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Updated: 6 days 19 min ago

Worker Was Dead In Belk Department Store Bathroom For 4 Days

Wed, 09/21/2022 - 13:56

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A 63-year-old worker died in the public bathroom of a South Carolina department store, but her body was not discovered for four days, authorities said.

Bessie Durham, a janitor at the Belk at Columbiana Centre, was found dead Monday in a bathroom stall, Columbia police said. Her cleaning cart was outside the restroom.

Durham was last seen Thursday at work and her body was found shortly after her family filed a missing person report, Columbia Deputy Police Chief Melron Kelly told WIS-TV.

The Lexington County Coroner's Office said there are no signs someone killed Durham or that she was using drugs. An autopsy is planned to determine her cause of death.

The store was open regularly over those four days and Kelly said police are investigating to see if anyone was negligent.

SEE MORE: Walmart Ordered To Pay Oregon Man $4.4M For Racial Profiling

 "We're still working with the store to find out what their process is to closing down the store, inspecting the store and things of that nature," Kelly said.

Belk didn't return an email seeking comment.

Additional reporting by the Associated Press. 

Hurricane Fiona Strengthens As It Heads To Bermuda

Wed, 09/21/2022 - 13:24

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Hurricane Fiona strengthened into a Category 4 storm Wednesday after devastating Puerto Rico, then lashing the Dominican Republic and the Turks and Caicos Islands. It was forecast to squeeze past Bermuda later this week.

The storm has been blamed for directly causing at least four deaths in its march through the Caribbean, where winds and torrential rain in Puerto Rico left a majority of people on the U.S. territory without power or running water. Hundreds of thousands of people scraped mud out of their homes following what authorities described as “historic” flooding.

SEE MORE: Hurricane Fiona Rips Through Powerless Puerto Rico

Power company officials initially said it would take a few days for electricity to be fully restored, but then appeared to backtrack late Tuesday night. Only 20% had power as of Wednesday morning., three days after it hit the island.

“Hurricane Fiona has severely impacted electrical infrastructure and generation facilities throughout the island. We want to make it very clear that efforts to restore and reenergize continue and are being affected by severe flooding, impassable roads, downed trees, deteriorating equipment, and downed lines,” said Luma, the company that operates power transmission and distribution.

The hum of generators could be heard across the territory as people became increasingly exasperated. Some were still trying to recover from Hurricane Maria, which made landfall as a Category 4 storm five years ago, causing the deaths of an estimated 2,975 people.

Luis Noguera, who was helping clear a landslide in the central mountain town of Cayey, said Maria left him without power for a year. Officials themselves didn't declare full resumption of service until 11 months after Maria hit.

“We paid an electrician out of our own pocket to connect us,” he recalled, adding that he doesn’t think the government will be of much help again after Fiona.

Long lines were reported at several gas stations across Puerto Rico, and some pulled off a main highway to collect water from a stream.

“We thought we had a bad experience with Maria, but this was worse,” said Gerardo Rodríguez, who lives in the southern coastal town of Salinas.

Parts of the island had received more than 25 inches of rain and more had fallen on Tuesday.

By late Tuesday, authorities said they had restored power to some 350,000 of the island’s 1.47 million customers. Piped water service remained out for half the island's users early Wednesday due to power outages and turbid water at filtration plants.

On Wednesday, the National Weather Service in San Juan issued a heat advisory for several cities because a majority of people on the island of 3.2 million remain without power.

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency traveled to Puerto Rico on Tuesday as the agency announced it was sending hundreds of additional personnel to boost local response efforts.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency on the island and deployed a couple of teams to the island.

In the Turks and Caicos Islands, officials reported minimal damage and no deaths despite the storm’s eye passing close to Grand Turk, the small British territory’s capital island, on Tuesday morning.

The government had imposed a curfew and urged people to flee flood-prone areas.

“Turks and Caicos had a phenomenal experience over the past 24 hours,” said Deputy Gov. Anya Williams. “It certainly came with its share of challenges.”

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Fiona had maximum sustained winds of 130 mph on Wednesday morning and it was centered about 700 miles southwest of Bermuda, heading north at 8 mph.

It was likely to approach Bermuda late Thursday or Friday and then Canada's Atlantic provinces on Saturday.

The storm killed a man in the French overseas department of Guadeloupe, another man in Puerto Rico who was swept away by a swollen river and two people in the Dominican Republic: one killed by a falling tree and the other by a falling electric post.

Two additional deaths were reported in Puerto Rico as a result of the blackout: A 70-year-old man burned to death after he tried to fill his generator with gasoline while it was running and a 78-year-old man police say inhaled toxic gases emitted from his generator.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

Some 230 Whales Beached In Tasmania; Rescue Efforts Underway

Wed, 09/21/2022 - 12:55

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About 230 whales have been stranded on Tasmania's west coast, just days after 14 sperm whales were found beached on an island off the Australian state's northwestern coast.

The pod stranded on Ocean Beach in Macquarie Harbour appears to be pilot whales and at least half are presumed to still be alive, the Department of Natural Resources and Environment Tasmania said Wednesday.

A team from the Marine Conservation Program was assembling whale rescue gear and heading to the area, the department said.

The whales beached two years to the day after the largest mass-stranding in Australia's history was discovered in the same harbor.

About 470 long-finned pilot whales were found on Sept. 21, 2020, stuck on sandbars. After a weeklong effort, 111 of those whales were rescued but the rest died.

SEE MORE: Australian Officials Rescue 88 Whales From Worst Mass Beaching

The entrance to the harbor is a notoriously shallow and dangerous channel known as Hell's Gate.

Local salmon farmer Linton Kringle helped in the 2020 rescue effort and said the latest challenge would be more difficult.

"Last time they were actually in the harbor and it's quite calm and we could, sort of, deal with them in there and we could get the boats up to them," Kringle told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

"But just on the beach, you just can't get a boat in there, it's too shallow, way too rough. My thoughts would be try to get them onto a vehicle if we can't swim them out," Kringle added.

Vanessa Pirotta, a wildlife scientist specializing in marine mammals, said it was too early to explain why the stranding had occurred.

"The fact that we've seen similar species, the same time, in the same location, reoccurring in terms of stranding at that same spot might provide some sort of indication that there might be something environmental here," Pirotta said.

David Midson, general manager of the West Coast Council municipality, urged people to stay clear.

"Whales are a protected species, even once deceased, and it is an offense to interfere with a carcass," the environment department said.

SEE MORE: Could This New Fishing System Save Whales From Extinction?

Fourteen sperm whales were discovered Monday afternoon on King Island, part of the state of Tasmania in the Bass Strait between Melbourne and Tasmania's northern coast.

Griffith University marine scientist Olaf Meynecke said it's unusual for sperm whales to wash ashore. He said that warmer temperatures could also be changing the ocean currents and moving the whales' traditional food.

"They will be going to different areas and searching for different food sources," Meynecke said. "When they do this, they are not in the best physical condition because they might be starving so this can lead them to take more risks and maybe go closer to shore."

The pilot whale is notorious for stranding in mass numbers, for reasons that are not entirely understood.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

Man Sets Himself On Fire In Apparent Protest Of Abe Shinzo Funeral

Wed, 09/21/2022 - 11:31

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A man set himself on fire near the Japanese prime minister's office in Tokyo on Wednesday in an apparent protest against the state funeral planned next week for former leader Abe Shinzo, officials and media reports said.

The man, believed to be in his 70s, sustained burns on large parts of his body but was conscious and told police that he set himself on fire after pouring oil over himself, Kyodo News agency reported.

A note was found with him that said, "Personally, I am absolutely against" Abe's funeral, Kyodo reported.

A Tokyo Fire Department official confirmed that a man set himself afire on the street in Tokyo's Kasumigaseki government district and that he was alive when he was taken to a hospital by ambulance, but declined to give further details, including the man's identity, motive or condition, citing the sensitivity of what was a police matter.

Police called it an attempted suicide and refused to give further details because the case involved no criminal intent. Police also declined to comment on a report that a police officer was caught in the fire.

SEE MORE: Japan Ex-Leader Abe Shinzo Assassinated While Giving Speech

The incident underscores a growing wave of protests against the funeral for Abe, who was one of the most divisive leaders in postwar Japanese politics because of his revisionist view of wartime history, support for a stronger military, and what critics call an autocratic approach and cronyism. More protests are expected in coming days, including the day of the funeral next week.

It also is an embarrassment for police, who have stepped up security for an event expected to be attended by about 6,000 people, including U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and other dignitaries.

Police were also partly blamed for insufficient protection of Abe, who was shot to death by a gunman who approached him from behind as he was giving an outdoor campaign speech in July.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is in New York for the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting of world leaders. He gave a speech Tuesday expressing disappointment over the Security Council's failure to respond to the Russian invasion of Ukraine because of Russia's permanent veto and called for reforms that would allow the U.N. to better defend global peace and order.

The planned state funeral for Abe has become increasingly unpopular among Japanese as more details emerge about the governing Liberal Democratic Party's and Abe's links to the Unification Church, which built close ties with party lawmakers over their shared interests in conservative causes.

The suspect in Abe's assassination reportedly believed his mother's large donations to the church ruined his family. The LDP has said nearly half its lawmakers have ties to the church, but party officials have denied ties between the party as an organization and the church.

Kishida has said Abe deserves the honor of a state funeral as Japan's longest-serving post-World War II leader and for his diplomatic and economic achievements.

Critics have said it was decided undemocratically and is an inappropriate and costly use of taxpayers' money. They say Kishida decided to hold a state funeral to please Abe's party faction and buttress his own power. Support ratings for Kishida's government have weakened amid public dissatisfaction over his handling of the party's church ties and the funeral plans.

A family funeral for Abe was held at a Buddhist temple in July. The state funeral is scheduled for next Tuesday at the Budokan martial arts arena in Tokyo.

Additional reporting by the Associated Press. 

How Disability Misunderstandings And Stigma Impact Mental Well-Being

Wed, 09/21/2022 - 01:10

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CDC data shows about 26% of Americans live with a disability, whether it's physical or mental.  

 Conditions like anxiety, spinal injury, ADHD, amputation, depression, cerebral palsy — these are just some examples.  

 Advocates say there’s a lot of misunderstanding about a person who has a disability. And that stigma not only runs deep — it can also have a huge impact on that individual's mental health. 

Twenty-eight-year-old New Yorker Chloé Valentine Toscano knows beauty, from walking in fashion week to her Instagram reels to publishing in magazines like Allure. 

"I'm a writer. I'm someone who likes the color pink. I like butterflies. I like learning a lot about anyone and anything," she said. "I think we all have differences, and I want to understand differences. ... For me, beauty is just being open-minded," she said.

She also has fought face-to-face with ugly mental health struggles caused by doctors who didn't understand disability.  

"It is a journey," Valentine Toscano said.

She lost motor function from her elbow down in 2014. She adapted and spent years living with — as she calls it — dead weight. She got into paralypmic swimming and started her career.  

Then, after years of researching and soul searching, she chose to amputate her arm. 

"I know amputation can be very traumatic because some people, a lot of people,will experience it through trauma," she said. "But that wasn't where I was in my case. So, it wasn't traumatic talking about it, but it was traumatic playing a game with the yeses and the nos."

SEE MORE: High School Student Develops A Mind-Controlled Prosthetic Arm

Valentine Toscano spent three years fighting to get her procedure. She says some surgeons told her any elective amputation was too risky, even though she was healthy. Other rejections came after her surgery had been approved and scheduled. 

"The answer I got from one, he said, 'Well, some people just need to learn to live with what they've got.' That made me feel like someone else who wasn't in my body was telling me what was better for me," she said. "It felt very frustrating to have it and very offensive to have someone say that."

Bodily autonomy — or the right to control what happens to your body — is a common struggle in the disability community. And disability experts say misunderstanding that is common, and can cause undue stress as well as impact a person's mental well-being.  

In Valentine Toscano's story, it happened a few times. 

She recounted that in one appointment: "I cried, I broke down and I felt like the minute I expressed that emotion, he sent me in for a psych evaluation, which felt like I was being punished for expressing emotion." And then she described the examination, saying: "She was asking me, she said, 'Do you find that you're unattractive because of your arm and that you would be more attractive without it?' And I was like, 'It's not about that at all. It's never been about that.' ... I felt angry and belittled and just, not heard, because I was asking for one thing and being evaluated for something that wasn't even remotely there."

Clinical Psychologist Dr. Linda Mona has spent the past two decades working on disability and how it relates to health care.  

"If you haven't been exposed to it personally — you have not been exposed to it through being a family friend, a lover, whoever that might be — and you're not called to do it professionally and you don't see it around you, you don't think about it."

She says, unfortunately, Valentine Toscano's experience is all too common. Mental health experts with lived experience or expertise in disability are rare. 

"It can be quite challenging to find somebody," Mona said. "The other thing to think about is the steps that come before that, which is that it's very hard for people to access education if they have disability, let alone graduate school. And internship and fellowship..."

SEE MORE: More Than 30 Years After ADA, Cities Fail To Be Accessible

Sixty-one million U.S. adults, which is about 1 in 4, have some type of disability, according to the CDC.  

A 2021 anonymous survey of graduating medical students showed 7.6% identified as having a disability.  But data collected directly from medical schools show that only about 4% of medical students disclosed their disability.  

That stigma against disability — physical or mental — runs deep. 

From 1867 to 1974, U.S. cities had laws governing who could be in public. Codes included fining or jailing those deemed "diseased, maimed, mutilated, or anyway deformed."

Mona says it's federal bias favoring able-bodied people.

"You're best at home. You're best tucked away. Or, you're best institutionalized out of the way of anybody else who is displeased with the way that you look," she said.

She adds structural stigmas fueled misconceptions about disabled people's decision-making about their own bodies. 

NEWSY'S LINDSEY THEIS: When we talk about bodily autonomy, what type of impact cannot have long term on someone's mental well-being?  

LINDA MONA: Trying to bring that in and make your choices can have a huge effect on your mental health in the long run. ... It also happens a lot with pregnancy and people with disabilities. So, somebody has some kind of cognitive mental difference or physical difference. There's constant questioning about, 'You want to be pregnant? You know what that's going to do to your body?' ... I don't think anybody thinks those types of decisions are a simple decision. They're complex. But you have to trust that somebody has made that made that decision with that context in mind and not assume that they're uninformed.

In summer 2021, Valentine Toscano had her amputation surgery. She calls it a dream come true.  

"I just felt happy," she said. "I was like, 'Oh my gosh.' This is like a huge step in my life. It just felt like one of those, like, huge dreams. I got there. I got a huge part of my personality back immediately."

SEE MORE: WTMJ: Young Amputees Reach New Heights With Adaptive Rock Climbing

Valentine Toscano uses a prosthetic, as needed. It's bright pink and purple with a lot of glitter.  

"If I could have decided to have been born with an arm with butterflies and sparkles on it, like right out of the womb, I would have picked that," she said. 

 Valentine Toscano said her prosthetic cost $13,000.

"It's something that's very expensive," she said. "I was fortunate to have it covered by health insurance. But that's not something everyone has."

Valentine Toscano continues to advocate and write, sharing her experience now from two different sides of disability. She's also writing a book.  

She says the ability to share those stories in her voice and having others listen is not only good for her well-being, it's truly beautiful.

Arbiter In Trump Docs Probe Signals Intent To Move Quickly

Wed, 09/21/2022 - 00:49

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The independent arbiter tasked with inspecting documents seized in an FBI search of former President Donald Trump's Florida home said Tuesday he intends to push briskly through the review process and appeared skeptical of the Trump team's reluctance to say whether it believed the records had been declassified.

“We're going to proceed with what I call responsible dispatch," Raymond Dearie, a veteran Brooklyn judge, told lawyers for Trump and the Justice Department in their first meeting since his appointment last week as a so-called special master.

The purpose of the meeting was to sort out next steps in a review process expected to slow by weeks, if not months, the criminal investigation into the retention of top-secret information at Mar-a-Lago after Trump left the White House. As special master, Dearie will be responsible for sifting through the thousands of documents recovered during the Aug. 8 FBI search and segregating any that might be protected by claims of executive privilege or attorney-client privilege.

Though Trump's lawyers had requested the appointment of a special master to ensure an independent review of the documents, they have resisted Dearie's request for more information about whether the seized records had been previously declassified — as Trump has maintained. His lawyers have consistently stopped short of that claim even as they asserted in a separate filing Tuesday that the Justice Department had not proven that the documents were classified. In any event, they say, a president has absolute authority to declassify information.

“In the case of someone who has been president of the United States, they have unfettered access along with unfettered declassification authority,” one of Trump's lawyers, James Trusty, said in court Tuesday.

But Dearie said that if Trump’s lawyers will not actually assert that the records have been declassified, and the Justice Department instead makes an acceptable case that they remain classified, then he would be inclined to regard them as classified.

“As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “that’s the end of it.”

In a letter to Dearie on Monday night, the lawyers said the declassification issue might be part of Trump’s defense in the event of an indictment. And Trusty said in court Tuesday that the Trump team should not be forced at this point in the investigation to disclose details of a possible defense based on the idea the records had been declassified.

He denied that the lawyers were trying to engage in “gamesman-like” behavior but instead said it was a process that required “baby steps." He said the right time for the discussion is whenever Trump presses forward with a claim to get any seized property back.

Dearie said he understood the position but observed, “I guess my view of it is, you can’t have your cake and eat it” too.

The resistance to the judge’s request was notable because it was Trump’s lawyers, not the Justice Department, who had requested the appointment of a special master and because the recalcitrance included an acknowledgment that the probe could be building toward an indictment.

Despite the focus on whether the seized documents are classified or not, the three statutes the Justice Department listed on a warrant as part of its investigation do not require that the mishandled information be classified in order for prosecutors to initiate a criminal case.

The Trump team has also questioned the feasibility of some of the deadlines for the special master's review. That work includes inspecting the roughly 11,000 documents, including about 100 marked as classified, that were taken during the FBI's search.

 

SEE MORE: Report: Seized Mar-A-Lago Documents Contained Nuclear Secrets

U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee who granted the Trump team's request for a special master, had set a Nov. 30 deadline for Dearie's review and instructed him to prioritize the tranche of classified records.

Dearie, a Ronald Reagan appointee whose name is on the atrium of his Brooklyn courthouse, made clear during Tuesday's meeting that he intended to meet the deadlines, saying there was “little time” to complete the assigned tasks.

Julie Edelstein, a Justice Department lawyer, said she was hopeful that the department could get the documents digitized and provided to Trump's lawyers by early next week. She noted that the department had given the legal team a list of five vendors approved by the government for the purposes of scanning, hosting and otherwise processing the seized records.

After some haggling, Dearie instructed Trusty's lawyers to choose a vendor by Friday.

Earlier Tuesday, the Trump legal team urged the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit to leave in place Cannon's order temporarily barring the Justice Department's use of the classified records for its criminal investigation while Dearie completes his review. The department is also contesting Cannon's requirement that it provide Dearie with classified materials for his review, saying such records are not subject to any possible claims of attorney-client privilege or executive privilege.

The department has also said that Cannon's order has impeded its investigation.

Trump's lawyers called those concerns overblown in a response Tuesday, saying investigators could still do other work on the probe even without scrutinizing the seized records.

“Ultimately, any brief delay to the criminal investigation will not irreparably harm the Government,” Trump's lawyers wrote. “The injunction does not preclude the Government from conducting a criminal investigation, it merely delays the investigation for a short period while a neutral third party reviews the documents in question."

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

New York City Schools Create Office For Foster Care Students

Wed, 09/21/2022 - 00:09

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Justine and Keyong are nine and eight years old. Both of them are excited to begin a new school year, and both of them are in foster care. 

NEWSY'S AXEL TURCIOS: Why are you excited?

JUSTINE RAMOS: because I get to meet new people. I'm moving to a new grade. 

Despite their young ages, behind their smiles they've had traumatic lives. 

The children's foster care mother, Luisa Contreras, said Justine and Keyong were removed from their homes and placed in the foster care system at very young ages. 

Justine has lived in eight different homes and Keyong has been in foster care since he was a baby. 

Erika Palmer is the supervising attorney at Advocates For Children.

"There's probably hundreds of students like that who are in similar circumstances," said Palmer. 

The Office of Elementary and Secondary Education said nationwide there are over 270,0000 students in foster care. 

7,000 of those were in New York City alone, as of December 2021. 

Recent data from New York City's mayor's office shows 43% of public-school students in foster care complete high school graduation on time, compared to 81% of their peers outside the system. 

"They're also much more likely to struggle with mental health challenges because of all the trauma that they've experienced. And all of those things compound and make it difficult for young people to complete their education," said Palmer. 

For the first time in New York, the Department of Education is introducing a city-wide central office to support students in foster care.

It will fill nine newly created positions including six that will serve students in foster care and at least two supporting students and kids in temporary housing. The ninth position is yet to be named. It comes in response to relentless pleas from families, advocates, and local officials. 

The findings in New York City also show that foster care students are much more likely to be suspended from school than other students. 

Palmer said there's a misperception about these children being bad kids. She adds that their behavior is impacted by the instability in their lives. 

"We see students that, you know, have had to change schools in may or they have to change schools right before the end of the semester and then don't earn credit for that semester, have to repeat all of their classes. They get very frustrated," said Palmer.   

Rita Joseph is a New York City councilwoman

"By having a support office that supports their needs, those needs will be met," said Joseph. 

She has relentlessly urged the school system to establish an office dedicated to supporting these students. 

"It's important to have a point person that can guide them through this, through the system as they register, transportation support, mental health support, and working with agents, the agency that placed them in those schools to make sure that we're meeting the needs of the whole child," said Joseph. 

A child may end up in the foster care system as a result of parent neglect, poverty and substance abuse by the parents. 

Advocates also complain the Department of Education often does not provide federally mandated transportation. 

"When school is about to start there are always issues. Sometimes it takes the school two to three weeks to assign them a bus. Right now, I only have her route, but the boy still doesn't have a bus assigned," said Contreras. 

Councilwoman Joseph was a foster parent herself. She said her youngest foster care son wasn't able to take a school bus because no routes were available to his school. He was instead given a metro card. 

Newsy has reached out to the Department of Education several times but have not received a response. 

Joseph later decided to adopt both kids.

SEE MORE: How Does The U.S. Adoption System Work?



TURCIOS: What's the greatest satisfaction there is left to you being a foster care mother? I imagine your children. But the experience.

RITA JOSEPH: I fell in love with these two boys the day I met them. And when I found out they wanted me to adopt them, it was — it was very emotional for me. So I am their mom forever. These they changed my life. I'm inspired by them. I fight even more on behalf of foster children because of them.

Meanwhile in the Bronx, Contreras tries everything in her power to make sure Justine and Keyong are happy. Both have been in her care for about a year. 

"They call me mommy all the time. I try to give them the love they need," she said. 

Contreras is finalizing the paperwork to adopt both kids — her children, as she calls them.

TURCIOS: Are you happy about that? 

KEYONG: Yes!

JUSTINE: I want to help the community. 

Justine wants to be a cop and Keyong wants to be a doctor.

TURCIOS: Why do you want to be a doctor? 

KEYONG: To take care of mommy. 

The Perennial Importance Of National Voter Registration Day

Wed, 09/21/2022 - 00:08

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Coast to coast, from sports leagues to unions, there was an aggressive push Tuesday to get voters registered. 

Just seven weeks before the critical midterm elections, operatives from both parties are trying to ensure their voters will be the ones showing up. 

As states log record turnout in primaries this year, history shows an upward trend, with registration climbing for midterm elections and turnout spiking even faster. 

SEE MORE: New Poll Shows Biden's Approval Rating Rising Ahead Of Midterms

It's a trend activists hope to continue in an election season that will set the course for a Republican party trying to find its footing post-Trump, and a Democratic party seeking validation for an ambitious vision of the future. 

It's a complicated picture in a midterm election like no other, yet just like every vote before it, it's one that all boils down to who gets registered and who shows up.

Hispanic Population In Portland Is Growing Rapidly

Tue, 09/20/2022 - 23:40

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It's almost 7 o'clock at night and Rosa Ramirez has had a fruitful day. Today her sales were good, but Ramirez says it isn't always this way.

Rosa Ramirez moved to Oregon from El Salvador. 

She sells pupusas that she makes at a market in Hillsboro, Oregon. It's a traditional dish from her home country of El Salvador. 

Ramirez says she was pregnant when she almost died at a shooting during the civil war in her country.  

Her unborn child did not survive. Heartbroken, she left El Salvador in 1992. Oregon has been her home for the last 30 years.  

"When I came here there was almost no one who spoke Spanish. Only English, and it was difficult for me because I was a nanny, and I was working for people who only spoke English and then I started fighting with the language," said Ramirez. 

She is one of the almost 600,000 Latinos living in the state. 

According to the 2020 Census, Oregon's Latino population grew by more than 30% in the last ten years. 

Latinos are now the largest minority group in the state and their numbers have grown faster than the national rate in each of the last three decades. 

Maria Caballero Rubio is the executive director of Centro Cultural in Washington County.

"That just shows that we are making a mark and we are growing. And I think people are acknowledging that we are a growing population," said Rubio.  

She has seen steady growth since her farmworker family settled in Washington County in 1969. They migrated from Durango, Mexico.

SEE MORE: Food Truck Combines Cultures To Honor Hispanic Heritage

"Maybe eight years ago, the only flags we had up here were the Mexican flag, because a lot of people were from, [or] have their ethnicity from Mexico. And then we had the American flag. But then the more that we started having visitors, they would say to me, you know, 'where's my flag?' so, we decided that we would bring in the flag for people who've come to visit," said Rubio. 

Caballero says that the thriving Latino population is starting to rise out of the fields and into professional jobs. 

"We had jobs in farm work or we had farms, jobs in in landscaping and those kinds of things. But more and more, as our communities have stayed here and the next generations have grown up and they become educated, they are coming back as professionals," she continued. 

More than half of Oregon's Latino population is in three counties: Multnomah, Washington and Marion. There the Latino communities grew by at least 25% in the last decades. 

"We are becoming more visible now, I have to say. Ten years ago, you couldn't find an elected official here in Washington County or the Portland metro area that was Latino," said Rubio.  

In fact, Carmen Rubio became Portland's first Latino city commissioner in 2020. She is Maria's daughter.  

Maria says the younger population may cause a shift in politics as more become eligible to vote when they turn 18. 

NEWSY'S AXEL TURCIOS: There's more representation in the Latino community, in the state legislature, city councils, more Latinos getting into office, representing these growing communities across the state. Will this last?

MARIA CABALLERO RUBIO: I think so. I think it will last. We're going to move forward and we're going to continue making change, you know, social and systems changes that need to happen because of the historic disenfranchisement of people of color. 

The state once legally banned Black people.

"But, you know, department heads and managers and, you know, police chiefs and all of those. I think that they have not — they have not taken steps to be more inclusive in terms of recruiting and making it more more available to people of color to apply it. That's an area that we still lack," said Rubio. 

SEE MORE: WXYZ: Mexican Folk Dancing Group Celebrates Heritage Through Movement

The increase in the Latino population here in Oregon has also been propelled by new waves of migrants. One of those waves is Venezuelan migration, fleeing poverty and the government in their country. According to the American Community Survey, there are more than 1,400 Venezuelans living in the state of Oregon.

Giselle Rincon is the president and co-founder of Venezuela's Voice in Oregon.

"Everybody's struggling to find food, medical supplies or jobs, especially safety," said Rincon. She says the new Venezuelan migrants are facing new challenges. 

"Mostly access to education, how to find a job, how to navigate the system, where to apply. Most of the Venezuelans are professionals and they want to help prosper the economy of Oregon."

"I think our new generations are becoming more involved. They are, you know, getting an education," said Jaime Miranda, the owner of M&M Marketplace. 

Back at the Hillsboro market, Miranda says he was one of only a few Mexican immigrants in his neighborhood when he moved from Chihuahua, Mexico in 1985. He was 10 years old.   

He went to college and has owned this Latino market for 22 years. He started it with only 12 vendors and now the establishment has 66.

TURCIOS: How do you think the new generations of Latinos are shifting culture here in Oregon? 

JAIME MIRANDA: You know, from migrant workers to people who are starting their businesses, own their homes, they are getting a career, an education. So, we are definitely shifting to that second generation where they are integrated, and they understand how to navigate the system and be part of the community as a whole. 

"Now you see more Hispanics than before. Before, you didn't see any Hispanics. Hispanics were very rare to find here in Oregon," said Ramirez. 

As for Rosa, she says she carries El Salvador in her heart, but she's beyond grateful to the United States, a nation that gave her a new life and optimism about the next generation. 

This Year Marks The Fifth Anniversary Of Hurricanes Maria And Irma

Tue, 09/20/2022 - 23:25

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This month marks five years since hurricanes Irma and Maria tore through the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.  

Both Irma and Maria were Category 5 hurricanes that made their way through the regions within two weeks of each other, killing dozens of people by the official count — although many experts believe the actual tally was far greater. The hurricanes also caused billions of dollars in damage to both those island regions. 

In the U.S. Virgin Islands in particular, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Maria damaged or destroyed 70% of the buildings on St. Croix, the region's largest island. The hurricanes tore through a lot of the island's infrastructure, including schools and the island's only hospital. The power and communications networks in most of the USVI went down, with 80% to 90% of transmission and distribution systems destroyed. It was damage that would take months to repair and restore. 

That's a daunting task for any region, but especially so for one that's as small and isolated as the USVI. 

"It's almost scary at times because you think 'how do you do an $11 billion repair with 87,000 people and a workforce of only about 42,000?'" said U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. 

Bryan spoke with Newsy about the challenges and successes in their recovery, and where there is still work to be done.  

While acknowledging the intense damage, Bryan said the recovery efforts offer new hope for rebuilding in a way that better prepares the homes and the power grid in the area for future hurricanes or similar natural disasters. 

"But what we're seeing is better building codes produce more resilient buildings. And then we're having an opportunity through this storm. We built our our power grid three times in the last 30 years, completely. This time, we're undergrounding more than 50% of the grid. You have some opportunities for renewables. That's going to make every Virgin Islander a little more energy independent. And we're just seeing a way now to because the most debilitating factor in our economy is the price of power," said Bryan. 

SEE MORE: Hurricane Fiona Rips Through Powerless Puerto Rico

The price of power is no joke. The USVI has some of the highest electricity rates in the U.S. and the world.  

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, midway through 2021, the average price of electricity paid by U.S. Virgin Island residents was about 43 cents per kilowatt hour. To compare, the average for the U.S. was about 14 cents for that same time period.   

Now, that pricing is in part because of petroleum fuel surcharges. The island relies heavily on imported fossil fuels to power its grid. But in rebuilding since the hurricanes, Gov. Bryan says the goal is to rely more on renewables like wind and solar energy

"So we depend a lot on the tropical wind making that power shift, the things that we're able to do, adding new generators to the plant, creating a microgrid, adding a whole lot of solar power will allow us to get our power built a little bit closer to what normal Americans or mainland Americans [experience]. And that alone is going to just strengthen our families so much and, of course, create some resounding effects in our economy," he said. 

Bryan also mentioned the caveat of climate change. Its growing effects could complicate life on the Virgin Islands further and increase hardships for its residents. Many of those residents are still coming to terms with the toll of Irma and Maria — not just in the physical aspects of their lives, but also in the mental aspects. 

"I think when you see in the Virgin Islands, we look at the mental health wholeness that's in our faces, the people on the street, whether drug addiction, alcohol, they're self-medicating themselves. But the real problem is a deeper problem, a deep seated problem, where as people of color, we don't like to talk about our mental health. And we if there's such a stigma around it, we've come a long way it with that. But we have a lot to go," said Bryan. 

While the USVI's rebuilding efforts have seen relative success, many areas of Puerto Rico are still struggling to recover from the massive devastation the hurricanes brought five years ago.  

Puerto Rico is not only a much larger territory, but it is also governed in a different way. It has 78 mayors through whom relief efforts and money needed to be individually funneled and utilized, while the USVI has a unitary executive branch. That means there are no mayors, and governors hold those responsibilities. 

Puerto Rico's power grid also runs mainly on fossil fuels, but its recovery has not been on par with the USVI. And the company that currently controls its power grid has a problematic record. Newsy has previously reported on the damage from Maria and Irma in Puerto Rico as part of our documentary series, "In Real Life." We investigated the region's continuing power failures and how a private sector monopoly over the grid could be what's keeping Puerto Ricans in the dark. 

Experts Are Expecting High Flu Numbers This Year

Tue, 09/20/2022 - 23:22

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Health experts are warning this flu season might be worse than a few years ago. Is that a good indicator?

"It was Australia's worst flu season in 5 years and came earlier than any other flu season with the exception of the '09 pandemic," said Dr. Andrew Pekosz, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.  

In the past two flu seasons, COVID protocols like mask wearing, hand washing and lockdowns have protected us from the flu virus. Now that restrictions have been lifted, people are traveling more. We're more than likely to come into contact with the virus.  Another reason is there were fewer people who got the flu, which means less natural immunity.  

Dr. Bruce Y. Lee is a journalist at CUNY Graduate School of Public Health.

"But now that that many people aren't maintaining a lot of those precautions and also the fact that people haven't been exposed to the flu over the past couple of years leave people a lot more susceptible," said Lee.  

Experts recommend getting the flu shot — or getting both a COVID booster and flu shot at the same time. 

SEE MORE: CDC, AMA Focus On Urging Minority Communities To Get Flu Shot

"Both of those are needed, both of those should be scheduled as soon as possible and ideally at the same time, so that one doesn't fall into the trap of getting one and forgetting to get back to get the other," said Pekosz. 

But others are choosing not to get the flu vaccine, like an Omaha resident who says she's never gotten the flu.  

"I'll wait and see if I get it, I just try to eat healthy live healthy, stay healthy, clean and neat," said Theresa Gart. 

"The influenza vaccine won't prevent you from getting influenza but it dramatically decreases your illness and dramatically decreases your risk of hospitalization," said Dan Fick, a doctor at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.  

This holds particularly for the elderly and children who are the most vulnerable. A NIH 2020 study found vaccines reduced flu-related hospitalizations for children by 41% and ER visits by 51%.  

"The best thing you can do to get your child ready to stay healthy and in school, is to get them vaccinated and boosted. It is a lot. 'As a parent of three kids I can't take them all together because then they all scream.' I know this pain. But it is really important to keep your child healthy and in school," said Keri Alhoff, a researcher at Johns Hopkins Blomberg School of Public Health. 

Ultimately, it's also about preventing a strain on our medical system as we go through another winter season of the pandemic and flu.  

"What we always say is we don't do it for us, we are doing it for other people so we want to make sure if we are around babies or around older people we are looking out for them," said Jessica Charlsen, who took all three of her kids to get a flu shot. 

TV Shows And Movies Are Contributing To Youth Sex Education

Tue, 09/20/2022 - 23:09

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In a time when sex education varies between different states and local school districts, TV shows and films are filling in the gaps for some teens and young adults.  

In 2018, a Healthline survey of more than 1,000 Americans found that only 33% of people between the ages of 18 and 29 reported having some form of sex education in school.   

And a 2020 study from the Journal of LGBT Youth found that a majority of gay and lesbian college students "expressed that their formal sex education was lacking and that they sought out or received information from other informal sources to supplement their learning." 

Those informal resources included internet forums, popular films, music and TV shows.

When it comes to television, teen dramas like the long-running series "Degrassi" has been paving the way.  

Since 1987, when "Degrassi Junior High" first debuted, the franchise about students at a Canadian junior high and high school has highlighted the issues of teen pregnancy, abortion, STDs and sexual assault. In 1992, the U.S. Department of Education even developed a sex education curriculum that used episodes of "Degrassi" as starting points for classroom discussion. 

SEE MORE: How Different Sex Education Methods Affect Students Around The World

"Degrassi" now spans five different series across three generations of viewers and represents teens and families of various cultures, as well as varying sexual and gender identities. Its newest iteration is slated to debut on HBO Max in 2023.  

As "Degrassi" served almost like the blueprint for sex education in teen dramas, a series for older viewers, ABC's "How To Get Away With Murder," made history with its own advocacy for safe sexual health within the LGBTQ community.  

The series centers on a group of law school students and their professor. And in 2018, it became the first network primetime series to highlight pre-exposure prophylaxis, more commonly known as "PrEP," a medication that reduces the risk of spreading HIV.  

The series' discussion of PrEP, as well as the representation of a character living with HIV, was praised by organizations like GLAAD and Greater Than AIDS for the way it educated audiences without stigmatizing the issue.  

"How To Get Away With Murder" ended in 2020, but sex education in TV has continued.  

Today's teen dramas like Netflix's new "Heartbreak High" or the critically acclaimed and aptly named "Sex Education" are poking fun at the limitations of real-life sex education in schools, while advocating for honest and informative conversations about sex, consent, body positivity and healthy relationships. 

"Sex Education" tells the story of the son of a sex therapist who gives relationship advice to his peers. Both critics and health experts have praised the show for its informative humor and nuance about the realities of sex. The fourth and final season of the series is expected to be released next year. 

Texas Opens Investigation Into Migrant Flights To Martha's Vineyard

Tue, 09/20/2022 - 22:48

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An investigation is now underway in Texas after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sent two flights of migrants to Martha's Vineyard last week. 

Attorneys say migrants were misled before they boarded flights to the wealthy Massachusetts island. 

The controversy comes as Republican governors continue to transport migrants to Democratic-led states in protest of the Biden administration's policies at the southern border. 

Migrants have told journalists and immigration attorneys they were singled out and recruited under false pretenses, and given promises of jobs, shelter and aid.

Those 48 asylum seekers, mostly from Venezuela, were looking for safety and security after fleeing a country in economic and political turmoil.  

They arrived at the southwest border in Texas, were processed by federal immigration authorities and released. Some ended up at a shelter in San Antonio, where they informed their attorneys that a crew and a blond-haired woman in particular made promises to them that they could to another city, get shelter, a job and aid, all at no expense.

They were transported on a private jet, paid for by the State of Florida, which has apportioned money for immigrant removals in this year's budget.

SEE MORE: More Migrants Arrive In D.C. As White House Slams Republican Governors

When the news broke last week, the Florida governor took credit, giving the news first to conservative news outlets. DeSantis was eager to frame this as highlighting liberal hypocrisy on immigration. But as the story trickled out about the migrants arrived and who in effect recruited them, it caught the attention of local law enforcement in San Antonio.  

"We want to know what what was what was promised to them," said Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar. "What, if anything, did they sign? Did they even understand the document that was put in front of them if they signed something? Or was this strictly a predatory measure, somebody coming and preying upon people that are here, minding their own business and are here legally, not bothering a soul, but somebody saw fit to come from another state, hunt them down, prey upon them, and then take advantage of their desperate situation just for the sake of political theater, just for the sake of making some sort of a statement and putting people's lives in danger?"

The migrants flown to Martha's Vineyard sued Gov. DeSantis and his transportation secretary Tuesday for engaging in a “fraudulent and discriminatory scheme” to relocate them.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Boston, alleges that the migrants were told they were going to Boston or Washington, “which was completely false," and were induced with perks such as $10 McDonald's gift certificates.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

What Are Ohioans Voting For In Their Senate Race?

Tue, 09/20/2022 - 22:09

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Nestled between Dayton and Cincinnati is the small city of Middletown, Ohio.

It's the birthplace and childhood home of Republican U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance.

Vance gained national recognition for his bestselling memoir Hillbilly Elegy, detailing his upbringing here. And as he runs for Senate, it's Ohio voters like these that he’ll need to win over in November. 

"Unfortunately, people thought that that was our story," said Adriane Scherrer. "That was his story, not my story."

"I just more closely aligned to Tim Ryan," said Heather Gibson, a registered independent & small business owner. "J.D. Vance became a Trumper. There's in it to win over the hearts of probably the Middletonians. And I'm not one of those."

Gibson has supported Republicans before but isn’t hesitating about voting for representative Tim Ryan to become Ohio’s next senator, replacing retiring Republican Rob Portman. 

"After January 6, our democracy is fragile," Gibson said. "And I want people up there who are going to take that to heart and swear by their oath and stand by it.” 

Since winning the Republican nomination in May, Vance has attacked Congressman Ryan over his voting record, siding with President Biden 100% of the time according to FiveThirtyEight.  

But in the Buckeye State, where President Biden remains unpopular, Ryan urges voters to look past the things that come up for a vote in Congress. 

"The point is I think for voters is Tim Ryan has agreed with Donald Trump on trade, on China, on the military, on the Space Force; and I've disagreed with Democrats on trade and on other issues," Ryan said.

According to the latest public polls, Ryan and Vance are neck and neck. One poll in early September conducted by Suffolk University and USA Today shows Ryan leading Vance by 1 point, well within the margin of error.  

But another poll conducted just five days later by Emerson College Polling and The Hill shows Vance leading Ryan by 4 points. 

Already the Ohio Senate race is an expensive one — with $65 million spent in the general election according to AdImpact — and some voters have seen enough.  

"It is a lot of mudslinging," says Janet Hydeman, a registered Republican. "And that does not make me happy. I would rather know what those candidates are standing for, rather than what they're trying to stamp on in the other candidate."

Republican A.G. Push Visa, Mastercard, AmEx Not To Track Gun Sales

Tue, 09/20/2022 - 20:36

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A group of Republican attorneys general are pushing the major payment networks — Visa, Mastercard and American Express — to drop their plans to start tracking sales at gun stores, arguing the plans could infringe on consumer privacy and push legal gun sales out of the mainstream financial network.

The letter comes more than a week after the payment networks said they would adopt the International Organization for Standardization's new merchant code for sales at gun stores. The merchant code would categorize sales at gun stores not unlike how payment networks categorize sales at airlines, restaurants, and department stores.

SEE MORE: Major Credit Card Companies Will Soon Categorize Gun Store Purchases

In their letter, the AGs threaten to use all legal tools at their disposal to stop the payment networks from tracking gun sales.

"Categorizing the constitutionally protected right to purchase firearms unfairly singles out law-abiding merchants and consumers alike," the letter said.

In recent weeks gun control advocates argued that separately categorizing gun store sales could potentially flag a surge of suspicious sales activity to public safety officials. They have used the example from the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, where the shooter purchased $26,000 worth of ammunition ahead of the massacre.

But the Second Amendment lobby and its advocates have argued that the merchant code would do a poor job of tracking potential red flags and could unfairly flag legal gun purchases. A sale of a gun safe worth thousands of dollars would be categorized as a gun store sale just as much as someone buying thousands of dollars worth of ammunition, for example.

SEE MORE: Manufacturers Made Over $1B Selling AR-15-Style Guns Over Past Decade

The payment networks said when they adopted the policy that they are just following the guidance from ISO. It will be largely up to the banks who issue the credit and debit cards to decide whether they want to stop sales under certain merchant codes.

The CEOs of the major banks will appear in front of Congress on Wednesday and Thursday this week, and they are almost certainly to be asked questions on the gun store sales tracking controversy.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

World Leaders Meet In New York For U.N. General Assembly

Tue, 09/20/2022 - 18:51

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In an alarming assessment, the head of the United Nations warned world leaders Tuesday that nations are "gridlocked in colossal global dysfunction" and aren't ready or willing to tackle the challenges that threaten humanity's future — and the planet's. "Our world is in peril — and paralyzed," he said.

Speaking at the opening of the General Assembly's annual high-level meeting, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made sure to emphasize that hope remained. But his remarks reflected a tense and worried world. He cited the war in Ukraine and multiplying conflicts around the world, the climate emergency, the dire financial situation of developing countries and setbacks in U.N. goals for 2030 including an end to extreme poverty and quality education for all children.

He also warned of what he called "a forest of red flags" around new technologies despite promising advances to heal diseases and connect people. Guterres said social media platforms are based on a model "that monetizes outrage, anger and negativity." Artificial intelligence, he said, "is compromising the integrity of information systems, the media, and indeed democracy itself."

The world lacks even the beginning of "a global architecture" to deal with the ripples caused by these new technologies because of "geopolitical tensions," Guterres said.

His opening remarks came as leaders from around the planet reconvened at U.N. headquarters in New York pandemic interruptions including an entirely virtual meeting in 2020 and a hybrid one last year. This week, the halls of the United Nations are filled once more with delegates reflecting the world's cultures. Many faces were visible, though all delegates are required to wear masks except when speaking to ward off the coronavirus.

Guterres made sure to start out by sounding a note of hope. He showed a video of the first U.N.-chartered ship carrying grain from Ukraine — part of the deal between Ukraine and Russia that the United Nations and Turkey helped broker — to the Horn of Africa, where millions of people are on the edge of famine It is, he said, an example of promise and hope "in a world teeming with turmoil."

He stressed that cooperation and dialogue are the only path forward — two fundamental U.N. principles since its founding after World War II. And he warned that "no power or group alone can call the shots."

"Let's work as one, as a coalition of the world, as united nations," he urged leaders gathered in the vast General Assembly hall.

It's rarely that easy. Geopolitical divisions are undermining the work of the U.N. Security Council, international law, people's trust in democratic institutions and most forms of international cooperation, Guterres said.

"The divergence between developed and developing countries, between North and South, between the privileged and the rest, is becoming more dangerous by the day," the secretary-general said. "It is at the root of the geopolitical tensions and lack of trust that poison every area of global cooperation, from vaccines to sanctions to trade.

SEE MORE: U.N. Chief Warns World Is One Step From 'Nuclear Annihilation'

Before the global meeting was gaveled open, leaders and ministers wearing masks to avoid a COVID-19 super-spreader event wandered the assembly hall, chatting individually and in groups. It was a sign that despite the fragmented state of the planet, the United Nations remains the key gathering place for presidents, prime ministers, monarchs and ministers.

Nearly 150 heads of state and government are on the latest speakers' list, a high number reflecting that the United Nations remains the only place not just to deliver their views but to meet privately to discuss the challenges on the global agenda -- and hopefully make some progress.

The 77th General Assembly meeting of world leaders convenes under the shadow of Europe's first major war since World War II — the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which has unleashed a global food crisis and opened fissures among major powers in a way not seen since the Cold War.

At the top of that agenda for many: Russia's Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, which not only threatens the sovereignty of its smaller neighbor but has raised fears of a nuclear catastrophe at Europe's largest nuclear plant in the country's now Russia-occupied southeast.

Leaders in many countries are trying to prevent a wider war and restore peace in Europe. Diplomats, though, aren't expecting any breakthroughs this week.

The loss of important grain and fertilizer exports from Ukraine and Russia has triggered a food crisis, especially in developing countries, and inflation and a rising cost of living in many others. Those issues are high on the agenda.

At a meeting Monday to promote U.N. goals for 2030 — including ending extreme poverty, ensuring quality education for all children and achieving gender equality — Guterres said the world's many pressing perils make it "tempting to put our long-term development priorities to one side."

But the U.N. chief said some things can't wait — among them education, dignified jobs, full equality for women and girls, comprehensive health care and action to tackle the climate crisis. He called for public and private finance and investment, and above all for peace.

The death of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and her funeral in London on Monday, which many world leaders attended, have created last-minute headaches for the high-level meeting. Diplomats and U.N. staff have scrambled to deal with changes in travel plans, the timing of events and the logistically intricate speaking schedule for world leaders.

The global gathering, known as the General Debate, was entirely virtual in 2020 because of the pandemic, and hybrid in 2021. This year, the 193-member General Assembly returns to only in-person speeches, with a single exception — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Over objections from Russia and a few allies, the assembly voted last Friday to allow the Ukrainian leader to prerecord his speech because of reasons beyond his control — the "ongoing foreign invasion" and military hostilities that require him to carry out his "national defense and security duties."

The U.S. president, representing the host country for the United Nations, is traditionally the second speaker. But President Joe Biden is attending the queen's funeral, and his speech has been pushed to Wednesday morning.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

47 People Charged For Stealing $250M In Minnesota Food Scheme

Tue, 09/20/2022 - 18:46

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Federal authorities have charged 47 people in what they're calling the largest fraud scheme yet to take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic by stealing and defrauding the government of $250 million.

Prosecutors say the defendants created companies that claimed to be offering food to tens of thousands of children across Minnesota, then sought reimbursement for those meals through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food nutrition programs. Prosecutors say few meals were actually served, and the defendants used the money to buy luxury cars, property and jewelry.

“This $250 million is the floor," Andy Luger, the U.S. attorney for Minnesota, said at a news conference. “Our investigation continues.”

Many of the companies that claimed to be serving food were sponsored by a nonprofit called Feeding Our Future, which submitted the companies' claims for reimbursement. Feeding Our Future’s founder and executive director, Aimee Bock, was among those indicted, and authorities say she and others in her organization submitted the fraudulent claims for reimbursement and received kickbacks.

Bock’s attorney, Kenneth Udoibok, said the indictment “doesn’t indicate guilt or innocence.” He said he wouldn't comment further until seeing the indictment.

In an interview in January after law enforcement searched her home and offices, among other sites, Bock denied stealing money and said she never saw evidence of fraud.

SEE MORE: Americans Face Tough Decisions As Food Prices Continue To Soar

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice made prosecuting pandemic-related fraud a priority. The department has already taken enforcement actions related to more than $8 billion in suspected pandemic fraud, including bringing charges in more than 1,000 criminal cases involving losses in excess of $1.1 billion.

Federal officials repeatedly described the alleged fraud as “brazen,” and decried that it involved a program intended to feed children who needed help during the pandemic. Michael Paul, the agent in charge of the Minneapolis FBI office, called it “an astonishing display of deceit."

Luger said the government was billed for more than 125 million fake meals, with some defendants making up names for children by using an online random name generator. He displayed one form for reimbursement that claimed a site served exactly 2,500 meals each day Monday through Friday — with no children ever getting sick or otherwise missing from the program.

“These children were simply invented,” Luger said.

He said the government has so far recovered $50 million in money and property and expects to recover more.

The defendants in Minnesota face multiple counts, including conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering and bribery. Luger said some of them were arrested Tuesday morning.

According to court documents, the alleged scheme targeted the USDA's federal child nutrition programs, which provide food to low-income children and adults. In Minnesota, the funds are administered by the state Department of Education, and meals have historically been provided to kids through educational programs, such as schools or day care centers.

The sites that serve the food are sponsored by public or nonprofit groups, such as Feeding Our Future. The sponsoring agency keeps 10% to 15% of the reimbursement funds as an administrative fee in exchange for submitting claims, sponsoring the sites and disbursing the funds.

But during the pandemic, some of the standard requirements for sites to participate in the federal food nutrition programs were waived. The USDA allowed for-profit restaurants to participate, and allowed food to be distributed outside educational programs. The charging documents say the defendants exploited such changes “to enrich themselves."

The documents say Bock oversaw the scheme and that she and Feeding Our Future sponsored the opening of nearly 200 federal child nutrition program sites throughout the state, knowing that the sites intended to submit fraudulent claims. “The sites fraudulently claimed to be serving meals to thousands of children a day within just days or weeks of being formed and despite having few, if any staff and little to no experience serving this volume of meals,” according to the indictments.

One example described a small storefront restaurant in Willmar, in west-central Minnesota, that typically served only a few dozen people a day. Two defendants offered the owner $40,000 a month to use his restaurant, then billed the government for some 1.6 million meals through 11 months of 2021, according to one indictment. They listed the names of around 2,000 children — nearly half of the local school district's total enrollment — and only 33 names matched actual students, the indictment said.

Feeding Our Future received nearly $18 million in federal child nutrition program funds as administrative fees in 2021 alone, and Bock and other employees received additional kickbacks, which were often disguised as “consulting fees” paid to shell companies, the charging documents said.

According to an FBI affidavit unsealed earlier this year, Feeding Our Future received $307,000 in reimbursements from the USDA in 2018, $3.45 million in 2019 and $42.7 million in 2020. The amount of reimbursements jumped to $197.9 million in 2021.

Court documents say the Minnesota Department of Education was growing concerned about the rapid increase in the number of sites sponsored by Feeding Our Future, as well as the increase in reimbursements.

The department began scrutinizing Feeding Our Future’s site applications more carefully, and denied dozens of them. In response, Bock sued the department in November 2020, alleging discrimination, saying the majority of her sites were based in immigrant communities. That case has since been dismissed.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

Officials: 8 Injured In Chicago Apartment Building Explosion

Tue, 09/20/2022 - 18:05

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At least six people were rushed to hospitals after being injured when an explosion Tuesday tore through the top floor of a Chicago apartment building, officials said.

The explosion at the three-story, 36-unit apartment building in the South Austin neighborhood occurred shortly before 9:30 a.m., officials said. At least 10 ambulances were on the scene, according to the Chicago Fire Department, which requested help searching the structure.

"Requesting manpower for searches in structure," the department tweeted.

Photographs and video posted on the Chicago Fire Department's twitter page shows that much of the top floor of the four-story brick apartment building on the city's West Side was destroyed by the blast. Scores of bricks and other debris had fallen onto the street, crushing at least one car and seriously damaging two others.

pic.twitter.com/IKAkwhJICS

— Chicago Fire Media (@CFDMedia) September 20, 2022

Several people who lived in the building said they were home when the explosion rocked the entire building.

"I was asleep, and all of a sudden there was a loud booming," Lawrence Lewis, who was asleep at the time, told WGN television. "I woke up to my windows gone, my front door blown open. I just saw smoke, and I ran out of the house. I was asleep. I’m shook up right now."

No cause of the explosion had been determined. The department said in a series of tweets that the Chicago police bomb squad and agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were on their way as well.

The Fire Department said conditions of three victims range from serious to critical.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

Organizations Race To Register Eligible Voters Ahead Of Midterms

Tue, 09/20/2022 - 18:03

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One of the safest bets in politics is that young people don't show up. That's especially true in the midterms, when participation among younger voters trails significantly behind older generations. 

"We have to start saying every election is important. And that's why we do the work that we do because we want folks to understand that it's each and every election, not just the general, not just the midterms, it's every election," said Stephanie Young, executive director of When We All Vote.  

SEE MORE: Election Security Changes Since 2020

So, what does it take to get young voters to fill out a ballot? Stephanie Young from When We All Vote says it's as simple as asking.  

"Especially with young people, they say, 'Oh I didn't vote because nobody asked me to,'" said Young. 

Former First Lady Michelle Obama started When We All Vote in 2018, with the goal of trying to meet voters where they are, and make the voting process less intimidating.  

"Sometimes we look to Mrs. Obama or big celebrities or other voices and think, 'Okay, well, you know, if they can't get people to move, then I can't.' And actually, that's the wrong thought. You are the best influencer for the people that are in your life, the people that you work with, go to church with, go to school with, go to synagogue, mosque, whoever. You influence them," said Young. 

That idea of meeting voters where they are can lead to unexpected partnerships. This year, When We All Vote is working with BLK — a dating app for black singles that's popular with people age 18-24.   

SEE MORE: Voter Priorities Heading Into Midterm Elections

"It was really those young voters, those first-time voters where we can actually help them, encourage them to at least get education and information about voting to really like shift the culture and make a positive impact on the community,” said Jonathan Kirkland, the head of brand and marketing at BLK.  

National Voter Registration Day was first recognized in 2012, and has helped over 4.7 million people register to vote over the past decade.  

Kentucky School Shooter Parole Decision Delayed Until Monday

Tue, 09/20/2022 - 17:00

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A Kentucky man who killed three students and wounded five more in a school shooting 25 years ago will have to wait another week to learn his fate in a high-stakes hearing that could see him released or denied the chance to ever leave prison.

Michael Carneal was a 14-year-old freshman on Dec. 1, 1997, when he fired a stolen pistol at a before-school prayer group in the lobby of Heath High School, near Paducah, Kentucky. School shootings were not yet a depressing part of the national consciousness, and Carneal was given the maximum sentence possible at the time for someone his age — life in prison but with the possibility of parole. A quarter century later, in the shadow of Uvalde and in a nation disgusted by the carnage of mass shootings, Carneal, now 39, is trying to convince the parole board he deserves to be freed.

At a hearing on Tuesday, a two-person panel of the Kentucky Parole Board said they had not reached a decision and were referring his case to the full board, which meets on Monday. Only the full board has the power to order Carneal to serve out his full sentence without another chance at parole.

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Speaking on a videoconference from the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange, Carneal told the panel that at the time of the shooting, “I was hearing in my head to do certain things, but I should have known that stealing guns ... was going to lead to something terrible." He said that he has been receiving therapy and taking psychiatric medications in prison, however he admitted that he continues to hear voices. As recently as a couple of days ago, he heard voices telling him to jump off the stairs.

Parole Board Chair Ladeidra Jones told Carneal that his inmate file lists his mental health prognosis as “poor" and says that even with mental health services, he is still experiencing paranoid thoughts with violent imagery, she said.

Asked how the board could be assured that he would not act on those thoughts, he said that he has learned to ignore them and hasn't acted on them for many years. Carneal said he would be able to do good in the world if he were released, but he did not offer any specific plans.

“It doesn’t have to be something grand,” he said. “Every little thing you do affects somebody. It could be listening to someone, carrying something. I would like to do something in the future that could contribute to society.”

Carneal said the shooting happened because of a combination of factors that included his mental health and immaturity, but he added that it was “not justified at all. There's no excuse for it at all.”

His parole hearing began Monday with testimony from those injured and close family of those killed, several of whom had considered Carneal a friend.

Missy Jenkins Smith, who was paralyzed by one of Carneal's bullets and uses a wheelchair, said there are too many “what ifs” to release him. What if he stops taking his medication? What if his medication stops working?

“Continuing his life in prison is the only way his victims can feel comfortable and safe,” she said.

Killed in the shooting were 14-year-old Nicole Hadley, 17-year-old Jessica James, and 15-year-old Kayce Steger. Jenkins Smith said it would be unfair to them and their loved ones for Carneal to be set free.

“They will forever be a 17 year old, a 14 year old, and a 15 year old — allowed only one full decade of life. A consequence of Michael’s choice,” she said.

Also testifying Monday was Christina Hadley Ellegood, whose younger sister Nicole was killed in the shooting. Ellegood has written about the pain of seeing her sister's body and having to call their mom and tell her Nicole had been shot.

“I had no one to turn to who understood what I was going through,” she said Monday. “For me, it’s not fair for him to be able to roam around with freedom when we live in fear of where he might be.”

The two-person panel of the full parole board only has the option to release him or defer his next opportunity for parole for up to five years. Because they could not agree on those options, they sent the case to a meeting of the full board next Monday.

Hollan Holm, who was wounded that day, spoke Monday about lying on the floor of the high school lobby, bleeding from his head and believing he was going to die. But he said Carneal was too young to comprehend the full consequences of his actions and should have a chance at supervised release.

“When I think of Michael Carneal, I think of the child I rode the bus with every day,” he said. “I think of the child I shared a lunch table with in third grade. I think of what he could have become if, on that day, he had it somewhere in him to make a different choice or take a different path.”

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

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