Hurricane Irma, the most powerful Atlantic storm ever recorded, laid waste to parts of the Caribbean overnight, pummeling Turks and Caicos, hammering the Bahamas and taking aim at South Florida, home to millions of residents. The storm’s death toll rose to 18, but officials warned that figure will increase as rescue workers search through the rubble of islands that have seen over 90 percent of all buildings destroyed. Irma weakened slightly as it pushed west, and was downgraded Friday from a Category 5 to 4 storm, but it remains extremely dangerous, with sustained winds of 155 miles per hour. The storm lashed the northern Dominican Republic Thursday and flooded parts of Haiti overnight, but Irma’s eye passed well north of Hispaniola, sparing the two countries from the worst of the hurricane’s wrath.
In Florida, freeways jammed with cars Thursday and Friday as officials ordered the evacuation of more than a half-million people—one the largest evacuations in U.S. history. Irma’s eye is projected to strike South Florida early Sunday morning as a Category 4 storm, delivering storm surges of 10 feet or higher. In Miami Beach, which averages three feet above sea level, Mayor Philip Levine told a local CBS reporter that Irma is an existential threat.
Hank Tester: “We’ve talked to people in your city who say, 'We ain't going.’”
Mayor Philip Levine: “Well, I hate to hear that. And I’m going to do everything in my power to convince them that this is a very serious storm. This is a nuclear hurricane. They should leave the beach. They must leave the beach.”
The National Weather Service warns of likely structural damage to even sturdy buildings, with the complete destruction of mobile homes likely.
Elsewhere, Florida Power & Light said Thursday it was shutting down a pair of nuclear power plants ahead of the storm. The twin-reactor Turkey Point plant, which is 20 feet above sea level, lies just south of Miami on the coast, directly in the path of Irma’s expected landfall. Further north on Florida’s Atlantic coast is the twin-reactor St. Lucie nuclear plant. In order to avoid meltdowns, both plants must maintain constant power to ensure the cooling of nuclear fuel rods in their reactors, as well as highly radioactive spent fuel rods kept in storage pools on site.
Meanwhile, forecasters warned that Hurricane Katia could strengthen in the warm waters of the western Gulf of Mexico into a major hurricane before it makes landfall in the Mexican state of Veracruz, south of flood-ravaged Texas, which is still reeling from mass flooding after Harvey’s landfall less than two weeks ago. And in the eastern Caribbean, Hurricane Jose is threatening to bring fierce winds and a storm surge to the island of Barbuda, where Hurricane Irma damaged 95 percent of the island’s buildings after it hit on Tuesday.
The unprecedented hurricanes come as a study finds climate change is driving the mass extinction of parasites that are critical to natural ecosystems, and could add to the planet’s sixth great mass extinction event that’s currently underway. The report in the journal Science Advances warns that about a third of all parasite species could go extinct by 2070 due to human activity. The loss of species of lice, fleas and worms could have profound ripple effects on the environment and might pave the way for new parasites to colonize humans and other animals with disastrous health outcomes.
In Texas, seven emergency workers are suing the Arkema chemical company after they were exposed to toxic chemicals and hospitalized after an explosion at a plant outside Houston that was flooded by waters from Hurricane Harvey. At least two tons of volatile chemicals known as organic peroxides burned after cooling systems at the plant failed. Attorneys say the first responders were never told about the dangers of the resulting chemical plume, which FEMA Director Brock Long later called “incredibly dangerous.” Click here to see our 'toxic tour' of the Petro Metro.
In Mexico, the country’s strongest earthquake in a century struck off the west coast early Friday, leveling buildings in the impoverished states of Chiapas and Oaxaca and triggering tsunami warnings across the Pacific. The 8.1-magnitude quake struck at a shallow depth of just 43 miles, making it particularly dangerous. There were early reports of at least 15 deaths, but that toll is expected to rise dramatically after the U.S. Geological Survey warned of high casualties and said the disaster is likely widespread. The quake triggered Pacific Ocean tsunami sensors, but Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto later said the waves were not as high as feared and major damage from tsunamis is unlikely. The quake was so powerful it rattled buildings, broke windows and knocked out power in parts of Mexico City, more than 450 miles away.
Syria’s government is accusing Israel of bombing a military scientific research center in the west of Syria that Israeli officials accuse of producing chemical weapons and missiles that could be used to deliver them. Syria’s government said the attack could bring “dangerous repercussions” to the security and stability of the region. The Israeli air strikes came a day after U.N. investigators concluded the Syrian Air Force used the nerve agent sarin in an attack in April that killed at least 83 people in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun. The U.N. said it was one of at least 20 chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government during the conflict.
President Trump welcomed Kuwaiti Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah to the White House Thursday, saying he was prepared to help mediate a dispute the Gulf kingdom and its allies have with Qatar—which Trump has accused of supporting terrorism. President Trump also praised Kuwait’s monarch for purchasing U.S.-made weapons, including warplanes.
President Donald Trump: “Kuwait has purchased a tremendous amount of military equipment and other equipment—many 777s from Boeing, a lot of F-18s from us. We’re going to be talking about additional orders and military orders.”
Kuwait is a member of the Saudi-led military coalition that’s been bombing Yemen since March of 2015. This week, the U.N. said the airstrikes were responsible for most of the 1,100 killed during the war, calling the ongoing famine and cholera epidemic in Yemen an “entirely man-made catastrophe.”
Doctors Without Borders warned Thursday that migrants rescued at sea while attempting to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa should be allowed to seek asylum in Europe, rather than be returned to Libya where they face sexual violence, torture and forced labor. The humanitarian group’s president, Dr. Joanne Liu, said in an open letter Thursday that European Union authorities are “feeding a criminal system of abuse” by returning migrants to Libya.
Dr. Joanne Liu: “So today, we are making a public appeal, sending this open letter to governments in Europe, asking leaders to publicly position themselves on what is happening in Libya today. Are they OK with containing and sending people back to where they will be raped, tortured and enslaved?”
The warning by Doctors Without Borders came a day after the European Court of Justice struck down a legal challenge brought by Hungary and Slovakia over the EU’s mandatory refugee quota policy, which orders national governments to take in their fair share of asylum seekers.
Back in the U.S., a federal court struck another blow Thursday to President Trump’s ban on refugees and travelers from six majority-Muslim nations. The unanimous ruling by three judges on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an attempt by the Trump administration to deny visas to grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins who wish to travel from the affected countries to join relatives living in the U.S. The Justice Department said it will challenge the latest ruling on the travel ban when the Supreme Court hears the case next month.
In healthcare news, Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren said Thursday she will co-sponsor a bill by Senator Bernie Sanders that would expand Medicare to include every American. The measure, which Sanders is expected to introduce later this month, would provide universal healthcare by lowering the age of Medicare eligibility from 65 to zero. Other Democratic senators, including California’s Kamala Harris and Montana’s Jon Tester, have said they might support the bill.
In West Virginia, prosecutors have dropped charges against journalist Dan Heyman of Public News Service, who was arrested in May while questioning Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. Heyman’s arrest inside the West Virginia State Capitol came as he pressed Price about whether domestic violence would be categorized as a pre-existing condition under the Republicans’ proposed healthcare bill. Heyman was charged with “willful disruption of state government processes.” He told reporters he was relieved after Thursday’s decision to drop charges, saying, “Facing six months of jail time for asking a question as a journalist was pretty troubling.”
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Thursday the Trump administration will roll back rules aimed at protecting survivors of sexual assault on college campuses. The move reverses President Obama’s 2011 directive on Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination at schools. Speaking in Arlington, Virginia, DeVos said the changes were denying due process rights to those accused of rape and sexual misconduct on campuses.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos: “Through intimidation and coercion, the failed system has clearly pushed schools to overreach. With the heavy hand of Washington tipping the balance of her scale, the sad reality is that Lady Justice is not blind on campuses today.”
DeVos’s comments drew protests from survivors of campus sexual assault, who rallied outside the building at George Mason University where DeVos delivered her remarks. This is Sofie Karasek of the group EROC, or End Rape on Campus.
Sofie Karasek: “What she’s trying to do is to tip the scales in favor of perpetrators, and that she is siding with rapists. That’s what she decided to do today. And we, as survivors and students and as allies, we’re not going to stand for that. And we will not go back to the days when all you were getting for committing rape was either nothing or a $20 fine and an essay assignment.”
In privacy news, the credit reporting agency Equifax said Thursday that a software vulnerability left personal information for 143 million people exposed to hackers, in one of the largest data breaches in U.S. history. Equifax said the information included Social Security numbers, driver’s license information, credit card numbers and other data. Bloomberg reports that just days after learning of the breach, three top Equifax executives sold about $1.8 million worth of the company’s stock—yet waited over a month to inform the public. Equifax’s share price plummeted in overnight trading after news of the data breach broke, losing nearly 15 percent of its value.
And in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte’s son, Paolo, told Senate investigators Thursday he played no part in a scheme to ship more than $125 million in illegal drugs from China.
Paolo Duterte: “My presence here is for the Filipino people and to my fellow Davaoeños, to whom I serve. I am very sorry, ug pasayloa ko ninyo [and forgive me], but I cannot answer allegations based on hearsay.”
Paolo Duterte and President Duterte’s son-in-law Manases Carpio face allegations they helped arrange for the shipments of crystal methamphetamine last May. Since President Duterte launched a so-called war on drugs in the Philippines last year, security forces and vigilantes have killed more than 7,000 suspected drug users and dealers.