Hurricane Sandy closes in on East Coast
by Gene Cherry
HATTERAS ISLAND, North Carolina (Reuters) - Hurricane Sandy closed in on the United States on Saturday, where it threatens to hit the eastern third of the country with torrential rains, high winds, major flooding and power outages a week before U.S. presidential and congressional elections.
The late-season storm has been dubbed "Frankenstorm" by some weather watchers because it will combine elements of a tropical cyclone and a winter storm and is forecast to reach the U.S. coast close to Halloween.
As it merges with an Arctic air mass high over the eastern United States, forecast models show it will have all the ingredients to morph into a "super storm."
Coastal flooding posed a major threat, particularly to low-lying areas like New York City, the global financial nerve center.
That threat was described in blog posted on Weather Underground (www.weatherunderground.com) on Saturday by veteran weather forecaster Bryan Norcross as "serious as a heart attack for anybody near the rising water."
Governors in states along the U.S. East Coast declared emergencies on Friday, with officials urging residents to stock up on food, water and batteries.
Coming in the hectic run-up to the U.S. presidential election on November 6, the storm presented a challenge to the campaigns of President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
Romney canceled a rally scheduled for Sunday evening in Virginia Beach, Virginia, while Obama's re-election campaign announced that Vice President Joe Biden had also canceled a Saturday trip to that city.
Ahead of the election, millions of Americans are taking advantage of early voting arrangements to cast their ballots. State officials said they had put in place contingency plans in case Sandy caused extended power outages or other problems that could disrupt voting.
In New York City, officials were considering shutting down the country's largest mass transit system because of concerns the storm could cause flooding or high winds that would make subway and bus travel perilous.
Sandy was about 355 miles southeast of Charleston, South Carolina, and packing top sustained winds of 75 miles late Saturday morning, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. It had briefly dropped just below hurricane strength.
Little overall change in strength was expected ahead of its anticipated U.S. landfall early next week, the Miami-based Hurricane Center said.
The storm picked up a little forward speed overnight but was still moving slowly over the Atlantic at 9 mph. A jog east late Saturday morning briefly took Sandy further out to sea.
The massive storm has continued to expand, with tropical force winds now extending 450 miles from its center, government forecasters said.
BATTERED CUBA, BAHAMAS
"Regardless of the exact landfall spot this system has ... much of New England and the mid-Atlantic states are going to be impacted, perhaps very severely, by this storm," National Hurricane center meteorologist Chris Landsea told Reuters.
"It's certainly going to be a very significant storm when it gets up to the mid-Atlantic states," he added.
Sandy battered the Bahamas southeast of Florida on Friday after causing widespread destruction in eastern Cuba a day earlier.
The storm's powerful winds and rains were blamed for at least 41 deaths in several Caribbean countries, including 11 in Cuba. Most were killed by falling trees and building collapses.
On its current projected track, Sandy could make U.S. landfall on Monday night or Tuesday anywhere between Maryland and southern New England, forecasters said.
"Perhaps the biggest concern, at the very end, may be the extreme rainfall that's going to occur after landfall," Landsea said.
In addition to coastal and inland flooding, along with widespread power outages, Sandy was expected to dump heavy wet snow in southwest Pennsylvania and as far inland as Ohio.
High winds also threaten to disrupt air travel along the U.S. East Coast.
Tropical storm warnings and watches along Florida's east coast were lifted on Saturday as the storm moved north.
Tropical storm-force winds were being felt near the North Carolina coast and tropical storm warnings for all of the coastal portion of the state, along with about half of South Carolina, were in effect.
Along North Carolina's Outer Banks barrier islands, which jut out into the Atlantic, residents and officials took a wait and see approach to the storm as rain fell and the winds and surf picked up early Saturday.
"We're watching it and waiting and seeing," said North Carolina Emergency Management spokeswoman Julia Jarema.
Outer Banks residents, with memories of damaging flooding from last year's Hurricane Irene, moved vehicles to higher ground and secured outside objects ahead of winds of more than 60 mph beginning Saturday night and potentially lasting into Monday.
Beach erosion and ocean overwash of the only highway on Hatteras Island were expected, shutting off several thousand year-round residents from the mainland.
A buoy 225 miles south of Cape Hatteras recorded 26-foot (8-metre) waves amid blistering wind gusts early on Saturday, authorities said.
Many forecasters are warning that Sandy could be more destructive than last year's Hurricane Irene, which caused billions of dollars in damage across the U.S. Northeast.
3.6 million social security numbers exposed in unprecedented South Carolina cyber attack
by Chris Welch
"This is not a good day for South Carolina." That was Governor Nikki Haley's public reaction to news that a foreign hacker had infiltrated South Carolina's Department of Revenue and made off with 3.6 million social security numbers and 387,000 credit/debit card numbers. Of the compromised cards, state officials believe only 16,000 were unencrypted, though the staggering social security breach affects more than half of South Carolina's 4.6 million population. Governor Nikki Haley held a presser earlier this afternoon confirming the attack — first uncovered by WLTX Columbia. “The number of records breached requires an unprecedented, large-scale response by the Department of Revenue, the State of South Carolina and all our citizens,” said Haley before outlining steps that residents can take to discover if their information was exposed.
Millions of residents risk identity theft
Everyone who has filed a tax return in the state since 1998 is urged to call 1-866-578-5422. If you're among the unlucky millions, you'll be given a code that can be redeemed for a year of identity theft protection through Experian's ProtectMyID service. "I want this person slammed against the wall," said Haley of the perpetrator. Authorities have dismissed the possibility that the attack originated from within the United States and are focusing their search internationally. A number of law enforcement agencies have joined the effort including the FBI and US Secret Service
Numerous attacks have been detected
An initial attack was launched August 27th, though it's believed no data was stolen during this first attempt. But two additional intrusions were recorded in September according to the Department of Revenue, which was made aware of the situation by South Carolina's IT division on October 10th. "We worked with them throughout that day to determine what may have happened and what steps to take to address the situation," said Director James Etter. "We also immediately began consultations with state and federal law enforcement agencies and briefed the governor's office.” Security firm Mandiant was recruited to assist in the state's investigation and develop tougher security protocols. Officials have chronicled their response efforts thus far in this document.
Too little, too late
Blindsided by such a sophisticated and malicious attack, Governor Haley signed an executive order calling for the state's government to improve information security policies. Previous regulations were uncoordinated and left South Carolina vulnerable, she said. Cyber security has become a priority of the Obama administration and other government representatives and it stands to reason that a real-world breach of this magnitude will bring that conversation back to the forefront in the days and weeks ahead. If there's any good to come of this, hopefully it will hasten efforts to develop a better and more secure identification system.
Use of drones in community policing 'unchartered territory'
by James Pinkerton
Privacy concerns about an airborne armada of government drones recording the actions of Americans was at the forefront of a congressional hearing Thursday in Houston, but so far Texas law enforcement has had limited experience with the new technology.
U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, chaired the hearing to discuss his proposed law that would ensure the unmanned aerial vehicles will not be used by government agents to illegally spy on Americans or let people stalk their neighbors.
The Texas Department of Public Safety employed drones from 2008 to 2010, but halted their use due to operational costs and federal regulations that limited both flight areas and radio frequencies to control the aircraft, said regional DPS Commander Duane Steen.
The Montgomery County Sheriff's Office has still not received government approval to operate a $300,000 drone that crashed last year into a SWAT vehicle during a test flight.
"This is new technology, it's uncharted territory and we … want to make sure we're doing this the right way and the legal way," said Sheriff's Lt. Melvin Franklin, who explained the drone would be deployed in emergency situations or to search for missing persons.
Superintendent McCarthy dismantles CAPS, will replace it with something at some point
by Mick Dumke
Before he began his City Council budget testimony
on Wednesday, police superintendent Garry McCarthy introduced a number of top department officials who were also on hand, from first deputy superintendent Al Wysinger to department spokeswoman Melissa Stratton. But then he drew a blank.
"To her right is, uh, Ron, um . . ."
An aide leaned over to help him out: "Holt."
"Holt!" said McCarthy. "From the CAPS office."
It was a telling moment. The Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy office is the one that's supposed to coordinate the department's efforts at community organizing and neighborhood crime prevention—the one whose budget has been cut from $9 million in 2000 to half that this year to nothing in 2013.
Yet McCarthy says that's all part of a new, "revitalized" approach to community policing in Chicago. He says it will put more patrol officers on the beat, empower block clubs to reclaim corners from drug dealers, and reduce gang violence—all without more police officers, which Mayor Rahm Emanuel once promised but McCarthy insists are unnecessary. The city can't afford them either, but McCarthy doesn't talk about that.
"There's no studies that show that more cops means less murders," McCarthy told aldermen. "It's what those officers do."
He's got a point. But city residents can be forgiven for thinking they've heard some of these promises before, because they have. And often it's hard to tell which are policies that will impact neighborhood safety and which are political maneuvers meant to buy time.
"Chicago is faced with a widening gap between citizen demands and government resources. The resulting strains on the budgets of not only the Police Department, but also schools, parks, streets and sanitation, and other city services, only exacerbate the already dangerous conditions that are contributing to high levels of crime, disorder, and fear in so many of our neighborhoods."
That's from a paper called "Together We Can" put together by police officials in 1993. The document detailed the department's new commitment to community policing, which emphasizes collaboration between cops and residents to prevent crime.
It was also released at a time when Mayor Richard Daley was facing criticism for failing to fulfill a campaign promise to hire 600 more police officers.
Community policing was supposed to be a department-wide philosophy. But CAPS quickly became a program burrowed within the department and known mostly for holding monthly meetings in each beat. At its best, CAPS officers worked with residents to address issues ranging from rat infestation to heroin dealing, and in many neighborhoods CAPS meetings remain well attended and productive.
At its worst, though, CAPS was an expensive PR operation for the mayor. There were never enough officers freed to focus on crime prevention. And it's no coincidence that City Hall tended to talk more about CAPS—and throw around the term "community policing"—when it helped politically.
During a summer of high-profile shootings two years ago, Mayor Daley announced that he was recommitting to community policing. He tapped Holt to lead the effort. "I've told Ron CAPS must redouble its efforts to be an important catalyst," Daley said.
The appointment made headlines because Holt wasn't just any cop: his own son, 16-year-old Blair, had been slain when he tried to protect others from a shooting on a CTA bus in 2007.
A few months after that declaration, Daley announced he wasn't running for reelection, then gutted the CAPS program, forcing officers to cut the frequency of meetings.
Since Mayor Rahm Emanuel brought McCarthy on board last year, Holt has been ignored and community policing has been an afterthought. Instead, McCarthy has focused on CompStat, his New York-imported system of holding police commanders accountable for reducing murders and shootings.
Everyone knows what's happened this year: for a host of complicated reasons, the city has suffered a jump in violence that made the national news. It also prompted usually pliant aldermen to ask for more police.
According to city records, Chicago currently has about 10,500 police officers on the payroll, a drop of about 1,300 over five years. Emanuel and McCarthy says they've moved hundreds from desk to street duty, and others from specialized units to beat patrols, but that hasn't ended the appeals for more. In fact, one of McCarthy's signature crime-prevention initiatives involved shifting extra police to Englewood and the west side; after it apparently helped reduce crime there, other aldermen asked for more police in their neighborhoods too.
"Some of these communities are basically on fire, superintendent," 20th Ward alderman Willie Cochran, a former cop, told McCarthy Wednesday. "The men and women out there know they are not getting the services they need because there are not enough officers."
When McCarthy insisted that the department is at "full strength" with 12,500 sworn members—that is, from cadets and beat cops to top brass—22nd Ward alderman Rick Munoz asked to see the analysis that produced the figure.
McCarthy hedged. "It's not an analysis—it's a process. We don't have a document that says this is what we need based on that. It's looking at it and feeling that we have the right numbers in the right places."
It was an interesting answer, since a consulting firm headed by former police chief Terry Hillard claims it's conducted "a Patrol Staffing Analysis and Review for the Chicago Police Department Bureau of Patrol."
Bottom line: no expansion of the force.
But McCarthy argues it's time to get back to true community policing: making sure that patrol officers can stick with one beat they get to know well, and that the CAPS office is dismantled and replaced with . . . something he hasn't figured out yet.
In the meantime, CAPS officers will now all report to district commanders, though most already did. Beat meetings will continue, but CAPS funding will disappear into the rest of the $1.3 billion police department budget, essentially to help cover salary costs that have grown even without new hires.
As for Holt and other CAPS leaders, they'll be given something else to do. "We don't know where they're going to fit per se," said Wysinger, the deputy superintendent.
No one explained how exactly the community comes into all of this. Police in the districts haven't been told anything either.
"This is all being built as we speak," said McCarthy.