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Susan Smith-Harmon

Susan Smith-Harmon

Focus shifts to finding missing after Colorado floods

Wednesday, 18 September 2013 03:03 Published in National News

   LYONS, Colo. (AP) — As water recedes and flows east onto the Colorado plains — revealing toppled homes, buckled highways and fields of tangled debris — rescuers are shifting their focus from emergency airlifts to trying to find the hundreds of people still unaccounted for after last week's devastating flooding.

   Federal and state emergency officials, taking advantage of sunny skies, said more than 3,000 people have been evacuated by air and ground, but calls for those emergency rescues have decreased.

   "They've kind of transitioned from that initial response to going into more of a grid search," Colorado National Guard Lt. Skye Robinson said.

   In one of those searches Tuesday, Sgt. 1st Class Keith Bart and Staff Sgt. Jose Pantoja leaned out the window of a Blackhawk helicopter, giving the thumbs-up sign to people on the ground while flying outside of hard-hit Jamestown.

   Most waved back and continued shoveling debris. But then Bart spotted two women waving red scarves, and the helicopter descended.

   Pantoja attached his harness to the helicopter's winch and was lowered to the ground. He clipped the women in, and they laughed as they were hoisted into the Blackhawk.

   After dropping off the women at the Boulder airport, the Blackhawk was back in the air less than a minute later to resume the search.

   The state's latest count has dropped to about 580 people missing, and the number continues to decrease as the stranded get in touch with families.

   One of the missing is Gerald Boland, a retired math teacher and basketball coach who lives in the damaged town of Lyons. Boland's neighbors, all of whom defied a mandatory evacuation order, said Boland took his wife to safety Thursday then tried to return home.

   Two search teams went looking for him Monday.

   "He was very sensible. I find it amazing that he would do something that would put himself in harm's way," said neighbor Mike Lennard. "But you just never know under these circumstances."

   State officials reported six flood-related deaths, plus two women missing and presumed dead. The number was expected to increase. It could take weeks or even months to search through flooded areas looking for bodies.

   With the airlifts tapering, state and local transportation officials are tallying the washed-out roads, collapsed bridges and twisted railroad lines. The rebuilding effort will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take months, if not years.

   Initial assessments have begun trickling in, but many areas remain inaccessible and the continuing emergency prevents a thorough understanding of the devastation's scope.

   Northern Colorado's broad agricultural expanses are especially affected, with more than 400 lane-miles of state highway and more than 30 bridges destroyed or impassable.

   A Colorado Department of Transportation helicopter crew has been surveying damage, said department spokesman Ashley Mohr.

   County officials have started their own damage tallies: 654 miles of roads in Weld County bordering Wyoming, 150 miles of roads in the Boulder County roads foothills, along with hundreds of bridges, culverts and canals.

   Dale Miller, road and bridge director for Larimer County, said it could compare to the damage wrought by a 1976 flood that killed 144 people. It took two years to rebuild after that disaster.

   State officials have put initial estimates at more than 19,000 homes damaged or destroyed throughout the flooded areas.

   Under Missouri's new rating system, the St. Louis Public Schools will lose accreditation in two years if things don't improve.  And under the state's transfer rules, students who live in unaccredited districts can transfer to schools in better performing districts at the expense of their home district.  

   The potential transfer crisis losing accreditation could create prompted an unprecedented meeting Tuesday between the elected and appointed city school boards.  It's the first time the two school boards have considered joining forces.

   The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that the two groups spent two hours discussing one idea: asking the state to grant accreditation status to individual schools rather than entire districts.  

   Superintendent Kelvin Adams says under that system, almost half of the city's schools would still be unaccredited, but the rest -- 38 of the district's 71 schools -- would receive at least provisional accreditation.  

   Adams and others argue that means only students in the city's lowest-performing schools would be eligible to transfer and some might choose to go to better performing schools within the district.  After all, 20 schools in the city meet state accreditation standards, some with distinction. 

 

Sandy continues to damage Jersey shore with fire

Wednesday, 18 September 2013 01:16 Published in National News

   TOMS RIVER, N.J. (AP) — Superstorm Sandy still isn't done with the Jersey shore — investigators are blaming the storm for damaging electrical wiring that touched off last week's devastating boardwalk fire in Seaside Park and Seaside Heights.

   And they also said similar danger could be lurking elsewhere underneath other boardwalks, businesses or homes that were exposed to flood waters from the Oct. 29 storm.

   "I'm sure on every boardwalk everywhere (at the Jersey shore), there may be compromised wiring," said Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato. "We don't want to start a panic mode; we just want to be reasonable. If you're a property owner and you think your electrical work came in contact with water and sand, we strongly recommend you have it inspected."

   Gov. Chris Christie's administration decided the state will use Sandy-recovery money to pay for debris removal. He also pledged $15 million in Sandy money to help rebuild the burned businesses.

   Christie said Tuesday the state will let businesses affected by the fire postpone filing sales and use tax returns that were due this month until Oct. 21 to help them recover.

   The boardwalk fire began accidentally Thursday in aged wiring that had been compromised by salt water and sand during the Oct. 29 storm, federal and county investigators said at a news conference Tuesday. The wind-whipped blaze destroyed more than 50 businesses in the two towns.

   Seaside Heights Mayor William Akers, reached after the briefing, said there is no issue with potentially compromised wiring on the surviving sections of the boardwalk.

   "We did a total rebuild. All 16 blocks got all new wiring," he said.

   In Point Pleasant Beach, one of the approximately half-dozen Sandy-ravaged towns where businesses with electrical connections are located on the boardwalk, Mayor Vincent Barrella said streetlight wiring is all new in a section of the boardwalk that was rebuilt last winter.

   But he said about half the boardwalk, including sections in front of businesses, still needs to be redone this winter. After the prosecutor issued his warning, Barrella said he instructed borough officials to work with the local electric company and identify any wiring that might need to be replaced as part of the upcoming work.

   Flood-damaged wiring caused fires in several houses in Sandy-damaged communities once power was turned back on last November. Many homeowners had to replace their electrical wiring and main electrical boxes before moving back in.

   Investigators said last week's fire began in wiring that dated to the 1970s, and was located under a Kohr's frozen custard stand and the Biscayne Candies shop last Thursday afternoon.

   Jessica Gotthold, a senior special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said investigators located wires under the boardwalk that somehow came in contact with each other, causing an electrical arc that is believed to have started the fire. Coronato said those wires had been exposed to the storm surge and grating sand action of the storm, which compromised them.

   But as far as why the wires contacted each other, he said, "we will never know."

   The prosecutor said the investigation ruled out all other possible causes of the fire, including careless smoking or a deliberate act of arson. The wiring was inaccessible to the public, he noted.

   Authorities even pulled financial records of the businesses involved in the blaze to make sure no one had a financial motive to start a fire.

   "We left no stone unturned," he said. "This was not a suspicious fire."

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