Associated Press, Author at Florida Politics

Associated Press

Donald Trump tells AP he won’t accept blame if GOP loses U.S. House

Facing the prospect of bruising electoral defeat in congressional elections, President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he won’t accept the blame if his party loses control of the House in November, arguing his campaigning and endorsements have helped Republican candidates.

In a wide-ranging interview three weeks before Election Day, Trump told The Associated Press he senses voter enthusiasm rivaling 2016 and he expressed cautious optimism that his most loyal supporters will vote even when he is not on the ballot. He dismissed suggestions that he might take responsibility, as his predecessor did, for midterm losses or view the outcome as a referendum on his presidency.

“No, I think I’m helping people,” Trump said. “I don’t believe anybody’s ever had this kind of an impact.”

Trump spoke on a range of subjects, defending Saudi Arabia from growing condemnation over the case of a missing journalist, accusing his longtime attorney Michael Cohen of lying under oath and flashing defiance when asked about the insult — “Horseface” — he hurled at Stormy Daniels, the porn actress who accuses him of lying about an affair.

Asked if it was appropriate to insult a woman’s appearance, Trump responded, “You can take it any way you want.”

Throughout much of the nearly 40-minute interview, he sat, arms crossed, in the Oval Office behind the Resolute Desk, flanked by top aides, including White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and communications director Bill Shine. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway listened from a nearby sofa.

The interview came as Trump’s administration was being urged to pressure Saudi Arabia to account for the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Instead, Trump offered a defense for the U.S. ally, warning against a rush to judgment, like with what happened with his Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault.

“Well, I think we have to find out what happened first,” Trump said. “Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent. I don’t like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh. And he was innocent all the way.”

Weeks away from the midterms, Democrats are hopeful about their chances to recapture the House, while Republicans are increasingly confident they can hold control of the Senate.

Trump has been campaigning aggressively in a blitz of rallies aimed at firing up his base. He said he believes he’s doing his job, but allowed he has heard from some of his supporters who say they may not vote this November.

“I’m not running,” he said. “I mean, there are many people that have said to me … ‘I will never ever go and vote in the midterms because you’re not running and I don’t think you like Congress.’” He added: “Well, I do like Congress.”

If Democrats take the House and pursue impeachment or investigations — including seeking his long-hidden tax returns — Trump said he will “handle it very well.”

The president declared he was unconcerned about other potential threats to his presidency. He accused Cohen of lying when testifying under oath that the president coordinated on a hush-money scheme to buy Daniels’ silence.

Trump on Tuesday declared the allegation “totally false.” But in entering a plea deal with Cohen in August, federal prosecutors signaled that they accepted his recitation of facts and account of what occurred.

Trump said that Washington lawyer Pat Cipollone will serve as his next White House counsel and that he hoped to announce a replacement for U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley in the next week or two. He again repeated his frustration with Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the special counsel investigation, saying, “I could fire him whenever I want to fire him, but I haven’t said that I was going to.”

On the ongoing Russia investigation, Trump defended his son Donald Trump Jr. for a Trump Tower meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer offering damaging information about Democrat Hillary Clinton. Trump called his son a “good young guy” and said he did what any political aide would have done.

Trump again cast doubt on climate change, suggesting, incorrectly, that the scientific community was evenly split on the existence of climate change and its causes. There are “scientists on both sides of the issue,” Trump said.

“But what I’m not willing to do is sacrifice the economic well-being of our country for something that nobody really knows,” Trump said.

He added: “I have a natural instinct for science, and I will say that you have scientists on both sides of the picture.”

Asked about his wartime leadership, Trump acknowledged that he has not brought U.S. troops home from conflict zones overseas and that there are more Americans serving in harm’s way now than when he took office.

“It’s not a lot more. It’s a little bit more,” he said.

Saying he’s trying to preserve “safety at home,” Trump added that if there are areas where people are threatening the U.S., “I’m going to have troops there for a period of time.”

Trump increased U.S. troop totals in Afghanistan by about 4,000 last year.

The president engaged on several other topics, including:

— He said he has given no consideration to pardoning Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman who was convicted of numerous financial crimes.

— He suggested that his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would happen after next month’s midterm elections and would likely not be in the United States.

— He broke with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s proposed changes to Social Security to control the deficit.

— And he defended his decision to break from his predecessors and not yet visit a military base in a combat zone, claiming it was not “overly necessary.”

Repeatedly stressing what he saw as the achievements of his first two years, Trump said he’d be seeking another term because there was “always more work to do.”

“The new motto is Keep America Great,” Trump said. “I don’t want somebody to destroy it because I can do a great job, but the wrong person coming in after me sitting right at this desk can destroy it very quickly if they don’t do the right thing. So no, I’m definitely running.”

4 days after storm, large swath of Panhandle suffering

Crews with backhoes and other heavy equipment scooped up splintered boards, broken glass, chunks of asphalt and other debris in hurricane-flattened Mexico Beach on Sunday as the mayor held out hope for the 250 or so residents who may have tried to ride out the storm.

The death toll from Michael’s destructive march from Florida to Virginia stood at 17, with just one confirmed death so far in this Florida Panhandle town of about 1,000 people that took a direct hit from the hurricane and its 155 mph winds last week.

Crews worked to clear building debris along with the rubble from a collapsed section of the beachfront highway.

Mayor Al Cathey estimated 250 residents stayed behind when the hurricane struck, and he said he remained hopeful about their fate. He said search-and-rescue teams in the beach town had already combed areas with the worst damage.

“If we lose only one life, to me that’s going to be a miracle,” Cathey said.

He said enough food and water had been brought in for the residents who remain. Even some cellphone service had returned to the devastated community.

President Donald Trump plans to visit Florida and Georgia on Monday to see the damage.

Four days after the storm struck, a large swath of the Panhandle was suffering, from little beach towns to the larger Panama City to rural communities miles from where the hurricane came ashore. About 190,000 homes and businesses in Florida were without electricity.

“There are a lot of inland areas, some of these poor rural counties to the north of there. These counties took a devastating hit,” Sen. Marco Rubio said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“And we are talking about poor people, many of them are older, miles from each other, isolated in many cases from roads, including some dirt roads that are cut off right now. We haven’t been able to reach those people in a number of days.”

In downtown Marianna, the facades of historic buildings lay in pieces on the ground across from the courthouse. Jill Braxton stopped with a pickup truck loaded with hay, saying many people in rural areas nearby had trapped animals and needed supplies for their livestock.

“We’re just trying to help some other people who may not be able to get out of their driveways for a couple of days,” Braxton said. “There was a girl that had trapped horses, horses that were down, and horses that really needed vet care that could not get there. There’s been animals killed. People lost their cows.”

Some victims stranded by the storm managed to summon relief by using logs to spell out “HELP” on the ground, officials in Bay County, which includes Mexico Beach, said in a Facebook post. Officials said someone from another county was using an aerial mapping app, noticed the distress message and contacted authorities.

No details were released on who was stranded and what sort of help was needed.

Meanwhile, Sen. Bill Nelson said Tyndall Air Force Base on the Panhandle was heavily damaged, but he promised it would be rebuilt. The Florida Democrat and member of the Armed Services Committee said older buildings on the base were demolished, while newer ones will need substantial repairs.

The base is home to some of the nation’s most advanced fighter jets, and Nelson said some hangars were damaged severely. But he gave no information on how many planes were on the base during the storm or how many were damaged.

For the few residents remaining in Mexico Beach, conditions were treacherous.

Steve Lonigan was outside his home, talking with neighbor Jim Ostman, when a loud cracking sound made both men jump. It was just a small wooden block shifting in the sand beneath the weight of the front end of Lonigan’s camper trailer.

“All this stuff is just dangerous,” Ostman said, glancing at the destruction all around. “It’s so unstable.”

Lonigan and his wife returned Sunday after evacuating to Georgia. Seawater surged into his home, leaving a soggy mess of mud and leaves, even though the house stands 12 feet above ground on concrete blocks.

The single-story house had broken windows, and part of its roof and front steps were missing. Lonigan used a ladder to climb inside.

“We’ve got a lot more left than other people,” he said. “We were able to sleep in the bedroom last night.”

In hard-hit Panama City, pastor John Blount held Sunday services at St. Andrew United Methodist Church outdoors, in front of a wall demolished by the storm. Afterward, the church held a large cookout for the storm-weary.

Untold numbers of people across the region have damaged homes and no power and don’t have the means to relocate, either to a new or temporary place.

More roads were becoming passable as crews cleared trees and power lines, but traffic lights remained out and there were long lines at the few open gas stations.

Florida officials evacuated nearly 3,000 inmates from two hurricane-damaged prisons — the Gulf Correctional Institution and Annex and Calhoun Correctional Institution. They had damage to the roof and the infrastructure critical for security, authorities said. No inmates or staff members were injured.

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Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Donald Trump says climate change not a hoax, not sure of its source

President Donald Trump is backing off his claim that climate change is a hoax but says he doesn’t know if it’s manmade and suggests the climate will “change back again.”

In an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Trump says he doesn’t want to put the U.S. at a disadvantage in responding to climate change.

Trump called climate change a hoax in November 2012 and in years since. As far as the climate “changing back,” temperature records show that the world hasn’t had a cooler-than-average year since 1976 or a cooler-than-normal month since the end of 1985.

The president also expressed doubt over scientists’ findings linking the changing climate to more powerful hurricanes. He is scheduled on Monday to visit areas of Georgia and Florida damaged by Hurricane Michael.

Florida insurers to weather effects of Michael, analysts say

Florida’s disjointed property insurance system that relies almost exclusively on small and midsize companies will take a multibillion-dollar loss from Hurricane Michael, but has sufficient reserves and backups that providers should be able to pay claims without problems, analysts say.

Major national players like State Farm, Allstate and Liberty Mutual write few if any homeowners policies in Florida because of the high risk of hurricane losses, leaving the market to smaller companies and the state-created insurer of last resort, Citizens Property.

Boston-based Karen Clark & Company, which models catastrophes, estimates Florida private insurers will pay $6 billion in claims for wind and storm surge damage to residential, commercial and industrial properties and vehicles. The estimate doesn’t include losses covered by the National Flood Insurance Program, which has about 60,000 policies in the hardest-hit Florida counties. The program had no immediate estimate on its losses.

Analysts say that, despite their smaller size, Florida insurers should be able to cover their Michael losses through reinsurance — policies insurance companies purchase from global companies like Lloyd’s of London to cover catastrophic losses. Most of the state’s damage from Wednesday’s Category 4 storm is in the sparsely populated Panhandle, lessening the financial blow.

Florida insurers “are built to be able to withstand these types of storms that are expected to happen every 10 to 15 years,” according to Brian C. Schneider, a senior director at the analytics firm Fitch Ratings. The company said the reinsurance programs performed well after Hurricane Irma last year, which caused about $50 billion in damages in Florida.

But, Schneider said, the industry believes many Florida insurers would not survive if a major storm made a direct hit on Miami, Tampa or another major city. The reinsurance company Swiss Re estimated last year that a Category 5 storm hitting Miami could potentially cost the industry almost $200 billion. The state has about $17 billion in a fund to help private companies pay hurricane claims if they run into trouble.

Major insurance companies fled Florida’s homeowners’ market after 1992′s Category 5 Hurricane Andrew hit south of Miami, destroying much of the city of Homestead and causing $45 billion in damages, adjusted for inflation. After the companies fled, many property owners could only get policies from Citizens Property and its predecessor, peaking at about 1.5 million policies in 2012.

The state, wanting to reduce its exposure, for most of the last 20 years has been enticing smaller, niche companies into the market but required them to obtain reinsurance. The industry was also helped by a 12-year gap between hurricanes hitting the state from 2005 to last year. Their revenue is helped as Florida has the most expensive homeowners’ insurance in the nation, according to the Insurance Information Institute, with homeowners paying an average annual cost of just under $2,000 in 2015, the latest year available.

The push worked as Citizens’ footprint has shrunk by 72 percent but remains the state’s second-largest property insurer with about 420,000 policies — most of them in South Florida, far from Michael’s damage zone. Spokesman Michael Peltier said the company estimates it will receive about 12,000 claims from Michael but hasn’t calculated an expected loss yet. Because its policies are in the highest-risk areas of the state, its average policy costs nearly $2,600 annually with a range from about $3,600 in Miami and the Florida Keys to about $1,700 in Taylor County, not far from where Michael hit.

The state’s largest property insurer, Universal Property & Casualty Co., writes almost 600,000 policies. It did not return calls seeking comment.

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Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Scientists to study red tide impact on humans

Scientists are studying whether red tide exposure impacts human health.

Researchers from Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute are taking take nasal swabs, blood and urine looking for traces of the toxic blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) that’s been plaguing Florida beaches.

They’re studying possible links between algae toxins and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and potentially liver failure. The study is being funded though social media crowdsourcing.

The News-Press reports toxins from cyanobacteria produces health effects in humans and animals ranging from mild cold-like symptoms to neurodegenerative diseases, but they’re often unreported or misdiagnosed by public health authorities.

Harbor Branch researchers say there’s no data about human and animal exposure to the blooms. The state health department is not studying potential impacts of exposure.

The study will be peer-reviewed after it’s completed. It could take six months to a year.

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Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Florida officials fear Michael’s death toll will rise

Search and rescue personnel are continuing to comb through the ruins of a small Florida Panhandle community destroyed by Hurricane Michael, which has left hundreds of thousands without power and without easy access to supplies.

So far, one body has been found in Mexico Beach, but authorities say there is little doubt the death toll will rise.

Crews with dogs went door-to-door Saturday in Mexico Beach, pushing aside debris to get inside badly damaged structures in a second wave of searches following what they described as an initial, “hasty” search of the area. About 1,700 search and rescue personnel have checked 25,000 homes, Gov. Rick Scott said.

Michael made landfall Wednesday as a Category 4 hurricane with 155 mph winds (249 kph) and heavy storm surge. The tally of lives lost across the South stood at 15, including the victim found in the rubble of Mexico Beach, where about 1,000 people live.

“Everything is time-consuming,” said Capt. Ignatius Carroll, of the South Florida Urban Search and Rescue task force. “You don’t want to put a rush on a thorough rescue.”

More roads were passable along the storm-ravaged coast as crews cleared downed trees and power lines, but traffic lights remained out and there were long lines at the few open gas stations.

About 4,000 members of Florida’s national guard have been called up to deal with the storm, including 500 added on Saturday. Nearly 2,000 law-enforcement officials have been sent into the Panhandle.

Schools will stay closed indefinitely, a hospital halted operations and sent 200 patients to hospitals elsewhere in Florida and in Alabama, and more than 253,000 customers in the Panhandle remain without power.

“Everybody just needs to help each other right now,” Scott said after meeting with emergency responders in the Panama City area.

“You feel sorry for people,” Scott said. “They might have lost their house. They worry about their kids getting into school. You know, people don’t sit and have a whole bunch of extra money in the bank just waiting for a disaster.”

Some residents were packing up and getting as far away as they could.

Jeff and Katrina Pearsey, with a ruined rental home in the Panama City area and no indication of when they could again earn a living, said they were heading to Bangor, Maine, where Katrina once worked as a nurse. Several trees came down on their property, including one that smashed through the roof.

“We’re getting our stuff and we’re going,” said Jeff Pearsey, 48. “We’re probably done with Panama City.”

Michael was one of the most powerful hurricanes to ever make landfall in the U.S. While most residents fled ahead of the storm’s arrival, others stayed to face the hurricane. Some barely escaped with their lives as homes were pushed off their foundations and whole neighborhoods became submerged.

Hector Morales, a 57-year-old restaurant cook, never even thought of evacuating. His mobile home wasn’t on the beach but when it suddenly began floating during the hurricane, he jumped out and swam to a fishing boat and clambered aboard.

“I lost everything,” Morales said. “But I made it.”

How many others were not so fortunate was still not clear. By one count, state officials said, 285 people in Mexico Beach defied mandatory evacuation orders and stayed behind. It’s unclear how many people stayed behind in nearby communities.

One who did, Albert Blackwell, was preparing on Saturday to cover holes in the roof of his apartment and take a chainsaw to trees that fell and broke his windows just outside Panama City.

“I’m the idiot that rode it out here in this place,” said Blackwell, 65, sweat dripping from his face. He doesn’t plan to leave; he wants to protect his home from looters.

Emergency officials said they’ve received thousands of calls asking about missing people, but with cellphone service out across a wide area, they found it impossible to know who among those unaccounted for were safe but just unable to dial out to friends or family.

Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Long said he expected the death toll to rise. Searchers were trying to determine if the person found dead in Mexico Beach had been alone or was part of a family.

Authorities have set up distribution centers to dole out food and water to victims. They’ve also set up a triage tent to treat residents stepping on nails and cutting themselves on debris.

President Donald Trump announced plans to visit Florida and hard-hit Georgia early next week but didn’t say what day he would arrive. On Saturday he approved federal disaster aid relief for four Alabama counties affected by the storm.

Trump spoke with Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and “reiterated that the federal government is fully available,” the White House said Saturday.

“We are with you!” he tweeted.

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Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Tyndall AFB

Tyndall Air Force Base sustains ‘catastrophic’ damage

Tyndall Air Force Base suffered catastrophic damage when Hurricane Michael tore through the Florida Panhandle, ripping roofs off airplane hangars, tossing vehicles around a parking lot and leaving a fighter jet that had been on display flipped over on the ground.

The home to the nation’s 325th Fighter Wing “took a beating,” Col. Brian Laidlaw said in a letter posted Thursday night to the 3,600 men and women stationed at the base located 12 miles (19 kilometers) east of Panama City. The Air Force evacuated the base in advance of the storm’s arrival Wednesday afternoon.

“I will not recall you and your families until we can guarantee your safety. At this time I can’t tell you how long that will take, but I’m on it,” Laidlaw wrote. “We need to restore basic utilities, clear our roads of trees and power lines, and assess the structural integrity of our buildings. I know that you are eager to return. I ask you to be patient and try to focus on taking care of your families and each other.”

The evacuations were ordered Monday and everyone except the “ride-out” team left the base by Tuesday afternoon. Michael was a strong Category 4 hurricane as it lashed the base, which is between Panama City and Mexico Beach.

On Thursday, Air Force officials conducted the first aerial assessment of the base and found extensive damage. A report posted on the base website said the flight line is devastated and every building on the base suffered severe damage, with many considered a complete loss. In addition, the Tyndall marina, the drone runway and Tyndall Elementary School sustained severe damage.

A number of aircraft were left in the hangars due to safety or maintenance reasons and all of the hangars are damaged, said Ann Stefanek, a spokeswoman for the Air Force. “We anticipate the aircraft parked inside may be damaged as well, but we won’t know the extent until our crews can safely enter those hangars and make an assessment.”

She said “the Air Force remains capable of executing its combat mission across the world with aircraft from other bases, as well as those that were evacuated from Tyndall in advance of the hurricane.”

Florida’s two U.S. senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio, said in a letter Friday to top Air Force officials they want detailed assessments of the money and other support needed to repair the base, restore operations and assist base personnel.

“We are committed to its full recovery and we look forward to working with you to achieve that goal,” the letter said.

Meanwhile, Air Force Special Tactics Airmen with the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron have returned to controlling air traffic at Tyndall, according to a news release from the Air Force. They received the first airplane at 7:06 p.m. Thursday. Officials say the opened runway will help allow aircraft with supplies and food to land for distribution in the Florida Panhandle.

Laidlaw said power and basic utilities have not been restored to the base. In the letter to staff, Laidlaw said crews will need time to clear trees from roads and repair power lines before anyone returns.

Evacuees who took base transportation to Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, were restricted to one large luggage piece per family and one carry on per person. They were asked to make sure they had 72 hours’ worth of items.

Images trickle out of Hurricane Michael’s vast devastation

The urgency of hurricane coverage with its colorful satellite maps and reporters standing in the wind is a television staple, but devastation in Hurricane Michael’s wake was so severe that it made images of some of the hardest-hit areas in Florida trickle out Thursday as slowly as if from a distant, third-world nation.

Broadcast news organizations faced a challenge in getting reporters to Mexico Beach, 40 miles east of the more populated Panama City, where wind and storm surge left behind a moonscape of damage. Roads were impassable and some reporters had been pulled out of the town in advance of the storm because of safety fears.

“We knew that was a bad place and our mission was to try to get there today,” said Michael Bass, CNN’s executive vice president of programming. A source’s cell phone footage of water rushing through the town, picking up houses and cars along the way, and an official’s anguished cell phone call on Wednesday gave hints about the damage.

Thursday’s coverage illustrated that there are still limits to technology and reportorial ingenuity in the face of a massive disaster. For several hours, television viewers following the story had the ominous sense that something was missing. Cable networks filled time with other stories, but even the sight of Kanye West meeting in the Oval Office with President Donald Trump seemed like a distraction.

By arranging a helicopter ride, CNN’s Brooke Baldwin broke through. The network aired aerial shots of the town and, shortly before noon, Baldwin landed to deliver reports. “When I tell you that all of Mexico Beach has been leveled, this is the truth,” Baldwin said, standing before a mound of debris.

With cell phone towers blown down, CNN had to use a satellite transmitter to get pictures out. It made for some blotchy pictures and malfunctions, and at one point she said she had to stand in one place to make sure the signal wasn’t lost.

CNN was also trying to get a reporter to Mexico Beach by boat. Another CNN reporter, Brian Todd, made it in by ground by Thursday afternoon.

“These are very brave people that we send out to do these things,” Bass said. “There’s a lot of danger to this area.”

Baldwin’s helicopter arrival made CNN’s rivals look flat-footed for a few hours. In one report MSNBC’s Kerry Sanders, standing in Panama City, pointed above him to a helicopter flying to more damaged areas.

“Mexico Beach is going to be the place that a lot of people talk about,” Sanders said.

ABC News’ Ginger Zee, who was in Mexico Beach during the storm on Wednesday, transmitted pictures and video of water rushing under the condominium building where she was staying. She stepped on a balcony a few hours later to show the aftermath. “It’s really wild to see,” she said.

The Weather Channel’s Stephanie Abrams was stationed 10 miles from Mexico Beach before the storm but reported that with what she was seeing on the satellite images, she didn’t think the house she was in would withstand the wind, said Nora Zimmet, the network’s programming chief. Abrams was told to get out of town. With a police escort, she tried beginning at 3 a.m. to get to Mexico Beach, but had to turn back. She finally made it later in the day.

“I applaud all of our media brethren for going out in the field and covering this,” Zimmet said. “No story is worth risking your life. We take calculated risks.”

Fox News Channel’s Mike Tobin similarly struck out before dawn for Mexico Beach from the Pensacola area and made it by 9 a.m. The lack of cell service meant he had to leave town to transmit reports, he said.

“It was a little hairy,” he said in an interview. “The biggest obstacle was all the power lines.”

NBC News’ Mariana Atencio filed a report on Instagram when she made it to Mexico Beach, describing what she had seen on the road in as like a war zone.

“There are chunks of the road which are completely gone,” she said. “Boats, cars, pancaked on top of houses.”

Drones proved to be the secret weapon of networks that could get them in place. They provided striking aerial footage of damage, in some cases sweeping inside damaged buildings. On his newscast, Fox’s Shepard Smith used a drone’s sweep over a canal in Mexico Beach and compared it to an earlier satellite image of the same area to show how many homes used to be there but no longer were. He described the pictures as “mind-altering.”

Fox’s Tobin said he’s seen more powerful and larger hurricanes, but none that combined the two traits like Michael. “I haven’t seen one with such miles and miles and miles of destruction as this one,” he said.

“You don’t want to lose track that so many lives have just been shattered,” he said.

Donald Trump campaigns in Pennsylvania as hurricane pounds Florida

As Hurricane Michael pounded Florida on Wednesday, President Donald Trump took shelter at a campaign event in Pennsylvania, where he sought to boost Republicans before the midterms.

Trump acknowledged the hurricane at the top of his rally in Erie, offering his “thoughts and prayers” to those in the storm’s path and promising to “spare no effort” in the response. He promised to travel to Florida “very shortly.”

He added: “We will always pull through. … We will always be successful at what we do.”

Then Trump turned back to politics. With weeks to go before the critical November elections, Trump and his fellow Republicans are engaged in an all-out midterms blitz. They have been invigorated by the successful nomination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and are seeking to use the contentious moment to unify the GOP and stave off Democratic energy at the polls.

That Trump kept his appointment in Erie underscored the importance of this effort to Republicans. Earlier in the day, Trump received a hurricane briefing at the White House on the Category 4 storm. He told reporters he faced a “quagmire” about whether to attend the Pennsylvania rally because “thousands of people” were already lined up for the event.

He ultimately decided to attend, a move he criticized President Barack Obama for six years ago after Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast.

“Yesterday Obama campaigned with JayZ & Springsteen while Hurricane Sandy victims across NY & NJ are still decimated by Sandy. Wrong!” Trump tweeted on Nov. 6, 2012.

On Wednesday, Trump touted two Republican congressmen, Mike Kelly and Lou Barletta. Kelly is facing a challenge from Democrat Ron DiNicola, while Barletta is mounting an uphill campaign to unseat two-term Democratic Sen. Bob Casey. The president, who attended a fundraiser before the rally, also praised GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner.

Trump also celebrated Kavanaugh’s appointment amid Democratic opposition and sexual misconduct allegations against the nominee. Trump called it a “historic week,” saying, “What the radical Democrats did to Brett Kavanaugh and his beautiful family is a national disgrace.”

For weeks, Trump has been escalating his attacks on Democrats. He continued that effort Wednesday, claiming that Democrats want to “impose socialism and take over and destroy American health care.” He added: “Democrats want to abolish America’s borders and allow drugs and gangs to pour into our country.”

Trump also returned to one of his favorite themes — reliving his stunning 2016 victory.

“Was that the most exciting evening?” he said to cheers.

Trump also ticked through what he sees as his top achievements, including tax cuts and a new trade deal with Canada and Mexico. He talked about exiting the Iran nuclear deal and drew wild applause for mentioning his plans for a Space Force.

Trump attacked Casey for opposing Kavanaugh’s nomination, saying he had “joined the left-wing mob.” He also accused Casey, named for his politician father, for “banking on the name of his father.” Trump’s own father, Fred, was a successful real estate developer who set his son up in business. The New York Times recently reported that Donald Trump received at least $413 million from his father over the decades, much of that through dubious tax dodges, including outright fraud.

Earlier Wednesday, Trump published an op-ed in USA Today that attacked Democrats over “Medicare for All” health care proposals. In his op-ed, Trump said Democrats have moved away from centrism, claiming the “new Democrats are radical socialists who want to model America’s economy after Venezuela.”

He added: “Government-run health care is just the beginning. Democrats are also pushing massive government control of education, private-sector businesses and other major sectors of the U.S. economy.”

Trump’s attack on Medicare for All omits any mention of improved benefits for seniors that Democrats promise.

Medicare for All means different things to different Democrats. The plan pushed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who challenged Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, would expand Medicare to cover almost everyone in the country, and current Medicare recipients would get improved benefits. Other Democratic plans would allow people to buy into a new government system modeled on Medicare, moving toward the goal of coverage for all while leaving private insurance in place.

Democrats, who think health care is a winning issue going into the midterms, also sought to focus voter attention Wednesday. In the Senate, Democrats unsuccessfully sought to scuttle Trump’s push for short-term health insurance plans, which are less expensive but provide skimpier coverage. While the vote failed, Democrats think the move will help them in November.

‘Catching some hell’: Hurricane Michael slams into Florida

Supercharged by abnormally warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle with terrifying winds of 155 mph Wednesday, splintering homes and submerging neighborhoods. It was the most powerful hurricane to hit the continental U.S. in nearly 50 years.

Its winds shrieking, Michael crashed ashore in the early afternoon near Mexico Beach, a tourist town about midway along the Panhandle, a lightly populated, 200-mile stretch of white-sand beach resorts, fishing towns and military bases.

It battered the coastline with sideways rain, powerful gusts and crashing waves. It swamped streets and docks, flattened trees, stripped away limbs and leaves, knocked out power to more than 190,000 homes and businesses, shredded awnings and sent shingles flying. Explosions apparently caused by blown transformers could be heard.

“We are catching some hell,” said Timothy Thomas, who rode out the storm with his wife in their second-floor apartment in Panama City Beach. He said he could see broken street signs and a 90-foot pine bent at a 45-degree angle.

With the hurricane still pounding the state hours after it came ashore, and conditions too dangerous in places for search-and-rescue teams to go out, there were no immediate reports of any deaths or serious injuries.

Michael was a meteorological brute that sprang quickly from a weekend tropical depression, becoming a fearsome Category 4 by early Wednesday, up from a Category 2 less than a day earlier. It was the most powerful hurricane on record to hit the Panhandle.

“I’ve had to take antacids I’m so sick to my stomach today because of this impending catastrophe,” National Hurricane Center scientist Eric Blake tweeted as the storm — drawing energy from the unusually warm, 84-degree Gulf waters — became more menacing.

More than 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast were urged to evacuate as Michael closed in. But the fast-moving, fast-strengthening storm didn’t give people much time to prepare, and emergency authorities lamented that many ignored the warnings and seemed to think they could ride it out.

“While it might be their constitutional right to be an idiot, it’s not their right to endanger everyone else!” Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson tweeted.

Diane Farris, 57, and her son walked to a high school-turned-shelter near their home in Panama City to find about 1,100 people crammed into a space meant for about half as many. Neither she nor her son had any way to communicate because their lone cellphone got wet and quit working.

“I’m worried about my daughter and grandbaby. I don’t know where they are. You know, that’s hard,” she said, choking back tears.

Hurricane-force winds extended up to 45 miles (75 kilometers) from Michael’s center. Forecasters said rainfall could reach up to a foot (30 centimeters), and the life-threatening storm surge could swell to 14 feet.

A water-level station in Apalachicola, close to where Michael came ashore, reported a surge of nearly 8 feet.

Based on its internal barometric pressure, Michael was the third most powerful hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland, behind the unnamed Labor Day storm of 1935 and Camille in 1969. Based on wind speed, it was the fourth-strongest, behind the Labor Day storm (184 mph, or 296 kph), Camille and Andrew in 1992.

It appeared to be so powerful that it was expected to remain a hurricane as it moved into Alabama and Georgia early Thursday. Forecasters said it will unleash damaging wind and rain all the way into the Carolinas, which are still recovering from Hurricane Florence’s epic flooding.

At the White House, President Donald Trump said the government is “absolutely ready for the storm.” ″God bless everyone because it’s going to be a rough one,” he said. “A very dangerous one.”

In Mexico Beach, population 1,000, the storm shattered homes, leaving floating piles of lumber. The lead-gray water was so high that roofs were about all that could be seen of many homes.

In Panama City, plywood and metal flew off the front of a Holiday Inn Express. Part of the awning fell and shattered the glass front door of the hotel, and the rest of the awning wound up on vehicles parked below it.

“Oh my God, what are we seeing?” said evacuee Rachel Franklin, her mouth hanging open.

The hotel swimming pool had whitecaps, and people’s ears popped because of the drop in barometric pressure. The roar from the hurricane sounded like an airplane taking off.

Meteorologists watched satellite imagery in complete awe as the storm intensified.

“We are in new territory,” National Hurricane Center Meteorologist Dennis Feltgen wrote on Facebook. “The historical record, going back to 1851, finds no Category 4 hurricane ever hitting the Florida Panhandle.”

Colorado State University hurricane expert Phil Klotzbach said in an email: “I really fear for what things are going to look like there tomorrow at this time.”

The storm is likely to fire up the debate over global warming.

Scientists say global warming is responsible for more intense and more frequent extreme weather, such as storms, droughts, floods and fires. But without extensive study, they cannot directly link a single weather event to the changing climate.

With Election Day less than a month away, the crisis was seen as a test of leadership for Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican running for the Senate, and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee for governor. Just as Northern politicians are judged on how they handle snowstorms, their Southern counterparts are watched closely for how they deal with hurricanes.

Thousands of evacuees sought shelter in Tallahassee, which is about 25 miles from the coast but is covered by live oak and pine trees that can fall and cause power outages even in smaller storms.

 Scott says the impact of Hurricane Michael will be the worst storm to hit the Panhandle in a century.

As winds started to topple trees in Tallahassee, one of them landed on Joe Marino’s chimney.

“It was like an earthquake. The bookshelf shook and a frame fell down,” he said. “It was weird. We went outside and you could smell the pine, and there it was, laying on the chimney.”

Marino, who lives with his girlfriend and her grandmother, said water started dripping through the chimney, and they feared the wind would send the tree crashing through the roof. They planned to stay on the first floor.

“Upstairs is a no-go zone,” he said.

Only a skeleton staff remained at Tyndall Air Force Base, situated on a peninsula just south of Panama City. Hundreds of military families were moved out, and the base’s aircraft, which include F-22 Raptors, were flown to safety hundreds of miles away.

In St. Marks, John Hargan and his family gathered up their pets and moved to a raised building constructed to withstand a Category 5 after water from the St. Marks River began surrounding their home.

Hargan’s 11-year-old son, Jayden, carried one of the family’s dogs in a laundry basket in one arm and held a skateboard in the other as he waded through calf-high water.

Hargan, a bartender at a riverfront restaurant, feared he would lose his home and his job to the storm.

“We basically just walked away from everything and said goodbye to it,” he said, tears welling up. “I’m freakin’ scared I’m going to lose everything I own, man.”

For the latest on Hurricane Michael, visit apnews.com/tag/Hurricanes.

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Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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