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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What a SC tornado ripped apart is found again (AP)

By SUSANNE M. SCHAFER, Associated Press Susanne M. Schafer, Associated Press – Sat Dec 17, 1:32 pm ET

ROCK HILL, S.C. – Sharon Courtney came to an old South Carolina schoolhouse on a cold December night to try to find memories of her husband Steve, who was killed last month when a tornado tore their home apart.

Sifting through piles of muddied photos, crushed papers, and mangled tools gathered by volunteers, the 55-year-old church pianist found a tattered piece of paper that was a faded anniversary card sent by her in-laws to celebrate her two-year wedding anniversary in 1978.

"How about that? Isn't that marvelous?" she said, a bit of wonder in her voice, showing the signature she recognized from her late husband's father, who had passed away a month before the storm.

"Now he's in heaven with his dad," Courtney said. "Christmas isn't going to be easy, but we'll get through it."

Courtney's husband was among six killed in three states by a severe weather system that struck the South late last month. It was among the final deadly gasps of a devastating year of tornadoes that killed hundreds in Missouri, Alabama and elsewhere.

In the aftermath of the deadly storms, all sorts of odd lost-and-founds have helped survivors cope and communities rebuild. In Alabama, a Facebook page connected people with personal items flung miles away by April twisters, while workers in Missouri carefully cleaned and sorted 27,000 photos buried or blown away when a tornado devastated Joplin in May.

In South Carolina, Courtney said it was hard to search through the piles of personal items gathered by members of her small, rural community, but it also showed the kindness of strangers.

"We've all become a family," Courtney said of the rescue workers and volunteers gathered at the school house.

The old building became a collection point because it was located next to the Bethesda Volunteer Fire Department, whose firefighters were among the first to respond when the 135 mph tornado hit down the road. An area meteorologist has also used his blog to help people track personal items and explain the physics behind their long journeys.

The funnel cloud touched down over several miles and blew apart eight houses, damaged 20 others, tore metal farm sheds off their foundations and twisted trees like pipe cleaners.

York County Coroner Sabrina Gast, who worked all night to locate the dead and wounded, has since banded with the firefighters and local volunteers to collect personal items and return them to their owners. Tornado victims were invited to peruse the items, organized in paper bags by where they were found.

"We hope they can find something, and get a little bit back of what they lost," says Gast, standing amid the piles turned in over the past three weeks.

Sue Ferrell Clark, 58, showed a pile of dirtied bills, letters and portraits of her grandchildren that she'd collected. Portraits of her elderly parents were intact, still inside a mud-splashed plastic frame.

She laughed at a faded photo from her wedding 25 years ago. "That's my ex-husband," she said with a laugh. Her elderly parents survived the storm under a couch as the storm's winds whipped the roof off their home.

"The Lord was really looking after them," she said. "But I haven't found my laptop yet," she added ruefully.

Firefighter Capt. Tim Mills and his wife Amber used Facebook and put out word through the department's women's auxiliary to organize the school house gathering.

"I'm just hoping that everybody can find something, something to take back, because there's some things they lost they can't never get back," said Mills.

"There's still a lot left," said his wife, 25. "At least everybody who came tonight found some stuff."

As the collection is diminished, it also grows.

Anthony Johnson, 58, of Rock Hill, came by to drop off some torn bits of wedding pictures he'd found in his front yard.

"At first, I didn't know what it was from, and then I realized, the storm!" said Johnson, who lives about three miles away. "It really makes you realize how blessed you are, because with that storm, it could have been you."

Chief meteorologist Brad Panovich of WCNC-TV in Charlotte, more than 20 miles away, has been keeping track of the tornado debris.

His blog displays a picture of a canceled check belonging to Courtney that was found about 25 miles away in Ballantyne, N.C., south of Charlotte, and mailed back to her. She said she was "very pleased" to have gotten it.

"It is common for lightweight materials to be carried long distances after a tornado lifts," Panovich wrote on his blog, noting that some items were found in Tennessee after the tornadoes in Alabama earlier this year.

Tracking such debris has a dual use because it helps scientists understand how storms lift and carry items as they whip back upward in the sky, the meteorologist said.

"Not only does this help reunite people with their lost possessions. It helps us to understand the power of tornados and how the wind and debris they lift behaves after the tornado lifts," Panovich said.


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Typhoon kills more than 436 in southern Philippines (Reuters)

CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines (Reuters) – More than 400 people were killed and an unknown number were missing after a typhoon struck the southern Philippines, causing flash floods and landslides and driving tens of thousands from their homes.

In a text message to Reuters, Gwendolyn Pang, secretary-general of the Philippine National Red Cross (PNRC), said the death toll of 436 was expected to rise.

"Our death toll was based on the actual number of bodies that were brought to funeral homes in the two cities that were the hardest hit by the typhoon," Pang said, adding it was difficult to estimate how many were still unaccounted for.

Typhoon Washi, with winds gusting up to 90 kmh (56 mph), barreled into the resource-rich island of Mindanao late on Friday, bringing heavy rain that also grounded some domestic flights and left wide areas without power.

Emergency workers, soldiers and police were recovering more bodies - most covered in mud - washed ashore in nearby towns.

Pang said nearly 360 bodies had been found in the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan and about 50 in four other southern provinces. The government's official death toll stood only at 131 people and nearly 270 missing.

Another 21 people drowned on the central island of Negros, the PNRC said.

Hundreds were also unaccounted for, most of them from a coastal village in Iligan. Houses were swept into the sea by floodwaters while people were sleeping inside late on Friday.

The Philippines social welfare department said about 100,000 people were displaced and brought to nearly three dozen

shelters in Iligan and Cagayan de Oro.

"WE RAN FOR OUR LIVES"

Army spokesman Colonel Leopoldo Galon said search and rescue operations would continue along the shorelines in Misamis Oriental and Lanao del Norte provinces.

"I can't explain how these things happened, entire villages were swept to the sea by flash floods," Galon said.

"I have not seen anything like this before. This could be worse than Ondoy," he said, referring to a 2009 storm that inundated the capital, Manila, killing hundreds of people.

Television pictures showed bodies encased in mud, cars piled on top of each other and wrecked homes. Helicopters and boats searched the sea for survivors and victims.

"We ran for our lives when we heard a loud whistle blow and was followed by a big bang," Michael Mabaylan, 38, a carpenter, told Reuters. He said his wife and five children were all safe.

Aid worker Crislyn Felisilda cited concern about children who had became separated from their families or lost their parents. "Many children are looking for their loved ones... (and children were) crying and staring into space."

Rosal Agacac, a 40-year-old mother, was begging authorities to help find her two children after their shanty was swept to the sea. "Please President Noynoy, help me," she cried, holding a candle at a spot where their house stood before the floods, referring to President Benigno Aquino.

Aquino met with cabinet members and disaster officials to assess conditions on the main southern island and ordered a review of disaster plans to avoid a repeat of the tragedy. He is due to inspect typhoon-hit areas after Christmas.

Rescue boats pulled at least 15 people from the sea, said another army spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Randolph Cabangbang.

Iligan City Mayor Lawrence Cruz said many people were caught by surprise when water rose one meter (three feet) high in less

than an hour, forcing people onto roofs. "Most of them were already sleeping when floodwaters entered their homes. This is the worst flooding our city has experienced in years."

The national disaster agency said it could not estimate crop and property damage because emergency workers, including soldiers and police officers, were evacuating families and recovering casualties.

Six domestic flights run by Cebu Pacific were cancelled due to the rain and near-zero visibility in the southern and central

Philippines. Ferry services were also halted, stranding hundreds of people.

An average of 20 typhoons hit the Philippines every year.

(Writing by Manny Mogato)


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Forecast: 2012 to start warm in East, cool in West (AP)

WASHINGTON – Federal weather forecasters are predicting that the first three months of the new year will start off warmer than normal in the East, but cooler than usual out West.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that January will be toastier than normal, with most states east of the Rockies getting warmer weather, except for New England.

Forecasters say the southernmost parts of the nation should be drier than normal, including drought-struck Texas. But the Northwest and Great Lakes states are likely to be wetter than normal.

Meteorologists are basing much of their forecast on a continuing moderate La Nina weather oscillation. The flip side of the El Nino, La Nina is a cooling of the equatorial Pacific Ocean that influences weather worldwide.


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Fuel leaks off cargo ship beached off French coast (AP)

ERDEVEN, France – High winds beached a cargo ship on France's jagged Atlantic coast and some of the 220 tons of fuel on board leaked out, threatening a local beach.

The 19-member crew of the "TK Bremen" was evacuated by helicopter early Friday as the vessel ran aground off Erdeven beach in southern Brittany, on the northwest coast of France.

The prefecture of the Morbihan region said in a statement that a kilometer-long (0.6 mile) strip of fuel was headed toward the beach. A giant nature preserve of dunes and wildlife runs through Erdevan, one of many small coastal towns that attracts tourists for its natural beauty.

The local government warned people to stay indoors as rescuers pumped fuel from the hold of the Maltese flagged ship in a bid to empty it.

The French electric company said Friday some 320,000 homes were without electricity as winds of up to 130 kilometers per hour (81 mph) blew across France, triggering alerts in numerous regions. Most of the outages were in the country's west, but some areas in the east and southeast were hit as the storm moved across France.

Heavy rains in low-lying areas and hurricane-force winds of up to 150 kilometers per hour (93 mph) lashed neighboring Switzerland, and train connections and boat services on some lakes in the Alpine country were disrupted. Swiss airports canceled or diverted dozens of flights — with more than 100 called off at Zurich's hub alone.


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Japan's post-tsunami revival plan reaches tipping point (Reuters)

TOKYO (Reuters) – Nine months after a historic magnitude 9.0 earthquake unleashed a deadly tsunami that wreaked havoc across Japan's northeast, the nation, armed with $155 billion in funding, is entering a critical stage of the rebuilding effort.

Damaged railways and major roads are mostly fixed with at least temporary repairs, two-thirds of ruined ports have been restored and 47,000 households moved from emergency shelters to temporary housing.

Of 22 million tonnes of rubble, two-thirds have been cleaned up, but final disposal remains a dangerous challenge because of concerns about radiation that spewed from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant.

All the recovery efforts were made possible by initial emergency budgets totaling 6 trillion yen ($77.19 billion).

Now Tokyo and local officials must produce a plan to "build better" to give the region, long beset by a shrinking and ageing population and lack of investment, a chance of revival.

The tsunami-hit area accounts for about 6-7 percent of Japan's economic output, but the stakes are high for the entire nation. Policymakers, investors and companies are counting on the rebuilding effort to give the $5 trillion economy a jolt needed to keep it from sliding back into recession under the weight of a global slowdown and fears of contagion from Europe's debt crisis.

People and businesses, pessimistic about the region's future however, are packing up. More than 38,000 residents left the area between March and August, the biggest exodus since 1969. Of those that remain, 180,000 out of the region's 5.7 million residents have filed jobless claims between March and October, 70 percent more than a year earlier.

"The people who evacuated the area after the disaster won't feel compelled to return unless they can find stable jobs, so reconstruction without job creation would be a failure," said Hideo Kumano, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.

"That money will finally flow in is a good news, but it is not a guarantee of a self-sustaining recovery of quake-hit areas."

So far the news is not encouraging. Plans to modernize the struggling fishing industry or move coastal communities to higher ground, a precondition for large-scale rebuilding and investment, have been slow to materialize.

Overwhelmed local bureaucracies, opposition from fishing cooperatives and the need to win the hearts and minds of skeptical residents are getting in the way.

"Unless we can have accords with local people, we cannot proceed with rebuilding projects because there is a possibility of opposition," says a regional official in Miyagi, one of the three prefectures worst hit by the March 11 disaster.

That means it may take months before rebuilding funds start flowing to projects on the ground, local officials say.

OLD BUSINESSES, OLD PEOPLE

The national government is promising five-year tax holidays and light-touch regulation on fishing rights, land use and other issues to those who will invest in special industrial zones in disaster-hit areas. Foreign businesses are also eligible.

Industrial parks focused on automotive parts or medical equipment production as well as renewable energy projects such as wind farms are among ideas proposed by Tokyo.

The process of deciding what to build and where has only just started and only 10 out of 19 municipalities requiring rebuilding in Miyagi prefecture have reconstruction plans ready. In neighboring Iwate, eight out of 12 have such plans.

Reconstruction experts say a shortage of qualified planning professionals is one of the obstacles.

"The fact that many of quake-hit cities and towns are scarcely populated has made it difficult for local officials to create rebuilding plans on their own," said Yoshiyuki Aoki, a senior official of the government's reconstruction office in Tokyo.

He says that, whereas the 1995 Kobe quake hit residential areas constantly under redevelopment, much of the northeast has no recent history of re-zoning and city planning and lacks experts. Tokyo wants to rectify that by sending a team of specialists to help, Aoki says.

Re-establishing the fishing industry is another tough question facing planners.

Cooperatives are defending a system that only loosely ties fishermen with processing firms and retailers, but keeps rivals out and Miyagi governor's initiative to open the business to outsiders got drowned in protests.

Shigeru Tabeta, professor of ocean technology and environment at the University of Tokyo who is assisting with rebuilding of port towns, says preserving the status quo is self-defeating.

Tax breaks and incentives will only work if Japan opens its protected farming and fisheries to foreigners, experts say.

With no magic bullet in sight, spending more on a solid safety net may be the only way to keep communities intact until revitalization plans materialize, says Iwao Sato, sociology of law professor at the University of Tokyo.

His survey of the fishing town of Kamaishi showed more than a third of residents were out of work, compared with a fifth before the quake while the population of self-employed has fallen to 17 percent from 28 percent.

"The government has mostly focused on building seabanks, elevating land levels and other infrastructure development," Sato says. "But more attention is probably needed on supporting the livelihoods of people through direct assistance on employment and homes, or else people will leave."

($1 = 77.7300 Japanese yen)

(Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Matthew Driskill)


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Billion-Dollar Disasters 'Harbinger' of Future Extreme Weather: NOAA (LiveScience.com)

SAN FRANCISCO — The 12 $1-billion-plus disasters that hit the United States this year are most likely not simply a matter of the stars aligning against us, according to the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who implicated climate change as a contributor. 

Climate change, caused by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases humans have emitted, is expected to increase certain types of extreme weather, leading to more disasters, according to a report being assembled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

"The report that was released by the IPCC on extreme events suggests that what we are seeing this year is not just an anomalous year, but a harbinger of things to come for at least a subset of the extreme events we are tallying,"said Jane Lubchenco, NOAA's administrator, during a press conference held here this week at the annual American Geophysical Union meeting.

A summary of the report released in November predicts an increase in certain types of extreme weather, including daily high temperatures, heat waves, heavy precipitation and droughts, in some places. [Photos of Devastating Texas Drought]

Costly disasters

With this increase in extreme weather there will likely be an associated uptick in costs. Earlier Wednesday (Dec. 7) the agency announced that this year, so far, had broken the record for costly, weather-related disasters,including drought, wildfire, tornados, flooding, a blizzard and a hurricane. She noted that the agency is still tallying costs related to Tropical Storm Lee and the unseasonable snowstorm in the Northeast that occurred over Halloween weekend.

"I believe there are probably four reasons why we are seeing an increase," said Lubchenco, referring to the number of costly events. "One is there are more extreme events, period, but it is more complicated than that," Lubchenco said, adding that the country now has more people, who have more stuff to lose in disasters, and more people and their stuff now reside in harm's way, such as along the coasts. More people also have insurance that pays for their losses, magnifying the costs associated with a disaster.  

The previous record, for nine $1-billion-or-more weather-related disasters was set in 2008.

Climate-change connection

Of the types of extremes that battered the country this year, only certain large-scale phenomena among them —such as heat waves, droughts and heavy precipitation —have links to climate change.

"We are likely to see more and more of them down the road as climate continues to change," she said.

The connection between small-scale extreme events, such as a localized hailstorm or a tornado, and climate change is less understood, she said.

Since about 1970, NOAA's Climate Extreme Index —which tracks the percentage of the country affected by climate extremes over time —has shown an upward trend that is notably different than the activity in earlier decades, she told an audience of scientists at a talk earlier in the day.

This trend is driven by daily highs and lows, availability of water and heavy precipitation in a single day. Most notably, since 1970, more of the country is experiencing unusually warm nights, with less of the country experiencing unusually cool nights. This particular shift is significant, she said: "Warm overnight lows are related to heat stress in both people, and plants and animals; they never get a chance to cool off."

Likewise, while the country has had periods of severe drought, such as during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, it has never become drier and wetter at the same time, as has happened in the last decade, she said.

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.


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Monday, December 19, 2011

The nation's weather (AP)

By WEATHER UNDERGROUND, For The Associated Press Weather Underground, For The Associated Press – Sat Dec 17, 5:39 am ET

Weather Underground Forecast for Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011.

High pressure over most of the nation was expected to lead to dry and mild weather on Saturday. A ridge of high pressure built from the Rocky Mountains, over the Plains, and into the Eastern U.S. This system was expected to push moisture away, bringing sunny skies and dry conditions to most of the nation. Cool temperatures were expected to return to the East as the leading edge of this system pulled in cold air from Canada. Highs were expected to range in the 40s across the Mid-Atlantic states, while the Midwest was expected to see highs in the 30s. To the north, a trough of low pressure sweeping through central and eastern Canada was expected to push a trough of low pressure over the Great Lakes. This was expected to allow for light and scattered snow showers to develop across most of the Upper and Lower Great Lakes. Snowfall accumulation was expected to range around one to two inches. Significant snowfall was not expected.

Meanwhile in the West, a low pressure system spinning over southern California and Baja California was expected to continue strengthening on Saturday. The system was expected to slowly advance eastward and into the Southwestern U.S. At the same time, flow around this system was expected to pull moisture in from the Pacific and allow for showers to develop by evening. Light rain showers and high elevation snow showers were expected to spread into Arizona throughout the day. The rest of the western U.S will remain under high pressure with dry and mostly sunny conditions.

Temperatures in the Lower 48 states Friday ranged from a morning low of -6 degrees at Alamosa, Colo. to a high of 82 degrees at Crystal River, Fla.


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Crop insurance rates skyrocket after summer floods (AP)

By HEATHER HOLLINGSWORTH, Associated Press Heather Hollingsworth, Associated Press – Wed Dec 14, 7:55 am ET

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Midwestern farmers who saw their land swamped by summer flooding may be socked again with steep increases in their crop insurance premiums, the expensive result of the failure to fix broken levees before the winter snow and next spring's rains.

The Missouri River rose to record levels this year after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began releasing massive amounts of water from reservoirs in Montana, Nebraska and the Dakotas that had been inundated with melting snow and heavy rains. Many levees in downstream states such as Iowa and Missouri were no match for weeks of sustained pressure and gave way. Homes and farms were damaged or ruined.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Risk Management Agency said $114 million in claims have been paid so far for flooding damage on 436,000 acres along the Missouri River downstream from the Gavins Point Dam on the Nebraska-South Dakota border. Record high water levels also created havoc along the lower Mississippi River from Missouri to Louisiana.

In southeast Missouri, the corps used explosives to blow gaping holes in the Birds Point levee to let water out of the Mississippi River and save the tiny town of Cairo, Ill., on the river's eastern bank. The blast sent water cascading over Missouri farms.

The deluge flooded about 130,000 acres behind the levee, including about 8,000 on which Ed Marshall, 55, of Charleston, grows corn, wheat and soybeans. He received $1.5 million in federally-subsidized crop insurance, which covers part of farmers' losses from such things as drought, flooding, hail, wind, insects and plant disease.

Then his premium skyrocketed. He recently paid about $100,000 to insure about 2,700 acres of wheat that he planted in the fall and hopes to harvest in the spring. The amount is nearly five times what he paid a year ago because the U.S. Department of Agriculture now considers his land high risk and he increased his coverage because of the risk.

Marshall, like many farmers, feels like the government has left him high and dry.

"You are going to blow my levee up and then you are going to turn around and take more money from me for insurance because I don't have a levee because you all blew it up," he said. "There is nothing right about that in my opinion."

The higher premium is worth it, given that Marshall expects to earn $1 million from the wheat.

But the rise in insurance costs "is almost adding insult to injury to farmers who lost their crops this year," said Kathy Kunkel, the clerk in Holt County on the opposite side of the state, where the Missouri River flooded more than 120,000 acres and 32 levees were breached. Insurance is a regular cost of doing business, but "this is going to put some people out of business," she added.

Officials with the USDA's Risk Management Agency began warning farmers of potential rate increases over the summer because they didn't want them to be shocked when the 2012 rates were announced last month, said Rebecca Davis, a spokeswoman for the agency.

"We had a lot of public meetings and at those meetings I said, `We have to recognize that this levee is no longer there. And if it doesn't get repaired by the time that the insurance attaches, we have to recognize that it is a higher risk,'" Davis said. "We tried to let them know as early as possible."

It can be two to three times more expensive to insure farmland behind damaged levees than those where repairs have been made. Some farmers, like Marshall, have already paid the higher rates for crops planted this fall. Others will pay unless repairs are made before crops like corn and soybeans are planted in the spring. Along with the Birds Point area, the higher rates could apply in 22 counties in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska and Tennessee.

The corps has estimated it will cost more than $2 billion to repair damage this year's flooding did to levees, dams and riverbanks. With a funding bill stalled in Congress, the corps has been focusing its limited money on fixing levees that protect communities and facilities such as water treatment plants.

"We are not going to have them all fixed," said Jody Farhat, chief of the Missouri River Basin Water Management office. "The (levees) that we are working on because the funding is limited won't be restored to their pre-flood conditions. And there are many that we won't even have money to start the repairs."

Farmers also must restore their soil to pre-flood conditions to get their insurance rates back down. Flooding often cuts massive ruts in the land, washes top soil away and leaves sand from the river bed, which isn't good for farming.

The cleanup is costly. Marshall said he spent $270,000 to clean ditches and clear 200 acres of land. He figures it will cost another $300,000 to fix another 200 acres that were badly damaged.

If the corps can't take care of the levee repairs, it should help farmers pay the higher insurance premiums, Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst said.

"It's a mess," he said. "These folks have lost their homes. They've lost their grain bins, they've lost their implement sheds, they've lost a year's crop. They have a tremendous amount of damage to the land from both scouring and sand deposits. And now they are looking at an increase in insurance premiums. Something has got to be done."

The levee at Birds Point was 62.5 feet high before the explosion. Generally levees must be restored to their pre-flooding condition, but in the case of Birds Point, farmers won't face big premium increases if the corps gets it back up to 55 feet before spring planting. Marshall said the rebuilding has been going slowly.

"They had a plan to destroy it," he said, "but not a plan to fix."


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Strong earthquake strikes Papua New Guinea (AP)

SYDNEY – A strong earthquake struck the South Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea on Wednesday. There are no immediate reports of damage or injuries and no tsunami alert has been issued.

The U.S. Geological Survey says the magnitude-7.3 quake struck on Wednesday 54 miles (87 kilometers) southwest of Lae, on the country's northern coast. The quake hit at a depth of 71 miles (115 kilometers).

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center did not issue a tsunami alert.

People inside the country's Parliament building in the capital of Port Moresby saw windows rattling during the quake, but there was no apparent damage.

Strong earthquakes are relatively common in Papua New Guinea. The country lies on the "Ring of Fire" — an arc of earthquake and volcanic zones that stretches around the Pacific Rim.


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Killing of bin Laden voted top news story of 2011 (AP)

NEW YORK – The killing of Osama bin Laden during a raid by Navy SEALs on his hideout in Pakistan was the top news story of 2011, followed by Japan's earthquake/tsunami/meltdown disaster, according to The Associated Press' annual poll of U.S. editors and news directors.

The death of bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader who masterminded the Sept. 11 terror attacks, received 128 first-place votes out of 247 ballots cast for the top 10 stories. The Japan disaster was next, with 60 first-place votes. Placing third were the Arab Spring uprisings that rocked North Africa and the Middle East, while the European Union's financial turmoil was No. 4.

The international flavor of these top stories contrasted with last year's voting — when the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was the top story, President Barack Obama's health care overhaul was No. 2, and the U.S. midterm elections were No. 3.

Here are 2011's top 10 stories, in order:

_OSAMA BIN LADEN'S DEATH: He'd been the world's most-wanted terrorist for nearly a decade, ever since a team of his al-Qaida followers carried out the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In May, the long and often-frustrating manhunt ended with a nighttime assault by a helicopter-borne special operations squad on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Bin Laden was shot dead by one of the raiders, and within hours his body was buried at sea.

_JAPAN'S TRIPLE DISASTER: A 9.0-magnitude earthquake off Japan's northeast coast in March unleashed a tsunami that devastated scores of communities, leaving nearly 20,000 people dead or missing and wreaking an estimated $218 billion in damage. The tsunami triggered the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl after waves knocked out the cooling system at a nuclear power plant, causing it to spew radiation that turned up in local produce. About 100,000 people evacuated from the area have not returned to their homes.

_ARAB SPRING: It began with demonstrations in Tunisia that rapidly toppled the longtime strongman. Spreading like a wildfire, the Arab Spring protests sparked a revolution in Egypt that ousted Hosni Mubarak, fueled a civil war in Libya that climaxed with Moammar Gadhafi's death, and fomented a bloody uprising in Syria against the Assad regime. Bahrain and Yemen also experienced major protests and unrest.

_EU FISCAL CRISIS: The European Union was wracked by relentless fiscal turmoil. In Greece, austerity measures triggered strikes, protests and riots, while Italy's economic woes toppled Premier Silvio Berlusconi. France and Germany led urgent efforts to ease the debt crisis; Britain balked at proposed changes.

_US ECONOMY: By some measures, the U.S. economy gained strength as the year progressed. Hiring picked up a bit, consumers were spending more, and the unemployment rate finally dipped below 9 percent. But millions of Americans remained buffeted by foreclosures, joblessness and benefit cutbacks, and investors were on edge monitoring the chain of fiscal crises in Europe.

_PENN STATE SEX ABUSE SCANDAL: One of America's most storied college football programs was tarnished in a scandal that prompted the firing of Hall of Fame football coach Joe Paterno. One of his former assistants, Jerry Sandusky, was accused of sexually molesting 10 boys; two senior Penn State officials were charged with perjury; and the longtime president was ousted. Paterno wasn't charged, but expressed regret he didn't do more after being told there was a problem.

_GADHAFI TOPPLED IN LIBYA: After nearly 42 years of mercurial and often brutal rule, Moammar Gadhafi was toppled by his own people. Anti-government protests escalated into an eight-month rebellion, backed by NATO bombing, that shattered his regime, and Gadhafi finally was tracked down and killed in the fishing village where he was born.

_FISCAL SHOWDOWNS IN CONGRESS: Partisan divisions in Congress led to several showdowns on fiscal issues. A fight over the debt ceiling prompted Standard & Poor's to strip the U.S. of its AAA credit rating. Later, the so-called "supercommittee" failed to agree on a deficit-reduction package of at least $1.2 trillion — potentially triggering automatic spending cuts of that amount starting in 2013.

_OCCUPY WALL STREET PROTESTS: It began Sept. 17 with a protest at a New York City park near Wall Street, and within weeks spread to scores of communities across the U.S. and abroad. The movement depicted itself as leaderless and shied away from specific demands, but succeeded in airing its complaint that the richest 1 percent of Americans benefit at the expense of the rest. As winter approached, local police dismantled several of the protest encampments.

_GABRIELLE GIFFORDS SHOT: The popular third-term congresswoman from Arizona suffered a severe brain injury when she and 18 other people were shot by a gunman as she met with constituents outside a Tucson supermarket in January. Six people died, and Giffords' painstaking recovery is still in progress.

Among the news events falling just short of the Top 10 were the death of Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs, Hurricane Irene, the devastating series of tornados across Midwest and Southeastern U.S., and the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that barred gays from serving openly in U.S. military.


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Flash floods kill more than 400 in Philippines (AP)

MANILA, Philippines – Flash floods devastated a southern Philippines region unaccustomed to serious storms, killing more than 400 people while they slept, rousting hundreds of others to their rooftops and turning two coastal cities into muddy, debris-filled waterways that were strewn Saturday with overturned vehicles and toppled trees.

Most of the victims were asleep Friday night when raging floodwaters cascaded from the mountains after 12 hours of rain from a late-season tropical storm in the southern Mindanao region. The region is unaccustomed to the typhoons that are common elsewhere in the nation of islands.

Ayi Hernandez, a former congressman, said he and his family were resting in their home in Cagayan de Oro late Friday when they heard a loud "swooshing sound" and water quickly rose ankle-deep inside. He decided to evacuate to a neighbor's two-story house.

"It was a good thing, because in less than an hour the water rose to about 11 feet (3.3 meters)," filling his home up to the ceiling, he said.

At least 436 were dead, based on a body count in funeral parlors, Philippine Red Cross Secretary General Gwen Pang told The Associated Press. She said that 215 died in Cagayan de Oro — a city of more than 500,000 — and 144 in nearby Iligan, with more than 300,000 residents. The rest died in several other southern and central provinces, she said.

Many of the bodies were unclaimed after nearly 24 hours, suggesting that entire families had died, Pang said.

The number of missing was unclear Saturday night. Before the latest Red Cross figures, military spokesman Lt. Col. Randolph Cabangbang said about 250 people were still unaccounted for in Iligan.

The swollen river sent floodwaters gushing through neighborhoods that do not usually experience flooding. A man floated in an inner tube in muddy water littered with plastic buckets, pieces of wood and other debris. Ten people in one home stood on a sloping roof, waiting for rescuers even as water still flooded the lower floors.

Local television footage showed muddy water rushing in the streets, sweeping away all sorts of debris. Thick layers of mud coated streets where the waters had subsided. One car was thrown over a concrete fence and others were crushed and piled in a flooded canal.

Benito Ramos, chief of the government's Civil Defense Office, attributed the high casualties in Mindanao "partly to the complacency of people because they are not in the usual path of storms" despite four days of warnings by officials that one was approaching.

Thousands of soldiers backed up by hundreds of local police, reservists, coast guard officers and civilian volunteers were mobilized for rescue efforts, but they were hampered by the flooded-out roads and lack of electricity.

Many roads were cut off and there was no electricity, hampering relief efforts.

The missing included prominent Filipino radio broadcaster Enie Alsonado, who was swept away while trying to save his neighbors, Iligan Mayor Lawrence Cruz said.

Rep. Rufus Rodriguez of Cagayan de Oro said that about 20,000 residents of the city had been affected and that evacuees were packed in temporary shelters.

Authorities recovered bodies from the mud after the water subsided. Parts of concrete walls and roofs, toppled vehicles and other debris littered the streets.

Rescuers in boats rushed offshore to save people swept out to sea. In Misamis Oriental province, 60 people were plucked from the ocean off El Salvador city, about six miles (10 kilometers) northwest of Cagayan de Oro, said disaster official Teddy Sabuga-a.

About 120 more were rescued off Opol township, closer to the city, he added.

Cruz said the Philippine coast guard and other rescuers were scouring the waters off Iligan for survivors or bodies that may have been swept away to sea.

Tropical Storm Washi dumped on Mindanao more than a month of average rains in just 12 hours.

It quickly cut across the region overnight and headed for Palawan province southwest of Manila on Saturday night.

Forecaster Leny Ruiz said that the records show that storms that follow Washi's track come only once in about 12 years.

Lucilo Bayron, vice mayor of Puerto Princesa in Palawan, said he already mobilized emergency crews but local officials have not ordered an evacuation yet because the weather was still fine.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement that the Obama administration offered "deepest condolences" for the devastation in the southern Philippines.

"The U.S. government stands ready to assist Philippine authorities as they respond to this tragedy," the statement said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with all of those affected."

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Associated Press writer Hrvoje Hranjski contributed to this report.


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APNewsBreak: More issues found at Neb. nuke plant (AP)

OMAHA, Neb. – Several new problems have been found at a Nebraska power plant that suffered flood damage earlier this year, federal regulators said Tuesday, so inspectors will be watching the plant north of Omaha even more closely as repairs from flooding are made.

The tougher oversight for the Omaha Public Power District plant in Fort Calhoun will likely further delay its restart from early next year until sometime in the spring as it makes repairs from the summer flooding. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said none of the new issues represents a public safety threat, but the growing number of problems, combined with the prolonged shutdown, requires more scrutiny.

Fort Calhoun has been shut down since April, when it was being refueled. Flooding along the Missouri River then forced it to remain closed as floodwaters surrounded the plant.

NRC spokesman Victor Dricks told The Associated Press that the new problems at the plant include deficiencies in the Omaha Public Power District's emergency response and either a design or installation flaw that contributed to a fire in June. Inspectors also found flaws in the way the utility's analysis of how the plant would withstand different accident conditions such as earthquakes, tornadoes or loss of coolant.

The plant was already facing extra oversight because of the failure of a key electrical part during a test in 2010 and deficiencies in flood planning that were also found last year. Fort Calhoun might not be receiving so much attention if it hadn't had the other recent regulatory problems.

"In light of all that, the senior managers of the NRC are going to increase oversight at Fort Calhoun even further," Dricks said.

Utility officials began looking for ways to improve Fort Calhoun's operations earlier this year after the first couple of regulatory concerns were identified. The utility has submitted a detailed improvement plan to the NRC that regulators approved. The utility's chief nuclear officer, Dave Bannister, has acknowledged the performance problems at Fort Calhoun and promised to improve.

Utility officials say they are committed to doing whatever it takes to repair Fort Calhoun.

"OPPD has and will continue to aggressively and thoroughly address these issues until they are resolved," said utility President and CEO W. Gary Gates. "We are committed to returning Fort Calhoun Station to its normal high-performing plant status as soon as possible."

David Lochbaum, nuclear safety director at the advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists, said he could think of only a handful of times when the NRC has used this inspection approach, but that's partly because the nation's 65 nuclear power plants are rarely shut down as long as Fort Calhoun has been. He said many of the regulations the NRC uses to measure how well a nuclear plant is operating are based on things that happen while it is running.

Lochbaum praised the way the NRC is handling the situation.

"The good news is the NRC is doing its job," said Lochbaum, a former nuclear plant engineer.

At the height of the summer flooding, the Missouri River rose about 2 feet above the elevation of the base of the plant. The utility erected a network of barriers and set up an assortment of pumps to help protect its buildings. The plant remained dry inside, and officials said Fort Calhoun could withstand flooding up to 7 or 8 feet higher.

Two of the new violations are related to a small fire at Fort Calhoun that briefly knocked out the cooling system for used fuel in June. Temperatures at the plant never exceeded safe levels and power was quickly restored.

The utility declared an alert when the fire happened, but Dricks said it failed to notify state emergency response officials within 15 minutes, as required. NRC inspectors also determined that the part that caused the fire was either designed incorrectly or installed wrong.

Utility officials said last month that Fort Calhoun might resume generating electricity as early as January, but the additional inspections announced Tuesday will likely delay that a couple of months.

Before Tuesday's announcement, Fort Calhoun was one of only two nuclear power plants in the nation at level four of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's oversight system. This new move will put Fort Calhoun in a special category for plants that are shut down where regulators will have broad authority to conduct inspections.

___

Online:

Nuclear Regulatory Commission: http://www.nrc.gov

OPPD Fort Calhoun plan: http://www.oppd.com/AboutUs/22_007203


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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Japan says stricken nuclear power plant in cold shutdown (Reuters)

By Kiyoshi Takenaka and Shinichi Saoshiro Kiyoshi Takenaka And Shinichi Saoshiro – Fri Dec 16, 7:59 am ET

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan declared its tsunami-stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant to be in cold shutdown on Friday, taking a major step to resolving the world's worst nuclear crisis in 25 years but some critics questioned whether the plant was really under control.

The Fukushima Daiichi plant, 240 km (150 miles) northeast of Tokyo, was wrecked on March 11 by a huge earthquake and a towering tsunami which knocked out its cooling systems, triggering meltdowns, radiation leaks and mass evacuations.

In making the much-anticipated announcement, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda tried to draw a line under the most acute phase of the crisis and highlighted the next challenges: the clean-up and the safe dismantling of the plant, something the government says may take more than 30 years.

"The reactors have reached a state of cold shutdown," Noda told a government nuclear emergency response meeting.

"A stable condition has been achieved," he added, noting radiation levels at the boundary of the plant could now be kept at low levels, even in the event of "unforeseeable incidents."

A cold shutdown is when water used to cool nuclear fuel rods remains below boiling point, preventing the fuel from reheating. One of the chief aims of the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), had been to bring the reactors to that state by the year-end.

The declaration of a cold shutdown could have repercussions well beyond the plant. It is a government pre-condition for allowing about 80,000 residents evacuated from within a 20 km (12 mile) radius of the plant to go home.

Both Noda and his environment and nuclear crisis minister Goshi Hosono said that while the government still faced huge challenges, the situation at the plant was under control.

That provoked an angry response from senior local officials, Greenpeace and some reporters even as the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear agency welcomed "significant progress" at the plant.

"We hope that this will be a fresh step towards going back home but it does not change the fact that the path to bringing the crisis under control is long and tough," Fukushima governor Yuhei Sato said, according to the Asahi newspaper website.

Greenpeace dismissed the announcement as a publicity stunt.

"By triumphantly declaring a cold shutdown, the Japanese authorities are clearly anxious to give the impression that the crisis has come to an end, which is clearly not the case," Greenpeace Japan said in a statement.

Hosono acknowledged that there were some areas where it would be difficult to bring people back and said there could be small difficulties here and there, but he told a briefing: "I believe there will be absolutely no situation in which problems escalate and nearby residents are forced to evacuate."

The water temperature in all three of the affected reactors fell below boiling point by September, but Tepco had said it would declare a state of cold shutdown only once it was satisfied that the temperatures and the amount of radiation emitted from the plant remained stable.

Jonathan Cobb, an expert at the British-based World Nuclear Association, said the authorities had been conservative in choosing the timing of the announcement.

"The government has delayed declaration of cold shutdown conditions, one reason being to ensure that the situation at the plant was stable," Cobb said, adding that the evacuation zone should get progressively smaller as more of it was decontaminated.

Kazuhiko Kudo, professor of nuclear engineering at Kyushu University, said authorities needed to determine exactly the status of melted fuel inside the reactors and stabilize a makeshift cooling system, which handles the tens of thousands of tons of contaminated water accumulated on-site.

HUGE COSTS, ANXIETY

The government and Tepco will aim to begin removing the undamaged nuclear rods from the plant's spent fuel pools next year. However, retrieval of fuel that melted down in their reactors may not begin for another decade.

The enormous cost of the cleanup and compensating the victims has drained Tepco financially. The government may inject about $13 billion into the company as early as next summer in a de facto nationalization, sources told Reuters last week.

An official advisory panel estimates Tepco may have to pay about 4.5 trillion yen ($57 billion) in compensation in the first two years after the nuclear crisis, and that it will cost 1.15 trillion yen to decommission the plant, though some experts put it at 4 trillion yen ($51 billion) or even more.

Japan also faces a massive cleanup task outside the east coast plant if residents are to be allowed to go home. The Environment Ministry says about 2,400 square km (930 square miles) of land around the plant may need to be decontaminated, an area roughly the size of Luxembourg.

The crisis shook the public's faith in nuclear energy and Japan is now reviewing an earlier plan to raise the proportion of electricity generated from nuclear power to 50 percent by 2030 from 30 percent in 2010.

Japan may not immediately walk away from nuclear power, but few doubt that nuclear power will play a lesser role in future.

Living in fear of radiation is part of life for residents both near and far from the plant. Cases of excessive radiation in vegetables, tea, milk, seafood and water have stoked anxiety despite assurances from public officials that the levels detected are not dangerous.

Chernobyl's experience shows that anxiety is likely to persist for years, with residents living near the former Soviet plant still regularly checking produce for radiation before consuming it 25 years after the disaster.

(Additional reporting by Yoko Kubota, Fredrik Dahl in VIENNA and Nina Chestney in LONDON; Writing by Tomasz Janowski; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Robert Birsel)


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Japan set to declare nuclear plant stable (AP)

TOKYO – Japan's government was to declare Friday that the tsunami-devastated Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant had finally achieved a "cold shutdown," meaning it has stabilized and is no longer leaking substantial amounts of radiation.

The announcement would mark a big milestone nine months after the March 11 tsunami touched off a crisis at the plant and sent three of its reactors into meltdowns. Experts noted, however, that the facility remains vulnerable to more problems and will take decades of difficult and dangerous work to safely close down.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was to announce the government's assessment of conditions at the plant in a news conference later Friday.

The government's official endorsement of the claim by Tokyo Electric Power Co. that the reactors have reached cold shutdown status is a necessary step toward revising evacuation zones around the plant and focusing efforts from simply stabilizing the facility to actually starting the arduous process of shutting it down.

But the assessment has some important caveats.

The announcement is expected to say Fukushima has reached cold shutdown "conditions"_ a less definitive phrasing reflecting the fact that TEPCO cannot measure temperatures of melted fuel in the damaged reactors in the same way as with normally functioning ones. So the government also attached additional conditions to be met, including minimizing radiation leaks around the plant and taking backup safety measures to ensure Fukushima's wrecked reactors are safely cooled.

Even so, the announcement would mark the end of the second phase of the government's lengthy roadmap to completely decommission the plant, which is expected to take 30 years or more.

Officials can now start discussing whether to allow some evacuated residents who lived in areas with lesser damage from the plant to return home — although a 12-mile (20-kilometer) zone around the plant is expected to remain off limits for years to come.

Some 100,000 people were displaced by the crisis.

A cold shutdown normally means a nuclear reactor's coolant system is at atmospheric pressure and the its reactor core is at a temperature below 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius), making it impossible for a chain reaction to take place.

According to TEPCO, temperature gauges inside the Fukushima reactors show the pressure vessel is at around 70 C (158 F). The government also says the amount of radiation now being released around the plant is at or below 1 millisievert per year — equivalent to the annual legal exposure limit for ordinary citizens before the crisis began.


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Analysis: Durban deal may do little to cool heating planet (Reuters)

DURBAN (Reuters) – The world is forecast to grow hotter, sea levels to rise, intense weather to wreak even more destruction and the new deal struck by governments in Durban to cut greenhouse gas emissions will do little to lessen that damage.

Climate data from U.N. agencies indicates that the accumulation of heat-trapping gases will rise to such levels over the next eight years - before the newly agreed regime of cuts in emissions is supposed to be in place - that the planet is on a collision course with permanent environmental change.

Countries around the globe agreed on Sunday to forge a new deal forcing all the biggest polluters for the first time to limit greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. But critics said the plan was too timid to slow global warming.

For a reduction plan to have a major impact, analysts say, the world's largest emitter, China, needs to be weaned from coal-intensive power sources that are choking the planet with carbon dioxide (CO2) and developed countries must spend heavily to change the mix of sources from which they draw their energy.

But they see little political will to implement these costly plans and argue that the U.N. process showed, in two weeks of talks in the South African city of Durban, that it is bloated, broken and largely incapable of effecting sweeping change.

"The challenge is that we begin the talks from the lowest common denominator of every party's aspirations," said Jennifer Haverkamp, director of the international climate program for Environmental Defense Fund, a U.S. group which campaigns against pollution.

"For this effort to be successful, countries need to be ambitious in their commitments and to refuse to use these negotiations as just another stalling tool," she said.

Domestic political constraints make it unlikely that pledges in Durban for more green projects in the developed world and stepped up aid for developing countries will come to fruition given problems for government funding in Europe, the United States and Japan.

PROTOCOL ON LIFE SUPPORT

In about 20 years of negotiations, the U.N. process has produced one binding deal on emissions cuts, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. It is seen as a fading accord affecting a handful of developed states that now account for only 25 percent of global emissions, and was kept on life-support by the Durban deal.

The latest agreement extends limits on advanced countries that would otherwise expire next year. But it is widely seen as not doing nearly enough to make a dent in emissions.

The pact, known as the "Durban Platform," produced the promise of a new legally binding deal by 2020 and set out a road map to get there. The worry is that by the time any new provisions take effect, they will have been diluted in negotiation to the point of being meaningless, analysts said.

China, the United States and India, the world's three biggest emitters accounting now for about half of all global CO2 emissions, are not bound by Kyoto and would not be bound to any legally enforceable numbers until at least 2020.

The three have been accused by environmental lobby groups for years of blocking tough measures, and all three cite domestic priorities in their defense. The U.S. Senate needs a supermajority to approve global treaties and does not have a broad enough coalition to sign off on a global climate deal.

India and China said curbing their emissions would hurt their fast-growing economies and put hundreds of millions of their people at risk as they try to escape poverty.

RISK OF PERMANENT DAMAGE

But those calling for tighter curbs on emissions say that those populations are being put at greater risk by climate change: "The people of the world are the biggest losers because the governments are kowtowing more to the corporate interests than the interests of the people for more aggressive action," said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Myer, a veteran of the U.N. climate talks, called for greater ambition on emissions cuts and financial support for industrial change and for "a more collaborative spirit than we saw in the Durban conference centre these past two weeks."

National envoys to the U.N. climate process and scientists who brief them see a need to limit the global average temperature rise to at least 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial times to prevent the most serious climate change. Environmental groups have said even that is not enough.

The United Nations Environment Programme said in a report last month that emissions were on track to grow above what is needed to limit global warming to the 2-degree mark, with analysts warning that delays in cuts for developed states and curbing the furious pace of emissions growth in major developing countries increasingly put the planet at risk.

Myer said: "We are on a path to 3-3.5 degree Celsius increase if we don't make aggressive cuts by 2020.

"And there is nothing to suggest this deal will alter that."

As temperatures rise, so does the damage, which includes crop failures, increasing ocean acidity that would wipe out species and rising sea levels that will erase island states, U.N. reports said.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development said global average temperatures could rise by 3-6 degrees by the end of the century if governments failed to contain emissions, bringing permanent destruction to ecosystems.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the world's largest disaster relief network, saw the Durban deal as a collective failure to stem the destruction caused by climate change on the world's most vulnerable people.

"It is frankly unacceptable we cannot all agree when so many lives are at stake," Bekele Geleta, the group's secretary general said in a statement.

Selwin Hart, chief negotiator for an alliance of small island states, took some heart, however, that at least there was agreement to keep on talking: "I would have wanted to get more, but at least we have something to work with," he said.

"All is not lost yet."

(Additional reporting by Nina Chestney, Barbara Lewis and Agnieszka Flak in Durban; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)


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Storm lashes France, cargo ship runs aground (Reuters)

RENNES, France (Reuters) – Storm winds and torrential rain lashed France on Friday, cutting off electricity supplies to hundreds of thousands of homes and sending a cargo ship aground off the northwestern Brittany coast, where it sprang a fuel leak.

There were no reports of injuries as dozens of people were evacuated from flood-prone zones on the western Atlantic coast and 400,000 households were deprived of power, French Interior Minister Claude Gueant said.

Wind gusts of up to 130 kph pounded France's western coast in the early hours of Friday, causing a cargo ship headed for Malta, the 109-metre TK Bremen, to run aground off Brittany. The crew were rescued by helicopter.

French television showed footage of black fuel washing up on a sandy beach in Brittany, although the damage is expected to be limited because the leak was coming from one compartment in the ship's supply of fuel, police said.

Maritime authorities were planning to deploy equipment to contain a 1-km slick and empty the stricken ship's tanks of around more than 200 tons of fuel.

Early on Friday the storm's heart hung over the northernmost Pas-de-Calais region of France and was headed eastward in the direction of Belgium, according to the latest update from France's national weather service.

(Reporting by Pierre-Henri Allain in Rennes, Patrick Vignal, Gerard Bon and Bertrand Boucey in Paris; writing by Nicholas Vinocur; editing by Brian Love)


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Irene was tropical storm, not hurricane, over NJ (AP)

MIAMI – Irene was a tropical storm — not a hurricane — when it made landfall in New Jersey in August, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center have determined after a review.

The deadly storm was a Category 1 hurricane when it made landfall Aug. 27 in North Carolina. The storm made landfall again Aug. 28 near Atlantic City, N.J., where forecasters had said it was a hurricane with 75 mph winds.

However, after reviewing their data, forecasters have determined that Irene had weakened to a tropical storm with winds around 69 mph when it crossed New Jersey's coast. Hurricanes have top winds of at least 74 mph.

"It's a very small change," said Eric Blake, a hurricane specialist at the hurricane center. "The difference residents would see is about the same. There's no perceivable difference."

Forecasters posted their report on Irene on Friday. The hurricane center occasionally upgrades or downgrades tropical storms as it reviews storm data at the end of the six-month hurricane season. In Irene's case, a review of the data supported downgrading the storm at the time it hit New Jersey, Blake said.

"Five-knot changes like that happen all the time. At this time, it just happened near land," Blake said.

Irene was one of the costliest storms in U.S. history. It caught much of the Eastern seaboard by surprise as it churned up the coast, prompting mass evacuations in New York City before it dumped torrential rains over parts of New England. Devastating flooding in Vermont damaged or destroyed hundreds of miles of roads, scores of bridges and hundreds of homes and left about a dozen communities cut off except for supply drops by National Guard helicopters.

The storm killed more than 50 people in the U.S., Caribbean and Canada.

The six-month Atlantic hurricane season that ended Nov. 30 produced 19 tropical storms, including seven hurricanes, making it one of the busiest seasons on record. It was the sixth straight year without a major hurricane making landfall in the U.S.

Hurricanes are considered major when they reach Category 3, with top winds of at least 111 mph. Storms are named when their winds reach speeds of at least 39 mph.

The 2011 season's storm totals include an upgrade of Tropical Storm Nate to hurricane status and the addition of an unnamed tropical storm that formed in early September over the open Atlantic between Bermuda and Nova Scotia.

The next Atlantic hurricane season begins June 1.

___

Online:

National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/


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2011: the year some pillars of world order shook (AP)

The Arab Spring swept across the Middle East, toppling dictators in a rolling surge of street protest. Europe's currency plunged into crisis, bringing down elected prime ministers. An earthquake and tsunami pummeled Japan, confronting it with the specter of nuclear disaster.

It was a year that shook the pillars of the established order. Even in an era of change and moment-to-moment communications across the planet, 2011 felt extraordinary. Week after week, month after month, across continents and oceans, the news just kept on coming.

At times the post-World War II, postcolonial, post-Cold War dispensation seemed to tremble under shows of people power not seen in the 22 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

By year's end at least three Arab leaders were gone, and at least three European prime ministers had been toppled by the upheaval over the euro, a currency that was supposed to symbolize a strengthened, united Europe.

First to fall to the Arab Spring was President Zine El Abdine Ben Ali, cast into exile six weeks after a disgruntled vegetable vendor sparked an uprising by setting himself on fire.

The fastest revolution was Egypt's. It took just 18 days, and vast crowds gathered in central Cairo to force the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak who had ruled the most populous Arab nation for nearly 30 years.

The bloodiest revolution was the one against Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, 42 years in power, who was toppled by a concerted NATO bombing campaign, then killed in circumstances still under investigation.

The slowest-burning revolt was Yemen's, stretching from February until November, when President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to step down by Dec. 23. Still raging on were daily demonstrations against Syrian President Bashar Assad, in which the U.N. said more than 5,000 people died. The island kingdom of Bahrain fought street battles with its subjects; another kingdom, Jordan, experienced street protests.

The tensions didn't stop there. The U.N.'s atomic agency renewed accusations that Iran secretly worked on a nuclear weapon, Western sanctions on Iran intensified, and a mob seized the British Embassy in Tehran in retaliation.

The longer-term results of the convulsions triggered by the Arab Spring were far from clear.

The immediate outcome was a surge in support for long suppressed Islamic movements, whose strength was quickly apparent when Tunisia and Egypt held their first fully free elections in memory. The Islamist successes in Egypt threw into question Egypt's long-term alliance with the U.S., its strongest financial and diplomatic backer, and its peace treaty with Israel, long supported by Mubarak but deeply unpopular in Egyptian public opinion.

Facebook and cellphone images played an important role in organizing protesters and getting dramatic scenes past the censors back home and onto the world's TV sets. They also were crucial to Israel's summer of discontent that brought multitudes onto the streets to protest high prices and inequalities; to Russians' unprecedented demonstrations against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin; and to the "occupy" movements that began in New York against Wall Street and spread to other continents in protest against those responsible for the financial meltdowns of the past two years.

Dysfunctional finances dominated the headlines in 2011, particularly in Europe, starting with a bailout for Greece's faltering economy. As other weak economies came under pressure and faced the likelihood of painful budget austerity, the prime ministers of Greece and Italy were forced to resign, and their Spanish counterpart was ousted in an election.

While street politics and financial fears dominated the headlines, the U.S.'s nearly nine-year war in Iraq reached its end with the low-key departure of the last American soldiers. It had left 4,500 Americans and 110,000 Iraqis dead, divided Americans, angered international public opinion and cost more than $800 billion. What was left was a fragile democracy and a potential for violence underscored by a bombing in December that killed 21 Shiite pilgrims in a religious procession.

Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan ground on with more than 500 foreign troops, almost 400 of them American, killed in combat against the Taliban in 2011.

NATO had spent another year trying to train up to 350,000 Afghan troops and police to take over security once foreign forces are gone in 2014. But this year was marked by several spectacular Taliban operations, among them the downing of a U.S. military helicopter, killing 30 Americans and seven Afghan commandos aboard_ the war's single deadliest loss of American lives.

Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., was killed by U.S. Navy Seals who helicoptered into Pakistan and raided the house where he turned out to have been living.

The triumph was soured by recriminations with Pakistan, the U.S.'s vital ally in the war against the Taliban, for invading its air space, and then by the news that some of the Seals who killed bin Laden were among the 30 Americans on the helicopter downed in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, just as Haiti's earthquake opened 2010 with the grimmest of news, March 2011 saw Japan's biggest earthquake on record send a tsunami crashing into the country's eastern coast, leaving 19,334 people dead or missing by government count, and inflicting damage estimated at nearly $220 billion.

At the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant complex, three reactor cores melted down and an estimated one-fifth the radiation of Chernobyl poured into the surrounding air, water, soil and forests. Radiation leaks have since fallen dramatically, but a 20-kilometer (12-mile) zone round the plant remains off-limits and nearly 100,000 residents who fled their homes remain in limbo, unsure when they can return, if ever.

While nearly all the rubble along the coast has been cleared, rebuilding is only just beginning. But the overall economy has largely bounced back.

If the Japanese earthquake was Asia's worst horror of the year, Europe's took place in Norway, where a homegrown terrorist set off a bomb in Oslo's government district, then went to a summer camp dressed as a police officer and gunned down youths as they ran and swam for their lives. The attacks killed 77 people in the peaceful nation's worst violence since World War II. Psychiatric experts have since declared the self-styled anti-Muslim militant legally insane.

On the science front, the world said goodbye to the U.S. space shuttle as it closed three decades of service with its last flight in July. An E coli bacteria outbreak in Europe spread to 15 countries and killed 68 people. Scientists reported sightings of particles that appeared to defy Albert's Einstein's theories by traveling faster than light. Other scientists said they were closing in on a possible key building block to the universe popularly known as the "God particle."

Sex scandals took their turn in the headlines, first with charges that Italian Prime Silvio Berlusconi paid an underage prostitute for sex, then with the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund, accused of sexually assaulting a chambermaid in a Manhattan hotel. While Berlusconi faced trial, New York prosecutors dropped their case against Strauss-Kahn.

2011 witnessed a landmark in the political thawing of Myanmar, formerly Burma, long under military rule but making moves toward democracy that made possible a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Meanwhile, in Africa, a new nation was born out of civil war as South Sudan broke away from Sudan and became a U.N. member state. Palestine also set out to achieve membership but its bid stalled in the Security Council. However, the Palestinians managed this year to win recognition by UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency.

In Central America, the Mexican drug war between cartels and government forces marked its fifth year, having claimed tens of thousands of lives. And Daniel Ortega, the one-time Sandinista revolutionary, was re-elected president of Nicaragua by a landslide, having sidestepped a constitutional limit on re-election.

For Britain, 2011 was a grim year of street riots and looting that shook its cities in the summer, and of revelations of privacy-invading foul play by its tabloid newspapers that appalled the nation. And as the year ended it found itself accused by its European partners of letting them down for refusing to join their pact to save the euro.

Yet all the same, the British managed to produce something to capture hearts around the world and offer assurance that some pillars of the old order still stand firm: the wedding of Kate Middleton to Prince William, son of the late Princess Diana — a union of commoner and blueblood that promised to revitalize the British monarchy.


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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Flotsam from Japanese tsunami reaches West Coast (AP)

PORT ANGELES, Wash. – Some debris from the March tsunami in Japan has reached the West Coast.

A black float about the size of a 55-gallon drum was found two weeks ago by a crew cleaning a beach a few miles east of Neah Bay at the northwest tip of Washington, the Peninsula Daily News reported (http://is.gd/9jSz9q) Wednesday.

The float was displayed at a Tuesday night presentation at Peninsula College by Seattle oceanographers Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Jim Ingraham, consultants who produce the "Beachcombers Alert" newsletter.

Tons of debris from Japan will likely begin washing ashore in about a year, from California to southern Alaska, they said. Items that wash up may include portions of houses, boats, ships, furniture, portions of cars and just about anything else that floats, he said.

That could include parts of human bodies, Ebbesmeyer said. Athletic shoes act as floats.

Flotsam in a current travels an average of 7 mph, but it can move as much as 20 mph if it has a large area exposed to the wind, Ebbesmeyer said. The latest float sits well atop the water, has a shallow draft and is lightweight. Similar floats have been found on Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

Models show currents could pull some Japanese tsunami debris into the Strait of Juan de Fuca as far as Port Townsend.

"All debris should be treated with a great reverence and respect," Ebbesmeyer said.

If the debris has any kind of identifiable marking, such as numbers or Japanese writing, it may be traceable, Ebbesmeyer said. Families in Japan are waiting to hear of any items that may have been associated with their loved ones.

Ebbesmeyer is retired from a career that included tracking icebergs, the 1989 Exxon Valdes oil spill and Puget Sound currents that affect sewage outflows. He wrote the 2009 book, "Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How a Man's Obsession with runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science."

Ingram has retired from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where he created computer models of ocean currents.

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Information from: Peninsula Daily News, http://www.peninsuladailynews.com


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Strong quake hits PNG, no reports of damage (Reuters)

(Reuters) – A strong earthquake struck the Pacific state of Papua New Guinea Wednesday, but no tsunami warning was issued as the quake occurred inland, and there were no immediate reports of damage.

The 7.3 magnitude tremor was centered near Lae, the country's second-largest city, at a depth of around 115 km (71 miles) the U.S. Geological Survey said.

"It was very, very big," said Dolly Kinibo, a receptionist at the Lae International Hotel.

"It lasted for two to three minutes. The whole building moved. The Christmas tree moved, we all moved, people are very shaken. There are no reports of injuries or damage, but our managers are checking."

The quake sent goods flying from the shelves of Lae's Foodmart store but caused only minor damage and no injuries. "It wrecked some displays and caused some damage to the ceiling, but touch wood nothing serious," said store manager Albert Martinez.

Residents in the capital Port Moresby, 223 km (138 miles) from the epicenter, also reported feeling the quake.

PNG, a country where the majority of people live subsistence lives despite its abundant mineral wealth, sits on the geographically active Pacific Ring of Fire.

(Reporting by Michael Perry in Sydney; Editing by Lincoln Feast)


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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

New England snow snarls holiday travel, sparks outages (Reuters)

CONWAY, Mass (Reuters) – A wintry storm socked New England states with a mix of heavy snow and freezing rain on Wednesday, sparking power outages and delaying some pre-Thanksgiving flights on one of the busiest travel days of the year.

Roughly 17,000 customers from Maine to New York were without electricity by midafternoon after heavy snow toppled trees, limbs and power lines in some places.

Rain eased up in the Mid-Atlantic after downpours overnight, but as much as 10 inches of snow was forecast across the higher elevations of upstate New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine by afternoon, when the storm was expected to end, the National Weather Service said.

" high-impact winter storm will adversely affect holiday travel early this morning and into this afternoon," NWS said in a winter storm warning.

"People should plan their travel accordingly and be prepared to allow plenty of extra time to reach their destination."

By midafternoon, power outages included 9,800 customers in Maine, 3,100 in New Hampshire, 2,800 in Vermont, and roughly 1,000 customers in New York.

In southern Vermont, utility crews scrambled to repair lines knocked out by 8 inches of heavy wet snow, said Central Vermont Public Service spokeswoman Christine Rivers.

In Maine, up to 10 inches of snow was predicted for the mid-state region around Bangor and Orono, with freezing rain expected along the coast. State police urged drivers to go slow as roads turn slippery or to avoid road travel altogether, if possible.

The day before Thanksgiving is a notoriously busy travel day, as friends and families gather to share the annual feast to commemorate the Pilgrims' celebration of the good harvest of 1621.

On the roads, some 38.2 million Americans are expected to drive 50 miles or more away from home between November 23 and 27, up 4 percent from last year and the highest since 2007, said travel group AAA.

Airports were bracing for roughly 23.2 million people expected to fly U.S. carriers' domestic and international routes over the Thanksgiving holiday period, according to industry group ATA.

While there were no major tie-ups at Boston's Logan Airport, numerous planes had slight delays and several flights to New York City and Toronto were canceled, said Massport's Logan spokesman Phil Orlandella.

"Yesterday we handled about 100,000 people and we expect to do the same, or somewhere near there, today," Orlandella said.

New England carrier Cape Air canceled most flights to or from Maine, New Hampshire, New York's Adirondacks region and Vermont due to the bad weather, Orlandella said.

"The heavy snow has avoided major cities in the Northeast - it's been well north, and north of Boston -- but these cities got hit with a lot of rain last night, and locally gusty winds, and that has flights backed up," said Alex Sosnowski, expert senior meteorologist with AccuWeather.

With the storm moving out to sea overnight, strong winds currently buffeting New York City should die down by Thursday morning for the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, Sosnowski said.

The parade's huge inflatable balloons typically are grounded when winds exceed a danger threshold of about 34 miles per hour, Sosnowski said.

"There is some 'canyon effect' there in New York City - the air rushes in between the buildings. But tomorrow, winds should average 8 - 15 miles per hour, with gusts to 25," he said.

Amtrak had no storm-related problems with its northeastern train service by midmorning, said spokesman Cliff Cole.

In the Pacific Northwest, a strong storm that pounded the region in prior days had tapered off, but a second one was seen delivering fierce winds to the area on Thanksgiving Day, forecasters said.

The Cascade Mountains, the Coastal Range and the Rockies also may get over a foot of snow in the next two days, the National Weather Service said.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Greg McCune)


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Obama Gives Rousing Jobs Speech in New Hampshire (ContributorNetwork)

COMMENTARY | President Barack Obama returned to New Hampshire for the first time in two years to deliver a speech promoting his American Jobs Act in the gymnasium of Manchester's Central High School. As a candidate in the Granite State's first-in-the nation Presidential primary back in 2008, then-Senator Obama's appearance at Central was cut short by an impending snow storm, but MacArthur-like, he had vowed to return. He made good on his promise.

Though heckled briefly at the beginning of his speech by Occupy Wall Street protestors, the President was enthusiastically embraced by the crowd of high school seniors sitting in the bleachers and by citizens standing on the gym floor, which was sheathed in plastic to protect the parquet surface.

Fired Up

It was a diverse and upbeat crowd who were greeted by the Central High band's playing of classic rock songs, including The Beatles' "Back in the U.S.S.R." and the closing medley from the Fab Four's Abbey Road album called "The End". Lest anyone think that this was a bit of sly editorial commentary by the students of Central, they showed their true colors by shouting down the OWS hecklers who interrupted the President by chanting "O-ba-ma!"

President Obama was in full campaign mode, showing the "Fired Up and Ready to Go!" form that had helped him place a close second to front-runner Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary. It seemed the President was reinvigorated by being on the hustings, though his trip to the Granite State was billed as official business to push for his jobs legislation and not as a political campaign stop.

The President squarely put the blame for the sluggish economy and lack of jobs on the Republicans in Congress, whom he chided for being obstructionists. He called on the Republicans to vote for the extension of his payroll tax cut to help stimulate the economy.

Two Senators & Two Candidates

Former Governor Jeanne Shaheen, the Democrat who is New Hampshire's senior senator, was in attendance at the event, though she did not speak. Senator Shaheen was signaled out by President Obama for praise for her support of his jobs plan and for voting for legislation that was part of his original jobs package that extends tax cuts to businesses that will put unemployed veterans back to work.

Two days ago, Republican Kelly Ayotte, the state's junior senator, gave her endorsement to Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney in a rather subdued affair in front of Nashua's City Hall. The crowd at Manchester's Central High was far more diverse than the white, seemingly prosperous citizens drawn to the Republican event. Their embrace of Obama, whom the right-leaning New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper mockingly called a "Rock Star" in its coverage of his impending trip, was far more enthusiastic than the Republicans' greeting of Mitt Romney on Sunday.

The front-runner among Republican Presidential candidates in New Hampshire, Romney launched his first television and print ads specifically attacking President Obama today, to coincide with the President's arrival in New Hampshire. The gist of Romney's ads is that Obama is a failure as a president in that he has failed to turn the economy around and provide jobs.

Since the rise and eclipse of Rick Perry and Herman Cain as front-runners in the Republican field (and the recent rise to the top of the polls of the seriously flawed Newt Gingrich) have left many with the perception that Romney is the presumptive GOP nominee, I view the President's trip to New Hampshire as the opening salvo of the 2012 Presidential campaign that most likely will pit Obama against Romney. Having witnessed both campaign events, Romney and Ayotte's Nashua appearance and now this whistle-stop by President Obama, I can say that Romney and other Republicans should be cautious: Barack is back!


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Rare November snowfall dusts Southeast (Reuters)

ATLANTA (Reuters) – A rare November snowfall powdered parts of the U.S. Southeast late Monday and early Tuesday, with as much as eight inches falling on one Arkansas town and some schools closed in Tennessee.

Snowfall extended through the mid-Mississippi and Tennessee valleys and as far south as Haleyville, Alabama, said AccuWeather.com meteorologist Alex Sosnowski.

Parts of Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi reported between one and three inches of snow, and more flurries were forecast on Tuesday.

"It was a surprise to see it this early." said Lesley Hobbs, membership director for the Chamber of Commerce in Paragould, Arkansas. "It was really pretty - big flakes."

Paragould, about an hour north of Memphis, got approximately eight inches of snow, Sosnowski told Reuters.

"It's not a once-in-a-100-year event, but it is once every 50 years," he said of the November snowfall. "Some of these areas only get two to three snow days a year."

He said there was little accumulation on roads, which "were pretty warm."

The wintry scene won't last, with the forecast calling for temperatures as high as 60 degrees later in the week in some areas, Sosnowski said.

(Additional reporting by Tim Ghianni in Nashville, Tennessee; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Greg McCune)


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Sticky goo on Pa. turnpike disables about 150 cars (AP)

PITTSBURGH – A flood of gooey black muck dropped from a tanker truck disabled about 150 cars and damaged an unknown number of other vehicles along a nearly 40-mile stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, officials said.

A leaking valve on a tanker spread driveway sealant over the eastbound lanes of a long stretch of the Turnpike between New Castle and the Oakmont Service Plaza on Tuesday night, Turnpike spokesman Bill Capone said.

Turnpike operations officials on Wednesday said 150 or more cars were disabled when the sticky goo covered their tires and wheels. Some state police and turnpike maintenance vehicles had to be towed away after getting stuck in the tar-like substance, according to the turnpike operations center.

Traffic was moving normally by Wednesday morning, but the sticky mess had already hindered the travel plans of some motorists traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Laura Frick told WTAE-TV she was traveling from Cleveland to New Jersey for the holiday.

"Now we have to turn around and go back home," Frick said. "It's horrible."

Retired firefighter Bob King told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review the experience was the most harrowing of his life.

"It caught us off guard," said King, who now lives near Chicago. "It didn't seem like anyone knew what it was or what to do. It had to be an incredible amount of tar. It's still piled on my tires."

Cpl. Mike Corna, with the state police barracks which patrols the pike near Pittsburgh, said Wednesday the driver will be cited for not properly securing his load, though the specific tickets to be issued were still being determined. Police have yet to trace the origin of the load. The tank was filled somewhere in Ohio.

Maintenance crews got out quickly, dumping sand on the pooled goop and using snow plows to push it on to the shoulder, turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo said. The mess was mostly confined to the right lane and the roadway didn't have to be shut down while workers tried to clean it up because the substance hardens in about 15 minutes, DeFebo said.

"It's been cleaned up since about 11 o'clock last night," DeFebo said Wednesday.

Turnpike officials urged motorists whose cars were damaged to stop calling its operations center and instead call Traveler's Insurance at 800-238-6225 and follow the prompts to file "business claims."

The insurance company is handling claims on behalf of Marino Transport Services of Stevensville, Md., which operates the truck.


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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The nation's weather (AP)

By WEATHER UNDERGROUND, For The Associated Press Weather Underground, For The Associated Press – Sat Dec 3, 5:02 am ET

Weather Underground Forecast for Saturday, Dec. 3, 2011.

Wet weather was expected to develop across the Central U.S. on Saturday, as a low pressure system moved into the Southern and Central Plains from the Southern Rockies. The system was expected to pick up additional moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, while cold air poured in from western Canada and the Rocky Mountains. This was expected to produce a broad area of wintry precipitation with snow and freezing rain likely across Nebraska and Kansas. The southern side of this system was capable of producing some scattered thunderstorms across Oklahoma and Texas. Meanwhile, high pressure building in behind this system was expected to continue bringing cool and dry conditions to the Western U.S. The Rockies and Northern Plains were expected to see highs in the 20s and 30s, while overnight lows ranged in the teens. East of this low pressure system, a cold front was expected to extend northeastward into the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes. Due to prevailing cool temperatures, light snow showers were expected to develop along this frontal boundary. Snowfall accumulations were expected to range from one to three inches.

Meanwhile in the East, a ridge of high pressure was expected to bring another dry and mostly sunny day to the eastern U.S. A warming trend was expected to persist from the southeast through the northeast.

The West Coast was expected to remain dry as high pressure built in from the Pacific Ocean. Strong winds were expected to gradually diminish across central and southern California. Sunny skies and pleasant conditions were expected across the West Coast. Temperatures in the Lower 48 states Friday ranged from a morning low of -13 degrees at West Yellowstone, Mont. to a high of 82 degrees at Harlingen, Texas


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Active 2011 Hurricane Season Comes to an End (LiveScience.com)

The 2011 Atlantic hurricane season was forecast to be a doozy and it delivered.

The season officially ends tomorrow (Nov. 30) and its legacy includes 19 tropical storms, seven hurricanes and three major hurricanes — including the devastating Hurricane Irene, the only hurricane to strike the United States this year. Irene was the first U.S.-land-falling hurricane in three years. Its billion-dollar damage brought the United States back to the reality of hurricanes after years of quiet.

"Irene reminded us that the Northeast can and does get hit byhurricanes," said Jeff Weber, an atmospheric scientist at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

Active trend

The 2011 season continued a trend of active hurricane seasons that began in 1995, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Tropical storms came in with the third-highest total, at 19 (tied with 1887, 1995 and 2010), since records began, in 1851. An average season has 11 tropical storms. [See a video of the season's storms.]

The seven hurricanes and three major hurricanes (Category 3 or higher on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale) that developed this year number only slightly above the averages of six and two, respectively.

The 2011 season affected the Mid-Atlantic more than the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane Irene, the first hurricane to hit the United States since Ike hit Texas in 2008, socked the East Coast. The storm caused $7 billion in damage and became the worst tropical cyclone  to strike the Northeast since Hurricane Bob in 1991. Tropical cyclone is the generic term for tropical storms and hurricanes.

Irene inundated New York and Connecticut with water — up to 15 inches (38 centimeters) in some places. Irene was blamed for 46 deaths across 13 states.

As bad as the damage was, things could have been worse. Modern storm-tracking technology allowed NOAA forecasters to accurately map Irene's path for four days before its landfall Aug. 27, near Cape Lookout, N.C., allowing the population of the Outer Banks to evacuate. Irene was a major storm for a brief period, but it weakened to a Category 1 storm and so was not a major hurricane at landfall.

"We have now gone six years — since Wilma in 2005 — without a major hurricane making U.S. landfall," said Phil Klotzbach, an atmospheric scientist and hurricane forecaster at Colorado State University.

Few Gulf storms

Since 1878, when land-falling hurricane records begin, the 2006-2011 span is the longest stretch without a major hurricane hitting the United States, Klotzbach told OurAmazingPlanet.

While the East Coast was soaked by storms, the dearth of Gulf storms added tothe Texas drought.

One storm that did hit the Gulf was Tropical Storm Lee, which made landfall in central Louisiana. Lee spawned 38 tornadoes, the second most on record for a tropical storm.

Most storms were turned away from the United States by an anomalous trough of low pressure along the East Coast, "which helped steer storms moving towards the U.S. coast back out to sea before they could make U.S. landfall," Klotzbach said.

You can follow OurAmazingPlanet staff writer Brett Israel on Twitter: @btisrael. Follow OurAmazingPlanet for the latest in Earth science and exploration news on Twitter @OAPlanet and on Facebook.


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Study shows deeper meltdown at Japan nuke reactor (AP)

TOKYO – Radioactive debris from melted fuel rods may have seeped deeper into the floor of a Japan's tsunami-hit nuclear reactor than previously thought, to within a foot from breaching the crucial steel barrier, a new simulation showed Wednesday.

The findings will not change the ongoing efforts to stabilize the reactors more than eight months after the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant was disabled, but they harshly depict the meltdowns that occurred and conditions within the reactors, which will be off-limits for years.

The plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. said its latest simulation showed fuel at the No. 1 reactor may have eroded part of the primary containment vessel's thick concrete floor. The vessel is a beaker-shaped steel container, set into the floor. A concrete foundation below that is the last manmade barrier before earth.

The fuel came within a foot of the container's steel bottom in the worst-case scenario but has been somewhat cooled, TEPCO's nuclear safety official Yoshihiro Oyama said at a government workshop. He said fuel rods in the No. 1 reactor were the worst damaged because it lost cooling capacity before the other two reactors, leaving its rods dry and overheated for hours before water was pumped in.

The nuclear crisis following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami caused massive radiation leaks and the relocation of some 100,000 people.

Another simulation on the structure released by the government-funded Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization, or JNES, said the erosion of the concrete could be deeper and the possibility of structural damage to the reactor's foundation needs to be studied.

JNES official Masanori Naito said the melting fuel rods lost their shape as they collapsed to the bottom of the vessel, then deteriorated into drops when water pumping resumed, and the fuel drops spattered and smashed against the concrete as they fell, Naito said.

TEPCO and government officials are aiming to achieve "cold shutdown" by the end of the year — a first step toward creating a stable enough environment for work to proceed on removing the reactors' nuclear fuel and closing the plant altogether.

The government estimates it will take 30 years or more to safely decommission Fukushima Dai-ichi.

Wednesday's simulations depict what happened early in the crisis and do not mean a recent deterioration of the No. 1 reactor. Oyama said, however, the results are based only on available data and may not match the actual conditions inside the reactors, which cannot be opened for years.

Some experts have raised questions about achieving the "cold shutdown," which means bringing the temperature of the pressure vessel containing healthy fuel rods to way below the benchmark 100 Celsius (212 Fahrenheit). They say the fuel is no longer there and measuring the temperature of empty cores is meaningless, while nobody knows where and how hot the melted fuel really is.

Kiyoharu Abe, a nuclear expert at JNES, said it's too early to make a conclusion and more simulations should be done to get accurate estimates.

"I don't think the simulation today was wrong, but we should look at this from various viewpoints rather than making a conclusion from one simulation," Abe said. "It's just the beginning of a long process."


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