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Hurricane Michael takes aim at 300-mile Gulf Coast target

Hurricane Michael takes aim at 300-mile Gulf Coast target

(CNN) - Hurricane Michael is poised to slam Florida's Panhandle by Wednesday afternoon, threatening dangerous storm surges to low-lying areas ill-equipped to handle them -- and officials are urging people to get out of the way now.

Michael, spinning in the Gulf of Mexico as a Category 2 storm Tuesday morning, is expected to strengthen even more before making landfall Wednesday, possibly as a Category 3.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott called Michael a "monstrous storm" that could bring "total devastation" in and around the Panhandle area.

"Hurricane Michael is forecast to be the most destructive storm to hit the Florida Panhandle in decades," Scott said Tuesday morning.

"You cannot hide from storm surge, so ... get out if an evacuation is ordered," he said.

Tropical-storm-force winds will be felt in the area starting early Wednesday, and mandatory or voluntary evacuation orders already have been issued in at least 16 Florida counties along and near the state's Panhandle and Big Bend coasts.

Michael's core, with maximum sustained winds of 100 mph, was about 395 miles south of Panama City, Florida, as of 8 a.m. ET Tuesday, the National Hurricane Center said. Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 40 miles from the center and tropical-storm-force winds outward up to 195 miles.

The main threats

The storm's center and where it makes landfall with its destructive winds represent just one of several concerns. Among them:

• Storm surges of 9 to 12 feet could slam the coast from roughly Apalachicola to Cedar Key, Florida, with only slightly lower surges farther to the west along the Panhandle coast. "That means the water will come miles in shore and could easily be over the roofs of houses," Scott said.

• Heavy rain and flooding are expected not just for Florida but also for other parts of the Southeast. Up to 12 inches of rain could fall in Florida's Panhandle and Big Bend areas, southeastern Alabama and southern Georgia, while parts of the Carolinas and southern Virginia eventually could see up to 6 inches, the hurricane center said.

• Tornadoes could spawn as a result of the storm in the Southeast on Tuesday night into Thursday, forecasters said.

• Damaging winds are expected to rake not just Florida but also southeastern Alabama and southern Georgia. If Michael's core comes ashore as a Category 2 or higher, it would be the strongest storm in terms of wind speed to make landfall in the country this year.

"You will see damage to infrastructure. You will see power outages," Jeff Byard, associate administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Office of Response and Recovery, said Tuesday.

"#HurricaneMichael isn't heading to any one town ...," the National Weather Service tweeted Monday. "There are warnings for more than 300 miles of coastline. It's forecast to be a large and dangerous hurricane at landfall."

'We need the residents to be leaving today'

A hurricane warning is in place from the Alabama-Florida border to the Suwannee River in Florida. A hurricane watch is in effect for the coast of Alabama.

Meanwhile, tropical storm warnings extend from the Chassahowitzka River to the Mississippi-Alabama border. Tropical storm watches are in effect in some coastal areas of Mississippi, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

Storm surge warnings are also in place along the Florida and Alabama coasts.

"This is a life-threatening situation. Persons located within these areas should take all necessary actions to protect life and property from rising water and the potential for other dangerous conditions," the hurricane center said.

US Rep. Neal Dunn, whose district includes Panama City, urged people under evacuation orders to get out before tropical-storm-force winds arrived. He especially focused on islands off the coast whose bridges may close as the storm approaches.

"You haven't got anywhere to go (if the bridges close)," he said Tuesday morning. "And then you're riding it out in your car instead of something else. So we need the residents to be leaving today ... because by this evening, those bridges are going to be in peril of being closed."

Some Florida counties ordered to evacuate

Floridians scurried to prepare after Scott extended a state of emergency to 35 counties and activated 2,000 National Guardsmen for hurricane duty.

The governor declared states of emergency for Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Holmes, Washington, Bay, Jackson, Calhoun, Gulf, Gadsden, Liberty, Franklin, Leon, Wakulla, Jefferson, Madison, Taylor, Hamilton, Suwannee, Lafayette, Dixie, Columbia, Gilchrist, Levy, Citrus, Pasco, Hernando, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee, Alachua, Union, Bradford and Baker counties.

Mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders were issued along the Florida Panhandle, and Scott said on Twitter he has directed the Florida Department of Transportation to suspend tolls in the northwest Florida region.

The Florida Highway Patrol is sending nearly 350 state troopers to the Panhandle and Big Bend areas in preparation for the storm, he said.

Alabama prepares for widespread power outages

In Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey issued a statewide state of emergency, saying on Twitter that it was "in anticipation of wide-spread power outages, wind damage and debris produced by high winds & heavy rain associated with #HurricaneMichael."

The governor's declaration activates the state's emergency operations plan, according to Ivey's office.

"I am concerned about the cone of uncertainty as Hurricane Michael is leaning west today," Alabama Emergency Management Agency Director Brian Hastings said in a statement Monday. "Residents and businesses in coastal Alabama must be vigilant and closely monitor the storm's path and be prepared for a major hurricane."

Deaths in Central America

Michael has been lashing western Cuba as it churned toward the United States. Up to 12 inches could fall there, threatening flash floods and mudslides, the hurricane center said Tuesday.

Over the weekend, flooding related to Michael led to at least 13 deaths in the Central American countries of Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador, according to officials.

New York disaster raises questions about limousine safety

New York disaster raises questions about limousine safety

(CNN) - These kinds of limos have worried safety experts for years: regular SUVs that have been jacked up, stretched out and converted into limousines.

A limo like that -- a converted 2001 Ford Excursion -- crashed in upstate New York over the weekend, killing 20 people.

It's unclear whether the limo's modification or some other factor contributed to the mass tragedy. In a statement Monday, Prestige Limousine Chauffeur Service, which operated the vehicle, said it is "performing a detailed internal investigation to determine the cause of the accident and the steps we can take in order to prevent future accidents."

Still, officials say it's time to examine whether regulations on limousines are sufficient.

"This does need to be a wake-up call," said Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. "Here we have 20 lives that have been lost. ... We do need to learn from this."

Sumwalt said the NTSB will look into whether regulations on limousines are adequate.

Converted limos that started out as smaller vehicles do pose some risks, former NTSB managing director Peter Goelz said.

"It's been a source of concern to the NTSB for years," he said. "The after-market adjustments that they make to these cars -- lengthening them, raising them -- often affects the structural integrity and the safety."

Regardless of whether a limo had been modified, there is a prevailing concern among some safety experts: rear passengers in limos are not required to wear seat belts.

"That's going to be revisited," Goelz said. "This accident -- it is such a horrific (death) toll. I would say this is going to be a watershed event for the limousine industry. There are seat belts in the back -- they're required to be -- but you're not required to wear them. ... So the rule may very well change in the near future."

But it's still too early to blame any single factor for the 20 deaths in New York.

"There's going to be two main areas of this investigation. One is the human side, the driver. Was he certified to drive this kind of vehicle? Was he under any kind of impairment -- drug, alcohol or even fatigue? And was he in a rush?" Goelz said.

"And then they're going to look at the vehicle. Was the interior of the vehicle designed in such a way that cause(s) injury? There's a lot to unpack in this investigation."

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the type of limousine involved. The vehicle was a Ford Excursion.

The limo that crashed and killed 20 people failed inspection. And the driver wasn't properly licensed.

The limo that crashed and killed 20 people failed inspection. And the driver wasn't properly licensed.

SCHOHARIE, New York (CNN) - The modified limo that crashed and killed 20 people wasn't even supposed to be on the road, New York's governor said Monday.

On top of that, the driver "did not have the appropriate driver's license to be operating that vehicle," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.

The startling revelations brought more anguish to those grieving the deaths of 20 people in the quaint town of Schoharie. At least one victim seemed worried about the condition of the limo, according to text messages shared with the New York Times.

Before the disaster, the limo was full of exuberance -- 17 birthday party guests who had many reasons to celebrate. There were newlyweds and young couples and four sisters, on their way to revel at an upstate New York brewery.

But for reasons still unknown, the limo plowed through a stop sign and crashed into a parked SUV, causing the deadliest US transportation accident in almost a decade.

All 17 passengers were killed. So was the limo's driver and two pedestrians.

As more details emerge about the apparent broken rules, investigators also are wondering whether the unusual structure of the limo may have contributed to this mass tragedy. Federal, state and local investigators flooded Schoharie to try to understand what happened.

"We don't know the cause of the accident, if it was a vehicle malfunction, if it was a driver malfunction (or) a driver error," Cuomo said.

The limo recently failed inspection

The birthday party guests were riding in a 2001 Ford Excursion that was converted into a limousine. Those kinds of altered vehicles have worried officials, said Peter Goelz, former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board.

That's because after-market modifications often affect a vehicle's structural integrity and safety.

"That vehicle was inspected by the New York State Department of Transportation last month and failed inspection and was not supposed to be on the road," Cuomo said.

"The driver needed what's called a CDL, a commercial driver license with a passenger endorsement. The driver did not have that proper license," Cuomo added.

The limo company has been identified as Prestige Limousine Chauffeur Service in Gansevoort, New York, according to an official with knowledge of the investigation.

US Department of Transportation records show Prestige Limousine Chauffeur Service has two drivers and three vehicles. Its vehicles were inspected five times in the last two years, and the company has had four vehicles taken out of service.

In a statement Monday, the limo company said it "extends its deepest condolences to the family members and friends of those who tragically lost their lives on Saturday. We are performing a detailed internal investigation to determine the cause of the accident and the steps we can take in order to prevent future accidents."

The company said it has "voluntarily taken our fleet of vehicles off of the road during the investigation." The company has already met with federal and state investigators and plans to do so again, the statement said.

Cuomo said officials are working on "a cease-and-desist order to stop Prestige Limousine from operating until the investigation is concluded."

State Police Maj. Robert Patnaude said authorities have located the limo company owner, Shahed Hussain, who is currently in Pakistan.

State Police & NTSB investigation continues

Patnaude said state police investigators have recovered the vehicle's airbag control module, which is the equivalent of the black box.

"That company and that vehicle have been under scrutiny of [Department of Transportation] in the past," he said, declining to elaborate.

State police officials seized three of the company's vehicles, in addition to the modified limo involved in the crash, Patnaude said.

NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said the limo was configured for 19 seats. Some seats had lap-shoulder belts, but it wasn't immediately clear whether all the seats were equipped with seat belts and whether anyone had them on, Sumwalt said.

In New York, limo rear passengers are not required to wear seat belts, according by Sumwalt.

He said some seats remained anchored to the floor during the crash. There was also extensive damage to the front of the limo, mostly on the driver's side, Sumwalt said. The limo's engine compartment has been pushed back in to the front of the passenger compartment, indicating a "high energy impact," Sumwalt said.

No skid marks were observed but the damp road conditions could have mitigated any skid marks, he said.

The federal agency doesn't know the limo's speed at this point at the time of the crash, Sumwalt said.

The NTSB will look at several factors, including the driver's fitness, whether fatigue was an issue, the company's compliance with state and federal regulations and its record of prior crashes, Sumwalt said.

One family loses four sisters

Those in the limo weren't just friends -- many were family.

Four sisters -- Mary Dyson, Abby Jackson, Allison King and Amy Steenburg -- all died in the crash, state Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara said. Steenburg's husband Axel Steenburg also was killed.

Many of the victims were from the upstate city of Amsterdam, about 20 miles north of the crash site. Jackson was a special education teacher in Amsterdam, said Santabarbara, who represents the part of New York where the crash happened.

Valerie Abeling said her niece, Erin Vertucci McGowan and Erin's husband Shane McGowan, died together. They got married just four months ago.

"It's a horrible tragedy, and there's no words to describe how we feel," Abeling said.

"These were young couples, just got married and had their whole lives ahead of them."

Limo appeared to be in poor condition, victim said in text message

According to The New York Times, Erin Vertucci McGowan sent a text message to Melissa Healey, who was McGowan's maid of honor, that said their party bus had broken down on the way to pick them up.

Instead, the friends rented a stretch limo, which was in poor condition, for the trip to the brewery, the message said, according to the paper.

"The motor is making everyone deaf," McGowan wrote, according to the Times.

Healey asked where the group had gotten the vehicle. But McGowan said she didn't know.

"When we get to brewery we will all b deaf," McGowan wrote, the Times reported.

'They now have no parents'

Karina Halse said her "heart is completely sunken," with the loss of her sister, Amanda Halse, who was killed along with her boyfriend.

"I can't even imagine how it happened, or why it happened," she said.

And Barbara Douglas isn't just grieving the deaths of her two nieces. She's mourning the loss of two mothers.

"They were fun-loving. They were wonderful girls," Douglas said. "They'd do anything for you, and they were very close to each other."

Douglas' face grew increasingly somber as she thought of her nieces' three children.

"They now have no parents," Douglas said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the type of limousine involved. The vehicle was a Ford Excursion.

Limo crash leaves Amsterdam, New York, devastated and asking how 20 people died

Limo crash leaves Amsterdam, New York, devastated and asking how 20 people died

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Newlyweds, sisters and close friends were killed in New York limo crash

Newlyweds, sisters and close friends were killed in New York limo crash

(CNN) - As investigators piece together what caused the limo crash that killed 20 people in upstate New York, more details are coming out about the 17 passengers who had gotten together to celebrate a birthday.

Authorities have not released all of the victims' names, but the close-knit group included newlyweds, artists, athletes and young parents. Four were sisters.

"Everyone's lives were cut way too short, and I don't know what to say about it. It just hurts," Karina Halse told CNN on Monday while visiting the scene of the accident where her older sister, Amanda Halse, was killed.

Here's what we know about the victims:

Amanda Halse and Patrick Cushing

Amanda Halse was an artist. Karina Halse called her the peacekeeper in the family.

"My big sister was so great and she was so wonderful. She was such a spontaneous person and she did whatever she could to have fun with anyone and everyone around her," Karina Halse said.

They had gotten together last weekend to make a day trip to Vermont with their mom.

"It was just a nice get-together for all three of us girls to have a nice day out," Karina Halse said. "It was a nice sendoff, I guess, because that would be the last time I would ever see her in person."

Patrick Cushing, Halse's boyfriend, also died in the crash.

Cushing worked in the New York Senate's technology service unit and played for the US Dodgeball team, which described him on Facebook as an amazing friend and "one of the most agile and dominant players in the world."

Justin Cushing said his brother was passionate and good-hearted.

"He had such empathy and kindness. He loved, hugged, and cried with his friends and family like their problems were his, and celebrated with those same family and friends like our successes were his personal goals," he said.

Shane McGowan and Erin Vertucci McGowan

Shane and Erin McGowan married in June, and her aunt said they were "two of the sweetest souls you could ever meet."

"They were both just soul mates because they just radiated love and beauty and how a marriage should be," Valerie Abeling told CNN. "They were just loving and funny and kind and everybody loved them and they were so good together. Their lives were just cut short too soon."

Amy, Axel and Rich Steenburg

Newlyweds Amy and Axel Steenburg also married in June. In her last public Facebook post, Amy gushed about her husband.

"I just wanted to say Axel Steenburg I love you more than words can say! You are such an amazing man and entertain all my crazy ideas. Even when I move a couch just to move it back to the original place. Thank you for being so kind and loving xo #justbecause #husband," she wrote.

Axel's brother, Rich Steenburg, also was in the limo, their aunt Jessica Andrews confirmed to CNN affiliate WHAM.

Amy Steenburg's three sisters, Abby Jackson, Mary Dyson, and Allison King, were killed in the crash, said State Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara.

"The Steenburg and King families suffered tremendous loss yesterday that is nothing short of tragic," Rich Steenburg's family said in a statement to CNN affiliate WHAM.

"Those left behind by the perished include children, spouses and parents -- among others. We thank all of the first responders who have assisted, those who have reached out with kindness and love and those who continue to support us as we mourn those we lost. We also ask for respect and compassion as we continue the grieving process and cope through such misfortune."

Abby and Adam Jackson

Abby and Adam Jackson were parents to two young children. "Adam and Abby were amazing parents to these girls and taken much too soon," Sarah Maltzman, a family friend wrote on a GoFundMe page set up to pay for college and expenses for the couple's daughters.

Abby Jackson worked as a middle school special education teacher in Amsterdam, New York, according to Santabarbara.

Rob and Mary Dyson

Mary Dyson was a coach at a Crossfit gym in Watertown, New York. The gym held a special workout in her honor on Monday.

"She will be cheering us on and laughing at some of us!!" organizers wrote in a post on the gym's Facebook page.

Her husband Rob also was killed.

Michael, now a Category 1 hurricane, expected to strengthen

Michael, now a Category 1 hurricane, expected to strengthen

(CNN) - Michael, now a Category 1 hurricane slashing Cuba, is forecast to be a "dangerous major hurricane" when it smacks the US Gulf Coast on Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center said.

The forecast indicates Michael may be a Category 3 hurricane -- with winds from 111 to 129 mph -- when it strikes.

"Life-threatening storm surge is possible along portions of the Florida Gulf Coast regardless of the storm's exact track or intensity," the center said. "Well-built framed homes may incur major damage or removal of roof decking and gable ends. Many trees will be snapped or uprooted, blocking numerous roads. Electricity and water will be unavailable for several days to weeks after the storm passes."

Floridians scurried to prepare after Gov. Rick Scott expanded a state of emergency declaration to include 35 counties and activated 1,250 National Guardsmen for hurricane duty.

"Heavy rainfall from Michael could produce life-threatening flash flooding from the Florida Panhandle and Big Bend region into portions of the Carolinas through Thursday," the hurricane center said.

Michael has undergone a period of "rapid intensification" -- defined as an increase of sustained winds of 35 mph in a 24-hour period. The storm went from 40 mph on Sunday to 75 mph on Monday and is expected to undergo rapid intensification again in the next 24 hours.

The Category 1 hurricane now has maximum sustained winds of 90 mph. A Category 2 hurricane has sustained winds of 96 to 110 mph. Storms with winds of at least 111 mph are designated as "major" hurricanes.

Late Monday, Michael's center was about 485 miles south of Panama City, Florida and 450 miles south of Apalachicola, with the storm moving northward at 12 miles per hour. Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 35 miles from the center and tropical-storm-force winds extended outward up to 175 miles, the National Hurricane Center said.

The storm is aiming at a region that stretches from Mobile, Alabama, through the Florida Panhandle and into the Big Bend area of northern Florida.

A hurricane warning from the National Weather Service was declared for the Alabama-Florida border to the Suwannee River in Florida. A warning means that hurricane conditions are expected somewhere within the designated area, and warnings are typically issued 36 hours before tropical-storm-force winds are expected, the weather service said.

Storm and storm surge watches were issued for the Gulf Coast from the Mississippi-Alabama border to Chassahowitzka, Florida, north of Tampa Bay.

As forecast, Michael would be the first Category 3 or higher hurricane to hit the Panhandle since Hurricane Dennis in 2005. Monday, it became the seventh hurricane of 2018 in the Atlantic Basin. On average, the Atlantic would have about five hurricanes by October 8.

'Everybody's got to get ready'

Scott warned that Michael could reach land as a Category 2 hurricane, with winds in excess of 100 mph.

"This storm will be life-threatening and extremely dangerous," Scott said at a press briefing.

"This storm has the potential to bring devastating impacts to communities across the Panhandle and Big Bend and every family must be prepared."

"Everybody's got to get ready. Don't take a chance," he said. "We're going to get storm surge, we have wind, we have a chance of flooding, we have a significant chance of tornadoes."

The governor declared a state of emergency for Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Holmes, Washington, Bay, Jackson, Calhoun, Gulf, Gadsden, Liberty, Franklin, Leon, Wakulla, Jefferson, Madison, Taylor, Hamilton, Suwannee, Lafayette, Dixie, Columbia, Gilchrist, Levy and Citrus counties.

Voluntary, and in some cases, mandatory, evacuations were issued in some areas along the Florida Panhandle coast.

Florida State University campuses in Tallahassee and Panama City plan to close Tuesday through Friday.

In Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey issued a statewide state of emergency in anticipation of damage from Hurricane Michael. The governor's declaration activates the state's emergency operations plan, according to Ivey's office.

Hurricane conditions expected in western Cuba

In the Caribbean, a hurricane warning is in effect for the Cuban province of Pinar del Rio -- where most of Cuba's famed cigar tobacco is grown -- and a tropical storm warning has been issued for the Isle of Youth. A warning for the coast of Mexico from Tulum to Cabo Catoche, was canceled late Monday.

"Hurricane conditions will continue over portions of the far western Cuban province of Pinar del Rio through this evening. Tropical storm conditions are expected across the remainder of the warning areas in Cuba and the Yucatan Peninsula through tonight," the center said.

"Michael is expected to produce heavy rainfall and flash flooding over portions of western Cuba and the northeastern Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico during the next couple of days," it said.

According to an alert published by the Cuban Civil Defense, meteorologists warned affected residents that they could experience hurricane-force winds. Officials also alerted residents living on the coast of the possibility of flooding caused by the storm.

What the NTSB will probe in the upstate New York crash that killed 20 people

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Flint schools are getting safe water fountains thanks to Elon Musk

Flint schools are getting safe water fountains thanks to Elon Musk

(CNN) - Flint schools are finally getting the help they need to provide safe water fountains for their students.

Flint Community Schools thanked billionaire Elon Musk and the Musk Foundation last week for donating money to install new water fountains with filtration systems at all its schools.

Lead and other toxins were found to be tainting Flint's water supply four years ago, in what's been called the Flint water crisis. Since then, the community has struggled with water contamination problems.

"We are deeply grateful for the generosity and the budding partnership between Flint Community Schools, the Musk Foundation and Elon Musk," said Flint Community Schools Superintendent Derrick Lopez. "The new water filtration systems will be instrumental in helping our students return to the normalcy of what should be a fundamental right: having access to safe, clean water from water fountains in their school."

Flint schools will install new ultraviolet water filtration systems for all its water fountains in school buildings thanks to the $480,350 donation, according to the city of Flint.

The Tesla CEO responded to the school's announcement on Twitter. "You're most welcome. Hope to do more to help in the future," he wrote.

Musk first promised to help Flint in a tweet back in July. "Please consider this a commitment that I will fund fixing the water in any house in Flint that has water contamination above FDA levels. No kidding," he wrote at the time.

The new fountains and filtration systems will be installed in all 12 Flint schools and the district's administration building by the end of January 2019.

"The UV water purification method within the water filtration systems will disinfect all lead and bacteria coming from the water pipes to allow students to drink from and fill up water bottles from school water fountains," the city of Flint said in a press release on October 5.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized Elon Musk's position with Tesla. He is the company's CEO, but has stepped down as chairman.

Federal officials will round up 1,000 wild horses in California. Some may end up in slaughterhouses

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