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Catastrophic floods in Midwest cause widespread damage

By Karen Dillon

BROWNVILLE, Neb. (Reuters) – Severe flooding caused by rainfall and melting snow devastated farms and towns in Nebraska and Iowa on Tuesday, leaving at least four people dead and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence prepared to tour the area.

The floods, which followed a powerful winter hurricane that clobbered the region last week, inundated stretches of the two states, known for their agricultural industries, along the Missouri River.

The waters swamped homes, covering about a third of the U.S. Air Force Base that is home to the United States Strategic Command, and cut off road access to a nuclear power plant.

About 74 Nebraska cites had declared states of emergency by Monday evening, according to Nebraska Emergency Management Agency (NEMA). More than 600 residents were evacuated and taken to American Red Cross-operated shelters.

Farms were deluged and rescuers could be seen in boats pulling pets from flooded homes. Some roadways crumbled to rubble, while others had sections submerged. Flood waters covered buildings in Hamburg, Iowa.

Damage to the state’s livestock sector was estimated at about $400 million, said Steve Wellman, director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture. Livestock producers affected by the severe weather were in need of hay, fencing materials, feedstuff and equipment.

The state’s highway system suffered hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, said Kyle Schneweis, director of the state Department of Transportation.

Vice President Mike Pence was scheduled to visit Nebraska on Tuesday to survey the damage.

“Heading to Nebraska today to survey the devastating flood damage. To the people of Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas & all regions impacted: we are with you,!” Pence said in a post on Twitter early Tuesday. He will tour the zone with Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts and Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds.

The flood waters were the result of snow melt following heavy rains last week and warm temperatures, said Bob Oravec, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center.

The Missouri River, the longest in North America, has flooded much of Nebraska between Omaha and Kansas City.

At least one person was missing on Monday. The four reported deaths included one person in Iowa who was rescued from flood waters, but later succumbed to injuries, according to the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office.

Roads leading to Nebraska Public Power District’s Cooper nuclear plant near Brownville were engulfed by floodwaters from the Missouri River, but the facility was still operating safely at full power on Tuesday morning.

The operator was flying staff and supplies to the plant with helicopters, said NPPD spokesman Mark Becker.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Scott Malone and Bernadette Baum)

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Houston checks air quality from Texas petrochemical fire, smoke seen miles away

By Gary McWilliams and Erwin Seba

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Houston officials and environmental groups raced to expand air monitoring on Tuesday after a raging fire at a Mitsui & Co petrochemical storage site produced billowing acrid smoke that could be seen and smelled miles away.

The blaze at Mitsui unit Intercontinental Terminals Co in Deer Park, Texas, burned for a third day after firefighting water pumps broke down for six hours on Monday evening, the company said.

The fire began on Sunday when a leaking tank containing volatile naphtha ignited and flames quickly spread to nearby tanks, ITC said.

Thick acrid smoke could be smelled miles away in Houston and was visible dozens of miles away.

Air monitors have not found pollution levels in excess of those considered safe, said ITC spokeswoman Alice Richardson.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality also installed additional air monitors near the site, but had no updates early Tuesday, a spokesman said.

Houston officials said there was a low risk of health hazards from the chemical cloud because it was several thousand feet above ground.

But Neil Carmen, a director at the Texas chapter of the Sierra Club environmental group, said the airborne plume likely contained tens of thousands of milligrams of particles, well above levels considered safe.

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a nongovernmental organization, was deploying 10 air-quality monitors to check for nitrogen oxides and soot around Houston and adding another 10 monitors in the near future, said Matt Tresaugue, an EDF spokesman.

The tanks hold flammable liquids that are difficult to extinguish using water and foam suppressants. Five of the 15 tanks continued to burn Tuesday morning, while two have collapsed and volatile liquids in three others burned out, ITC said.

A local fire official said the blaze may have to burn itself out to be extinguished. Each tank holds 80,000 barrels, or up to 3.3 million gallons, of liquids that are used to boost gasoline octane, make solvents and plastics.

“I can’t tell you how long it will take to burn out,” said Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen at a morning briefing. “I’m not going to give you a timetable.”

Some of the water and chemicals have washed into the adjacent Houston Ship Channel that links the Gulf of Mexico to Houston, the nation’s busiest petrochemical port, ITC spokesman Dale Samuelsen said.

Pumps on two boats feeding water to firefighters malfunctioned for about six hours on Monday evening, he said. As a result, two more tanks, one empty and the other containing toluene, a volatile liquid used to make nail polish remover and paint thinner, caught fire.

ITC added a 15-person crew experienced in battling tank-farm fires as well as additional high-pressure pumps and suppressant foam on Tuesday.

“We have been up to this point in defensive mode” trying to contain the fire, said Samuelsen. “Because of the expertise these guys bring, the expectation is we’ll be able to go into offensive mode.”

Samuelsen said the burning tanks are within a six-foot tall earthen berm that is collecting water and chemicals. Firefighters are pumping 10,000 to 20,000 gallons of water and foam a minute onto the tanks.

(Reporting by Erwin Seba and Gary McWilliams; Additional reporting by Collin Eaton; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

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Vini Samuel Announces Run For Re-Election: There is More Work to do

Mayor Vini Samuel said she’s running for a second term to build upon the major projects and events started during her first term.

“We have an amazing team in place now,” Samuel said, “from the city council to the department heads to the city staff out there working every day. And I think we’re just hitting our stride in terms of fixing the roads, building sidewalks and forming partnerships with local businesses and non-profits.”

Samuel said she’s filed paperwork with the Public Disclosure Commission to start a re-election campaign. The official deadline to file for office comes later in the year.

She served on the city council for eight years, including time as mayor pro tem, and has lived in Montesano and worked as an attorney in the Harbor since 1997. Her office is one block from city hall.

Samuel is a former columnist for The Daily World, elder board member at the Church of God and founding sponsor of the Fall Festival at Lake Sylvia. She and her husband have a son who attends Montesano High School.

“There’s something special and magical about this town and its people,” Samuel said. “It’s been a privilege to serve as mayor and help make this place even better.”

In her first term, Samuel secured more than $8 million in local, state and federal grants for major construction projects, including a revamped entrance to downtown, the reconstruction of Main Street and other roads, major work at the city wastewater treatment plant, bathrooms at Fleet Park and new soccer fields near Beacon.

Events started during the first term include the Saturday Morning Markets at Fleet Park, the Fish & Brew Fest, Jingle Lights and an economic development forum for local business owners.

“All of these things only happened because of partnerships,” Samuel said. “It took a team—city council members, department heads and myself, all working together on these projects to make them happen. It’s not easy to get millions of dollars in grants. But nothing worth doing is easy, and this city is worth it.”

If she wins a second term, Samuel said she’ll focus on things that will last: new construction projects and new partnerships.

“We need a long-term plan for fixing and replacing streets and sidewalks,” Samuel said. “The eastern and western entrances to town need a facelift to match the beautiful new main entrance. And there’s more work to do, in partnership with local businesses and non-profits, to expand opportunity here, so our kids have the chance to live and work in Montesano.”

Samuel’s campaign can be reached at [email protected].

No re-sentencing for Chicago policeman in Laquan McDonald murder, court rules

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – The Illinois Supreme Court on Tuesday denied a request by state prosecutors to hold a new sentencing hearing for ex-Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke who was sentenced to nearly seven years in prison for murdering black teenager Laquan McDonald.

Van Dyke, 40, who is white, was convicted in October in the shooting death of 17-year-old McDonald in 2014 in a case that highlighted racial tensions in America’s third-largest city. He is the first on-duty Chicago police officer to be convicted for the killing of a black person.

Van Dyke faced 20 years in prison for second-degree murder and up to 30 years for each of 16 counts of aggravated battery – one count for each shot he fired at McDonald, who was carrying a knife.

In January, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Vincent Gaughan sentenced Van Dyke to six years and nine months in prison on just the murder charge, arguing it was the more serious crime.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and Kane County State’s Attorney Joseph McMahon, the special prosecutor in the case, filed a petition in February asking the Illinois Supreme Court to vacate the sentence and set a new hearing.

They argued Gaughan should have sentenced Van Dyke on the aggravated battery convictions, which they called more serious than the second-degree murder charge.

They also asked for a sentence on each of the aggravated battery counts and to determine which of those involved “severe bodily injury” warranting consecutive sentences.

Four Illinois Supreme Court justices ruled to deny the request while two others disagreed with part or all of the ruling, a court document showed.

Van Dyke is appealing the conviction.

Protests erupted after the release of a police dashboard camera video showing McDonald being shot repeatedly.

The video, whose release was compelled by a lawsuit more than a year after the Oct. 20, 2014, shooting, was shown repeatedly during Van Dyke’s three-week trial.

Jurors said they faulted Van Dyke for escalating the incident.

The ensuing firestorm over the case prompted the dismissal of the city’s police superintendent and calls for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to resign. Emanuel is not seeking a third term in this year’s mayoral election.

A federal judge on Jan. 31 approved court-appointed oversight of the Chicago Police Department to address a 2017 U.S. Justice Department finding of excessive force and racial bias by officers.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Scott Malone and James Dalgleish)

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Raymond Woman Arrested for Distributing Methamphetamine

On March 15th a narcotics related search warrant was served upon a residence located in the 200 block of 13th Street. The warrant service was the result of a month and a half long narcotics investigation conducted by the Pacific County Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff’s Office was assisted with the service of the warrant by the Raymond Police Department.

As a result of the investigation, a female identified as Makaylah C. Fuller, age 30 was arrested at the scene without incident. A search of the residence pursuant the warrant was conducted. In Fuller’s bedroom, deputies located three baggies of suspected methamphetamine along with various items of narcotics paraphernalia.

During the investigation, utilizing confidential informants, the Sheriff’s Office was able to conduct methamphetamine purchases from Fuller.

Fuller was transported to the Pacific County Jail where she was booked for 3 counts of Delivery of a Controlled Substance and 1 count of Possession of a Controlled Substance with Intent to Deliver. Fuller also had an outstanding warrant for her arrest. Fuller’s bail was set at $ 100,000.00.

Asylum seekers returned from Mexico for first U.S. court hearings

By Lizbeth Diaz and Jose Gallego Espina

TIJUANA/SAN DIEGO (Reuters) – Asylum seekers sent to wait in to Mexico under a controversial new Trump administration policy crossed into the United States on Tuesday for their first hearings in U.S. immigration court, harboring hopes a judge would allow them to stay.

The U.S. program, known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), turns people seeking protection in the United States around to await pending U.S. court dates in Mexican border towns. Some 240 people – including families – have been returned to Mexico since late January, according to U.S. officials.

Court officials referred questions about the number of hearings being held on Tuesday to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which did not respond to a request for comment. But a group of about a half-dozen Central Americans crossed through the San Ysidro port of entry early Tuesday morning. Only a couple were represented by attorneys.

Ariel, 19, who said he left Honduras because of gang threats and asked to use only his middle name because of fears of reprisals, was among the first group of asylum seekers sent back to Mexico on Jan. 30 and given a notice to appear in U.S. court in San Diego.

He took an Uber from the migrant shelter where he has been living to the port of entry with another returnee, after speaking by phone with his family back in Honduras.

“God willing everything will move ahead and I will be able to prove that if I am sent back to Honduras, I’ll be killed,” he said.

Ariel’s attorney, Robyn Barnard from the nonprofit group Human Rights First, said she would argue against him being sent back to Mexico.

“We have evidence about the dangers that asylum seekers and refugees face in Mexico,” Barnard said. “So we plan to present that to the judge and to the government today.”

Before crossing the border, Barnard’s clients bowed their heads for a prayer.

U.S. officials have said they are working with the Mexican government to ensure migrants are safe waiting Mexico. But some Mexican officials have warned the country’s border cities would struggle to look after asylum seekers for long periods.

Some returnees, like Ariel, say they have not been given legal work permits in Mexico.

“No one is telling them how to do that,” said Mariel Villarreal, an immigration lawyer with the San Francisco-based Pangea Legal Services, who has a Guatemalan client with a hearing set for Tuesday in San Diego. “They are just being sent back to homelessness in Tijuana basically.”

“GENEROUS” LAWS

The American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups are suing in federal court to halt the MPP program, which is part of a series of measures the administration of President Donald Trump has taken to try to curb the flow of mostly Central American migrants trying to enter the United States.

The Trump administration says most asylum claims, especially for Central Americans, are ultimately rejected but because of crushing immigration court backlogs people are often released pending resolution of their cases and live in the United States for years. The government has said the new program is aimed at ending “the exploitation of our generous immigration laws.”

Critics of the program say it violates U.S. law and international norms since migrants are sent back to often dangerous towns in Mexico in precarious living situations where it is difficult to get notice about changes to their U.S. court dates and to find legal help.

Gregory Chen, director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said there are real concerns about the difficulties of carrying out this major shift in U.S. immigration policy.

“The government did not have its shoes tied when they introduced this program,” he said.

Immigration advocates are closely watching how the proceedings will be carried out this week, especially after scheduling glitches created confusion around three hearings last week, according to a report in the San Diego Union Tribune.

The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which runs U.S. immigration courts under the Department of Justice, said only that it uses its regular court scheduling system for the MPP hearings and did not respond to a question about the reported scheduling problems.

(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Tijuana and Jose Gallego Espina in San Diego; writing and additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; Editing by Bill Trott)

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California university says students tied to admissions scam could face expulsion

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) – The University of Southern California said it may expel students tied to a brazen U.S. college-admissions scam after reviewing their records, which could lead the college to throw out “Full House” actress Lori Loughlin’s two daughters.

The school said on Monday night it has already “placed holds on the accounts of students who may be associated with the alleged admissions scheme,” preventing them from registering for classes or acquiring transcripts.

“Following the review, we will take the proper action related to their status, up to revoking admission or expulsion,” the college said in a tweet on Monday night.

It did not name specific students, but Loughlin and her fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli are among 50 people charged last week with participating in what federal prosecutors called a $25 million bribery and fraud scam.

The scheme helped the couple land their two daughters’ spots at USC, authorities said.

A USC representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the status of Loughlin’s daughters.

The mastermind of the scheme last week pleaded guilty to racketeering charges for bribing coaches, cheating on standardized tests and fabricating athletic profiles to help children of wealthy families gain admission to top universities including Yale, Stanford and Georgetown.

Prosecutors said some students involved in the scandal were not aware their parents had made the alleged arrangements, although in other cases they knowingly took part. None of the children were charged.

A Georgetown spokesman said on Tuesday the school would not comment on disciplinary action against individual students linked to the scandal, but added it was “reviewing the details of the indictment, examining our records, and will be taking appropriate action.”

Yale, UCLA, and the University of Texas said last week that any students found to have misrepresented any part of their applications may have their admission rescinded. Stanford said it was “working to better understand the circumstances around” one of its students linked to the scheme.

Wake Forest’s president said last week, “We have no reason to believe the student was aware of the alleged financial transaction.”

Several celebrities and corporate executives charged in the scandal have already felt career consequences. The Hallmark cable channel last week cut ties with Loughlin after her alleged role in the fraud was disclosed.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Scott Malone, Jeffrey Benkoe and Steve Orlofsky)

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WDFW: Feeding Wildlife can do more harm than good

Winter is suffering its last gasp in Eastern Washington but heavy snow loads in many areas mean food will be hard to come by for wildlife for a while still. Despite the record snow levels in some areas of the state, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologists ask residents to please not feed the wildlife, saying deer, elk, moose and other animals are biologically adapted to survive the winter without food provided by humans.

“People may want to feed deer, elk, moose and other animals to help during these leaner times,” said Kristin Mansfield, a veterinarian with WDFW, “But artificial feeding can actually do more harm than good.”

Deer in good condition generally can survive winter on limited natural food supplies. It can take several weeks for a deer’s digestive system to adjust to hay or other artificial feed. Without enough fat reserves to get through the adjustment period, deer can die even with bellies full of feed they can’t digest.

Feeding can also draw animals into areas near roads, leading to collisions with vehicles, Mansfield said. It also concentrates animals, making them more vulnerable to disease, predators and poaching. In addition, it can make wild animals too comfortable around humans and, in some cases, aggressive.

The best way to help wildlife in winter is to avoid disturbing them, allowing them to conserve vital energy. This includes keeping dogs confined and slowing down while traveling in motor vehicles through wildlife habitat.

WDFW does use feeding, along with extensive fencing, at three Wildlife Areas in south-central Washington to help keep elk and bighorn sheep off adjacent private property where they may cause damage or contract diseases from domestic animals.

“We feed in select cases for specific reasons,” Mansfield said, “But it’s neither effective nor desirable to feed wildlife on a broad scale.”

Wildlife biologists acknowledge that extreme winter conditions takes a toll on some populations. But that is just a fact of nature, according to Mansfield.

“Winter is the season of greatest stress for wildlife populations, especially animals experiencing their first winter,” she said. “People can’t change that, and it can create problems when they try to do so.”

General information on winter wildlife feeding is available on the WDFW website at https://wdfw.wa.gov/living/winter_feeding/wildlife.html.

The Latest: Floodwaters surround Illinois neighborhood

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The Latest on flooding in the Midwest (all times local):

10:25 a.m.

Authorities say river flooding has surrounded a northern Illinois neighborhood with water, prompting residents to escape in boats.

The National Weather Service says the flooding is due to melting snow and recent heavy rains that recently hit the Midwest.

People living in the Illinois village of Roscoe say children have walked through high floodwaters or kayaked to catch school buses amid flooding along the Rock River.

About 40 miles (64 kilometers) away in Freeport, authorities say rescue workers have helped more than 170 people evacuate their homes since Saturday due to flooding along the Pecatonica River. The river is at its highest level since 1933.

Flooding along rivers in western Michigan also has damaged dozens of homes and businesses.

___

10 a.m.

The president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau says farm and ranch losses due to the devastating flooding could reach $1 billion in the state.

Steve Nelson estimates $400 million in crop losses because of crops that will be planted late, if at all. He also estimates as much as $500 million in livestock losses as Nebraska and other Midwestern states struggle with swollen rivers and breached levees following heavy rain and snowmelt.

Nelson tells the Omaha World-Herald that he wouldn’t be surprised if “lost agriculture numbers go over a billion dollars.”

Agriculture amounts to 20 percent of Nebraska’s gross domestic product and provides one of every four jobs in the state.

Nelson says flooding is costing the state’s cattle industry $1 million a day in costs that usually aren’t covered by insurance.

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9:20 a.m.

Vice President Mike Pence is headed to the Midwest to view flood damage as farmers raise concerns that busted levees won’t be fixed before the traditional spring flood season.

Pence is scheduled to visit Omaha, Nebraska, late Tuesday afternoon. Hundreds of homes are damaged, and tens of thousands of acres are inundated with water.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says rivers breached at least a dozen levees in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri. Flooding is expected through the week as high water levels flow down the Missouri River.

Corps official Jud Kneuvean says levees usually take six months to repair. That means most likely won’t be fixed by mid-May, the start of the most flood-prone part of the year.

The Nebraska Farm Bureau says farm and ranch losses could reach $1 billion in Nebraska alone.

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