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Hurricane Ian strikes Cuba, Florida braces for Cat 4 damage

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By Cristiana Mesquita And Curt Anderson in Havana

HAVANA (AP) — Hurricane Ian tore into western Cuba on Tuesday as a major hurricane, with nothing to stop it from intensifying into a catastrophic Category 4 storm before it hits Florida on Wednesday.

Ian made landfall at 4:30 a.m. EDT Tuesday in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province, where officials set up 55 shelters, evacuated 50,000 people, rushed in emergency personnel and took steps to protect crops in Cuba’s main tobacco-growing region.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said “significant wind and storm surge impacts” were occurring Tuesday morning in western Cuba. Ian sustained top winds were 125 mph (205 kmh) and as much as 14 feet (4.3 meters) of storm surge was predicted along Cuba’s coast.

Ian was forecast to strengthen even more over warm Gulf of Mexico waters, reaching top winds of 140 mph (225 kmh) before making landfall again. Tropical storm-force winds were expected in Florida late Tuesday, reaching hurricane force Wednesday morning.

“Right now we’re focusing on west central Florida area as the main area for impact,” hurricane specialist Andy Latto told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

“This is a really really big hurricane,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said, warning of damage all across the state.

Hundreds of thousands of Floridians faced mandatory evacuation orders as the center expanded its hurricane warning to include Bonita Beach north through Tampa Bay to the Anclote River. Fort Myers is in the hurricane zone, and Tampa and St. Petersburg could get their first direct hit by a major hurricanesince 1921.

“People on the barrier islands who decide not to go, they do so at their own peril,” Roger Desjarlais, Lee County’s county manager, said early Tuesday. “The best thing they can do is leave.”

While Ian’s center passed over western Cuba, with tropical storm force winds extending outward 115 miles (185 kilometers), Cuba’s capital was getting rain and strong gusts Tuesday morning. Havana’s residents openly worried about flooding ahead of the storm, with workers unclogging storm drains and fishermen taking their boats out of the water.

“I am very scared because my house gets completely flooded, with water up to here,” Adyz Ladron said, pointing to his chest.

In Havana’s El Fanguito, a poor neighborhood near the Almendares River, residents packed up what they could.

“I hope we escape this one because it would be the end of us. We already have so little,” health worker Abel Rodrigues said.

Ian’s forward movement was expected to slow over the gulf, enabling the hurricane to grow wider and stronger before it brings punishing wind and water to Florida’s west coast. Forecasters said the surge of ocean water could reach 10 feet (3 meters) if it peaks at high tide. Rainfall could total 16 inches (41 centimeters) inches with as much as 24 inches (61 centimeters) in isolated areas. Coastal communities could be inundated.

As many as 300,000 people may be evacuated from low-lying areas in Hillsborough County alone, county administrator Bonnie Wise said. Some of those evacuations were beginning Monday afternoon in the most vulnerable areas, with schools and other locations opening as shelters.

“We must do everything we can to protect our residents. Time is of the essence,” Wise said.

Lee County — where Fort Myers is on Florida’s southwest Gulf Coast — also issued mandatory evacuations early Tuesday for low-lying areas including Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel and Bonita Beach, where about 250,000 people live, after forecasters expanded the hurricane warning area.

“With the kind of tidal surge we’re talking about, it would not be uncommon for both islands to be overwashed, and it’s a dangerous place to be,” Desjarlais said. We cannot by law force people off the islands, but we strongly recommend that they go.”

Floridians lined up for hours in Tampa to collect bags of sand and cleared store shelves of bottled water. DeSantis declared a statewide emergency, and mobilized 5,000 Florida state national guard troops, with another 2,000 on standby in neighboring states.

President Joe Biden also declared an emergency, authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief and provide assistance to protect lives and property. FEMA has strategically positioned generators, millions of meals and millions of liters of water, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

Playing it safe, NASA was rolling its moon rocket from the launch pad to its Kennedy Space Center hangar, adding weeks of delay to the test flight. The airports in Tampa and St. Petersburg announced they’ll close Tuesday afternoon. And the Tampa Bay Buccaneers said they would relocate football operations to the Miami area on Tuesday in preparation for next weekend’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Damaging winds and flooding was expected across the entire peninsula as Ian moves north, reaching into Georgia, South Carolina and other parts of the southeastern United States on Friday and Sunday, the hurricane center said.

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Associated Press contributors include Freida Frisaro in Miami, Curt Anderson in St. Petersburg, Florida, Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee, Florida, and Julie Walker in New York

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Business

Experts raise concerns as Nigeria limits cash withdrawals

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By Chinedu Asadu in Abuja

ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Experts on Wednesday raised concerns over a new policy announced by the Central Bank of Nigeria that heavily limits withdrawals of money in a push for a cashless economy.

The monetary policy, which applies to ATMs, banks and cash back from purchases, follows the launch of the West African nation’s newly designed currency notes to control the money supply.

The central bank limited weekly over-the-counter cash withdrawals to 100,000 naira ($225) for individuals and 500,000 naira ($1,124) for corporations, with a processing fee required to access more.

When the policy takes effect in Jan. 9, ATMs will no longer dispense Nigeria’s high denominations of 1,000 naira ($2.25) and 500 naira ($1.10) while withdrawals from ATMs and point-of-sale terminals also will be limited to 20,000 naira ($45) daily.

“In compelling circumstances, not exceeding once a month, where cash withdrawals above the prescribed limits are required for legitimate purposes, such cash withdrawals shall not exceed 5,000,000 naira ($11,236) and 10,000,000 naira ($22,471) for individuals and corporations, respectively,” said Haruna Mustafa, the bank’s director of banking supervision.

Policymakers say the withdrawal limits and recent monetary initiatives from the central bank would bring more people into the banking system and curb currency hoarding, illicit flows and inflation.

But analysts worry that with digital payments often unreliable in Nigeria, the initiative could hurt daily transactions that people and businesses make.

“The policy is intended to cause discomfort, to move you from cash to cashless because they (the central bank) have said they want to make it uncomfortable and expensive for you to hold cash,” economic analyst Kalu Aja said.

“That is a positive for the CBN (because) the more discomforting they are able to achieve, the more people can move,” Aja said.

In Nigeria, the majority of people work in the informal sector — mainly activities outside of the legal framework and government regulation such as farming, street and market trade, and public transport. The economy is heavily dependent on this sector, and cash is usually preferred for transactions because many lack bank accounts.

Only 45% of adults in Nigeria have accounts with regulated financial institutions, according to the World Bank. In the absence of bank accounts, point-of-sale terminals have emerged as one of the fastest-growing areas of financial inclusion in the country.

Through the withdrawal limits, the central bank is “directly attacking” such agency banking services and “people will essentially begin to hoard their money,” said Tunde Ajileye, a partner at Lagos–based SBM Intelligence firm.

“It is not going to drive people to start to try doing electronic transactions. On the contrary, it is going to move people away from the financial institutions,” he said.

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COVID-19

China eases anti-COVID measures following protests

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By Joe Mcdonald in Beijing

BEIJING (AP) — China rolled back rules on isolating people with COVID-19 and dropped virus test requirements for some public places Wednesday in a dramatic change to a strategy that confined millions of people to their homes and sparked protests and demands for President Xi Jinping to resign.

The move adds to earlier easing that fueled hopes Beijing was scrapping its “zero COVID” strategy, which is disrupting manufacturing and global trade. Experts warn, however, that restrictions can’t be lifted completely until at least mid-2023 because millions of elderly people still must be vaccinated and the health care system strengthened.

China is the last major country still trying to stamp out transmission of the virus while many nations switch to trying to live with it. As they lift restrictions, Chinese officials have also shifted to talking about the virus as less threatening — a possible effort to prepare people for a similar switch.

People with mild cases will be allowed for the first time to isolate at home, the National Health Commission announced, instead of going to sometimes overcrowded or unsanitary quarantine centers. That addresses a major irritation that helped to drive protests that erupted Nov. 25 in Shanghai and other cities.

Public facilities except for “special places,” such as schools, hospitals and nursing homes, will no longer require visitors to produce a “health code” on a smartphone app that tracks their virus tests and whether they have been to areas deemed at high risk of infection.

Local officials must “take strict and detailed measures to protect people’s life, safety and health” but at the same time “minimize the impact of the epidemic on economic and social development,” the statement said.

China’s restrictions have helped to keep case numbers low, but that means few people have developed natural immunity, a factor that might set back reopening plans if cases surge and authorities feel compelled to reimpose restrictions.

Still, after three years spent warning the public about COVID-19’s dangers, Chinese officials have begun to paint it as less threatening.

People with mild cases “can recover by themselves without special medical care,” said Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist of the China Centers for Disease Control, on his social media account.

“The good news is that the data show the proportion of severe cases is low,” said Wu.

The latest changes are “small steps” in a gradual process aimed at ending restrictions, said Liang Wannian, a member of an expert group advising the National Health Commission, at a news conference.

The government’s goal is “to return to the state before the epidemic, but the realization of the goal must have conditions,” said Liang, one of China’s most prominent anti-epidemic experts.

Dr. Yanzhong Huang, an expert on public health in China, also emphasized the gradual nature of the announcement.

The new measures are a shift away from “zero COVID” — but “not a roadmap to reopening,” said Huang, director of the Center for Global Health Studies at Seton Hall University.

“When implemented, these measures may generate dynamics that fuel the rapid spread of the virus even though China is not ready for such a dramatic shift,” he said.

The government announced a campaign last week to vaccinate the elderly that health experts say must be done before China can end restrictions on visitors coming from abroad. They say the ruling Communist Party also needs to build up China’s hospital system to cope with a possible rise in cases.

But public frustration is rising now, as millions of people are repeatedly confined at home for uncertain periods, schools close abruptly and economic growth falls.

The changes have been rolled out despite a renewed spike in infections started in October. On Wednesday, the government reported 25,231 new cases, including 20,912 without symptoms.

Xi’s government has held up “zero COVID” as proof of the superiority of China’s system compared with the United States and Western countries. China’s official death toll is 5,235 since the start of the pandemic versus a U.S. count of 1.1 million.

Rules were left in place that warn apartment and office buildings might be sealed if infections are found. Complaints that families are confined for weeks at a time with uncertain access to food and medicine were a key driver of the protests.

The ruling party switched early this year to suspending access to neighborhoods or districts where infections were discovered instead of isolating whole cities.

On Wednesday, the government said the scope of closures will be narrowed still further to single apartment floors or buildings instead of neighborhoods.

It said schools in communities with no outbreaks must return to in-person teaching.

That appeared to be a response to complaints that local leaders, threatened with the loss of their jobs in the event of outbreaks, impose closures that are destructive, might be unnecessary and exceed what the central government allows.

The demonstrations in at least eight major cities and on dozens of university campuses were the most widespread display of public dissent in decades. In Shanghai, some protesters shouted the politically explosive demand for Xi, China’s most influential figure in decades, to resign.

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