At least five people dead as tropical storm Florence spreads to South Carolina

Blowing ashore with howling 155 km/h winds, Florence splintered buildings, trapped hundreds of people and swamped entire communities along the Carolina coast Friday in what could be just the opening act in a watery, two-part, slow-motion disaster. At least five people were killed.

Forecasters warned that drenching rains of 30 centimetres to 1 metre as the hurricane-turned-tropical storm crawls westward across North and South Carolina could trigger epic flooding well inland over the next few days.

As 645-kilometre-wide Florence pounded away at the coast with torrential downpours and surging seas, rescue crews used boats to reach more than 360 people besieged by rising waters in New Bern, while many of their neighbours awaited help. More than 60 people had to be rescued in another town as a cinderblock motel collapsed at the height of the storm's fury.

Florence flattened trees, crumbled roads and the assault wasn't anywhere close to being over, with the siege in the Carolinas expected to last all weekend. The storm knocked out power to more than 890,000 homes and businesses, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks the US electrical grid.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper called Florence an "uninvited brute" that could wipe out entire communities as it grinds across the state.

"The fact is this storm is deadly and we know we are days away from an ending," Cooper said. Parts of North Carolina had seen storm surges - the bulge of seawater pushed ashore by the hurricane - as high as 3 metres, he said.

A mother and baby were killed when a tree fell on a house, according to a tweet from Wilmington police. Also, a 77-year-old man was apparently knocked down by the wind and died after going out to check on his hunting dogs, Lenoir County authorities said, and the governor's office said a man was electrocuted while trying to connect extension cords in the rain.

Shaken after seeing waves crashing on the Neuse River just outside his house in New Bern, restaurant owner and hurricane veteran Tom Ballance wished he had evacuated.

"I feel like the dumbest human being who ever walked the face of the earth," he said.

After reaching a terrifying Category 4 peak of 225 km/h earlier in the week, Florence made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane at 7.15am at Wrightsville Beach, a few kilometres east of Wilmington and not far from the South Carolina line. It came ashore along a mostly boarded-up, emptied-out stretch of coastline.

By Friday evening, Florence was downgraded to a tropical storm, its winds weakened to 112 km/h as it moved forward at 6km/h about 25 kilometres north of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

But it was clear that this was really about the water, not the wind. Several places already had more than 40 centimetres of rain, and Oriental, North Carolina got more than 50 centimetres in just a few hours.

Florence's forward movement during the day slowed to a near-standstill - sometimes it was going no faster than a human can walk - and that enabled it to pile on the rain.

The flooding soon spread into South Carolina. The National Hurricane Centre in Miami says the core of Florence was located at 11pm Friday about 20 kilometres west-northwest of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a resort area known for its white sands and multitude of golf courses.

Top sustained winds are now about 100 km/h and the storm is moving to the west-southwest at 7 km/h — a track that is expected to continue through early Saturday.

Forecasters say catastrophic freshwater flooding is expected over parts of North Carolina and South Carolina ahead.

As Florence moves further inland over the coming days, the storm is expected to gradually weaken. Forecasters say it could become a depression by Saturday night.

For people living inland in the Carolinas, however, the moment of maximum peril from flash flooding could arrive days later, because it takes time for rainwater to drain into rivers and for those streams to crest.

Preparing for the worst, about 9,700 National Guard troops and civilians were deployed with high-water vehicles, helicopters and boats.

Authorities warned, too, of the threat of mudslides and the risk of an environmental disaster from floodwaters washing over industrial waste sites and hog farms.

Florence was seen as a major test for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was heavily criticised as slow and unprepared last year for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where the death toll was put at nearly 3,000.

The National Hurricane Centre said Florence will eventually break up over the southern Appalachians and make a right hook to the northeast, its rainy remnants moving into the mid-Atlantic states and New England by the middle of next week.

Meteorologist Ryan Maue of weathermodels.com said Florence could dump a staggering 68 trillion litres of rain over a week on North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Maryland. That's enough to fill the Chesapeake Bay or cover the entire state of Texas with nearly 10 centimetres of water, he calculated.

North Carolina alone is forecast to get 36 trillion litres, enough to cover the Tar Heel state to a depth of about 25 centimetres.

On Friday, coastal streets in the Carolinas flowed with frothy ocean water, and pieces of torn-apart buildings flew through the air. The few cars out on a main street in Wilmington had to swerve to avoid fallen trees, metal debris and power lines.

A wind gust at the Wilmington airport was clocked at nearly 170km/h, the highest since Hurricane Helene in 1958. Nationwide, airlines cancelled more than 2,400 flights through Sunday.

In Jacksonville, North Carolina, next to Camp Lejeune, firefighters and police fought wind and rain as they went door-to-door to pull dozens of people out of the Triangle Motor Inn after the structure began to crumble and the roof started to collapse.

In New Bern, population 29,000, flooding on the Neuse River left 500 people in peril.

"WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU," the city tweeted around 2am. "You may need to move up to the second story, or to your attic, but WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU."

Boat teams including volunteers rescued some 360 residents, including Sadie Marie Holt, 67, who first tried to row out of her neighbourhood during Florence's assault.

"The wind was so hard, the waters were so hard, that trying to get out we got thrown into trailers. We got thrown into mailboxes, houses, trees," said Holt, who had stayed at home because of a doctor's appointment that was later cancelled. She retreated and was eventually rescued by a boat crew; 140 more awaited assistance.

Ashley Warren and boyfriend Chris Smith managed to paddle away from their home in a boat with their two dogs, and the experience left her shaken.

"Honestly, I grew up in Wilmington. I love hurricanes. But this one has been an experience for me," she said. "We might leave."

The storm dropped 10 to 18 inches of rain along the North Carolina coast. Source: Associated Press



Clean-up begins after Typhoon Mangkhut slams into Philippines coast with wind gusts of up to 255km/h

Typhoon Mangkhut slammed into the country's northeastern coast early Saturday, with witnesses saying the storm's ferocious wind and blinding rain ripped off tin roof sheets and knocked out power at the start of the onslaught.

The typhoon made landfall before dawn in the coastal town of Baggao in Cagayan province on the northern tip of Luzon island, an agricultural region of flood-prone rice plains and mountain provinces often hit by landslides.

More than 5 million people were at risk from the storm, which the Hawaii-based Joint Typhoon Warning Centre categorizes as a super typhoon with powerful winds and gusts equivalent to a category 5 Atlantic hurricane.

Typhoon Mangkhut slammed into the country's northeastern coast, with witnesses saying ferocious wind and blinding rain ripped off tin roof sheets and knocked out power. Source: Associated Press

There were no immediate reports of major damages or casualties in the region, where a massive evacuation from high-risk areas was carried out over two days.

Associated Press journalists in a hotel in Cagayan's capital city of Tuguegarao saw tin roof sheets and other debris hurtle through the air and store signs crash to the ground. Cars shook as wind gusts pummelled a parking lot.

With a huge raincloud band 900 kilometres wide, combined with seasonal monsoon rains, the typhoon was expected to bring intense rain that could set off landslides and flash floods. Storm warnings have been raised in almost all the provinces across the Luzon, including the capital, Manila, restricting sea and air travel.

Before it hit the island, Mangkhut was tracked late Friday with sustained winds of 205 kilometres per hour and gusts of up to 255km/h, forecasters said.

Even if the typhoon weakens slightly after slamming ashore, its winds will remain very destructive, government forecaster Rene Paciente said.

"It can lift cars, you can't stand, you can't even crawl against that wind," Paciente told reporters late Friday in Manila.

In Cagayan's capital city of Tuguegarao, residents braced for the typhoon's fury by reinforcing homes and buildings and stocking up on food.

"It was busy earlier in the hardware store and people were buying wood, nails, tin wire, plywood and umbrellas," said Benjamin Banez, who owns a three-story hotel where workers were busy hammering up wooden boards to protect glass panels.

A super typhoon wrought heavy damage to Banez's hotel and the rest of Cagayan in 2016.

Ninia Grace Abedes abandoned her bamboo hut and hauled her four children to a school building serving as an emergency shelter. The 33-year-old laundrywoman said the 2016 typhoon blew away their hut, which they abandoned before the storm hit.

"If we didn't, all of us would be dead," Abedes said.

More than 15,300 people had been evacuated in northern provinces by Friday afternoon, the Office of Civil Defence said.

Concerns over massive storm surges that could be whipped inland by the typhoon's winds prompted wardens to move 143 detainees from a jail in Cagayan's Aparri town to nearby towns, officials said.

The typhoon hit at the start of the rice and corn harvesting season in Cagayan, a major agricultural producer, prompting farmers to scramble to save what they could of their crops, Cagayan Gov. Manuel Mamba said. The threat to agriculture comes as the Philippines tries to cope with rice shortages.

After the Philippines, the Hong Kong Observatory predicts Mangkhut will plough into the Chinese mainland early Monday south of Hong Kong and north of the island province of Hainan. Though it is likely to weaken from a super typhoon to a severe typhoon, it will still pack sustained winds of 175km/h, it said.

The observatory warned of rough seas and frequent heavy squalls, urging residents of the densely populated financial hub to "take suitable precautions and pay close attention to the latest information" on the storm.

The gambling enclave of Macau, near Hong Kong, suffered catastrophic flooding during Typhoon Hato last August that left 10 dead and led to accusations of corruption and incompetence at its meteorological office.

On the Chinese mainland, the three southern provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi and Hainan are coordinating preparations, including suspending transport and moving people to shelter inland, the national meteorological agency reported.

Guangdong, China's manufacturing hub, has set up 3,777 shelters, while more than 100,000 residents and tourists have been moved to safety or sent home.

The province has recalled more than 36,000 fishing boats to port, while train services between the cities of Zhanjiang and Maoming have been suspended and all ferry services between Guangdong and Hainan have been put on hold. Fujian province to the north of Guangdong is also closing beaches and tourist sites, the agency reported.

Philippine forecasters said the shifting typhoon could possibly blow toward Vietnam after it exits late Saturday or early Sunday.

In an emergency meeting Thursday, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte asked Cabinet officials from the north to help oversee disaster-response work and told reporters it was too early to consider seeking foreign aid.

"If it flattens everything, maybe we need to have some help," he said.

Mangkhut, the Thai word for mangosteen fruit, is the 15th storm this year to batter the Philippines, which is hit by about 20 a year and is considered one of the world's most disaster-prone countries.

Typhoon Haiyan left more than 7,300 people dead or missing, flattened villages, swept ships inland and displaced more than 5 million in the central Philippines in 2013.

Ferocious winds and rain tore off tin roof sheets and knocked out power through Baggao, in Cagayan province. Source: Associated Press


Former doctor receives death sentence after killing four people in US

A former doctor was sentenced to death today for the revenge killings of four people connected to a Nebraska medical school, including the 11-year-old son of a physician who helped fire the man from a residency programme nearly two decades ago.

Anthony Garcia, 45, of Indiana entered the courtroom in a wheelchair and appeared to sleep through the hearing as a three-judge panel sentenced him to death. The judges, who heard arguments earlier this year during the sentencing phase of Garcia's trial, also had the option of life in prison.

Garcia was convicted in 2016 for two attacks — that occurred five years apart — on families connected to Creighton University School of Medicine in Omaha. Prosecutors argued the killings were motivated by Garcia's long-simmering rage over being fired in 2001 by Dr. William Hunter and another Creighton pathology doctor, Roger Brumback.

Some of the victims' relatives testified today, including Jeff Sherman, whose mother was fatally stabbed alongside Hunter's young son when she worked at the Hunter family's home in 2008.

"I'm left with constant images from courtroom pictures of what happened to my mom," Mr Sherman said. "I can't ever get those images out of my head."

Investigators said Garcia fatally stabbed 11-year-old Thomas Hunter and 57-year-old Shirlee Sherman at the family's home in an upscale Omaha neighbourhood. Police collected a slew of evidence but struggled to find a suspect in the killings.

The case went cold in the following years. But that changed with the 2013 Mother's Day deaths of Brumback and his wife, Mary, in their Omaha home. Police recognised similarities in the 2008 and 2013 killings, and Garcia was quickly eyed as a suspect. He was arrested two months later during a traffic stop in southern Illinois.

Today, Thomas Hunter's mother, Dr. Claire Hunter, spoke of the agony of losing her young son so violently. She said the boy "was a joy in everybody's life."

"You can't begin to enumerate what an event like has had on us, on the entire community," she said after Garcia was sentenced.

Garcia's parents and brother, who live in California, also attended the hearing. They were tearful as the verdict was read.

His brother, Fernando Garcia, said it was hard for his family to imagine his brother committing the crimes.

"We just want the victims' families to know we do pray for them. We feel their pain," he said. "We're sorry those things took place. We're not an evil family. We hope they find peace somehow."

During the trial, prosecutors presented massive amounts of circumstantial evidence, including credit card and cellphone records placing Garcia in and around Omaha the day the Brumbacks were killed. One receipt showed Garcia eating a meal at a chicken wings restaurant within two hours of when police believe the Brumbacks were attacked.

Prosecutors also presented evidence that Garcia had sought to attack another Creighton medical school faculty member on May 10, 2013 — the same day the Brumbacks were killed. Prosecutors said Garcia pushed in a back door of that woman's home but fled when the home's alarm went off. Police believe he then found the Brumbacks' address on his smartphone and attacked them.

Roger Brumback was shot in the doorway of his home and then stabbed. His wife was stabbed to death, much the same way Thomas Hunter and Shirlee Sherman had been stabbed, according to investigators.

Nebraska had not executed an inmate in more than 20 years until last month, when Carey Dean Moore died by lethal injection for the 1979 shooting deaths of two Omaha cab drivers.

However, the state's mode of execution remains riddled with controversy and legal challenges in the face of difficulty in obtaining some of the drugs used to carry out lethal injection.

Under Nebraska law, Garcia's sentence will be automatically appealed.

Today's sentencing was briefly interrupted when the lead judge in the case suffered a medical emergency and had to be carried from the courthouse on a stretcher. Gage County District Judge Rick Schreiner took over, explaining that Randall had undergone a medical procedure earlier in the week that caused him extreme back pain.

Anthony Garcia appears unresponsive at the Douglas County Court in Omaha, Nebraska. Source: Associated Press

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US to open wildlife refuge at ex-nuke site despite concern for public safety

The U.S. Interior Department said Friday (local time) it will go ahead with plans to open a wildlife refuge at the site of a former nuclear weapons plant in Colorado, after briefly putting the opening on hold amid concerns about public safety.

Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, on the perimeter of a government factory that made plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs, is scheduled to open Saturday.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke initially said Friday he would delay the opening to gather more information about safety.

The announcement came after Colorado Democratic congressman Jared Polis, who is running for governor, wrote Zinke expressing concerns that plutonium testing on the site was outdated and asking him to postpone the opening until new tests could be done.

Just one hour later, Zinke spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said a review was complete and the refuge would open.

Vander Voort said the review was done by Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, the No. 2 leader at the department. Vander Voort did not provide any details of the review and did not immediately respond to an email seeking more information.

The Rocky Flats plutonium plant stopped work in 1989 after a 34-year history marred by fires, leaks and spills. It was shut down during a criminal investigation into environmental violations.

Rockwell International, the contractor then operating the plant, pleaded guilty in 1992 to charges that included allowing leaks of chemical and radioactive material and illegally disposing hazardous waste. The company was fined $18.5 million.

The plutonium plant was cleaned up at a cost of $7 billion, but it remains off-limits to the public.

The 8-square-mile (21-kilometer) buffer zone surrounding the manufacturing site was turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a refuge.

Some groups worry that plutonium particles eluded the cleanup and could be sprinkled over the refuge, where hikers and cyclists could inadvertently stir them up or track them home.

Five environmental and community activist groups sued the government in May, arguing the refuge should remain closed until more testing is done.

Last month, a judge rejected their request to delay the opening while the lawsuit is heard. The lawsuit is pending in Denver federal court.

"My head is spinning," said Randall Weiner, an attorney for the plaintiffs, after the Interior Department's rapid reversal Friday.

"It seems like the (deputy) secretary did an awfully quick study to address the questions raised by Rep. Polis," he said.

Until this weekend, the only way to visit the refuge was to sign up for a short hike, guided by a Fish and Wildlife Service officer, offered once a month.

The agency plans to open about 16 kilometres of trails this weekend that will be open seven days a week. Visitors will be told to stay on the trails or roads.

The U.S. Interior Department said it would open the wildlife refuge after briefly putting the opening on hold amid concerns about public safety. Source: Associated Press


Dolphins seen swimming in storm surge waters in the US

Dolphins were filmed battling in surge waters near Wilmington in North Carolina after tropical storm Florence made landfall.

The footage, posted by North Carolina’s WWAY TV, shows a pair of dolphins battling against the fast-moving water.

Florence, which has been downgraded to a tropical storm, caused surges of 3.5m when it made landfall this morning (NZ time).

It blew ashore with howling 155 km/h winds, splintering buildings, trapped hundreds of people and swamped entire communities along the Carolina coast.

Its top sustained winds have dropped to 70km/h and it's at a near standstill, moving west at just 6 km/h.