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Associated Press

Even intrepid Keys residents ready to evacuate ahead of Irma

Residents of the Florida Keys are known for riding out hurricanes, but with Irma’s potentially catastrophic wind and rain set to crash through the low-lying island chain this weekend, not many seem willing to risk it this time.

Throughout Florida, officials and residents are making preparations, but forecasts indicate the Keys could take the country’s first blow from the Category 5 storm, which was packing 185 mph (295 kph) winds early Wednesday as it crossed Barbuda. From Key Largo south to Key West, residents and officials said Irma is a storm that needs to be fled.

Keys officials expected to announce a mandatory evacuation Wednesday for visitors, with residents being told to leave the next day. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who plans to fly to the Keys on Wednesday, said a hospital in the island chain would have its patients evacuated by air.

“This is not one to fool around with,” said Cammy Clark, spokeswoman for Monroe County, which contains the Keys.

Janet Roberts, 51, was getting ready Tuesday to leave her mobile home community on Key Largo for her daughter’s house 30 miles away in Florida City, which is the first city north of the Keys on the mainland.

“She lives in a complex and has hurricane shutters. At least we stand half the chance,” she said.

She remembered how much damage Hurricane Andrew caused when its eye passed just north of Florida City in August 1992.

“We didn’t hit the eye, and I had nothing left,” Roberts said. “This has Andrew beat. This is really bad – really, really, really bad.”

Throughout South Florida, officials readied evacuation orders and people raided store shelves, buying up water and other hurricane supplies. Long lines formed at gas stations and people pulled shutters out of storage and put up plywood to protect their homes and businesses.

Parker Eastin filled up his gas tank at a busy fuel station. He and his girlfriend said they decided to plan well in advance after seeing what Hurricane Harvey did to Texas.

“We ordered water off Amazon because the stores were out and also ordered food,” said Eastin, a 43-year-old lawyer who has lived in Florida for 12 years. “Seeing the devastation in Texas is a sad reminder that you have to take the events very seriously.”

The last major storm to hit Florida was 2005’s Wilma, its eye cutting through the state’s southern third as it packed winds of 120 mph (193 kph). Five people died.

Scott declared a state of emergency in all 67 counties to give local governments “ample time, resources and flexibility” to prepare for the storm. President Donald Trump also approved a federal emergency declaration for the state ahead of the storm, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Scott warned that although officials don’t know the storm’s exact path, winds are likely to be “extreme and life-threatening” and impacts could be felt inland, away from the coast. He said Floridians need to follow any evacuation orders.

“This storm has the potential to devastate this state, and you have to take this seriously,” Scott said Tuesday from the state’s emergency operations center in Tallahassee, the state capital. “Remember: We can rebuild your home; we cannot rebuild your life.”

Under a mandatory evacuation order, no one is forced by police or other government agencies to leave, but people who stay should not expect to be rescued if they are in danger, officials said.

The threat of the storm has put much of the state on edge. School districts along the east coast and in South Florida canceled classes for later this week, as did universities and colleges in Miami-Dade. The governor also shut down all state offices starting Friday and urged state workers to volunteer at shelters that are expected to open.

But Scott conceded that Irma’s uncertain path was making it difficult for officials to tell Floridians exactly where they should go. Some models have it slashing up the east coast, while other models have it cutting northward through the middle of the peninsula.

Science says: Sorting the ‘spaghetti’ of hurricane scenarios

Hurricane Irma, with its record strong winds, is lashing the Caribbean but where will it go from there?

Forecasters turn to computer simulations to try to predict a storm’s path and how strong it will be.

Different computer models — often run by different governments and various agencies — use different recipes or formulas to mimic the atmosphere. They all also approximate current conditions differently.

So the resulting models look like a plate of spaghetti thrown on a map. But in that messy mass, meteorologists can get an increasingly strong idea of where a storm like Irma is heading.

A look at how those predictions are made:

WHO TO TRUST

The place to start is the National Hurricane Center’s official forecast, say several meteorologists who are not part of the federal government. “You can’t beat the hurricane center forecast,” said Miami television meteorologist Max Mayfield, who was the director of the hurricane center from 2000 to 2007.

The hurricane center sees computer models other people don’t, judges individual models and uses a consensus of the better performing models, he said. The center also shows how well they do over time — and they are doing better. The trouble, say those experts, is that those same images of models are spreading over social media and they are getting misread. There are even bogus hurricane tracks spreading on social media.

HOW GOOD ARE THE PREDICTIONS

Forecasters track the beginnings of storms, whether they come out of unstable weather that pops up in the Gulf of Mexico, or chug off Africa in classic Atlantic storm mode like Irma. The models usually agree about where the storm will go for the next 12 to 24 hours and the spread out with time.

Today, the five-day forecast is as good as the three-day forecast was 15 years ago. And the margin of error for the five-day track forecast is nearly half of what it was when it was first introduced in 2001. What’s key is that meteorologists don’t stick to a single line or track because a slight change can mean a big difference, Mayfield said. For example, a tiny turn over Cuba, where mountains can eat up storms, can weaken Irma considerably.

WHAT GOES INTO A MODEL

Computer models are like massive apps that try to solve complex equations that simulate the behavior of the atmosphere and oceans, said MIT meteorology professor Kerry Emanuel. Usually, they don’t go much farther out in time than five days, and if they do, it’s with decreasing accuracy. They use real-time readings of wind, temperature, air pressure, humidity and more. But those real-time readings are sparse and spread out over the open Atlantic.

Sometimes the models point to the same general conclusion, like Superstorm Sandy hitting the New York-New Jersey area. The models did well about five days out in 2012, said Emanuel. Sometimes they are all over the place. This time they are in between, not widespread but not clustered, he said.

THE BETTER MODELS

The top performing model is usually the European model, which is slightly ahead in long-term accuracy over the American one, Emanuel said. But that doesn’t mean the European will be better every time, he said.

“Good forecasters look at the whole suite” of models, Emanuel said.

And sometimes one model is just nailing a certain storm so you stay with the hot model.

Forecasters also run so-called ensembles with as many as 51 tweaks to the data and formulas. They are lower resolution and quality but provide more information and possibilities for forecasters.

WHAT SHOULD YOU LOOK FOR

“The best guide for risk is to look at the cone” of projected landfall, often called the “cone of uncertainty,” said Jeff Masters, meteorology director at the private forecasting service Weather Underground. If you are in the cone, you should be concerned and prepared, he said. Even if you aren’t in the cone but nearby, you need to pay attention.

The trouble is with the spaghetti of models, people focus too intently on one line, Masters said. The hurricane center cone only goes out five days — and people want to know if they are in danger earlier, Masters said. So that’s when they turn to the longer range models even if it is beyond that cone.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Trump expected to end program for young immigrants

President Donald Trump is expected to announce that he will end protections for young immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children, but with a six-month delay, people familiar with the plans said.

The delay in the formal dismantling of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA program, would be intended to give Congress time to decide whether it wants to address the status of the so-called Dreamers legislation, according to two people familiar with the president’s thinking. But it was not immediately clear how the six-month delay would work in practice and what would happen to people who currently have work permits under the program, or whose permits expire during the six-month stretch.

It also was unclear exactly what would happen if Congress failed to pass a measure by the considered deadline, they said. The two spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter ahead of a planned Tuesday announcement.

The president, who has been grappling with the issue for months, has been known to change his mind in the past and could still shift course. The plan was first reported by Politico Sunday evening.

Trump has been wrestling for months with what to do with the Obama-era DACA program, which has given nearly 800,000 young immigrants a reprieve from deportation and the ability to work legally in the form of two-year, renewable work permits.

The expected move would come as the White House faces a Tuesday deadline set by Republican state officials threatening to sue the Trump administration if the president did not end the program. It also would come as Trump digs in on appeals to his base as he finds himself increasingly under fire, with his poll numbers at near-record lows.

Trump had been personally torn as late as last week over how to deal with what are undoubtedly the most sympathetic immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. Many came to the U.S. as young children and have no memories of the countries they were born in.

During his campaign, Trump slammed DACA as illegal “amnesty” and vowed to eliminate the program the day he took office. But since his election, Trump has wavered on the issue, at one point telling The Associated Press that those covered could “rest easy.”

Trump had been unusually candid as he wrestled with the decision in the early months of his administration. During a February press conference, he said the topic was “a very, very difficult subject for me, I will tell you. To me, it’s one of the most difficult subjects I have.”

“You have some absolutely incredible kids — I would say mostly,” he said, adding: “I love these kids.”

All the while, his administration continued to process applications and renew DACA work permits, to the dismay of immigration hard-liners.

News of the president’s expected decision drew strong reactions from advocates on both sides of the issue.

“IF REPORTS ARE TRUE, Pres Trump better prepare for the civil rights fight of his admin. A clean DREAM Act is now a Nat Emergency #DefendDACA,” tweeted New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat.

Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, tweeted: “After teasing #Dreamers for months with talk of his “great heart,” @POTUS slams door on them. Some ‘heart’…”

But Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican who has called DACA unconstitutional, warned that a delay in dismantling it would amount to “Republican suicide.”

“Ending DACA now gives chance 2 restore Rule of Law. Delaying so R Leadership can push Amnesty is Republican suicide,” he wrote.

It would be up to members of Congress to pass a measure to protect those who have been covered under the program. While there is considerable support for that among Democrats and moderate Republicans, Congress is already facing a packed fall agenda and has had a poor track record in recent years for passing immigration-related bills.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and a number of other legislators urged Trump last week to hold off on scrapping DACA to give them time to come up with a legislative fix.

“These are kids who know no other country, who are brought here by their parents and don’t know another home. And so I really do believe that there needs to be a legislative solution,” Ryan told Wisconsin radio station WCLO.

The Obama administration created the DACA program in 2012 as a stopgap to protect some young immigrants from deportation as they pushed unsuccessfully for a broader immigration overhaul in Congress.

The program protected people in the country illegally who could prove they arrived before they were 16, had been in the United States for several years and had not committed a crime while being here. It mimicked versions of the so-called DREAM Act, which would have provided legal status for young immigrants but was never passed by Congress.

As of July 31, 2015, more than 790,000 young immigrants had been approved under the program, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The House under Democratic control passed a Dream Act in 2010 but it died in the Senate. Since Republicans retook control of the House in late 2010, it has taken an increasingly hard line on immigration. House Republicans refused to act on the Senate’s comprehensive immigration bill in 2013. Two years later, a GOP border security bill languished because of objections from conservatives.

Many House Republicans represent highly conservative districts. The primary upset of the former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to a conservative challenger in 2014 in a campaign that cast him as soft on illegal immigration convinced many House Republicans that pro-immigrant stances could cost them politically.

So despite Ryan’s personal commitment on the issue and his comments in favor of the young immigrants, action to protect them may be unlikely in the House — absent intense lobbying from Trump.

Arrest in crash that killed congressional candidate, family

The Florida Highway Patrol has arrested a 31-year-old man on DUI manslaughter charges stemming from a crash that killed a former congressional candidate and his family seven months ago.

In a news release, the highway patrol said Travis Lee Johnson of Ocala was arrested Sunday.

Troopers say 61-year-old William McCullough, his 56-year-old wife Renne and their 31-year-old son Ryan died Jan. 22 when Johnson crashed his tow truck into their SUV.

An accident report says Johnson hit two mailboxes before hitting the SUV head-on. The McCulloughs died at the scene. Johnson was severely injured.

The report says Johnson was under the influence of drugs.

Jail records don’t list a lawyer for him.

McCullough ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat in 2016 for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

University of Florida: White nationalists are not permanently barred

University of Florida says it is not permanently barring a group headed by white nationalist Richard Spencer from speaking at its campus.

The top attorney for UF made the statement in a letter she sent Friday to a Gainesville attorney representing the National Policy Institute and Spencer. Amy Haas said the university will try to accommodate Spencer if he makes a new formal request for a speaking date.

The university last month denied the group’s request to hold an event on Sept. 12, citing recent violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. UF President W. Kent Fuchs said the First Amendment doesn’t require risking imminent violence to students.

Attorney Gary Edinger this week asked the university to reconsider its decision in order to avoid a federal lawsuit.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Rick Scott: No more bonuses for employees at econ. development agencies

Gov. Rick Scott says that the state’s two economic development organizations should stop paying bonuses to its employees.

Scott on Thursday put that idea in a letter he sent to the boards that oversee Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida. Visit Florida promotes the state to tourists, while Enterprise Florida is responsible for trying to lure companies to the state.

Both agencies receive millions from taxpayers but have used private donations to pay bonuses. Both organizations have come under fire in the past year for spending.

The Associated Press reported earlier this month that Visit Florida paid nearly $441,000 in employee bonuses this summer. The bonuses were first approved by the agency board in May 2016 but were not paid out until July.

Enterprise Florida paid out bonuses last year but has not approved any for 2017

Grand jury hears from lobbyist in Trump Tower chat

A grand jury used by Special Counsel Robert Mueller has heard secret testimony from a Russian-American lobbyist who attended a June 2016 meeting with President Donald Trump’s eldest son, The Associated Press has learned.

A person familiar with the matter confirmed to the AP that Rinat Akhmetshin had appeared before Mueller’s grand jury in recent weeks. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the secret proceedings.

The revelation is the clearest indication yet that Mueller and his team of investigators view the meeting, which came weeks after Trump had secured the Republican presidential nomination, as a relevant inquiry point in their broader probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The meeting included Donald Trump Jr.; the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner; and his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. Emails released by Trump Jr. show he took the meeting expecting that he would be receiving damaging information about Hillary Clinton as part of what was described to him as a Russian government effort to aid the Trump campaign.

The Financial Times first reported Akhmetshin’s grand jury appearance. Reached by the AP, Akhmetshin declined comment. Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller, also declined comment Wednesday night.

The confirmation of Akhmetshin’s grand jury testimony comes after he spoke at length about his involvement in the Trump Tower meeting in an interview with the AP last month.

Akhmetshin, a former Soviet military officer who served in a counterintelligence unit, is also a well-known Washington lobbyist. He has been representing Russian interests trying to undermine the story of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison and is the namesake of a U.S. sanctions law.

Akhmetshin has been reported to have ties to Russian intelligence but he has denied that, calling the allegations a “smear campaign.”

Mueller and his team first signaled their interest in the Trump Tower gathering last month by contacting an attorney for at least some of the Russians who attended.

The meeting at issue was disclosed earlier this year to Congress and first revealed by The New York Times.

Trump Jr. has offered evolving explanations for the circumstances of the meeting, initially saying that the purpose was to discuss adoption and later acknowledging that he anticipated receiving information that he thought could be damaging to Clinton.

In addition to Akhmetshin, other attendees at the meeting included Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, music publicist Rob Goldstone — who helped arrange the gathering — and a translator. Ike Kaveladze, who also goes by the name Irakly Kaveladze, also attended the meeting. Kaveladze works for a Russian developer who partnered with Trump on the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow.

An email exchange posted to Twitter by Trump Jr. showed him conversing with Goldstone, who wanted him to meet with someone he described as a “Russian government attorney,” who supposedly had dirt on Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

“If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer,” Trump Jr. wrote in one email response.

Another contact between Trump associates and Russia was revealed this week when Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, acknowledged that the Trump Organization was pursuing a Trump Tower real estate complex in Moscow in 2015. Cohen said he had reached out to a press secretary for Russian President Vladimir Putin about approvals.

In a letter this month to the House intelligence committee, Stephen Ryan, a lawyer for Cohen, dismissed as “false” and “wholly unsubstantiated” claims about Cohen included in a dossier of salacious allegations about the president’s connections with Russia.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Private companies drive ‘new space race’ at NASA center

For the first time since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, NASA says it may soon have the capability to send astronauts to the International Space Station from U.S. soil.

Critical milestones are on the horizon for Boeing and SpaceX, the space agency’s commercial crew partners: Flight tests of their spacecraft, including crewed missions, are planned for 2018.

That’s launched something of a “new space race” at the Kennedy Space Center, officials said.

“We have invested a lot as a center, as a nation into Kennedy Space Center to ready us for that next 50 years of spaceflight and beyond,” said Tom Engler, the center’s director of planning and development. “You see the dividends of that now, these commercial companies buying into what we’re doing.”

The public-private partnership is transforming Kennedy Space Center into a multiuser spaceport. NASA is developing the Space Launch System and the Orion spacecraft for missions to deep space, including to Mars, leaving private companies to send people to low Earth orbit.

Boeing is building the CST-100 Starliner, a spacecraft that will send astronauts to the space station, in a hangar once used to prepare space shuttles for flight. Three Starliners are in production, including one that will fly astronauts next year.

“If Mars is the pinnacle of Mount Everest, low Earth orbit is base camp. The commercial companies are the sherpas that haul things there,” said Chris Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut and director of crew and mission operations at Boeing. “It opens up a whole new world of business.”

SpaceX, which flies cargo missions to the space station with its Dragon spacecraft, has modified an old shuttle launch pad for its Falcon 9 rockets, which the company has successfully reused. It plans to use Dragon 2, a new version of the spacecraft, to send astronauts to the space station.

Blue Origin, founded by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, is building a rocket factory; it also plans to launch its rockets from Cape Canaveral.

Boeing and United Launch Alliance built a crew access tower so astronauts can board the Starliner. The Atlas V, one of the world’s most reliable rockets, will launch the spacecraft and its astronauts.

“This is really the Apollo era for the next generation,” said Shannon Coggin, a production integration specialist at United Launch Alliance. “This is inspiring this next generation to fall in love with space again, to really test their boundaries and us paving their way for the future of commercial space exploration.”

To meet NASA’s requirements, Boeing and SpaceX must demonstrate their systems are ready to begin regular flights to the space station. SpaceX’s first flight test is scheduled for February. Boeing’s is scheduled for June.

More on NASA’s commercial crew program: http://www.nasa.gov/exploration/commercial/crew/index.html

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

3rd Florida Highway Patrol official suspended as probe ends

The Florida Highway Patrol is suspending a top official for three days as part of its review into whether troopers were ordered to meet traffic ticket quotas.

Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles spokeswoman Beth Frady said Wednesday that the department has now completed its investigation and that no more moves are expected.

Chief Mark Brown will be suspended for three days from his job. Two other high-ranking officials this month resigned in the wake of the probe that was sparked by a newspaper reporting on an internal email that said troopers weren’t writing enough tickets.

Frady says that the department has reviewed correspondence from command staff as part of its review. The department is going to do annual training to remind troopers that quotas aren’t allowed.

Donald Trump order undermines rebuilding better for future floods

Two weeks before Harvey’s floodwaters engulfed much of Houston, President Donald Trump quietly rolled back an order by his predecessor that would have made it easier for storm-ravaged communities to use federal emergency aid to rebuild bridges, roads and other structures so they can better withstand future disasters.

Now, with much of the nation’s fourth-largest city underwater, Trump’s move has new resonance. Critics note the president’s order could force Houston and other cities to rebuild hospitals and highways in the same way and in the same flood-prone areas.

“Rebuilding while ignoring future flood events is like treating someone for lung cancer and then giving him a carton of cigarettes on the way out the door,” said Michael Gerrard, a professor of environmental and climate change law at Columbia University. “If you’re going to rebuild after a bad event, you don’t want to expose yourself to the same thing all over again.”

Trump’s action is one of several ways the president, who has called climate change a hoax, has tried to wipe away former President Barack Obama’s efforts to make the United States more resilient to threats posed by the changing climate.

President Donald Trump says “all of America” is grieving with those who lost loved ones because of Hurricane Harvey. And he told victims of the storm, the nation will be with them. (Aug. 30)

The order Trump revoked would have permitted the rebuilding to take into account climate scientists’ predictions of stronger storms and more frequent flooding.

Bridges and highways, for example, could be rebuilt higher, or with better drainage. The foundation of a new fire station or hospital might be elevated an extra 3 feet.

While scientists caution against blaming specific weather events like Harvey on climate change, warmer air and warmer water linked to global warming have long been projected to make such storms wetter and more intense. Houston, for example, has experienced three floods in three years that statistically were once considered 1-in-500-year events.

The government was still in the process of implementing Obama’s 2015 order when it was rescinded. That means the old standard — rebuilding storm-ravaged facilities in the same way they had been built before — is still in place.

Trump revoked Obama’s order as part of an executive order of his own that he touted at an Aug. 15 news conference at Trump Tower. That news conference was supposed to focus on infrastructure, but it was dominated by Trump’s comments on the previous weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Trump didn’t specifically mention the revocation, but he said he was making the federal permitting process for the construction of transportation and other infrastructure projects faster and more cost-efficient without harming the environment.

“It’s going to be quick, it’s going to be a very streamlined process,” Trump said.

Asked about the revocation, the White House said in a statement that Obama’s order didn’t consider potential impacts on the economy and was “applied broadly to the whole country, leaving little room or flexibility for designers to exercise professional judgment or incorporate the particular context” of a project’s location.

Obama’s now-defunct order also revamped Federal Flood Risk Management Standards, calling for tighter restrictions on new construction in flood-prone areas. Republicans, including Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, opposed the measure, saying it would impede land development and economic growth.

Revoking that order was only the latest step by Trump to undo Obama’s actions on climate change.

In March, Trump rescinded a 2013 order that directed federal agencies to encourage states and local communities to build new infrastructure and facilities “smarter and stronger” in anticipation of more frequent extreme weather.

Trump revoked a 2015 Obama memo directing agencies developing national security policies to consider the potential impact of climate change.

The president also disbanded two advisory groups created by Obama: the interagency Council on Climate Preparedness and Resilience and the State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience.

Obama’s 2015 order was prompted in part by concerns raised by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper after severe flooding in his state two years earlier. Hickenlooper was dismayed to learn that federal disaster aid rules were preventing state officials from rebuilding “better and smarter than what we had built before.”

The “requirements essentially said you had to build it back exactly the way it was, that you couldn’t take into consideration improvements in resiliency,” Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said Tuesday. “We want to be more prepared for the next event, not less prepared.”

Bud Wright, the Federal Highway Administration’s executive director during George W. Bush’s administration, said this has long been a concern of federal officials.

He recalled a South Dakota road that was “almost perpetually flooded” but was repeatedly rebuilt to the same standard using federal aid because the state didn’t have the extra money to pay for enhancements.

“It seemed a little ridiculous that we kept doing that,” said Wright, now the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ executive director.

But Kirk Steudle, director of Michigan’s Department of Transportation, said states can build more resilient infrastructure than what they had before a disaster by using state or non-emergency federal funds to make up the cost difference.

“That makes sense, otherwise FEMA would be the big checkbook,” he said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Everybody would be hoping for some disaster so FEMA could come in and build them a brand-new road to the 2020 standard instead of the 1970 standard.”

Even though Obama’s order has been revoked, federal officials have some wiggle room that might allow them to rebuild to higher standards, said Jessica Grannis, who manages the adaptation program at the Georgetown Climate Center.

If local building codes in place before the storm call for new construction to be more resilient to flooding, then federal money can still be used to pay the additional costs.

For example, in Houston regulations require structures to be rebuilt 1 foot (30 centimeters) above the level designated for a 1-in-100-year storm. And in the wake of prior disasters, FEMA has moved to remap floodplains, setting the line for the 1-in-100-year flood higher than it was before.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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