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Archive for February 3rd, 2011

Australian coastal towns wind- and wave-battered

Posted by Admin on February 3, 2011

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110203/ap_on_bi_ge/as_australia_storm

TULLY, Australia – The most powerful storm in a century ripped across Australia’s northeast coast early Thursday, blasting apart houses, laying waste to banana crops and leaving boats lying in the streets of wind– and wave-swept towns.

Authorities said they were surprised to learn at daybreak that no one had been reported killed by Cyclone Yasi, but cautioned that bad news could eventually emerge from communities still cut off after the overnight storm, which left several thousand people homeless.

“It was really terrifying, but we were safe,” said Barbara Kendall, who spent a sleepless night in a basement parking garage with her husband and four cats after being evacuated from their coastal home at Kurrimine Beach. “It’s a terrifying sound. It’s really hard to describe. All I could hear was the screeching of the wind.”

Emergency services fanned out as to assess damage across a disaster zone stretching more than 190 miles (300 kilometers) in Queensland state, using chain saws to cut through debris blocking roads.

The main coastal highway was a slalom course of downed trees and power lines, surrounded by scenes of devastation: Roofs peeled back from houses, fields of sugar cane and banana shredded and flattened, once-green expanses stripped to brown soil.

Cyclone Yasi was moving inland and losing power Thursday. But drenching rains were still falling, adding woes to a state where Australia’s worst flooding in decades has killed 35 people since late November.

Hundreds of thousands of people had spent the night huddled in evacuation centers or bunkered in their homes as the cyclone hit, packing howling winds gusting to 186 mph (300 kph) and causing tidal surges that swamped coastal areas.

“Nothing’s been spared. The devastation is phenomenal, like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” David Brook, the manager of a resort at Mission Beach, where the core of the storm hit the coast around midnight, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

“Vegetation has been reduced to sticks,” said Sgt. Dan Gallagher, a Mission Beach police officer.

At Tully, about 12 miles (20 kilometers) inland along the storm’s path, the main street was littered with twisted pieces of metal that were once house roofs and jagged shards of glass from shattered shopfront windows. Queensland state Premier Anna Bligh said one in three houses in the town of 3,500 people either were demolished by the storm or had the roof ripped off.

Tully and Mission Beach were among a handful of towns in a relatively narrow band that bore the brunt of Yasi’s fury as it stormed ashore.

Further south, emergency workers had cut their way into the coastal community of Cardwell on Thursday morning and found older houses wrecked and boats pushed up into the town, she said. The entire community was believed to have evacuated before the storm.

Along the coastal highway, tidal floodwaters periodically cut the highway, temporarily stranding convoys of people trying to return home to see what was left.

Kendall, from Kurrimine Beach, sat stranded in her car next to her meowing cats Loly, Blossom, Spingle and Junior on her way back from the evacuation center in Innisfail. The trunk of her car was filled with her most essential items: photographs, heirlooms and precious jewelry.

Electricity supplies were cut to more than 180,000 houses in the region — a major fruit and sugarcane-growing area and also considered a tourist gateway to the Great Barrier Reef — and police warned people to stay inside until the danger from fallen power lines and other problems was past.

As the day wore on, authorities allowed more than 10,000 people to leave the 20 evacuation centers where they stayed overnight.

“I’m very relieved this morning, but I do stress these are very early reports,” Bligh said of the information that no one had been killed overnight. “It’s a long way to go before I say we’ve dodged any bullets.”

Ahead of the storm, Bligh and other officials said the storm was more powerful than any that had struck the coast since 1918, and warned the country to expect widespread and destruction and likely deaths.

Amid the chaos, a bit of happy news: a baby girl was born at a Cairns evacuation center just before dawn with the help of a British midwife on holiday, councilor Linda Cooper said.

The largest towns in the path of the cyclone, including Cairns and Townsville, were spared the worst of the fierce winds. Trees were knocked down, but few buildings were damaged, authorities said. But Townsville was suffering widespread flooding.

Officials said it was too early to cite a total cost of the damage, but it was sure to add substantially to the $5.6 billion the government says already was caused by the earlier flooding.

Queensland officials had warned people for days to stock up on bottled water and food, and to board or tape up their windows. People in low-lying or exposed areas were told to evacuate. Bligh credited the preparations with saving lives.

Australia’s huge, sparsely populated tropical north is battered annually by about six cyclones — called typhoons throughout much of Asia and hurricanes in the Western hemisphere. Building codes have been strengthened since Cyclone Tracy devastated the city of Darwin in 1974, killing 71 in one of Australia’s worst natural disasters.

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Online:

Bureau of Meteorology: http://www.bom.gov.au/cyclone/index.shtml

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Blizzard spreads snowy shroud over nearly half US

Posted by Admin on February 3, 2011

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110203/ap_on_re_us/us_winter_weather

CHICAGO – A fearsome storm spread a smothering shroud of white over nearly half the nation Wednesday, snarling transportation from Oklahoma to New England, burying parts of the Midwest under 2 feet of snow and laying down dangerously heavy ice in the Northeast that was too much for some buildings to bear.

Tens of millions of people stayed home. The hardy few who ventured out faced howling winds that turned snowflakes into face-stinging needles. Chicago‘s 20.2 inches of snow was the city’s third-largest amount on record. In New York’s Central Park, the pathways resembled skating rinks.

The storm that resulted from two clashing air masses was, if not unprecedented, extraordinarily rare for its size and ferocious strength.

“A storm that produces a swath of 20-inch snow is really something we’d see once every 50 years — maybe,” National Weather Service meteorologist Thomas Spriggs said.

Across the storm’s path, lonely commuters struggled against drifts 3 and 4 feet deep in eerily silent streets, some of which had not seen a plow’s blade since the snow started a day earlier. Parkas and ski goggles normally reserved for the slopes became essential for getting to work.

“This is probably the most snow I’ve seen in the last 34 years,” joked 34-year-old Chicagoan Michael George. “I saw some people cross-country skiing on my way to the train. It was pretty wild.”

Although skies were beginning to clear by mid-afternoon over much of the nation’s midsection, the storm promised to leave a blast of bitter cold in its wake. Overnight temperatures in the upper Midwest were expected to fall to minus 5 to minus 20, with wind chills as low as minus 30.

The system was blamed for the deaths of at least a dozen people, including a homeless man who burned to death on New York’s Long Island as he tried to light cans of cooking fuel and a woman in Oklahoma City who was killed while being pulled behind a truck on a sled that hit a guard rail.

Airport operations slowed to a crawl nationwide, and flight cancellations reached 13,000 for the week, making this system the most disruptive so far this winter. A massive post-Christmas blizzard led to about 10,000 cancellations.

In the winter-weary Northeast, thick ice collapsed several structures, including a gas station canopy on Long Island and an airplane hangar and garages near Boston. In at least two places, workers heard the structures beginning to crack and narrowly escaped.

In Middletown, Conn., the entire third floor of a building failed, littering the street with bricks and snapping two trees. Acting Fire Marshal Al Santostefano said two workers fled when they heard a cracking sound.

“It’s like a bomb scene,” Santostefano said. “Thank God they left the building when they did.”

More than a half-dozen states began digging out from up to a foot of snow that made roads treacherous and left hundreds of thousands of homes without power.

Chicago public schools canceled classes for a second straight day. And the city’s iconic Lake Shore Drive remained shut down, nearly a day after drivers abandoned hundreds of snowbound vehicles.

The famous freeway appeared as if rush hour had been stopped in time, with three lanes of cars cluttering the pavement amid snow drifts that stood as high as the windshields. Bulldozers worked to clear the snow from around the cars, which were then plucked out by tow trucks one by one.

As the storm built to full strength Tuesday evening, 26-year-old Lindsey Wilson sat for hours on a stranded city bus. She eventually joined other passengers who tried to walk home. She made it about 100 feet before she couldn’t see anything around her, including the bus she’d just left.

Fearing she would be swallowed by mounting snow drifts, Wilson turned back and spent the night on the bus.

“I thought if I fall over, what would happen if I got buried under a pile of snow?” she said.

Some motorists came away angry, frustrated that city didn’t close the crucial thoroughfare earlier. Others were mad at themselves for going out during the storm or not using another route.

“In 31 years with the city, I haven’t experienced anything like we did at Lake Shore Drive,” said Raymond Orozco, chief of staff for Mayor Richard M. Daley. “Hundreds of people were very inconvenienced, and we apologize for that.”

Orozco took responsibility for the decision not to close the drive as soon as snow began to fall Tuesday, but insisted he stood by the choice. He also hinted that his boss wasn’t satisfied.

“I think the mayor knows we can always do better,” Orozco said.

At dusk Wednesday, more than 200 cars remained on the drive, and city workers planned to work through the night to remove them. But it wasn’t clear whether the job would be done in time for the morning rush.

Elsewhere, utility crews raced to restore power to tens of thousands of homes and businesses in Ohio, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where freezing rain and ice brought down electrical lines.

Rolling blackouts were implemented across Texas, including in Super Bowl host city Dallas, due to high demand during a rare ice storm. The outages would not affect Cowboys Stadium in suburban Arlington, said Jeamy Molina, a spokeswoman for utility provider Oncor. But other Super Bowl facilities, such as team hotels, were not exempt, she said.

The storm derived its power from the collision of cold air sweeping down from Canada and warm, moist air coming up from the south.

“The atmosphere doesn’t like that contrast in temperature. Things get mixed together and you have a storm like this,” said Gino Izzo, another weather service meteorologist. “The jet stream up in the atmosphere was like the engine and the warm air was the fuel.”

The contrasts were most dramatic in Texas earlier in the week, when one part of the state reported temperatures in the single digits and another part had temperatures in the 70s, with near-tropical humidity.

“That was the breeding ground for this storm,” Izzo said.

Louis Uccellini, director of the government’s National Centers for Environmental Prediction, said the storm also drew strength from the La Nina (la NEEN’-ya) condition currently affecting the tropical Pacific Ocean.

La Nina is a periodic cooling of the surface temperatures of the tropical Pacific Ocean, the opposite of the better-known El Nino (el NEEN’-yoh) warming. Both can have significant impacts on weather around the world by changing the movement of winds and high and low pressure systems.

Still, some people in the storm’s wake shrugged off the weather — and nearly the whole season.

“It’s winter. It should have snow and ice. It’s the way it is,” said Vincent Zuza of Chatham, N.J., who was waiting for a flight to Salt Lake City for a ski trip after his first flight was canceled Wednesday. “You can’t get too upset about it, and you can’t control it. You just have to make the best of it.”

For some of those battered by the storm, there was one whimsical ray of hope: The world’s most famous weather forecaster — with four legs — predicted an early spring.

Punxsutawney Phil’s handlers told Groundhog Day revelers at Gobbler’s Knob, a tiny hill in Punxsutawney, Pa., that the groundhog had not seen his shadow, meaning winter will end within six weeks, according to tradition.

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Associated Press writers Deanna Bellandi, Karen Hawkins, and Barbara Rodriguez and photographer Kii Sato in Chicago; Jim Salter in St. Louis; Patrick Walters in Philadelphia; Ula Ilnytzky in New York City and Adam Pemble in Newark, N.J., contributed to this report.

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Gunfire pounds anti-Mubarak protest camp in Cairo

Posted by Admin on February 3, 2011

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110203/ap_on_re_mi_ea/ml_egypt

CAIROHeavy automatic weapons fire pounded the anti-government protest camp in Cairo‘s Tahrir Square before dawn on Thursday in a dramatic escalation of what appeared to be a well-orchestrated series of assaults on the demonstrators. At least three protesters were killed by gunfire, according to one of the activists.

The crowds seeking an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s nearly three decades in power were still reeling from attacks hours earlier in which Mubarak supporters charged into the square on horses and camels, lashing people with whips, while others rained firebombs and rocks from rooftops.

The protesters accused Mubarak’s regime of unleashing a force of paid thugs and plainclothes police to crush their unprecedented nine-day-old movement, a day after the 82-year-old president refused to step down. They showed off police ID badges they said were wrested from their attackers. Some government workers said their employers ordered them into the streets.

The violence intensified overnight, as sustained bursts of automatic gunfire and powerful single shots rained into the square starting at around 4 a.m. and continuing for more than two hours.

Protest organizer Mustafa el-Naggar said he saw the bodies of three dead protesters being carried toward an ambulance. He said the gunfire came from at least three locations in the distance and that the Egyptian military, which has ringed the square with tank squads for days to try to keep some order, did not intervene.

Footage from AP Television News showed one tank spreading a thick smoke screen along a highway overpass just to the north of the square in an apparent attempt to deprive attackers of a high vantage point. The two sides seemed to be battling for control of the overpass, which leads to a main bridge over the Nile.

In the darkness, groups of men hurled firebombs and rocks from the bridge, where a wrecked car sat engulfed in flames. Others dragged two apparently lifeless bodies from the area.

Egypt‘s health minister did not answer a phone call seeking confirmation of the number killed.

Click image to see photos of anti-government protests in Egypt

At daybreak, the two sides were still battling with rocks and flaming bottles of gasoline along the front line on the northern edge of the square, near the famed Egyptian Museum.

Demonstrators took cover behind makeshift barricades of corrugated metal sheeting taken from a nearby construction site and Mubarak supporters seemed to hold their ground on the overpass. Between them stretched a burning no-man’s-land of smoldering cars, hunks of concrete and fires.

The fighting began more than 12 hours earlier, turning the celebratory atmosphere in the square over the previous day into one of terror and sending a stream of wounded to makeshift clinics in mosques and alleyways on the anti-government side. Three people died in the violence on Wednesday and 600 were injured.

Mustafa el-Fiqqi, a senior official from the ruling National Democratic Party, told The Associated Press that businessmen connected to the ruling party were responsible for what happened.

The notion that the state may have coordinated violence against protesters, who had kept a peaceful vigil in Tahrir Square for five days, prompted a sharp rebuke from the Obama administration.

“If any of the violence is instigated by the government, it should stop immediately,” said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

The clashes marked a dangerous new phase in Egypt’s upheaval: the first significant violence between government supporters and opponents. The crisis took a sharp turn for the worse almost immediately after Mubarak rejected the calls for him to give up power or leave the country, stubbornly proclaiming he would die on Egyptian soil.

His words were a blow to the protesters. They also suggest that authorities want to turn back the clock to the tight state control enforced before the protests began.

Mubarak’s supporters turned up on the streets Wednesday in significant numbers for the first time. Some were hostile to journalists and foreigners. Two Associated Press correspondents and several other journalists were roughed up in Cairo. State TV had reported that foreigners were caught distributing anti-Mubarak leaflets, apparently trying to depict the movement as foreign-fueled.

The scenes of mayhem were certain to add to the fear that is already running high in this capital of 18 million people after a weekend of looting and lawlessness and the escape of thousands of prisoners from jails in the chaos.

Soldiers surrounding Tahrir Square fired occasional shots in the air throughout Wednesday’s clashes but did not appear to otherwise intervene and no uniformed police were seen. Most of the troops took shelter behind or inside the armored vehicles and tanks stationed at the entrances to the square.

“Why don’t you protect us?” some protesters shouted at the soldiers, who replied they did not have orders to do so and told people to go home.

“The army is neglectful. They let them in,” said Emad Nafa, a 52-year-old among the protesters, who for days had showered the military with affection for its neutral stance.

Some of the worst street battles raged near the Egyptian Museum at the edge of the square. Pro-government rioters blanketed the rooftops of nearby buildings and hurled bricks and firebombs onto the crowd below — in the process setting a tree ablaze inside the museum grounds. Plainclothes police at the building entrances prevented anti-Mubarak protesters from storming up to stop them.

The two sides pummeled each other with chunks of concrete and bottles at each of the six entrances to the sprawling plaza, where 10,000 anti-Mubarak protesters tried to fend off more than 3,000 attackers who besieged them. Some on the pro-government side waved machetes, while the square’s defenders filled the air with a ringing battlefield din by banging metal fences with sticks.

In one almost medieval scene, a small contingent of pro-Mubarak forces on horseback and camels rushed into the anti-government crowds, trampling several people and swinging whips and sticks. Protesters dragged some riders from their mounts, throwing them to the ground and beating their faces bloody. The horses and camels appeared to be ones used to give tourists rides around Cairo.

Dozens of men and women pried up pieces of the pavement with bars and ferried the piles of ammunition in canvas sheets to their allies at the front. Others directed fighters to streets needing reinforcements.

The protesters used a subway station as a makeshift prison for the attackers they managed to catch. They tied the hands and legs of their prisoners and locked them inside. People grabbed one man who was bleeding from the head, hit him with their sandals and threw him behind a closed gate.

Some protesters wept and prayed in the square where only a day before they had held a joyous, peaceful rally of a quarter-million, the largest demonstration so far.

Egyptian Health Minister Ahmed Sameh Farid said three people died and at least 611 were injured in Tahrir Square on Wednesday. One of those killed fell from a bridge near the square; Farid said the man was in civilian clothes but may have been a member of the security forces.

Farid did not say how the other two victims, both young men, were killed. It was not clear whether they were government supporters or anti-Mubarak demonstrators.

After years of tight state control, protesters emboldened by the uprising in Tunisia took to the streets on Jan. 25 and mounted a once-unimaginable series of demonstrations across this nation of 80 million. For the past few days, protesters who camped out in Tahrir Square reveled in a new freedom — publicly expressing their hatred for the Mubarak regime.

“After our revolution, they want to send people here to ruin it for us,” said Ahmed Abdullah, a 47-year-old lawyer in the square.

Another man shrieked through a loudspeaker: “Hosni has opened the door for these thugs to attack us.”

The pressure for demonstrators to clear the square mounted throughout the day, beginning early when a military spokesman appeared on state TV and asked them to disperse so life in Egypt could get back to normal.

It was a change in attitude by the army, which for the past few days had allowed protests to swell with no interference and even made a statement saying they had a legitimate right to demonstrate peacefully.

Then the regime began to rally its supporters in significant numbers for the first time, demanding an end to the protest movement. Some 20,000 Mubarak supporters held an angry but mostly peaceful rally on Wednesday across the Nile River from Tahrir, responding to calls on state TV.

They said Mubarak’s concessions were enough. He has promised not to run for re-election in September, named a new government and appointed a vice president for the first time, widely considered his designated successor.

They were bitter at the jeers hurled at Mubarak.

“I feel humiliated,” said Mohammed Hussein, a 31-year-old factory worker. “He is the symbol of our country. When he is insulted, I am insulted.”

The anti-Mubarak movement has vowed to intensify protests to force him out by Friday.

State TV said Vice President Omar Suleiman called “on the youth to heed the armed forces’ call and return home to restore order.” From the other side, senior anti-Mubarak figure Mohamed ElBaradei demanded the military “intervene immediately and decisively to stop this massacre.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke with Suleiman to condemn the violence and urge Egypt’s government to hold those responsible for it accountable, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

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AP correspondents Sarah El Deeb, Hamza Hendawi, Diaa Hadid, Lee Keath, Michael Weissenstein and Maggie Michael contributed to this report.

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