change.”

“Although challenges remain, we will face these challenges together,” Austin said during the ceremony at the opulent al-Faw palace of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.

Austin, who most recently served in Iraq as commander of troop operations from 2008-09, replaces Gen. Ray Odierno, who is heading to Virginia to take over the Joint Forces Command after about five years in Iraq.

“This period in Iraq’s history will probably be remembered for sacrifice, resilience and change,” Odierno said. “However, I remember it as a time in which the Iraqi people stood up against tyranny, terrorism and extremism, and decided to determine their own destiny as a people and as a democratic state.”

Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen presided over the ceremony, which was held at the main U.S. military headquarters on the southwestern outskirts of Baghdad.

Gates, visiting American troops in the Iraqi city of Ramadi Wednesday, said history will judge whether the fight was worth it for the United States.

“The problem with this war, I think, for many Americans, is that the premise on which we justified going to war turned out not to be valid,” he said. “Even if the outcome is a good one from the standpoint of the United States, it’ll always be clouded by how it began.”

Claiming that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, then-President George W. Bush ordered the invasion with approval of a Congress still reeling from the 9/11 attacks. Bush’s claims were based on faulty intelligence, and the weapons were never found.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said his country is grateful for what the Americans have done, but it is now time for Iraqis to secure their own future.

“We appreciate the sacrifices the U.S. military and the American people made while standing with us in these very, very difficult times,” Zebari told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “The war for Iraq’s future is ongoing and it should be fought and won by the Iraqi people and their leaders,” Zebari said.

Obama acknowledged the ambiguous nature of the war in which American forces quickly ousted Saddam but were never able to fully control the Sunni Muslim insurgency against the Shiite-dominated establishment that even now threatens to re-ignite.

Still, he said the time had come to close this divisive chapter in U.S. history.

“We have met our responsibility,” Obama said. “Now it is time to turn the page.”

Avoiding any hint of claiming victory in a war he once called a major mistake, the president recognized the sacrifices of America’s military. More than 4,400 American troops and an estimated 100,000 Iraqis were killed at a cost of billions of dollars.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, said Tuesday the end of U.S. combat operations was a return to sovereignty for the battered country and he reassured his people that their own security forces could defend them.

Iraqi forces on Wednesday appeared to be on heightened alert, spread out at checkpoints across the city intended to reassure the populace and ward off insurgent attacks.

Just under 50,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq — down from a peak of about 170,000 at the height in 2007. Those forces will not be able to go on combat missions unless requested and accompanied by Iraqi forces.

But drawing a line between what is and is not combat may not be easy. All American forces carry weapons and they still come under attack from insurgents near daily. Earlier this month, for example, Sgt. Brandon E. Maggart, 24, of Kirksville, Mo. was killed near the southern city of Basra on Aug. 22 — a few days after the last combat brigade rolled across the border into Kuwait.

Iraq is also far from the stable democracy once depicted by the Bush administration and hoped for by Obama when he laid out his timeline for withdrawing American troops shortly after he took office in 2009.

Half a year has passed since Iraq’s March 7 elections and the country’s political leaders have so far failed to form a new government.

While Iraqis are generally happy to see the U.S. military pulling back, they are also apprehensive the withdrawal may be premature as militants hammer local security forces. Iraqis also say they fear their country may still revert to a dictatorship or split along religious and ethnic fault lines.

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AP National Security Correspondent Anne Gearan in Ramadi and AP Writer Barbara Surk in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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