Signs of the Times (8/29/17)

Harvey Devastates Houston with Catastrophic Rain

Tropical Storm Harvey’s center has moved back over the Gulf of Mexico, but only will do so briefly. After virtually stalling out this past weekend, the center of Harvey is on the move again, and is just off the Texas Gulf Coast. It’s still moving slower than your average tropical cyclone. More heavy rain remains possible for flood-ravaged southeast Texas. Torrential rain is falling over parts of Texas and Louisiana Tuesday morning. Harvey will finally move well inland later this week and begin to dissipate, eventually bringing an end to the widespread heavy rain threat in Texas and Louisiana, though patchy bands of locally heavy rain can’t be completely ruled out. The massive volume of water draining toward the Gulf of Mexico will leave mainstem rivers such as the Brazos, Colorado and Guadalupe above flood stage into the Labor Day weekend, possibly beyond. As of Tuesday afternoon, 30% of Harris County, which includes Houston, is underwater.

As Harvey spins offshore, the storm is expected to dump an additional 7 to 13 inches of rain through Friday over the upper Texas coast and into southwestern Louisiana, exacerbating the life-threatening, catastrophic flooding in the Houston area. Isolated storm totals may reach 50 inches over the upper Texas coast, including the Houston/Galveston metropolitan area. In the past four days, the weather service forecast office in Houston has picked up more than 42 inches of rain. Brief tornadoes may also form anywhere from Galveston eastward to just south of New Orleans. An already-swollen reservoir west of downtown Houston overtopped its spillway Tuesday, sending an “uncontrolled release” of Harvey’s floodwaters into nearby neighborhoods, and putting the besieged city into “uncharted territory,” officials said. Officials in Brazoria County, located south of Houston, warned on Twitter that a levee at Columbia Lakes had been breached by floodwaters for the first time in history and urged any residents who had not already evacuated the area to leave immediately, writing “Get Out Now!!” Other levees may potentially fail as well.

Swollen rivers in east Texas aren’t expected to crest until later this week, but federal officials are already predicting Tropical Storm Harvey will drive 30,000 people into shelters and spur 450,000 victims to seek some sort of disaster assistance. The George R. Brown Convention Center, which has been transformed into an emergency shelter, for Harvey evacuees has already exceeded its estimated capacity of 5,000 people. The Houston area looks like an inland sea dotted by islands, said Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, who also said that people needed to prepare for “a new and different normal for this entire region.”

Trump Pardons Arizona Sherriff Arpaio

President Donald Trump has pardoned former Sheriff Joe Arpaio for his criminal contempt conviction, removing the only legal consequences the lawman faced stemming from a long-running racial-profiling suit. The White House announced the pardon Friday evening in a news release that recounted Arpaio’s lengthy career of “admirable service” in federal and local law enforcement and called him “a worthy candidate for a Presidential pardon.” Reached moments after the announcement, Arpaio said he had not spoken to Trump, but “I’m very appreciative of the president issuing that pardon. It shows how he backs up law enforcement.” Arpaio, 85, was convicted of criminal contempt on July 31, and was scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 5. He faced up to six months in jail. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey supported the pardon, but U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the pardon is within the president’s authority, but “doing so at this time undermines his claim for the respect of rule of law as Mr. Arpaio has shown no remorse for his actions.”

Berkley Protesters Skirmish, Antifa Members Arrested

More than a dozen people were arrested in Berkeley, California, after members of the left-wing Antifa movement allegedly attacked peaceful protesters over the weekend. Several thousand people converged in Berkeley Sunday for a “Rally Against Hate” in response to a planned right-wing protest that raised concerns of violence and triggered a massive police presence. Several people were arrested for violating rules against covering their faces or carrying items banned by authorities. Tense but brief skirmishes erupted when several dozen left-wing protesters surrounded and shouted at a handful of right-wing demonstrators. Three of those targeted sought safety by rushing toward officers and were escorted out of the park. They were put in a van that was kicked by yelling left-wing protesters as it drove away. The left-wing protesters far outnumbered those who showed up for the largely peaceful rally, which police tried to keep safe by setting up barricades around it and checking people who entered to make sure they did not have prohibited items like baseball bats, dogs, skateboards and scarves or bandanas they could use to cover their faces. However,

San Francisco Shuts Down Right-Wing Gathering

Protesters opposing a right-wing gathering in liberal San Francisco claimed victory Saturday when the event was cancelled after city officials walled off a city park — a move that the event’s organizer said was more about silencing his group’s message than preventing a violent clash. Civic leaders in San Francisco — a cradle of the free speech movement that prides itself on its tolerance — repeatedly voiced concerns that the event organized by Patriot Prayer would lead to a clash with counter-demonstrators. Joey Gibson, a Japanese American who leads Patriot Prayer, said his group disavows racism and hatred and wanted to promote dialogue with people who may not share its views. He cancelled a planned rally Saturday at a field under the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge after he said his members received anonymous threats on social media and feared civic leaders and law enforcement would fail to protect them. Earlier in the week, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee raised concerns that Patriot Prayer would attract hate speech and potential violence. U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a fellow Democrat who represents San Francisco, called the planned rally a “white supremacist” event.

Trump Lifts Obama Ban on Military Equipment to Local Police

Police and sheriffs’ groups across the country applauded President Donald Trump Monday for lifting a ban on delivering surplus military equipment to local and state police. The ban had been installed during President Barack Obama’s administration. “We applaud the president’s actions, and we are encouraged to see him acting on this important issue that we have vocally advocated for,” the association said in the statement. “Across the country we have seen how valuable this equipment has been to local law enforcement from San Bernardino to Orlando in fighting terrorism, but also by saving lives in floods in South Carolina and snow storms in North Dakota, just to name a few,” the association said.

Interior Secretary Recommends Shrinking Some National Monuments

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says he’s urging President Trump to change the boundaries of a “handful” of national monuments. This represents the opening salvo in a largely unprecedented effort to roll back federal protections for some of America’s most popular public lands. Zinke said he wouldn’t recommend the elimination of any monuments, despite a push from some congressional Republicans to rescind Bears Ears in Utah, Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine, Sonoran Desert in Arizona and Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon and California, among other monuments established by previous presidents. Trump asked Zinke to review 22 land monuments in April, following years of criticism from conservative lawmakers about what they saw as President Obama’s abuse of the Antiquities Act. The 1906 law gives presidents the authority “to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” on lands already owned or controlled by the federal government.

Border Wall Working Near Yuma Arizona

President Donald Trump’s promise to build a border wall has earned him a lot of backlash, but a wall built near Yuma, Arizona, is proving that border walls work exceptionally well. Iillegal crossings dropped 94 percent, according to testimony from the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the Washington Examiner reported. The Daily Caller reported that a Department of Homeland Security official said the town has seen an 82 percent reduction in illegal crossings since 2007 after the passage of the Secure Fence Act of 2006.

Border Walls Working in Europe

Building border walls has worked for six European countries, according to a NewsMax report. Greece built a 7-mile, 12-foot wall along its border with Turkey which dropped illegal immigration by 90%. Refugees pouring in across the border spurred Macedonia to build a 20-mile-long wall on its border with Greece in 2015 which also reduced illegal crossings by 90%. Bulgaria began building a 10-foot wall in 2014 along its Turkish border which stretches for 18 miles and has seen illegal crossings reduced seven-fold. In 2015, Hungary built a wall along its border with Serbia to stem the flood of refugees from the Middle East and Africa on their way to Germany and other Northern European nations. After the 110-mile-long, 13-foot high barrier was constructed, illegal immigration essentially ceased.

99% of U.S. Visa Scofflaws Never Arrested

Many immigrants come to the U.S. lawfully, but then overstay their visas. According to a recent Inspector General’s report, less than 1% of those who overstay their visas ever get arrested. The report estimates that in 2015, 527,000 individuals overstayed their visas. Only 3,402 were apprehended. Two of the 9/11 hijackers entered the U.S. legally, but failed to leave after their visas had expired. Investigators place a lot of the blame for the la enforcement on antiquated and inefficient technology. Immigration officials have to consult up to 27 different computer systems before they can verify an individual’s visa status with any certainty, reports NewsMax.

South Carolina Governor Issues Order to Defund Abortion Businesses

The governor of South Carolina issued an executive order last week that blocks state agencies from using taxpayer dollars to fund the abortion industry. The order prevents the use of either state or local taxpayer funds to go to any doctor or Health Clinic that is an affiliate of an abortion business. McMaster’s administration is already putting the new order into effect and helping women find health care alternatives not run by an abortion agency. Three clinics run by the Planned Parenthood abortion company will no longer be reimbursed by Medicaid for abortions.

Economic News

Hurricane Harvey swamped gasoline production capacity in the Texas Gulf Coast, triggering spikes in fuel prices as the energy-rich region reels from ferocious flooding. Outages at gasoline refineries have temporarily shuttered more than 10% of the nation’s refining capacity. With rain continuing to pummel the Houston region, U.S. motorists are likely to experience an increase of up to 25 cents per gallon in some areas.

The average American saves less than 5% of his or her disposable income. Many financial advisers say that isn’t enough to ensure a comfortable retirement. The personal saving rate, calculated by the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis, has hovered around 5% for the past few years. By the end of June, the rate had dipped to 3.8%, the bureau reported. Financial advisors encourage clients to save 10% to 15% of their disposable income. Decades ago, Americans’ personal saving rate was closer to that target. From 1950 to 2000, it averaged about 9.8%. It peaked in May 1975, hitting 17% before beginning to slide. At its lowest, in July 2005, it was 1.9%.

The biggest chunk of the average American’s budget goes toward housing, which accounts for 37% of take-home pay. Many people spend even more. In some parts of the country (e.g. New York and the rest of the Northeast), the percentage spent on housing is even higher. The standard measure of housing affordability is 30% of pre-tax income. While many poorer renters have no choice, many middle-income people have bought homes beyond the recommended limit, which could become a problem if there is another economic downturn.

Investors are fleeing U.S. stocks in a way they haven’t since 2004. For 10 straight weeks a total of $30 billion has left U.S. stocks, marking the longest streak of outflows since 2004, Bank of America Merrill Lynch said. Investors turned instead to emerging markets and European and Japanese stocks, which saw $36 billion in inflows over the last 10 weeks, the report said. The 10-week outflow from U.S. stocks comes despite the S&P 500’s nearly 1 percent gain this quarter and a record high on Aug. 8.

Denmark, the world’s most taxed country said Tuesday that it is planning sweeping cuts to levies on cars and pensions that are designed to encourage people to work more. Denmark has the highest tax to GDP ratio of any developed nation, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The average Danish worker faced a net tax rate of 36% in 2016, far higher than the 25.5% average across the OECD. “It has to pay off to work,” the country’s finance ministry said in a statement. Reducing the tax burden is seen as one way to encourage more people to work. That, in turn, could help the country avoid a labor shortage and support an economy that grew by just 0.5% in the second quarter.

The cutting edge of drone delivery isn’t one of the usual technology hotspots, such as Singapore or the United States. Tate honor belongs to East Africa. A second East African nation announced Thursday it will launch a fully automated drone delivery program. While plenty of countries have dabbled in drone delivery, no program has matched the scale and impact of what’s unfolding in Rwanda and now, Tanzania. In early 2018, Tanzania’s government will begin using drones to deliver medical supplies such as blood and vaccines to remote areas. The government expects to save lives thanks to faster delivery of medical supplies. Rwanda has already completed 1,400 similar deliveries.

Middle East

Israel will not stand by while Iran advances in Syria and establishes itself militarily on Israel’s northern border, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman stated. Liberman explained that “Iran, through its Revolutionary Guard, is trying to create a new reality around us with Iranian air and naval bases in Syria, with Shi’ite militias which number thousands of mercenaries and by the production of accurate weaponry in Lebanon.” The Iranian forces are currently estimated to number 500 Iranian army soldiers, 5,000 Hezbollah terrorists and several thousand guerrillas from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. The potential for a growing Iranian influence across the region is raising concern in predominantly Sunni Arab countries as well.

For three decades, Hezbollah maintained a singular focus as a Lebanese military group fighting Israel. It built a network of bunkers and tunnels near Lebanon’s southern border, trained thousands of committed fighters to battle Israel’s army and built up an arsenal of rockets capable of striking far across the Jewish state. But as the Middle East has changed, with conflicts often having nothing to do with Israel flaring up around the region, Hezbollah has changed, too. It has rapidly expanded its realm of operations, reports the New York Times. It has sent legions of fighters to Syria. It has sent trainers to Iraq. It has backed rebels in Yemen. And it has helped organize a battalion of militants from Afghanistan that can fight almost anywhere. As a result, Hezbollah is not just a power unto itself, but is one of the most important instruments in the drive for regional supremacy by its sponsor: Iran.

Faced with an ultimatum from the Palestinians to declare a two-state solution within 45 days, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. refuses to demonstrate “bias” by taking sides ahead of negotiations between the two sides. Trump’s senior adviser, Jared Kushner, arrived in the Middle East with a delegation to try and jumpstart the peace process. They met last Thursday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and will also hold talks with Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and other Arab nations. President Donald Trump has agreed with Netanyahu that there should be no preconditions.

North Korea

North Korea fired a ballistic missile over Japan Monday and into waters short of Guam. North Korea has twice fired rockets that it said were carrying satellites over Japan — in 1998 and 2009 — but it is the first time it has fired a ballistic missile over the island nation. North Korea has threatened to fire missiles off the coast of Guam, a U.S. territory to the southeast. Earlier, North Korea launched three ballistic missiles toward the East Sea near Japan on Saturday morning, according to U.S. and South Korean military. Pacific Command spokesman Cmdr. Dave Benham said two missiles flew about 155 miles. It said earlier that the third missile appears to have blown up immediately. The North American Aerospace Command (NORAD) determined the missiles “did not pose a threat to North America.” The incident happened amid rising tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, which has been warned by President Trump about missile build-up and development of nuclear armaments. South Korea’s air force staged a live-fire drill Tuesday, simulating the destruction of North Korea’s leadership.

Pakistan

A glossy women’s magazine has hit virtual newsstands, its front cover splashed with the image of a woman, veiled from head to toe, walking off into a yellow-hued desert. But, unlike other fashion or beauty publications, this one has a niche audience in mind: would-be female jihadists. The English-language magazine was published by the Pakistani Taliban, Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), earlier this month. The first edition of Sunnat E Khaula, which harks back to a seventh-century female Muslim warrior named Khaula, calls on “like-minded jihadi sisters” to organize “secret gatherings at home,” arrange “physical training classes” and “prepare for martyrdom operations.” “We want to provoke women of Islam to come forward and join the ranks of mujahideen [holy warriors] of Islam,” an opening editorial reads. The TTP’s women’s magazine takes a page out of the ISIS propaganda playbook to target women. And the timing of its release isn’t accidental. As ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliphate crumbles in Syria and Iraq, the Taliban has seized on an opportunity — offering an alternative for radicalized women willing to shift their loyalties.

Myanmar

Thousands of ethnic Rohingya are attempting to flee violence in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, braving hostile border guards, treacherous territory and high waters to cross into neighboring Bangladesh. Ethnic Rohingya militants in western Myanmar launched overnight attacks on more than two dozen police and border outposts, leaving 80 people dead, the government said Friday, in a significant escalation of their armed struggle. The militant Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA, took responsibility for the overnight attacks on more than 25 locations, saying they were in defense of Muslim Rohingya communities that had been abused by government forces. The clashes were the worst since an attack by the militants on three border posts last October killed nine policemen, setting off months of brutal counterinsurgency operations by Myanmar security forces against Rohingya communities in Rakhine state. Human rights groups accused the army of carrying out massive human rights abuses including killing, rape and burning down more than 1,000 homes and other buildings.

South Sudan

South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011 after 98% of the population voted to break away from Sudan. The world’s youngest country quickly fell into civil war that took on ethnic undertones. The United Nations estimates that the conflict has left 1.89 million people internally displaced, while another 1.97 million were refugees in neighboring countries. It categorized 6 million people as being “severely food insecure.”

Nigeria

Nigerian Islamist militants have used 83 children —  including a baby strapped to a girl — as “human bombs” since the beginning of this year, UNICEF said this week. This year witnessed a 400% increase in child bombers as compared to last year. “The use of children in this way is an atrocity. Children used as ‘human bombs’ are, above all, victims, not perpetrators,” UNICEF said in a statement. Boko Haram militants operating in northeast Nigeria held about 8,000 children since 2009 in areas under their influence.

Weather

Seasonal monsoon rains triggered devastating floods in South Asia, killing at least 950 people in recent weeks and impacting nearly 40 million across northern India, southern Nepal and northern Bangladesh, officials said Thursday. The widespread flooding has occurred in a broad arc across the Himalayan foothills in those countries. The heavy rain led to landslides, damaged crops, roads and electric towers and destroyed tens of thousands of homes. Army soldiers and volunteers have evacuated around 770,000 people from inundated areas.

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