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France fries: Record heat hits tourists, schools, hospitals

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PARIS — Schools are dousing kids with water and nursing homes are equipping the elderly with hydration sensors as France and other nations battle a record-setting heat wave baking much of Europe.

Several people have died around the continent in incidents that authorities are linking to the exceptional weather. A major wildfire raged Friday in Spain, sparked when a pile of chicken dung spontaneously combusted in the heat.

Several countries have reported record temperatures this week, and France hit its all-time heat record Friday: 44.3 degrees Celsius (111 F) in the southern town of Carpentras, according to French media.

The French national weather service activated its highest-level heat danger alert for the first time, putting four regions around Marseille and Montpellier in the south of the country under special watch Friday.

Those schools that stayed open worked to keep kids cool. Teachers at the Victor Hugo Primary School in Colombes near Paris abandoned suffocating classrooms and are keeping children outside all day, spraying them with water and organizing quiet activities in the shade.

“I make them go in the playground with books, in the shade, they must stay seated,” said teacher Valerie Prevost. “We tell them to dampen their caps, to drink regularly.”

About 4,000 schools closed because they couldn’t ensure safe conditions, and local authorities cancelled many end-of-school-year carnivals.

Some criticized the government for going overboard, but Prime Minister Edouard Philippe defended the efforts after 15,000 people died in a heat wave in 2003 that woke France up to the risks.

“This heat wave is exceptional by its intensity and its earliness,” he told reporters.

“Measures have been taken for the most vulnerable people,” he said “But given the intensity of the heat wave, it’s the entire population who must be careful today … both for oneself and for loved ones and neighbours.”

Italy put 16 cities under alerts for high temperatures, and civil security services distributed water to tourists visiting famed sites around Rome under a scorching sun.

Heat was blamed for the deaths of two people in Spain, private news agency Europa Press reported Friday.

An 80-year-old man collapsed and died in the street in Valladolid, in northwest Spain, the agency said, and a 17-year-old boy died in the southern city of Cordoba after diving into a swimming pool and losing consciousness.

Four people have drowned so far in France this week, and a 12-year-old girl drowned in a river near Manchester, England. France’s health minister and British police warned people to swim only in authorized areas.

France has also seen an uptick in so-called street-pooling, or illegally opening fire hydrants. A 6-year-old child is in life-threatening condition after being hit by water shooting from a cracked-open fire hydrant in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, broadcaster France-Info reported.

More than 600 firefighters and six water-dropping aircraft were battling the worst fire in two decades in the Catalonia region Friday, as Spain is forecast to endure the peak of its heat wave, with temperatures expected to exceed 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).

In Berlin, a police unit turned water cannons — usually used against rioters — on city trees, to cool them down.

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Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Danica Kirka in London and Catherine Gaschka in Colombes, France, contributed.

Angela Charlton, The Associated Press



































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Biden lauds NASA team for giving US ‘dose of confidence’

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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday congratulated the NASA team responsible for last month’s successful landing of an unmanned rover on Mars and for giving the country a “dose of confidence” at a moment when the nation’s reputation as a scientific leader has been tattered by the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden speaking in video conference call with the leadership of space agency’s jet propulsion laboratory team expressed awe over the Feb. 18 landing of Perseverance.

Perseverance, the biggest, most advanced rover ever sent by NASA, became the ninth spacecraft since the 1970s to successfully land on Mars, travelling some 300 million miles in nearly seven months, as part of an ongoing quest to study whether there was once life on the planet.

“It’s so much bigger than landing Perseverance on Mars,” Biden told members of the NASA team. “It’s about the American spirit. And you brought it back”

Biden watched on television as Perseverance’s touched down on Mars last month and called NASA’s Acting Administrator Steve Jurczyk to pass on his congratulations to the Perseverance team. But Biden said he wanted to speak directly to the team, which he said deserved credit not only for the astronomical feat but also with boosting the United States’ reputation at a moment when it’s sorely needed.

He recalled that another nation’s leader recently told him that the U.S., once seen as competent, saw its standing fall with its response to coronavirus pandemic.

But Biden, who has made stemming a pandemic that has killed nearly 520,000 Americans his top priority, said that the Mars landing offered the nation a bit of inspiration at a moment when it’s sorely needed.

“We can land a rover on Mars, we can beat a pandemic,” Biden said. “And with science, hope and vision, there’s not a damn thing we can’t do as a country.”

The Perseverence landing comes amid a recent mad dash to Mars among rival space programs.

The NASA team landing on Feb. 18 marked the third visit to Mars in just over a week. Two spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates and China swung into orbit around Mars on successive days earlier in February. All three missions lifted off in July to take advantage of the close alignment of Earth and Mars.

NASA’s car-size, plutonium-powered vehicle arrived at Jezero Crater, hitting NASA’s smallest and trickiest target yet: a 5-by-4-mile strip on an ancient river delta full of pits, cliffs and rocks. Scientists believe that if life ever flourished on Mars, it would have happened 3 billion to 4 billion years ago, when water still flowed on the planet.

Over the next two years, the rover, nicknamed Percy, will use its 7-foot (2-meter) arm to drill down and collect rock samples containing possible signs of bygone microscopic life.

Three to four dozen chalk-size samples will be sealed in tubes and set aside to be retrieved eventually by another rover and brought homeward by another rocket ship.

Alexandra Jaffe And Aamer Madhani, The Associated Press


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Biden attempts bipartisan push for infrastructure package

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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden tried to maintain bipartisan momentum for a new infrastructure program by meeting Thursday with Republican and Democratic lawmakers at the White House.

The meeting was about “what we’re gonna do to make sure we once again lead the world across the board on infrastructure,” Biden said. “It not only creates jobs, but it makes us a helluva lot more competitive around the world if we have the best infrastructure.”

Spending on infrastructure appears to be the next major priority for the Biden administration after its $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package clears the Senate, likely along hardened partisan lines. The prospect of funding roads, bridges, ports, broadband and other infrastructure is a chance for Biden to rebuild his relationship with Republicans. It also allows him notch a policy achievement that evaded both the Obama and Trump administrations.

Biden met Thursday with eight members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, a follow-up to a February 11 meeting with senators on infrastructure.

The president laid the groundwork for an infrastructure package during last year’s campaign by proposing $2 trillion in “accelerated” investments to shift to cleaner energy, build charging stations for electric vehicles, support public transit and repair roads and bridges. The plan emphasizes the importance of addressing climate change and creating unionized jobs.

There is a need for infrastructure spending. The American Society of Civil Engineers on Wednesday graded the nation’s infrastructure as a lacklustre “C-.” The group said $5.9 trillion must be spent over the next decade for safe and sustainable roads, bridges and airports. That recommendation is about $2.6 trillion more than what the government and private sector spend.

Republicans say they want to invest in infrastructure, but they appear to disagree with Biden’s focus on the environment and the possibility of financing any program with debt after the federal government has already borrowed heavily to combat the economic fallout from the pandemic. Their concern is that infrastructure would ultimately become a form of the Democratic-proposed “Green New Deal” that would move the country away from fossil fuels.

Missouri Rep. Sam Graves, the ranking Republican on the transportation committee, left the Thursday meeting with a series of markers for Biden to win bipartisan backing.

“First and foremost, a highway bill cannot grow into a multi-trillion dollar catch-all bill, or it will lose Republican support,” Graves said in a statement. “Second, a transportation bill needs to be a transportation bill that primarily focuses on fundamental transportation needs, such as roads and bridges. Republicans won’t support another Green New Deal disguising itself as a transportation bill.”

Still, the committee chairman, Oregon Democrat Pete DeFazio, described the meeting with Biden as productive and refreshing after conversations with former President Donald Trump led to minimal progress on infrastructure. DeFazio said they discussed paying for the plan, but he declined to go into specifics.

“The difference between talking to Joe Biden about infrastructure and what goes into it and how we’re going to get it done and Donald Trump is like, it’s just a whole different world,” DeFazio said. “It’s way better.”

Josh Boak And Alexandra Jaffe, The Associated Press


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