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Florida’s iconic palm trees threatened by invasive disease
By TERRY SPENCER | Mon, August 19, 2019 09:56 EDT
DAVIE, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s iconic palm trees are under attack from a fatal disease that turns them to dried crisps in months, with no chance for recovery once they become ill.
Spread by a rice-sized, plant-hopping insect, lethal bronzing has gone from a small infestation on Florida’s Gulf Coast to a nearly statewide problem in just over a decade. Tens of thousands of palm trees have died from the bacterial disease, and the pace of its spread is increasing, adding to environmental woes of a state already struggling to save its other arboreal icon, citrus trees, from two other diseases.
Florida’s official state tree — the tall, broad-leafed sabal palm — is especially susceptible and Florida nurseries, businesses and homeowners are taking a financial hit as they scrap infected palms. Some preventive measures can be taken, but once infected, uprooting the tree is the only practical solution.
“Getting this disease under control is essential because it has the potential to drastically modify our landscape,” said Brian Bahder, an entomologist who studies insect-borne plant diseases and is a leader in the state’s battle against lethal bronzing.
If nothing is done, Bahder said, “I don’t think all the palm trees will die, but the issue we see will get a lot worse before it gets better.”
Lethal bronzing, which experts say likely originated in Mexico, also is found in parts of Texas and throughout the Caribbean. Some worry it will migrate to California and Arizona, infecting date palms and damaging that fruit crop. The disease has already heavily damaged Jamaica’s coconut plantations, and Brazil is taking preventive measures to avoid invasion.
Coincidentally — but conveniently — lethal bronzing is attacking palms right outside Bahder’s office at the University of Florida’s agriculture research station near Fort Lauderdale. Some are dying, some are dead. This gives him a lab to test ideas and make presentations, so he is not removing infected trees as recommended.
“To understand the disease, I need to watch it spread and see what it is doing,” said Bahder, an assistant professor with UF.
Lethal bronzing’s first Florida appearance came near Tampa in 2006, but it’s now found from the Keys in the south to Jacksonville in the north. The disease is transmitted solely by the haplaxius crudus, a tiny winged insect sometimes called the American palm cixiid or, generically, a treehopper. These specific treehoppers (there are other kinds) inject the bacteria through their saliva when feasting on the sap from a palm’s leaves. Any palm cixiid that later feeds from the tree will pick up the infection and pass the bacteria to more palms.
Once inside a tree, the bacteria migrate to its base, multiplying until they clog the circulatory system — much like human arteries getting blocked by fat and cholesterol. The blockage makes it impossible for the tree’s cells to get sufficient nutrients and sugars, starving them. As an infected tree dies, its fronds and central spear leaf transform from green to a tell-tale shade of bronze as it succumbs in about six months. The disease doesn’t infect humans or animals.
Genetic testing shows lethal bronzing likely originated in Mexico’s Yucatan region. Bahder’s hypothesis is that 2005’s Hurricane Wilma, which tracked from the Yucatan to Florida, or a storm with a similar path carried infected treehoppers across the gulf to Tampa. Those insects infected area palms, which infected native treehoppers. The disease spread when winds blew infected bugs to new territories or they hitched rides on vehicles. Bahder said the palm cixiid is particularly attracted to white cars.
To check the spread, the state agriculture department regularly inspects palm nurseries and certifies those found free of the disease. If infected trees are discovered, they’re destroyed and the nursery’s remaining trees are quarantined for at least six weeks. Calls to about a dozen palm tree farms around the state weren’t returned — Bahder said it is a problem owners don’t like to discuss publicly, fearing it will hurt business.
Eric Muecke, Tampa’s urban forestry manager, said the city has had success containing the disease by keeping its palms healthy and surrounding more susceptible palm varieties with trees that don’t attract the bacteria-spreading bugs.
“It’s not like it marches through a tree population — you don’t see one dead tree after another,” Muecke said. “It hops around; it’s pretty sporadic.”
Brent Gaffney, a Gainesville landscaper, said Bahder’s research is the state’s best hope for containing the disease, but only if he gets enough funding. Studies are underway on whether massive doses of antibiotics can save trees in the infection’s early stages.
After infected trees are removed, nearby palms need preventive antibiotic injections to halt the spread. Each injection costs $50 and loses effectiveness after three months: that makes injections before the disease is present too costly for most homeowners, businesses and municipal governments, Bahder said. Only high-end resorts that use mature palms to enhance ambience might consider injecting trees without a nearby infection, he said.
Lethal bronzing is sometimes called “Texas Phoenix palm decline” because it appeared in that state in the late 1970s, killing trees in the Rio Grande Valley around Brownsville. That state’s agriculture department says outbreaks today are infrequent and isolated. But Bahder said global warming is widening the threat.
“With increased human movement around the region and, especially, stronger weather patterns in regards to climate change, there are more possible routes for invasive insects,” Bahder said.
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Patience wears thin for migrants stranded off Italian coast
By FRANCES D’EMILIO and RENATA BRITO | Mon, August 19, 2019 06:06 EDT
ROME (AP) — The Spanish rescue ship Open Arms resorted to serving pizzas to 107 increasingly angry and sometimes aggressive migrants who are stranded aboard, as Italy’s interior minister stuck to his refusal to let the vessel dock at a nearby Italian island in a weekslong standoff.
The migrants were rescued from traffickers’ boats in the Mediterranean off Libya and have spent 18 days aboard the Open Arms as they wait to see whether anti-migrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini will let them disembark on Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island south of Sicily. Six other European Union countries have agreed to take the passengers.
A day earlier, Open Arms’ captain informed Italian authorities that the crew of 17 could no longer control the situation aboard, as frustrated migrants resort to fighting.
Separately, the organization’s founder, Oscar Camps, told The Associated Press in a phone interview Monday night from Lampedusa, that “it is not a question of how long we can hold out. No one knows what will happen.”
“At every instant we must stop fights, aggression, arguments, hunger strikes and stop people from jumping into the sea,” exactly like several migrants did a day earlier in a foiled bid to reach the island, he said.
When the migrants were brought back aboard, major fights broke out among the passengers “because they had put the others at risk,” Camps added.
In a bid to vary the migrants’ food and improve their mood, some of the crew went to the island and returned with 100 pizzas, Camps said. “We have tried everything” to keep spirits calm, he added.
Asked if Open Arms might follow the example of a German captain who defied Salvini’s ban and steered a boat packed with migrants to Lampedusa this summer, Camps said he would not.
“We have no intention in disobeying, we have scrupulously compiled with maritime law,” he said.
The German captain was arrested but later released after an Italian judge ruled that she was saving the lives of the 40 migrants aboard.
Open Arms sailed within a few hundred meters of Lampedusa last week after winning a court ruling overturning Salvini’s ban on private rescue boats entering Italy’s territorial waters. Salvini has appealed that ruling and warned that the ban on docking still holds.
The boat is currently anchored off Lampedusa’s coast.
Camps said Italy’s coast guard offered to transport some of the migrants to Spain, but Open Arms insisted they must take everyone aboard.
Italian Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli, whose ministry includes the coast guard, said Italy also offered to escort Open Arms to a Spanish port, but the ship “incredibly refused” that offer, too.
Earlier in the day, Open Arms’ president, Riccardo Gatti, suggested that the migrants could be transferred to the major Sicilian city of Catania, where a chartered plane could then fly the 107 migrants to Spain.
Open Arms captain Marc Reig Creus told Italian authorities Sunday that if Italy won’t let the ship dock at Lampedusa, it would agree to transferring the migrants to another boat that could make the several days’ journey to the port Spain had initially proposed, Algeciras, at the far west end of the Mediterranean.
Open Arms has only two toilets, and last week volunteers who visited the ship said some migrants were forced to use areas where they eat for their bathroom needs.
Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo said the government had offered to help the Open Arms with food, fuel and medical attention for the journey to Spain.
“We believe that once the migrants have peace of mind and know that they will navigate to a safe and open port, like the one Spain is offering, this situation will calm down,” she said. “But the answer was that they (Open Arms) insist on entering Italy.”
Camps, in explaining the refusal, said: “We could have done it on Day 1 or 2, but not on Day 18 when we have exhausted our resources,” psychologically. “It can’t be fixed with a little food, fuel and pats on the back” for a four-day journey, he said, calling conditions on the ship “inhuman.”
Earlier on Monday, Open Arms nixed a follow-up offer by Spain to go to a closer port in the Balearic Islands.
Salvini’s popularity is soaring among his voter base, which blames illegal migrants for crime.
“Why doesn’t Open Arms go to Spain?” he tweeted. “In 18 days, they could have gone back and forth three times from Ibiza and Formentera,” two Balearic islands.
Last week, 40 migrants and some family members were allowed to leave Open Arms because they were deemed to be minors, ailing or psychologically troubled.
Meanwhile, the Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking, which is operated by two French humanitarian groups and has 356 rescued migrants aboard, has been sailing between Malta and the Italian island of Linosa as it waits for a port of safety to be assigned
Brito reported from Barcelona, Spain. Ciaran Giles in Madrid and Lorne Cook and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed.
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Wide implications as Germany teeters toward recession
By DAVID RISING | Mon, August 19, 2019 03:21 EDT
BERLIN (AP) — Germany, Europe’s industrial powerhouse and biggest economy, with companies like Volkswagen, Siemens and BASF, may be entering a recession, according to a gloomy report from the country’s central bank Monday — a development that could have repercussions for the rest of the eurozone and the United States.
A technical recession is defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth, and Germany saw a 0.1% drop in the April-to-June period. In its monthly report, the Bundesbank said that with falling industrial production and orders, it appears the slump is continuing during the July-to-September quarter.
“The overall economic performance could decline slightly once again,” it said. “Central to this is the ongoing downturn in industry.”
Deutsche Bank went further Monday, saying “we see Germany in a technical recession” and predicting a 0.25% drop in economic output this quarter.
Germany’s economy is heavily dependent on exports, and the Bundesbank said the trade conflict between the U.S. and China and uncertainty about Britain’s move to leave the European Union have been taking their toll. Both the U.S. and China are among Germany’s top trade partners, with Britain not far behind.
In addition, Germany’s auto industry __ with giants like Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW — faces challenges adjusting to tougher emissions standards in Europe and China and to technological change as demand grows for electric vehicles. Germany is also home to such major corporations as Bayer, Merck, Linde and the ThyssenKrupp Group.
The Bundesbank report is in line with a consensus among economists that “the risk of another quarter flirting with recession is high,” Carsten Brzeski, the chief economist for ING bank in Germany, told The Associated Press.
“The bigger picture is that the trade conflicts and uncertainty are finally starting to hurt one of the most open economies,” he said.
Though the labor market in Germany remains strong, with unemployment around historic lows, if economic concerns prompt consumers to stop buying — or at least to put off purchases — that could start to drag down growth in countries that count on Germany as a market for their exports.
“If this stagnation/recession continues and leaves more lasting marks on the domestic economy, the rest of the world will also notice,” Brzeski said. “Just think of weaker German demand for foreign goods or a German slowdown dragging the rest of the eurozone down — it could be a bit of a boomerang effect for the U.S., showing that no one really wins trade wars.”
In the United States, a survey of business economists released Monday found that 74% appear sufficiently concerned about the risks of some of President Donald Trump’s economic policies that they expect a recession in the U.S. by the end of 2021.
Amid the trade conflict between Washington and Beijing, the increasing prospect of Britain leaving the EU without an exit agreement, and growing fears that countries may race to devalue their currencies, the monthly ZEW poll of German investors fell to its lowest level last week in over 7½ years.
“The ZEW indicator of economic sentiment points to a significant deterioration in the outlook for the German economy,” said Achim Wambach, president of the Mannheim-based institute.
Germany is still expected to post modest growth this year, with the Bundesbank predicting 0.6% and the government 0.5% growth, but its slowdown is already starting to have an effect on the wider 19-nation eurozone, which last week announced that growth had halved in the second quarter to just 0.2%.
In response to the sluggish economies, the European Central Bank has signaled it is preparing a package of additional monetary stimulus measures, including a possible rate cut and bond purchases, which could be announced at its Sept. 12 meeting.
Germany under Chancellor Angela Merkel has been running budget surpluses for years but has come under pressure from the International Monetary Fund, the U.S. Treasury Department and others to undertake measures to boost domestic demand, such as cutting taxes and spending more on infrastructure.
During the recession a decade ago, Merkel’s government was widely criticized for dragging its feet in passing a stimulus package, though it eventually introduced measures adding up to some 80 billion euros, the largest such package in the country’s postwar history.
Last week, Merkel, who is not running in the next elections, set for 2021, suggested she was open to the possibility of stimulus measures, saying that there was no need for a package “so far” but that “we will react according to the situation.”
She noted that her government is already working on plans to remove in most cases an income tax aimed at covering costs associated with rebuilding the former East Germany.
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Authorities praised for handling of protests in Portland
By GILLIAN FLACCUS | Mon, August 19, 2019 06:27 EDT
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — After previous political rallies that ended in violence, police in Portland, Oregon, earned praise Monday from outside observers for using a natural barrier — the city’s Willamette River — to keep dueling protesters apart during a weekend far-right rally and large counter-demonstration that included a subset of masked and black-clad anti-fascists.
Two of the 13 people arrested Saturday made a first court appearance Monday, while the rest have court dates next month to allow authorities to process reams of evidence, including videos and photos posted on social media, the Multnomah County district attorney’s office said in a statement. More arrests may come as those postings are reviewed, authorities said.
As the city returned to normal, Mayor Ted Wheeler called Saturday’s dueling demonstrations a win for residents. Oregon’s top federal prosecutor called the handling of the event a “definitive counterpoint” for those who on both sides who have criticized police after past protests for favoring one side or the other.
“We do not tolerate hate and we do not tolerate violence,” Wheeler said. “We had a plan, we executed on that plan and on the whole, it was successful.”
Amid the praise, however, protesters on both sides declared victory — and laid the groundwork for future demonstrations in liberal Portland.
A small group of right-wing protesters camped outside Wheeler’s house Sunday to protest what they say were his attempts to limit free speech. Joe Biggs, a member of the far-right group Proud Boys, vowed that right-wing groups will keep coming to Portland as long as anti-fascists are around.
Joey Gibson, the leader of another right-wing group that’s marched in Portland previously, spoke Monday outside the courthouse where he had a first court appearance on a charge of felony rioting from a May 1 skirmish with anti-fascists. In a video streamed live on Facebook, Gibson said he would not take a plea deal because he had done nothing wrong.
“If you’re liberal, you should be against this,” he said. “They don’t have to support me but they need to stand up for free speech.”
Popular Mobilization, a left-wing group that’s critical of Portland police, credited the counter-demonstrators — not law enforcement — with keeping the city safe and criticized officers for opening the bridge over the Willamette River “solely to escort the hate groups across.”
“People everywhere are fed up and ready to push back against fascism,” PopMob said in a statement. “Instead of hiding in fear alone in our homes, we chose a joyful display of community resilience — a reminder of the power we have when we come together.”
After some early skirmishes, police were largely able to keep the dueling groups apart — a sharp contrast from previous rallies when there were violent clashes.
This time, far-right demonstrators gathered in a riverfront park and then crossed the bridge with the permission of police. Law enforcement then closed the same bridge to the black-clad and masked far-left protesters.
Most of the Proud Boys soon left and a large crowd, including about 50 black-clad antifa, walked the streets looking for them as police followed, blocking intersections to keep traffic flowing. Later, several hundred left-wing protesters skirmished with police near downtown, resulting in some arrests.
The mayor said Monday he supported the police decision to use the bridges to keep protesters apart. The right-wing demonstrators told a police liaison officer they wanted to use the bridge to leave, he said.
“The police made that happen because they believed it was in the best interest of de-escalating the situation,” Wheeler said.
By evening it was all over.
Throughout the day, hundreds of counter-demonstrators — some dressed as bananas, unicorns and pandas — diffused the tension by dancing, praying, listening to a brass band, blowing giant bubbles and singing along the riverfront.
“Much of the counter-protest that I saw this time was much more celebratory, much more creative and artistic. I think that resulted in an increased number of Portlanders who came out and I think it limited the physical confrontation,” said Eric Ward, executive director of the Portland-based Western States Center.
The city is planning an event this weekend to encourage people to dine and shop in the part of the city where businesses had to close, Wheeler said. “Last weekend was very tense, this weekend we’re hoping it is plain old fun, the way Portland is in late August in the summer,” he said.
Follow Gillian Flaccus on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/gflaccus
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Pell’s appeal pitted word of former choirboy against priest
By ROD McGUIRK | Tue, August 20, 2019 12:18 EDT
CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Cardinal George Pell’s appeal against his convictions for child molestation was largely a question of who the jury should have believed, his accuser or a senior priest whose church role was likened to Pell’s bodyguard.
Pell’s accuser was a 13-year-old choirboy when he alleged that he was abused by then-Melbourne Archbishop Pell at the city’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral in December 1996 and February 1997. Monsignor Charles Portelli was a master of ceremonies at the 11 a.m. Sunday Masses where the choir sang.
A chorister in the 1990s, David Dearing, told police that Portelli, Pell’s right-hand man, was always with the archbishop “like his bodyguard.”
When the jury of eight men and four women that convicted Pell began their deliberations, they asked to see again video recordings of the testimonies of both the complainant, who cannot be identified, and Portelli.
Portelli had testified that he had been with Pell chatting to churchgoers on the steps of the cathedral on the only two Sundays in December 1996 when Pell could potentially have been molesting the two choirboys. His testimony that Pell was on the steps in the moments for around 10 minutes after those Masses has been described as alibi evidence.
The Maltese-born immigrant also testified that he would have seen Pell squeeze a choirboy’s genitals as he shoved the teen against a cathedral wall if the indecent assault had happened after a Mass in February 1997 as the complainant had testified.
“To do so, he (Pell) would have had to push in front of me,” Portelli said in a television interview in April, in which he said Pell was innocent.
Portelli also revealed that Pell phoned him the day his testimony ended in November to apologize for the grilling he received from prosecutors. Portelli said prosecutor Mark Gibson tried to undermine his credibility as the prosecution had the witness before him, 85-year-old sacristan Max Potter, who was in charge of the priests’ changing room where the complainant had alleged he and another choirboy had been molested.
“They had tried to bamboozle him (Potter) with dates and secondary questions and so on and the cardinal apologized to me by saying, ‘I’m sorry they tried to do the same to you,'” Portelli told Sky television.
Prosecutor Chris Boyce told the appeals court in June that Portelli’s memory appeared to be clearer when he answered defense lawyers’ questions than when he was questioned by the prosecution.
Boyce accused Portelli of assisting the defense by purporting to not have memories that he had when questioned by Pell’s lawyers.
Pell’s lawyer Bret Walker told the appeals court that the prosecution never suggested to the jury that Portelli was lying, partisan or lacked reliability.
“Monsignor Portelli deserved better, with respect, than the way his evidence was criticized and belittled in terms of its importance for your honors’ independent assessment,” Walker told the three appeals judges, who are to issue their ruling Wednesday.
Portelli had said he was always with Pell during the Masses in question and helped the archbishop robe and disrobe.
Portelli was a heavy smoker in the 1990s. Gibson suggested to the jury that Portelli might have gone outside the cathedral to smoke a cigarette, leaving Pell to enter the sacristy alone and abuse the boys.
But the suggestion was withdrawn because Portelli was never asked if he had left Pell alone to smoke and the trial heard no evidence to suggest that he had.
Boyce said the complainant’s testimony stood up to more than eight hours of questioning. Boyce drew the judges’ attention to a video recording of a particular section of the complainant’s questioning by Pell’s lawyers.
“The responses that you see there … and the manner in which they’re delivered, at the end of those, one puts down one’s pen and stares blankly at the screen and is moved,” Boyce said.
“At that point, … any doubt that one might have about that account … is removed,” he added.
Appeals Justice Mark Weinberg told Boyce there were plenty of cases in which appeals courts had said the complainant was credible and appeared truthful, but that the verdicts were unsafe because of other evidence and improbability.
The complainant’s credibility was only “the beginning of the process,” Weinberg said.
“We have to consider the evidence as a whole, every bit of it,” the judge added.