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Hurricane Ian nears Florida landfall with 155 mph winds

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By Curt Anderson in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla., (AP) — Hurricane Ian’s most damaging winds began hitting Florida’s southwest coast Wednesday, lashing the state with heavy rain and pushing a devastating storm surge after strengthening to the threshold of the most dangerous Category 5 status.

Fueled by warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico, Ian grew to a catastrophic Category 4 hurricane overnight with top winds of 155 mph (250 kph), according to the National Hurricane Center. The storm trudged on a track to make landfall north of the heavily populated Fort Myers area, which forecasters said could be inundated by a storm surge of up to 18 feet (5.5 meters).

“This is going to be a nasty nasty day, two days,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said early Wednesday, stressing that people in Ian’s path along the coast should rush to the safest possible shelter and stay there.

Ian’s center was about 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of Naples at 10 a.m. Wednesday, as it churned toward toward the coast at 9 mph (15 kph). Ian’s plodding pace meant the storm was expected to spend a day or more crawling across the Florida peninsula, dumping flooding rains of 12 to 18 inches (30 to 45 centimeters) across a broad area including Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville in the state’s northeast corner.

Catastrophic storm surges could push 12 to (3.6 meters) of water or more across more than 250 miles (400 kilometers) of coastline, from Bonita Beach to Englewood, the hurricane center warned.

“It’s going to get a lot worse very quickly. So please hunker down,” DeSantis said.

Off the coast on Sanibel Island near Fort Myers, swirling water covered residential streets and was halfway up mailbox posts by mid-morning. Seawater rushed out of Tampa Bay, leaving parts of the muddy bottom exposed, and waves crashed over the end of a wooden pier at Naples

More than 2.5 million people were under mandatory evacuation orders, but by law no one could be forced to flee. The governor said the state has 30,000 linemen, urban search and rescue teams, and 7,000 National Guard troops from Florida and elsewhere ready to help once the weather clears.

Florida residents rushed ahead of the impact to board up their homes, stash precious belongings on upper floors and join long lines of cars leaving the shore.

Some chose to stay and ride out the storm. Jared Lewis, a Tampa delivery driver, said his home has withstood hurricanes in the past, though not as powerful as Ian.

“It is kind of scary, makes you a bit anxious,” Lewis said. “After the last year of not having any, now you go to a Category 4 or 5. We are more used to the 2s and 3s.”

Forecasters predicted Ian would make landfall more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Tampa and St. Petersberg, likely sparing the densely populated Tampa Bay area from its first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921.

Officials warned Tampa residents that they still faced threats from powerful winds and up to 20 inches (50 centimeters) of rain.

“Please, please, please be aware that we are not out of danger yet,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said in a video on Twitter. “Flooding is still going to occur.”

During the night, Ian went through a natural cycle when it lost its old eye and formed a new one. The timing was bad for the Florida coast, because the storm got stronger and larger — 120 mph (193 kph) to 155 mph (250 kph) — with landfall just a few hours away.

The size of the storm also grew, with tropical storm force winds extending 175 miles (280 kilometers) from the hurricane’s center.

“With the higher intensity you’re going to see more extensive wind damage,” University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy said. “The larger wind field means that more people will experience those storm-force winds.”

The most damaging winds could hit a coastline where the population has jumped sevenfold since 1970, according to the U.S. Census. Authorities worried that many residents would ignore orders to evacuate.

Vinod Nair wasn’t taking any chances. He drove inland from the Tampa area Tuesday with his wife, son, dog and two kittens to a hotel in Orlando, where only tropical storm force winds were expected.

“You can’t do anything about natural disasters,” Nair said. “We live in a high-risk zone, so we thought it best to evacuate.”

Ash Dugney warily watched ocean water being sucked out below a Tampa Bay pier Wednesday morning. He said he didn’t trust Tampa’s storm drainage system to keep his corner tuxedo rental business safe from flooding that he said happened in his neighborhood even during mild storms.

“I don’t care about the wind and the rain and the stuff like that, I just care about the flooding,” Dugney said, adding that he moved essentials out of the shop and moved other items up to above waist-high level.

Flash floods were possible across all of Florida. Hazards include the polluted leftovers of Florida’s phosphate fertilizer mining industry, more than 1 billion tons of slightly radioactive wastecontained in enormous ponds that could overflow in heavy rains.

Forecasters placed roughly 120 miles (193 kilometers) of central Florida’s east coast under a hurricane warning Wednesday, signaling that Ian may remain a hurricane longer than previously expected as it moves inland.

Isolated tornadoes were spinning off the storm well ahead of landfall. One tornado damaged small planes and a hangar at the North Perry Airport, west of Hollywood along the Atlantic coast.

More than 190,000 homes and businesses were without electricity, and Florida Power and Light warned those in Ian’s path to brace for days without power.

Parts of Georgia and South Carolina also could see flooding rains and some coastal surge into Saturday. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp preemptively declared an emergency, ordering 500 National Guard troops onto standby.

Before turning toward Florida, Ian battered Cuba and brought down the country’s electrical grid, blacking out the entire island. It also caused destruction in Cuba’s world-famous tobacco belt. No deaths were reported.

___

Associated Press contributors include Christina Mesquita in Havana, Cuba; Cody Jackson and Adriana Gomez Licon in Tampa, Florida; Freida Frisaro in Miami; Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee, Florida; Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida; Seth Borenstein in Washington; Bobby Caina Calvan in New York and Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama.

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armed conflict

Russian FM: US, NATO directly involved in Ukraine conflict

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MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s foreign minister accused the West on Thursday of becoming directly involved in the conflict in Ukraine by supplying the country with weapons and training its soldiers.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also said that Russian missile strikes on Ukrainian energy facilities and other key infrastructure were intended to weaken Ukraine’s military potential and derail the shipments of Western weapons.

“You shouldn’t say that the U.S. and NATO aren’t taking part in this war. You are directly participating in it,” Lavrov said in a video call with reporters. “And not just by providing weapons but also by training personnel. You are training their military on your territory, on the territories of Britain, Germany, Italy and other countries.”

He said the barrages of missiles, drones and artillery fire that have left millions of Ukrainians without power, heating and water was intended to “knock out energy facilities that allow you to keep pumping deadly weapons into Ukraine in order to kill the Russians.”

“The infrastructure that is targeted by those attacks is used to ensure the combat potential of the Ukrainian armed forces and the nationalist battalions,” Lavrov said.

Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of targeting key civilian infrastructure in order to reduce morale, cause Ukraine’s people to suffer during the winter and to force the government in Kyiv into peace talks on Moscow’s terms.

The southern city of Kherson, which Russia’s forces seized in the opening days of the conflict and withdrew from last month, is among the places targeted. Russian shelling on Thursday cut off power in the recently liberated city just days after it was restored.

Weeks before the pullback allowed Ukrainian forces to reclaim Kherson, Russia declared the entire Kherson region part of its territory along with three other regions following hastily called “referendums” that Ukraine and the West rejected as shams.

Asked how the strikes on infrastructure in Kherson and other areas comply with Moscow’s stated goal of protecting Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population, Lavrov responded by drawing parallels with the Battle of Stalingrad during World War II.

“The city of Stalingrad also was part of our territory, and we beat the Germans to make them flee,” he said.

Lavrov insisted that Moscow remains open for talks on ending the conflict. “We never asked for talks but always said that we are ready to listen to those who are interested in a negotiated settlement,” he said.

The Kremlin has urged Ukraine to acknowledge Crimea, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014, as part of Russia and to recognize other land gains that Russia has made since sending its troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24. It also has pushed for guarantees that Ukraine wouldn’t join NATO, along with vaguely formulated “demilitarization” and “denazification” goals.

Asked if a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden was possible, Lavrov replied that “we don’t shun contacts” but added that “we haven’t yet heard any serious ideas yet.”

Lavrov said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has raised the issue of U.S. citizens imprisoned in Russia in a phone call, but he noted that Putin and Biden agreed to set up a separate channel of communication between special services to discuss the issue when they met in Geneva in June 2021.

“It’s working, and I hope that some results will be achieved,” he said.

The Biden administration has tried for months to negotiate the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and another American jailed in Russia, Michigan corporate security executive Paul Whelan, including through a possible prisoner swap with Moscow.

Commenting on Russia’s decision to postpone a round of nuclear arms control talks with the United States that was scheduled for this week, Lavrov maintained “it’s impossible to discuss strategic stability nowadays while ignoring everything that is happening in Ukraine.”

“The goal has been announced to defeat Russia on the battlefield or even destroy Russia,” he said. “How can the goal of defeating Russia not bear significance for strategic stability, considering that they want to destroy a key strategic stability actor?”

During the online news conference that lasted for 2 1/2 hours, Lavrov railed against the U.S. and its NATO allies, accusing them of trampling on international law while trying to isolate and destroy Russia.

He claimed the U.S. has tried to discourage other countries, including India, from maintaining close ties with Russia but said those attempts have failed.

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Crime

US Virgin Islands reach $105M settlement with Epstein estate

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By Dánica Coto in San Juan

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The U.S. Virgin Islands announced Wednesday that it reached a settlement of more than $105 million in a sex trafficking case against the estate of financier Jeffrey Epstein.

The settlement ends a nearly three-year legal saga for officials in the U.S. territory, which sought to hold Epstein accountable after he was accused of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls and of causing environmental damage on the two tiny islands he owned in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The islands will be sold as part of the agreement.

“This settlement restores the faith of the people of the Virgin Islands that its laws will be enforced, without fear or favor, against those who break them,” Attorney General Denise George said.

Epstein’s estate agreed to pay the territorial government $105 million in cash and half of the proceeds from the sale of Little St. James island where Epstein owned a home and authorities allege many of his crimes took place.

The estate also will pay $450,000 to repair environmental damage on Great St. James, another island Epstein owned where authorities say he removed the ruins of colonial-era historical structures of slaves.

The money from the sale of Little St. James island will be placed in a government trust to finance projects, organizations, counseling and other activities to help residents who have been sexually abused, officials said.

“We owe it to those who were so profoundly hurt to make changes that will help avoid the next set of victims,” said George, who added that she met with three alleged victims who were trafficked and sexually exploited on Little St. James island.

A real estate company is listing the island for $55 million, noting that its features include three beaches, a helipad, a gas station and more than 70 acres (28 hectares) of land that offer “an array of subdivision possibilities” and “a comprehensive, discreetly located, infrastructure support system.”

The company also is offering Great St. James for $55 million, an island of more than 160 acres (65 hectares) with three beaches.

In addition, the estate will return more than $80 million in economic tax benefits that U.S. Virgin Islands officials say Epstein and his co-defendants “fraudulently obtained to fuel his criminal enterprise.”

The government previously accused an Epstein-owned business known as Southern Trust Co. of making fraudulent misrepresentations to qualify for the benefits.

Daniel Weiner, an Epstein estate attorney, sent a statement to The Associated Press saying that the settlement does not include any admission or concession of liability or fault by the estate or anyone else.

“The co-executors deny any allegations of wrongdoing on their part,” he wrote. “The co-executors ultimately concluded that the settlement is in the best interest of the estate.”

Weiner also noted that the estate has paid more than $121 million to 136 individuals via a victims’ compensation fund.

Epstein killed himself at a federal jail in New York in August 2019 while awaiting trial. He had pleaded not guilty to charges of sexually abusing dozens of girls, some as young as 14 years old.

Several had sued Epstein and accused him and his longtime companion, Ghislaine Maxwell, of pressuring them into sexual trysts with powerful men.

Maxwell, who was convicted on sex trafficking and other charges, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in June.

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