Signs of the Times (6/22/16)

Coal Country Revival Update: 4,000 People Saved

In the small towns that dot the mountainous coal region of West Virginia, a revival that began in early April brought 4,000 souls to Christ over eight weeks. The number of people saved exceeds the population of the two small towns at the epicenter of God’s move of the Spirit. The population of Delbarton is about 500 and Williamson is about 3000. Many were drawn from surrounding counties and even other states. Some residents in the area put their vacations on hold so they could be part of what God was doing, reports Breaking Christian News. Matt Hartley, the Tennessee evangelist who was God’s instrument to spark revival, has taken a break for a few weeks. “He was exhausted,” says Sonya Hackney, at Regional Church of God. “Nobody thought when we scheduled him for three days that he would be here for eight weeks.”

LGBT Gun Rights Group Sees Membership Skyrocket after Orlando Shooting

The gun club for LGBT people has roughly doubled in size to 230 members following this month’s nightmarish shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub that left 49 dead and 53 injured. Pink Pistols has 35 active chapters across the U.S., and nationally, its Facebook membership has increased from 1,500 before the shooting to about 6,500 as of Monday afternoon, spokeswoman Gwendolyn Patton said. Patton said several of the chapters have become active since last week. The organization helps its members “select a firearm, acquire a permit, and receive proper training in its safe and legal use for self-defense,” according to its website. Omar Mateen, the killer in the Orlando attacks, did not belong to the Pink Pistols.

ISIS Hacks, Threatens U.S. Bases

ISIS has collected information on 77 U.S. and NATO air force facilities around the world and is calling on supporters to attack them, according to South Korea’s intelligence agency. The National Intelligence Service (NIS) says ISIS’ hacking organization, the United Cyber Caliphate, collected details of U.S. air force units in South Korea including Osan Air Base. Addresses and Google satellite maps have been released through the Telegram messaging service. In its statement Sunday, the NIS warned that “terror against South Korean citizens and foreigners in this country is becoming a reality.” Over the past five years, 50 people suspected of being part of terrorist organizations have been deported from South Korea.

Senate Blocks Gun Measures Offered in Wake of Orlando Shooting

On Monday, the Senate rejected four partisan gun measures offered in the wake of the Orlando massacre, including proposals to keep guns out of the hands of people on terror watch lists.The Senate voted down similar bills in December after the shooting rampage in San Bernardino, Calif. With the current party split in the Senate, any successful bid to toughen gun laws would need bipartisan support to get to the 60-vote threshold required. There are 54 Republicans and 46 Democrats and Independents. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., suggested Democrats are simply using the issue as a political talking point and said the two GOP measures sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, are “real solutions.”Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called the Republican measures “political stunts” and said they are “meaningless in doing something to stop gun violence.”

Supreme Court Lets Stand Law Banning Some Semi-Automatic Assault Weapons

The Supreme Court has rejected challenges to assault weapons bans in Connecticut and New York, in the aftermath of the shooting attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that left 50 people dead. The justices on Monday left in place a lower court ruling that upheld laws that were passed in response to the mass shooting involving a semi-automatic weapon in Newtown, Connecticut. The Supreme Court has repeatedly turned away challenges to gun restrictions since two landmark decisions that spelled out the right to a handgun to defend one’s own home. Since its landmark 2008 decision upholding the right to possess guns at home for self-defense, the Supreme Court also has refused to strike down state and municipal restrictions.  Seven states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws banning assault weapons. The others are California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Supreme Court Ruling on Police Powers Draws Scathing Dissent

A divided Supreme Court bolstered police powers on Monday, ruling that evidence of a crime in some cases may be used against a defendant even if the police did something wrong or illegal in obtaining it. The 5-3 decision drew heated dissents from liberal justices who warned that the outcome would encourage police to violate people’s rights. The ruling comes in a case in which a police detective illegally stopped defendant Joseph Edward Strieff on the streets of South Salt Lake City, Utah. A name check revealed an outstanding warrant for him. Police Detective Doug Fackrell arrested Strieff and routinely searched him, finding that he was carrying methamphetamine. The case raised the question of whether the valid warrant outweighs the stop, which was illegal because Fackrell lacked any reasonable suspicion that Strieff had been violating the law.

California Faces Summer Blackout Risk Amid Natural Gas Shortage

Southern California is always vulnerable to power outages during heat waves — but the blackout risk facing millions is even greater summer which is already scorching hot. Already, a few thousand residents in the Los Angeles area experienced power outages during Monday’s heat wave. But that’s just a small taste of the worst-case scenario California regulators are scrambling to avoid. The main problem: the shutdown of a massive natural gas storage facility — the Aliso Canyon field — that is the chief backup supplier for the region’s electric utilities during peak demand. The vital facility was shut down after a leak was discovered last October and it isn’t back up and running yet. Regulators recently warned the lack of gas supply could spark power outages that affect millions of customers during as many as 14 summer days.

U.S. Treasurer says Women’s Equality in Workplace has Declined

U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios may have won the fight to put a woman on currency, but she said that overall America has “taken steps back” in the fight for gender equality. It was Rios’ persistence over six years that led to Treasury’s announcement earlier this year that Harriet Tubman will be the next face of the $20 bill, marking the first time a woman will appear on U.S. paper money in more than a century. “I feel like we have so much more to do, whether it’s women on corporate boards, women in the C-Suite, or women in congress. We have taken steps back,” she said at a Women’s Entrepreneurship Day forum in New York on Monday. She pointed to statistics like those recently released from research firm Catalyst that show women have made little progress gaining leadership roles at major companies.

Social Security/Medicare Projected to Run Dry by 2034/2018

If lawmakers don’t act, Social Security’s trust fund will be tapped out in about 18 years. At that point the program will only have enough revenue coming in to pay about three-quarters of promised benefits, says the Social Security and Medicare trustees’ annual report released Wednesday. Social Security’s projected insolvency date of 2034 is the same as projected last year by the trustees. In terms of Medicare, the trustees project that the trust fund for Part A, which covers hospital costs for seniors, will run dry by 2028. That’s two years earlier than they projected last year, but 11 years later than had been projected before Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. By 2028, Medicare Part A would only be able to pay out 87% of expected benefits.

Economic News

Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen, citing “considerable uncertainty” in the U.S. economic outlook and “vulnerabilities” from abroad, says the U.S. central bank will proceed “cautiously” when raising interest rates and sees a “gradual” pace of rate increases. Her testimony before Congress Tuesday came less than a week after the Fed broke from its two-day June meeting and Yellen told investors that the Fed not only wasn’t hiking rates in June but was also dialing back the number of interest rate hikes it sees in 2017 and 2018 amid an acknowledgment that U.S. economic growth will stay in the sub-par 2% range until at least through 2018.

Despite OPEC’s strategy of flooding the oversupplied market with tons of crude, American oil production has not fallen off a cliff. And now that prices have rallied back to $50 a barrel, there are early signs that U.S. shale is on the rebound, too. U.S. oil rigs had declined 20 of 21 weeks up until mid-May, when oil prices hit four-month highs above $47 a barrel. To be sure, the U.S. rig count remains down dramatically (79% to be exact) from the October 2014 high. Still, the problem for the oil industry is that an influx of American crude may not be needed at this point — and could actually backfire.

The upper middle class grew to 29.4% of the population in 2014, up from 12.9% in 1979, according to a new Urban Institute report. It defines this group as having household income of between $100,000 and $350,000 for a three-person family. The rich also expanded their ranks, to 1.8%, up from 0.1%. Overall, the middle class shrank — to 32%, from 38.8%. And the proportion of lower middle class and poor Americans also declined.

More Americans are struggling to make rent. The number of renters dedicating at least half of their income toward housing hit a record high of 11 million people in 2014, according to the annual State of the Nation’s Housing Report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University released this week. A total of 21.3 million are spending 30% or more of their paycheck to cover the rent — also a record high.

The British pound is seeing its biggest gains in months after taking a beating last week. The stunning rally Monday follows a series of opinion polls suggesting that more U.K. voters are being swayed to vote to remain in the European Union during a historic referendum on Thursday. But the polls are volatile, and many people have yet to make up their minds with three days of campaigning left.

Migrant Update

A record 65.3 million people around the world were displaced from their homes due to wars and persecution by the end of 2015, the highest total since the United Nations began keeping records, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported Monday. The report, released on World Refugee Day, said the total represented almost 6 million more people than were displaced a year earlier. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said refugees also face increasing dangers. “At sea, a frightening number of refugees and migrants are dying each year; on land, people fleeing war are finding their way blocked by closed borders,” Grandi said.

Families fleeing the combat in the Iraqi city of Fallujah have been forced to sleep in the open desert for almost a week, with aid agencies warning that people are at risk of dying as supplies of tents and water run dangerously low. More than 85,000 people have escaped the city and its surroundings in recent weeks as Iraqi security forces battle to recapture the city from the Islamic State. About 4.4 million people in the country are now internally displaced, one of the highest totals of any country.

Many Christians who are fleeing Islamic persecution in Pakistan are coming to Thailand only to be denied asylum and subjected to inhumane living conditions. Migrants say that Thai authorities treat refugees humanely, transporting them in vehicles with cages and even chaining them like dogs. In some refugee facilities, twice as many people are crammed into a room than the room can hold. “The stench as you walk in is overpowering. They have two toilets to serve over 200 people,” Wilson Chowdhry said. More than 100,000 Pakistanis have fled their country because of Islamic extremism. Nearly 11,000 have gone to Thailand, many of them Christians.

The United Nations’ secretary-general is calling on European nations to provide additional aid to Greece as it struggles to cope with the migrant crisis. An estimated 1 million people fled from Turkey to Greece last year, many of them risking their lives in boats to reach the Greek Islands, where they can seek asylum to remain in the European Union. Thousands remain stuck in the islands, and even more are on the mainland. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “The international community must do more to resolve conflicts and address the factors causing so much suffering and upheaval.”

Islamic State

Islamic State militants struggled to hold ground on two fronts Sunday as Iraqi troops drove out pockets of resistance in Fallujah, while Syrian government forces pressed closer to the militant capital of Raqqa. The military gains, however, have done little to improve the dire humanitarian crisis facing the region. In Iraq, the Amiriyah Fallujah District Council said security forces had liberated more neighborhoods in northern Fallujah from Islamic State control, killing dozens of militants. Refugee camps were overwhelmed in recent days as thousands of Fallujah families sought safety from the fighting. In Syria, where humanitarian issues have been equally dire, government forces advanced to within a few miles of the Islamic State-occupied Tabqa air base. The base, about 30 miles from Raqqa, was overrun by militants almost two years ago. Government forces also recaptured the nearby Thawra oil field.

The Islamic State (IS) terror militia staged a suicide car-bomb attack on a Jordanian Army border post Tuesday morning, killing and wounding several soldiers. The attack, which analysts warned represents a major escalation which will likely prompt a harsh response by Jordan, came a day after US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter warned that as IS loses battles and territory it is more likely to lash out with increasingly desperate and destructive terrorist attacks all over the world.

Syria

Syrian gains against the Islamic State came just days after more than 50 officials with the U.S. State Department signed a confidential document calling for targeted military strikes against Syrian forces with a goal of regime change, The New York Times first reported. The officials cited continued breaches by Syrian forces of a cease-fire agreement designed to protect U.S.-backed Syrian rebels seeking to oust President Bashar Assad. Airstrikes in Syria targeting the Islamic State’s de facto capita of Raqqa killed at least 18 civilians, including two children, activists said Wednesday. The barrage, delivered by the Russian and Syrian air force, came as government forces sought to recover from losses in a stalled offensive on the extremist-held city.

Afghanistan

A Taliban suicide bomber killed 14 Nepalese security guards in an attack Monday on their minibus in the Afghan capital, Kabul, the Interior Ministry and an Afghan security official said, in one of a string of bombings that killed more than 20 people. Elsewhere in Afghanistan, a bomb rigged to a motorbike killed 10 Afghan civilians during morning rush hour in a busy market in a province in the northeast. And later Monday in Kabul, a second Taliban bombing killed an Afghan civilian and wounded five people, including a provincial council member who was the intended target of that attack. The new Taliban attacks come a month after the U.S. military killed the leader of the Taliban in a drone strike in Pakistan.

Libya

Fierce clashes in Libya between pro-government militiamen and Islamic State militants in the city of Sirte and an explosion at a depot near the capital, Tripoli, left more than 60 dead and 140 wounded IS fighters reportedly have hunkered down at the militant group’s headquarters in Sirte, the sprawling Ouagadougou convention center that was built by late dictator Moammar Gadhafi. in just one day, a spokesman and a Libyan state news agency reported Wednesday. In Sirte, the last bastion of the Islamic State in Libya, Tuesday’s clashes killed 36 militiamen aligned with the newly-U.N. brokered government. The militias, mainly from the western town of Misrata, have been leading an offensive since early May to take full control over Sirte.

Mexico

Violent clashes between police and members of a radical teachers’ union who had blockaded roads in southern Mexico on Sunday left six people dead and more than 100 injured, officials said. The teachers from the National Coordinator of Education Workers, or CNTE, are opposed to the mandatory testing of teachers as part of Mexico’s sweeping education reform and are also protesting the arrest of union leaders on money laundering and other charges. In Sunday’s clashes in the southern state of Oaxaca, protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails, and burned vehicles, while Associated Press journalists saw riot police firing on protesters. Clashes took place in several municipalities in Oaxaca, but the most violent were in Nochixtlan, north of the state capital also called Oaxaca.

Brazil

Rio de Janeiro’s largest public hospital and one of the five designated to treat tourists during the upcoming Summer Olympic Games was attacked by armed gunmen during the weekend, leaving one person dead and two injured. The group was trying to free an alleged drug kingpin known as “Fat Family,” who had been taken to the hospital a week ago following a shootout with police and was under police surveillance. In addition, Australian Olympic authorities demanded greater security for athletes in Rio immediately, after a gold-medal winning Paralympian was mugged in the city at gunpoint. Six-time Australian Paralympics athlete 47-year-old Liesl Tesch had her bike stolen at a bus stop near her hotel on Sunday morning by two men, who threatened her and sailing team member Sarah Ross with a pistol. Questions have previously been raised over whether Brazil is ready to host the Olympic Games in August, as violence, governmental chaos and worries about the Zika virus continue to plague the event.

Wildfires

Twin wildfires fueled by intense heat roared through brush surrounding suburban neighborhoods outside Los Angeles on Tuesday, driving residents from 1,000 homes ahead of the fast-growing blazes. The fires, raging just a few miles apart in and around the Angeles National Forest, were both listed as 0% contained early Tuesday and has burned nearly 5,500 acres as of Wednesday morning. A fatal car crash ignited the first blaze near Azusa at about 11 a.m Monday, forcing evacuation of more than 300 homes, fire officials said. The city of more than 45,000 people is about 25 miles northeast of Los Angeles. More than 300 firefighters were battling Reservoir Fire, which had grown to 2,400 acres by Tuesday morning. The Fish Fire started about an hour after the Reservoir Fire, but the cause of the blaze was not immediately known. Authorities ordered evacuations of about 700 homes. The Fish Fire had grown to more than 3,000 acres early Tuesday.

Other blazes burned wide swaths across Arizona and New Mexico, where firefighters also faced blistering temperatures. In central New Mexico, a 28-square-mile fire that erupted last week and destroyed 24 homes in the Manzano Mountains south of Albuquerque was largely uncontained. Farther north, a small blaze ignited in a popular recreation area in the Santa Fe National Forest. In eastern Arizona, a fire doubled to nearly 42 square miles and led officials to warn a community of 300 residents to prepare to evacuate. The blaze on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation southwest of Show Low was not moving quickly toward the community of Cedar Creek because of sparse vegetation and shifting winds. As of Monday evening, 26 wildfires were burning in Arizona.

Three times in a week, authorities have grounded firefighting aircraft battling the Saddle Fire in Utah because they’ve detected drones in the area. Protocols dictate that aircraft be grounded for safety reasons until the skies clear. The lightning-sparked Saddle Fire in southwest Utah is only about 318 acres but firefighters say helicopters and airplanes would be of significant assistance if they could fly consistently. Interfering with firefighters is a federal offense, and Utah also has a new law specifically penalizing the use of drones in a no-fly zone. That new law calls for felony prosecution if a drone collides with a firefighting aircraft.

Weather

A lethal, record-setting heat wave has hit the southwestern United States. So far six people have been killed. At least three large wildfires are burning in the region, covering an area larger than Paris. And over 30 million people are under extreme heat warnings or advisories. It’s the hottest start to summer ever in three states — California, New Mexico and Arizona. Phoenix set a new daily record Sunday, reaching 118 degrees Fahrenheit Sunday. The highest temperature recorded on Sunday in the United States was 120 degrees in nearby Glendale. Seven areas in western and central New Mexico broke heat records in addition to 14 places in California — where Palm Springs, Thermal, Indio and Borrego all saw temperatures 117 degrees or higher. On Monday, Bullhead City, Arizona, officially reached 122 degrees.

Damaging winds and huge hail caused big problems in the mid-Atlantic on Tuesday afternoon as a round of storms marched through the region. In addition, one tornado was confirmed by the National Weather Service (NWS) in Poplar Springs, Maryland, at 1:29 p.m. EDT Tuesday afternoon. The preliminary rating is an EF0 with 80 mph maximum winds. It was on the ground for nearly 13 miles before lifting back into the clouds by 1:48 p.m. EDT. Officials said the tornado left a path of debris as wide as 500 yards. More than 35,000 customers lost power in Maryland during the storms. An even stronger wind gust occurred in Cape May, New Jersey, where an 80-mph gust was reported, according to the National Weather Service. Some 35,000 customers lost power in New Jersey following the storm.

More than four dozen people have been killed by flooding and landslides and many others remain missing in central Java as of Sunday. Heavy rain submerged 16 districts with flooding Saturday and triggered landslides that buried dozens of houses in the area. Rescue workers including soldiers, police and volunteers were still searching for victims and evacuating others. Seasonal rains often cause flooding and landslides in Indonesia, an archipelago of 17,000 islands where millions of people live in mountainous areas or flood-prone plains close to rivers. At least 90 people, most of them farm laborers working in the fields during the monsoon season in India, have been killed by lightning over the past two days, according to state officials.

Twenty-five people have been killed and 33,200 have been displaced after a week of torrential rainfall inundated southern China. Six people are still missing and 4 million people in 10 provinces have been affected by floods and landslides due to heavy rainfall. In southeastern Jiangxi Province, people pushed cars floating in waist-high water while online footage showed vehicles swept away, as near record levels of rainfall battered southwestern China. This rainy season has been particularly wet. Water levels in some major rivers have exceeded those of 1998, when China was hit by disastrous floods that affected 180 million people.

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