Greater Houston preparing for heavy rain, flooding from Imelda

HOUSTON – Officials in the Greater Houston metropolitan area were preparing high-water vehicles and staging rescue boats Tuesday as Tropical Storm Imelda moved in from the Gulf of Mexico, threatening to dump up to 18 inches of rain in parts of Texas and Louisiana over the next few days.

The storm, which formed Tuesday, made landfall near Freeport, Texas, with maximum sustained winds of 40 mph.

Jeff Linder, a meteorologist and director of flood operations for the Harris County Flood Control District in Houston, said the main threat from Imelda remained the potential for heavy rainfall and flooding.

“We have a few things in our favor. The ground is dry. It’s been dry for a while here as we’ve come through summer,” Lindner said. “The initial parts of this rainfall will go toward saturating the ground.”

Ken Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center, said Greater Houston, along with parts of the upper Texas coast and East Texas, could get “significant rainfall” through Thursday as the storm moves north. Imelda’s rain bands were also stretching across into Louisiana.

Imelda was the first named storm to impact Greater Houston since Hurricane Harvey , according to the National Weather Service. Harvey dumped nearly 50 inches (130 centimeters) of rain on parts of the flood-prone city in August 2017, flooding more than 150,000 homes in Greater Houston and causing an estimated $125 billion in damage in Texas.

Lindner says while there is the potential for some isolated structure flooding in the metropolis, widespread house flooding from Imelda “doesn’t look likely at this point.”

But Lindner said that residents who live in flood prone areas should still be mindful and take some extra precautions.

Some parts of Harris County and neighboring Galveston County had already received about 4 inches of rain through Tuesday afternoon.

The Galveston school district announced it was canceling classes on Wednesday.

In a tweet Tuesday, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner asked residents to be “alert and weather aware.”

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday placed numerous resources on standby across Texas. The Texas Division of Emergency Management will be rostering four boat squads in coastal areas. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department will be moving boats to support the Beaumont area and adjacent regions.

Meanwhile Tuesday, the National Hurricane Center said Hurricane Humberto in the Atlantic Ocean is posing a stronger threat to Bermuda, though it was more than 500 miles away. Meteorologists also said newly formed Tropical Storm Lorena in the Pacific Ocean could produce heavy rains and flooding in Mexico by Thursday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Russia stakes hold on the Arctic with military base

SEVERNY KLEVER MILITARY BASE, Russia – Missile launchers ply icy roads and air defense systems point menacingly into the sky at this Arctic military outpost, a key vantage point for Russia to project its power over the resource-rich polar region.

The base, dubbed Severny Klever (Northern Clover) for its trefoil shape, is painted in the white, blue and red colors of the Russian national flag. It has been designed so soldiers can reach all of its sprawling facilities without venturing outdoors—a useful precaution in an area where temperatures often plunge to minus 50 Celsius (minus 58 Fahrenheit) during the winter, and even in the short Arctic summer are often freezing at night.

It’s strategically located on Kotelny Island, between the Laptev Sea and the East Siberian Sea on the Arctic shipping route, and permanently houses up to 250 military personnel responsible for maintaining air and sea surveillance facilities and coastal defenses like anti-ship missiles.

The Russian base has enough supplies to remain fully autonomous for more than a year.

“Our task is to monitor the airspace and the northern sea route,” said base commander Lt. Col. Vladimir Pasechnik. “We have all we need for our service and comfortable living.”

Russia is not alone in trying to assert jurisdiction over parts of the Arctic, as shrinking polar ice opens fresh opportunities for resource exploration and new shipping lanes. The United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway are jostling for position, as well, and the People’s Republic of China also has shown an increasing interest in the polar region.

But while U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has seen the Arctic through the lens of security and economic competition with Russia and Communist China, it has yet to demonstrate that the region is a significant priority in its overall foreign policy. The post of special U.S. representative for the Arctic has remained vacant since Trump assumed office.

Russia, however, has made reaffirming its presence in the Arctic a top goal, not the least because the region is believed to hold up to one-quarter of the Earth’s undiscovered oil and gas. Russian President Vladimir Putin has cited estimates that put the value of Arctic mineral riches at $30 trillion.

The move has alarmed Russia’s neighbors, analysts say.

“In Russia, the Northern sea route has been described as a bonanza with lots of potential of economic development,” said Flemming Splidsboel Hansen of the Danish Institute for International Studies. “And that’s why there is a need for military capacity in the area. It is likely meant as defensive, but it is being interpreted by the West as offensive.”

Kristian Soeby Kristensen, a researcher at Copenhagen University in Denmark, said the problem of Russian hegemony in the Arctic was most obvious to Norway.

“Norway is a small country, whose next-door neighbor is mighty Russia, which has placed the bulk of its military capacity right next to them,” Soeby Kristensen said. “Norway is extraordinarily worried.”

In 2015, Russia submitted to the United Nations a revised bid for vast territories in the Arctic. It claimed 1.2 million square kilometers (over 463,000 square miles) of Arctic sea shelf, extending more than 350 nautical miles (about 650 kilometers) from the shore.

As part of a multi-pronged effort to stake Russia’s claims on the Arctic region, the Kremlin has poured massive resources into modernizing Soviet-era installations there.

The military outpost on Kotelny Island fell into neglect after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, but a massive effort to build a new base began in 2014 and took several years.

A group of reporters brought to the island by the Russian Defense Ministry on Wednesday were shown Bastion anti-ship missile launchers positioned for a drill near the shore and Pantsyr-S1 air defense systems firing shots at a practice target.

Russian Arctic soldiers and Missile Launcher
Russian troops conduct training with a Bastion missile launcher on Kotelny Island, part of the New Siberian Islands archipelago located between the Laptev Sea and the East Siberian Sea, Russia. (AP Photo/Vladimir Isachenkov)
Russian Arctic vehicle.jpg
A Russian military’s Pansyr-S1 air defense system fires at a practice target during a military drill on Kotelny Island, part of the New Siberian Islands archipelago located between the Laptev Sea and the East Siberian Sea, Russia. (AP Photo/Vladimir Isachenkov)

The Russian military has kept Western media from visiting its Arctic facilities, so the trip offered a unique opportunity to watch the Russian expansion up close.

A big radar dome looms on a hill overlooking the coast, underlining the base’s main mission of monitoring the strategic area.

In contrast with drab, Soviet-era facilities, the pristine new base features spacious living quarters, a gym and a sauna. Putin’s words about the importance of the Arctic for Russia dot the base’s walls and a symbolic border post sits in a hallway.

Soldiers at the base say they are proud of their mission despite the challenging Arctic environment.

“Proving to myself that I can do it raises my self-esteem,” said one of the soldiers, Sergei Belogov. “Weather is our enemy here, so we need to protect ourselves from it to serve the Motherland.”

Extreme cold and fierce winds often make it hard to venture outside, and even winterized vehicles may have trouble operating when temperatures plunge to extreme lows and even special lubricants freeze.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to Putin in December that the military has rebuilt or expanded numerous facilities across the polar region, revamping runways and deploying air defense assets. He said renovation works were conducted on a long string of Arctic territories.

The expanded infrastructure has allowed the Russian military to restore full radar coverage of the nation’s 22,600-kilometer (14,000-mile) Arctic frontier and deploy fighter jets to protect its airspace.

The military also has undertaken a cleanup effort across the region, working to remove tens of thousands of tons of waste from the Arctic territories, most of it rusty fuel tanks left behind by the Soviet military.

The Russian soldiers share the island with polar bears, arctic foxes and wolves.

Officers said that, soon after the base opened, curious bears regularly prowled near its walls, sometimes even peering into its windows. On some occasions, soldiers had to use a truck to spook away a particularly curious bear wandering nearby.

Soldiers interviewed at the base said they marveled at the area’s wildlife and its majestic Arctic landscapes.

“The nature here is extremely beautiful,” said Navy Lt. Umar Erkenov, who came from southern Russia. “Meeting a polar bear is an experience that fills you with emotions. We have established friendly ties with them from the start. We don’t touch them, they don’t touch us.”

He said he’s missing his wife and daughter, whom he can only see during his leave period once a year, but is proud of his mission.

“Few people do their job under such conditions,” he said. “I feel proud that I’m here with my unit, doing my duty and protecting the Motherland.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Minor leaguers seek investors, donations to make ends meet

PHOENIX – Jeremy Wolf loved being a professional baseball player. The New York Mets were his favorite team as a child, and it was a dream fulfilled when they selected him in the 31st round in 2016.

The reality was something else. From first pitch to the final out was a blast, but the time between games was filled with anxiety. His meager signing bonus wasn’t delivered until after his first season ended. In the meantime, he needed money for rent, cleats, bats, car payments, food and more—an impossible amount to cover on his $1,100 per month salary. Then he hurt his back, was cut 16 months after he signed, and left baseball with a couple thousand dollars in credit card debt.

“It’s really great to play minor league baseball,” Wolf said. “It’s an honor and a privilege. But I can’t eat privilege.”

He and others are trying to do something about that.

MLB generates billions in revenue each season, yet players throughout its minor leagues are sleeping on air mattresses, skipping meals and purchasing equipment on the cheap while making as little as $3,300 per season. The inequity of baseball’s pay system is attracting private companies eager to invest in players in exchange for a cut of potential big league paydays—one is even organizing direct investments by MLB and NFL players. Meanwhile, Wolf is helping minor league players use online crowdfunding to ask fans to provide money for meals, rent, cleats and other essentials.

Minor leaguers at the lowest levels can make as little as $1,100 per month despite spending 50-to-70 hours per week at the ballpark. A lawsuit alleging MLB violated minimum wage and overtime requirements was pre-empted last year when congress passed the “Save America’s Pastime Act,” which stripped minor leaguers of the protection of federal minimum wage laws.

MLB is also pushing Arizona lawmakers to exempt minor league players from minimum wage laws there, a move that would affect hundreds of players who are not paid during spring training.

The Toronto Blue Jays decided last month to boost minor league salaries by 50 percent, making them an outlier among the major league’s 30 clubs.

For players elsewhere, addressing short-term needs can be a dire matter. Most get signing bonuses of just a few thousand dollars, and they only pull in a salary during the season, which is either three or five months long, depending on the league.

Expenses in-season vary by organization, but players usually have to find their own equipment, at least one meal per day, and pay clubhouse dues. Housing is tricky, especially this time of year. Thursday is opening day across most of the minor leagues, and that means many players have been scrambling this week to arrange apartments across the country. It’s a tough task, made all the trickier because those players’ employers haven’t written them a check since September.

Wolf founded More Than Baseball to help address those needs. The group uses online donations—it’s raised over $2,000 so far this spring—to help fund meals, rent and other necessities. It sets players up for group discounts with landlords and baseball equipment companies, finds offseason jobs and internships for players, arranges host families, and provides career services so players have options when they’re playing days end.

“In a way we’re mitigating stress,” Wolf said. “And if we mitigate stress, we’re going to allow the kids to just enjoy playing minor league baseball.”

More Than Baseball’s staff includes a few retired players, including former Yankees outfielder Slade Heathcott. It also has labor lawyers, marketing professionals and economists as advisers.

Other professionals from outside baseball have stepped in, too, to offer resources as investors. Some companies, like Big League Advance, propose minor leaguers cash to cover costs now, then take a cut of their future earnings if they make the majors.

Another option is Pando Pooling, a private company that allows players to pool their future earnings, increasing the chance of a life-changing pay day in a career where many top prospects never cash a million-dollar paycheck. For instance, a group of five third-round draft picks could agree to enter a pool together. If four players wash out due to injury or poor performance but one player becomes a star worth hundreds of millions of dollars, each of those players get a share of those earnings.

“We want players to be more comfortable with their decision to be a baseball player and to feel secure in their financial outcome,” co-founder Charlie Olson said.

There are stipulations. Pool contributions from a single player are capped at $20 million, and players don’t begin to contribute until they’ve earned at least $1.6 million in their career—roughly the amount a player would make via the major league minimum in his first three seasons before becoming eligible for arbitration.

“I think Pando presents an opportunity that hasn’t been presented in the past,” said Indians minor leaguer Logan Ice, a second-round pick in 2016 who leads his Pando pool. “It gives players a way to diversify the risk in baseball, which is a risky profession.”

Pando has more than 200 players on board, and it’s eyeing expansion. It has launched a similar operation with football players, who also face long-term uncertainty because NFL contracts are not guaranteed.

It also is considering a new model: pairing successful pro athletes with aspiring prospects. Olson says both MLB and NFL players have expressed interest in backing minor league baseball players, offering cash and other resources like access to trainers and nutritionists in exchange for a percentage of future earnings.

“We’re trying to find as many ways as possible to help improve the lives for professional baseball players,” Olson said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Cast says goodbye to groundbreaking HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’

NEW YORK CITY – Sophie Turner wore her waterproof mascara. The actress knew there would be a lot of crying.

She and the rest of the cast of “Game of Thrones” descended on Radio City Music Hall on Wednesday to bid farewell to the HBO hit show after eight seasons.

“It’s very exciting because there’s a whole new chapter of our lives we’re embarking on, but it’s also really sad because this other chapter is closing, and we won’t be able to play these amazing characters anymore,” said Turner, who plays Sansa Stark. “I’ve got my waterproof mascara on tonight because I know there’ll be a lot of crying.”

The groundbreaking HBO series, based on the popular book series by George R.R. Martin, has had crazy twists, eye-popping turns and a measure of fearlessness, like killing off main characters. It also has one of the most dynamic battle scenes ever filmed in an episode called, “Battle of the Bastards.”

Pilou Asbaek, who plays Euron Greyjoy, said fans can expect even more of those moments in the last few shows. The last season premieres April 17.

“There’s going to be a couple of episodes in season 8 which is going to be madness, which is going to be epic, which is going to be the biggest ever seen on TV,” Asbaek said.

Jason Momoa came back from the dead to attend Wednesday’s event. His character was killed off in the first season.

“It’s the greatest show on Earth and nine years ago I didn’t think I’d be here right now. It’s just beautiful to see my friends off, wish them luck and show the world that it’s the greatest show,” Momoa said.

Kristian Nairn, who portrays the simple-minded Hodor in the series, was the subject of a full-frontal nude scene that made him proud because it shows the inclusion the creators have for the world they created.

“I’m not your average Hollywood actor and to be able to take your clothes off onscreen, I think that just shows what ‘Game of Thrones’ is all about. It’s inclusive,” he said. “You don’t have to look like a Hollywood A-lister to be in ‘Game of Thrones.’ I think that’s the way the acting culture should move. It’s supposed to be inclusive these days. We all look different so that’s why I took the chance to appear naked.”

Kristofer Hivju, who played the role of Tormund Giantsbane, pointed to the show’s unpredictability as part of its strength.

“It doesn’t follow the rules of storytelling. It follows the rules of life and the rules of death. And it’s unpredictable. It’s like a sports event. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Boom! Something happens. Boom! Always something,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Texas bans clergy from executions after Supreme Court ruling

DALLAS – Texas prisons will no longer allow clergy in the death chamber after the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the scheduled execution of a man who argued his religious freedom would be violated if his Buddhist spiritual adviser couldn’t accompany him.

Effective immediately, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will only permit prison security staff into the execution chamber, a spokesman said Wednesday. The policy change comes in response to the high court’s ruling staying the execution of Patrick Murphy, a member of the “Texas 7” gang of escaped prisoners.

Texas previously allowed state-employed clergy to accompany inmates into the room where they’d be executed, but its prison staff included only Christian and Muslim clerics.

In light of this policy, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Texas couldn’t move forward with Murphy’s punishment unless his Buddhist adviser or another Buddhist reverend of the state’s choosing accompanied him.

One of Murphy’s lawyers, David Dow, said the policy change does not address their full legal argument and mistakes the main thrust of the court’s decision.

“Their arbitrary and, at least for now, hostile response to all religion reveals a real need for close judicial oversight of the execution protocol,” Dow said

Murphy’s attorneys told the high court that executing him without his spiritual adviser in the room would violate the First Amendment right to freedom of religion. The 57-year-old—who was among a group of inmates who escaped from a Texas prison in 2000 and then committed numerous robberies, including one where a police officer was fatally shot—became a Buddhist while in prison nearly a decade ago.

In his concurring opinion, the court’s newest justice, Brett Kavanaugh, wrote that Texas had two options going forward: allow all inmates to have a religious adviser of their religion in the execution room, or allow religious advisers only in the viewing room, not the execution room.

“The government may not discriminate against religion generally or against particular religious denominations,” Kavanaugh wrote.

Kristin Houlé, executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, called the new policy “cruel and unusual,” and urged the department to reconsider.

Prison chaplains will still be able to observe executions from a witness room and meet with inmates on death row beforehand, said Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jeremy Desel. He declined to elaborate on the reasoning behind the policy change.

The change brings Texas in line with most other death penalty states, which do not allow clergy into the execution chamber, according to Robert Dunham, a lawyer and executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. But it is also likely to open new legal fights for America’s busiest execution state, he said.

The policy change could be challenged as generally discriminating against religion and as retroactively targeting Murphy despite having a general formulation, Dunham said. If these arguments are presented to the high court, a ruling could have implications for how executions are conducted around the country, he said.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Murphy’s case followed a similar appeal in February, when the court ruled Alabama could execute a Muslim inmate without his Islamic spiritual adviser present in the execution chamber. The court decision that allowed Dominique Ray to be executed attracted public criticism , and Dunham said the ruling staying Murphy’s execution might have been an effort by the justices to avoid further blowback.

“When you look at the court’s order, they were hoping that Texas would give them a way out by accommodating Patrick Murphy’s request,” he said. “Texas has chosen not to do that, so it’s likely that the ball with be back in the proverbial judicial court.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

House votes to end support for Yemen war

WASHINGTON – The House on Thursday voted to end American involvement in the Yemen war, rebuffing the Trump administration’s support for the military campaign led by Saudi Arabia.

The bill now heads to President Donald Trump, who is expected to veto it. The White House says the measure raises “serious constitutional concerns,” and Congress lacks the votes to override him.

By a 247-175 vote, Congress for the first time invoked the decades-old War Powers Resolution to try and stop a foreign conflict. The Senate vote was 54-46 on March 13.

“The president will have to face the reality that Congress is no longer going to ignore its constitutional obligations when it comes to foreign policy,” said Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He said the humanitarian crisis in Yemen triggered by the war “demands moral leadership.”

The war in Yemen is in its fifth year. Thousands of people have been killed and millions are on the brink of starvation. The United Nations has called the situation in Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The top Republican on the committee, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, acknowledged the dire situation in Yemen for civilians, but spoke out in opposition to the bill, saying it was an abuse of the War Powers Resolution.

“This radical interpretation has implications far beyond Saudi Arabia,” McCaul said. He warned that the measure could “disrupt U.S. security cooperation agreements.”

Democrats overcame a Republican attempt to divide the majority party through a procedural motion involving Israel just minutes before the Yemen vote. Republicans wanted to amend the Yemen bill with language condemning the international boycott movement and efforts to de-legitimize Israel. Democrats argued the amendment would kill the Yemen resolution, and most of them voted against the Israel measure.

“This is about politics, this is about trying to drive a wedge into this caucus where it does not belong,” said Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., said to applause from Democrats. Deutch described the boycott movement as “economic warfare,” but called on lawmakers to vote against the amendment.

“The Jewish community also has a history of standing up against atrocities like the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. My colleagues are trying to block us from standing in support of human rights,” he said.

Opposition to the Saudi-led war in Yemen gathered support last year in the aftermath of the killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Washington Post columnist was killed in October by agents of the kingdom, a close U.S. partner, while he was in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. U.S. intelligence agencies and lawmakers believe that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of Khashoggi, who had written articles critical of the Islamic kingdom.

Lawmakers from both parties have scrutinized U.S.-Saudi ties and criticized Trump for not condemning Saudi Arabia strongly enough.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Mormons repeal ban on baptisms for children of LGBT parents

SALT LAKE CITY – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Thursday repealed rules unveiled in 2015 that banned baptisms for children of LGBT parents and made same-sex marriage a sin worthy of expulsion.

The surprise announcement by the faith widely known as the Mormon Church reverses rules that triggered widespread condemnations from LGBT members and their allies and marked a jarring shift from the church’s push to carve out a more compassionate stance on LGBT issues.

The rules banned baptisms for children living with LGBT parents until they turn 18, disavowed same-sex relationships and received approval from global church leaders.

With the change, children of LGBT parents can now be baptized as long as their parents approve the baptisms and acknowledge that the children will be taught church doctrine, the church said in a statement from its highest leadership group called the First Presidency.

The faith said in a statement that it is not changing its doctrinal opposition to same-sex marriage and still considers same-sex relationships to be a “serious transgression.”

But people in same-sex relationships will no longer be considered “apostates” who must be kicked out of the church, the statement said.

“The very positive policies announced this morning should help affected families,” the leaders said in the statement. “In addition, our members’ efforts to show more understanding, compassion and love should increase respect and understanding among all people of goodwill.”

The change marks the biggest move yet by church President Russell M. Nelson, who has made a flurry of changes to how the church functions since taking over the faith in January 2018.

Troy Williams with the LGBT-advocacy group Equality Utah called the announcement a big step forward.

“Clearly this is a great development for the church,” he said. “I think this will go a long way toward healing Latter-day Saint families that have LGBT members.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.