In Brief: October 29, 2020

Hurricane Zeta hits Louisiana with flooding, power outages

NEW ORLEANS — Hurricane Zeta slammed into storm-weary Louisiana on Wednesday, pelting the New Orleans metro area with rain and howling winds that ripped apart buildings, knocked out power to thousands and threatened to push up to 9 feet of sea water inland in a Gulf Coast region already pounded by multiple storms this year.

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St. Bernard Parish President Guy McInnis said emergency workers were doing their best to respond to reports of people in distress after their roofs were blown off.

“Guys, we received the brunt of Zeta, and Zeta gave us a good punch,” McInnis told WDSU-TV.

Roads were flooded near the coast, where forecasters said Zeta made landfall around Terrebone Bay near Cocodrie, an unincorporated fishing village at the end of a highway with few if any full-time residents and a marine laboratory where a building was inundated.

Streams of rainfall ran off roofs in New Orleans’ famed French Quarter, signs outside bars and restaurants swayed back and forth in the wind and palm trees along Canal Street whipped furiously. A few trees were down, and one that fell across utility lines sparked a bright orange flash. Officials said a person was hospitalized with minor injuries after a structure collapsed, but further details weren’t available.

S&P 500 sinks 3.5% as surging virus cases lead to shutdowns

The Dow Jones Industrial Average sank 943 points Wednesday as surging coronavirus cases forced more shutdown measures in Europe and raised fears of more restrictions in the U.S.

The S&P 500 slid 3.5%, its third straight loss and its biggest drop since June. The benchmark index is already down 5.6% this week, on track for its biggest weekly decline since March. That’s when the market was in the midst of selling off as strict lockdowns around the world choked the economy into recession.

The selling in U.S. markets followed broad declines in Europe, where the French president announced tough measures to slow the virus’ spread and German officials agreed to impose a four-week partial lockdown. The measures may not be as stringent as the shutdown orders that swept the world early this year, but the worry is they could still hit the already weakened global economy.

From wire sources

In the U.S., cases are increasing in just about every state and the number of deaths and hospitalizations due to COVID-19 are on the rise. Even if the most restrictive lockdowns don’t return, investors worry that the worsening pandemic could scare away customers of businesses regardless and sap their profits. The U.S. economy could lose momentum just as prospects for more economic support from Washington have dwindled as Election Day nears.

“Many people had come to believe we were at least stable, and now we’re having a second uptick, which throws potential GDP and everything else up in the air,” said Randy Frederick, vice president of trading and derivatives at Charles Schwab. “I did not expect this level of volatility or this degree of a sell-off.”

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Pandemic politics: Biden shuns ‘false promises’ of fast fix

BULLHEAD CITY, Ariz. — Focused firmly on COVID-19, Joe Biden vowed Wednesday not to campaign in the election homestretch “on the false promises of being able to end this pandemic by flipping a switch.” President Donald Trump, under attack for his handling of the worst health crisis in more than a century, breezily pledged on his final-week swing to “vanquish the virus.”

The Democratic presidential nominee also argued that a Supreme Court conservative majority stretched to 6-3 by newly confirmed Justice Amy Coney Barrett could dismantle the Obama administration’s signature health law and leave millions without insurance coverage during the pandemic. He called Trump’s handling of the coronavirus an “insult” to its victims, especially as cases spike dramatically around the country.

“Even if I win, it’s going to take a lot of hard work to end this pandemic,” Biden said during a speech in Wilmington, Delaware. “I do promise this: We will start on day one doing the right things.”

His comments reflected an unwavering attempt to keep the political spotlight on the pandemic. That was a departure from the president, who downplayed the threat and spent his day in Arizona, where relaxed rules on social distancing made staging big rallies easier.

The pandemic’s consequences were escalating, with deaths climbing in 39 states and an average of 805 people dying daily nationwide — up from 714 two weeks ago. Overall, about 227,000 Americans have died. The sharp rise sent shockwaves through financial markets, causing the Dow Jones Industrial Average to drop 900-plus points.

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Philadelphia pledges better response after Black man’s death

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia police pledged to release 911 tapes and police body camera footage “in the near future” in the shooting death of a Black man with a history of mental health problems, a death that prompted protests, widespread vandalism and an overnight curfew days before Election Day.

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw pledged to release the video evidence once the department shares it with the family of Walter Wallace Jr. Outlaw, who came to Philadelphia less than a year ago from Portland, Oregon, lamented at a news conference Wednesday that her department lacks a mental health unit or consistent way to coordinate police calls with specialists.

“We don’t have a behavioral health unit, which is sorely needed,” said Outlaw, when asked about reports that police had been called to the home twice before that day. “There’s clearly a disconnect on our end in terms of knowing what’s out there ” at the scene.

Police say they fatally shot Wallace on Monday after he ignored orders to drop a knife, a death that intensified already heightened tensions in the presidential battleground state. Wallace’s mother said she warned police Monday afternoon that her son was in the throes of a mental health crisis.

In the days since, more than 90 people have been arrested and about 50 police officers injured in clashes with protesters and vandals, including the 1,000 or so who suddenly swarmed a shopping center Tuesday night, breaking windows and stealing merchandise. That scene erupted on the other side of the city, miles from Wallace’ neighborhood, where protests were underway.

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Millions of mail ballots not yet returned in key states

ATLANTA — Just days before the presidential election, millions of mail ballots have yet to be returned in key battleground states, and election officials warn that time is running out for voters who want to avoid a polling place on Election Day.

At least 35 million mail ballots had been returned or accepted as of early Wednesday, according to data collected by The Associated Press. That surpasses the 33.3 million total mail ballots returned during the 2016 election, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Yet an estimated 1.9 million ballots were still outstanding in Florida, along with 962,000 in Nevada, 850,000 in Michigan and 1 million in Pennsylvania. In most states, the deadline for ballots to be received is Election Day.

“Don’t wait until Election Day,” Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf implored voters this week. “Hand-delivering your own ballot now will give you the peace of mind that your vote will be counted, and your voice will be heard in this historic election.”

Combined with early, in-person voting, at least 71.5 million votes have already been cast, more than the total number of advance votes four years ago.

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Media election planners prepare for a night of mystery

NEW YORK — This coming weekend, CNN’s Sam Feist will distribute to his staff copies of the testimony news executives gave to Congress when they tried to explain how television networks got 2000’s disputed election so spectacularly wrong.

It’s required reading — perhaps never more than this year. Media planners are preaching caution in the face of a surge in early voting, high anxiety levels overall and a president who raises the specter of another disputed election.

“We need to prepare ourselves for a different kind of election night,” said Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief, “and the word I keep using is ‘patience.’”

Nearly half of people polled recently by the Pew Research Center said they intend to follow election night returns closely. It’s easy to see this year eclipsing 2008’s record of 71.5 million people who watched for results, and many will have laptops, tablets or smartphones ready for a multi-screen experience.

CBS News built a new studio where pop stars once visited MTV’s “Total Request Live,” and Fox News hired the makers of the “Fortnite” video game to design whiz-bang graphics, an illustration of the money and planning that goes in to the quadrennial event.

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Former DHS official says he wrote ‘Anonymous’ Trump critique

WASHINGTON — A former Trump administration official who penned a scathing anti-Trump op-ed and book under the pen name “Anonymous” revealed himself Wednesday as a former chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security.

The official, Miles Taylor, said in a tweet six days before Election Day that Donald Trump is “a man without character” and “it’s time for everyone to step out of the shadows.”

Taylor has been an outspoken critic of Trump’s in recent months and had repeatedly denied he was the author of the column — even to colleagues at CNN, where he has a contributor contract. He left the Trump administration in June 2019 and endorsed Democrat Joe Biden for president this summer.

Trump and White House officials moved quickly to describe Taylor as someone with little standing and clout.

“This guy is a low-level lowlife that I don’t know. I have no idea who he is, other than I got to see him a little while ago on television,” Trump told a campaign rally crowd in Arizona. As he belittled Taylor as a “sleazebag” and called for his prosecution, the crowd broke into cheers of “drain that swamp.”

Justice Department ramps up inquiry into NY care home deaths

NEW YORK — The U.S. Justice Department vastly expanded an inquiry Wednesday that could determine whether New York is undercounting coronavirus deaths among nursing home residents, demanding detailed data from hundreds of private facilities.

The demand ratchets up pressure on Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo after months of bipartisan criticism that the state’s official tally of 6,722 dead at long-term care facilities is probably off by thousands. That’s because New York, unlike nearly every other state, counts only residents who died on a nursing home’s property and not those who died after being taken to a hospital.

Cuomo’s administration has repeatedly refused to release such nursing home data to lawmakers and the media, including a public-records request from The Associated Press dating back to May.

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His spokesman, Rich Azzopardi, called the Justice Department’s latest request just days before the presidential election a politically motivated “sham” and a “scummy abuse of power.”

An AP analysis in August found New York is probably undercounting nursing home deaths by thousands, noting that a separate federal count since May that included resident deaths in hospitals was 65 percent higher than the comparable state count.

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