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    People watch the solar eclipse from a hot air balloon near Cairns, Australia, Wednesday. (AP Photo/Hot Air Balloon Cairns)

    SYDNEY (AP) - From boats bobbing on the Great Barrier Reef, to hot air balloons hovering over the rainforest, and the hilltops and beaches in between, tens of thousands of scientists, tourists and amateur astronomers watched as the sun, moon and Earth aligned and plunged northern Australia into darkness during a total solar eclipse Wednesday.

    Stubborn clouds that many feared would ruin the view parted - somewhat - in north Queensland, defying forecasts of a total eclipse-viewing bust and relieving spectators who had fanned out to glimpse the celestial phenomenon.

    "Immediately before, I was thinking, 'Are we gonna see this?' And we just had a fantastic display - it was just beautiful," said Terry Cuttle of the Astronomical Association of Queensland, who has seen a dozen total solar eclipses over the years. "And right after it finished, the clouds came back again. It really adds to the drama of it."

    Spectators whooped and clapped with delight as the moon passed between the sun and Earth, leaving a slice of the continent's northeast in sudden darkness.

    Starting just after dawn, the eclipse cast its 150-kilometer (95-mile) shadow in Australia's Northern Territory, crossed the northeast tip of the country and was swooping east across the South Pacific, where no islands are in its direct path. A partial eclipse was visible from east Indonesia, the eastern half of Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and southern parts of Chile and Argentina. Totality - the darkness that happens at the peak of the eclipse - lasted just over two minutes in the parts of Australia where it was visible.

    Gloomy weather had left many eclipse-chasers who had traveled to Australia from around the globe anxious that they wouldn't be able to see a thing. But the clouds moved in time for many to watch as the moon blotted out the sun's rays and cast a shadow over the tropical landscape.

    Hank Harper, 61, and his two children flew from Los Angeles just to see the eclipse, and feared the clouds would ruin their adventure. The three of them hopped on board a hot air balloon with other eager tourists and staff from Hot Air Balloon Cairns, crossed their fingers - and were rewarded with a perfect view.

    "We gambled everything - drove through the rain and didn't even know if the balloon was going to go up," he said by phone from the hot air balloon as he and Harrison, 10, and Reilly, 12, watched the sun's rays re-emerge from behind the moon while kangaroos hopped on the ground below. "It was everything I could have hoped for."

    On a dive-boat drifting along the blue waters of the Great Barrier Reef, a cheer of relief erupted as the clouds moved away at the moment of total eclipse, followed by a hush as darkness fell across the water. One scuba diver floated on his back in the sea, watching the phenomenon unfold as he bobbed in the waves. Birds on a nearby island, startled by the sudden lack of light, began to stir.

    "It was absolutely amazing. We were coming out this morning and there was a wee bit of cloud around and we were apprehensive," Adam O'Malley of the Passions of Paradise dive company said by phone from his boat. "We got a full view - absolutely breathtaking."

    Some Queensland hotels have been booked up for more than three years and more than 50,000 people flooded into the region to watch the solar spectacle, said Jeff Gillies, regional director of Queensland Tourism.

    Skygazers crowded along palm-fringed beaches, fields and clifftops to watch the event through protective viewing glasses and homemade pinhole cameras that projected the sun's image onto makeshift screens. Fitness fanatics gathered for the Solar Eclipse Marathon, where the first rays of the sun re-emerging from behind the moon was the starting gun. Some began partying days ago at a weeklong eclipse festival.

    Scientists were studying how animals respond to the eclipse, with underwater cameras capturing the effects of sudden darkness on the creatures of the Great Barrier Reef.

    The next total solar eclipse won't happen until March 2015.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Photos: Total Solar Eclipse Over Australia

     

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    A mailbox sits on the porch of a burned out home in the Breezy Point section of New York, Tuesday. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

    NEW YORK (AP) - When Sandy's storm surge plowed into the seaside neighborhood of Breezy Point, New York City police officer and volunteer firefighter Tim O'Brien was part of the small band of first responders who kept the flood from becoming a slaughter.

    As the tide lifted beach homes off their foundations and started a terrifying fire that devoured more than 100 buildings, he was among the rescuers who tried to contain the inferno and hauled boats through the streets to carry residents to higher ground. Dozens of people were literally dragged to safety clinging to the sides of fire trucks.

    Only when it was over did he have a chance to tally his personal losses. His own apartment house in the Rockaways had been severely damaged in the flood. His parents' home was inundated, too. So was his mother-in-law's.

    "It's heartbreaking," he said. "We all grew up down here."

    Superstorm Sandy devastated people of every walk of life, but it has upended things in a unique way for first responders. Many are spending their working hours helping a battered city get back on its feet, only to return home to find destruction as bad as any in the city.

    The NYPD says an estimated 1,300 officers suffered a "catastrophic" loss during the storm. And the Fire Department says 500 firefighters have registered their homes as damaged or destroyed. That figure doesn't include people who lost vehicles or were displaced from homes still without power.

    "This whole community is devastated, but they've still got to go to work," said Roy Richter, president of the Captains Endowment Association, an NYPD union. "Give your wife and children a blanket and a candle, and say, 'I'll see you in 12 to 16 hours.'"

    For generations, police officers and firefighters heading home exhausted at the end of their shifts have found tranquillity in Breezy Point, which sits in sandy, wind-swept isolation at the tip of the Rockaway peninsula that protects parts of New York City from the Atlantic surf.

    Here, the barrier peninsula is less than 1,100 yards wide in some spots from sea to bay. There is only one road in and out. Many houses sit on sandy walkways, rather than paved streets. Homes are bunched so closely, they nearly touch. Everyone knows everyone.

    It would be an exaggeration to say everyone there has a badge or bunker gear, but not by much. Only about 5,000 people live in the community, yet it has three volunteer fire departments and lost 32 residents in the Sept. 11 attacks.

    When the storm came, it rendered this community of bravest and finest nearly helpless.

    The sea washed over the entire peninsula. Strong winds fueled the fire like a blowtorch, hurling baseball-size embers block after block, setting roofs ablaze, while chin-high floodwaters kept the FDNY from bringing in reinforcements.

    Many of the neighborhood's residents had ignored the evacuation order and were home when the fire and water came. Yet somehow, no one died.

    "I did two tours of combat duty in Iraq, but this was the most disturbing thing I've ever seen," said Jimmy Coan, a captain in the NYPD's aviation unit. He spent the night in a diver's dry suit, sloshing door to door in waist-deep water.

    Since the storm, O'Brien has been putting in his full shifts at the NYPD, and then going back to work for the volunteer fire brigade in Breezy Point, which has thrown itself into relief and recovery work. His wife and children have been staying in Staten Island.

    "It's tiring, but it's got to be done," he said of his 18-hour days.

    He counts himself among the lucky. Some other members of the volunteer fire company have been sleeping behind a tarp curtain in a building that smells of soot and is being used as a warehouse for relief supplies.

    Coan didn't lose his home in the storm, because he lives year-round on a 52-foot boat. But he had to haul the yacht out of the water before the storm as a precaution, and his marina was badly damaged, so for now he has been displaced, as well.

    "I'm sleeping in an Army sleeping bag at night," he said.

    NYPD Sgt. Kathy Cowan, another member of the aviation unit, had 4 feet of floodwaters and sewage course through her home during the storm.

    Since then, she has been staying with a colleague, while quietly stewing over suddenly finding herself on the wrong end of the kind of emergency scenario cops and firefighters deal with at work all the time.

    "It drives me crazy to be the victim," she said.

    Richter is also a longtime Breezy Point resident. He returned to the neighborhood the next morning to find his beachfront home, which he had finished reconstructing only a year ago, an unsalvageable, half-flattened mess.

    His father's house, a short walk away, also suffered severe flood damage but stayed on its foundation.

    "He dug that foundation himself - 2,142 wheelbarrows of sand," Richter said.

    The five unions that represent NYPD officers and commanders have set up a charity, the New York Police Disaster Relief Fund, to get aid to the hardest-hit members of the department.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: 25 Indelible Images from Superstorm Sandy

     

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    The largest remaining ice field on Kilimanjaro shrank and separated into two pieces. The gap is visible in an image acquired by the Advanced Land Imager on NASA's Earth Observing-1 satellite. (Credit: NASA Earth Observatory)

    Another ominous sign that Mount Kilimanjaro's ice fields may disappear in 50 years has emerged.

    What was once the largest remaining ice field on Kilimanjaro shrank and separated into two pieces, a research expedition discovered in September. The summit's northern ice field now has a rift large enough to ride a bike through, Kimberly Casey, a glaciologist based at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, told NASA's Earth Observatory.

    The gap is visible in an image acquired by the Advanced Land Imager on NASA's Earth Observing-1 satellite on Oct. 26 and in panoramic images Casey captured during the research expedition.

    Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, is Africa's highest peak - 19,341 feet (5,895 meters) - and harbors three distinct ice fields: One on its western slope and two within the summit plateau. The northern ice field first started developing a hole in 1970.

    The ice cover on the volcano's western slopes will disappear by 2020, and the ice fields in the plateau will be gone by 2040, predicts a study in the Oct. 1 issue of the journal Cryosphere Discuss. Scientists generally agree the ice fields will disappear completely by 2060 if climatic conditions continue unchanged.

    The major cause of the ice loss is a matter of debate. An increasingly dry atmosphere in the region, which leads to less snowfall, plays an important role, studies show. On the other hand, additional research confirms that a warming climate also contributes to the disappearing ice.

    Surveys of Kilimanjaro's ice fields a century ago found nearly 8 square miles (about 20 square kilometers) of ice. By 2003, the ice was down to 0.97 square miles (2.51 square km), and on June 17, 2011, the ice covered 0.68 square miles (1.76 square km).

    Follow OurAmazingPlanet on Twitter @OAPlanet. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

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    Copyright 2012 OurAmazingPlanet, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

     

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    A plea to the Long Island Power Authority for electricity to be restored is posted on a barrier in Mastic Beach, N.Y. (AP)

    UNIONDALE, N.Y. (AP) - The chief operating officer of a utility company heavily criticized for its response to Superstorm Sandy is stepping down.

    The Long Island Power Authority announced Tuesday that Michael Hervey had tendered his resignation, effective at the end of the year. Hervey has been with LIPA for 12 years.

    LIPA has come under withering criticism since Sandy knocked out power to more than a million of its customers on Oct. 29, both for how long it was taking to get power restored and for poor communication with customers.

    There are about 10,000 outages in Nassau and Suffolk counties, just east of New York City, and LIPA officials have said they hope to have most of them resolved by Wednesday.

    The company said Tuesday that 99 percent of those customers that can safely get power have it restored. But 35,000 customers that suffered significant flood damage need repairs on their properties before power can come back.

    The majority of those customers are in the hard-hit Rockaways section of Queens, served by LIPA. The Consolidated Edison utility also had about 4,000 customers in that position, in Brooklyn and Staten Island.

    A state report criticized LIPA in June for poor customer communications after last year's Hurricane Irene. The Department of Public Service noted LIPA's major problems in telling customers estimated power restoration times, faulting its computer system, which a consultant had found deficient in 2006.

    LIPA acknowledged that customers weren't getting the information they needed, partly because of the system, which it is updating. Hervey said Monday that LIPA "accelerated that process" after Irene but it's still an 18-month to two-year procedure.

    "We would have liked to have had it up and running for now," he said, "but it's just such a large magnitude computer system that it takes that long."

    Hervey said the company would work with customers over the next several weeks as they get their homes repaired.

    Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday announced an investigation into how utility companies prepared for Sandy, which killed more than 100 people in 10 states but hit New York and New Jersey the hardest, and how they handled the aftermath.

    "From Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Lee, to Hurricane Sandy, over the past two years New York has experienced some of the worst natural disasters in our state's history," Cuomo said. "As we adjust to the reality of more frequent major weather incidents, we must study and learn from these past experiences to prepare for the future."

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: 25 Indelible Images from Superstorm Sandy

     

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    (AP Photo)

    Just as the northeast begins to breathe easier after the battering it received from Hurricane Sandy and a destructive nor'easter, weather forecasters are delivering more bad news: A possible storm may strike the region early next week, potentially wreaking havoc on Thanksgiving travel plans.

    A nor'easter could form over the western Atlantic Ocean, bringing heavy rains and wind across parts of the region at the beginning of the week, according to AccuWeather.com. If the storm moves inland over New England, it could also bring snow or a wintry mix to that region, say AccuWeather forecasters.

    Though the storm isn't expected to be as severe as last week's nor'easter, stormy conditions could affect travel along the I-95 corridor, as well as flight cause delays.

    Still, the Northeast isn't the only region that may experience holiday travel woes. According to AccuWeather:

    A potent storm from the Pacific threatens to bring heavy rain, mountain snow and locally gusty wind to the Northwest and northern California early next week. The rain could slow travel along the I-5 corridor from Seattle to Portland and Medford, Ore. San Francisco may also get damp for a time, causing some slower holiday travel.

    RELATED ON SKYE: How to Drive in Any Weather Condition

     

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    President Barack Obama makes an opening statement during his news conference, Wednesday, Nov. 14 in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP)

    WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama said Wednesday that his administration has not done enough to combat global warming but said he hopes to begin his second term by opening a national "conversation" on climate change.

    Obama said at a news conference that he took some steps in his first term to slow global warming, such as sharply increasing fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks.

    "But we haven't done as much as we need to," Obama said in his second comments on global warming since winning re-election last week.

    Climate change was virtually absent during the presidential campaign until Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast. The devastating superstorm - a rarity for the Northeast - and an election that led to Democratic gains have elevated global warming as a subject of renewed political debate.

    Obama said during his victory speech in Chicago last week that Americans "want our children to live in an America that isn't ... threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet."

    On Wednesday, Obama did not outline specific legislation, but said he would talk with scientists, engineers and elected officials to find ways to make short-term progress to reduce carbon emissions.

    After that, he said the country should begin long-term efforts "to make sure that this is not something we're passing on to future generations," noting that floods, hurricanes and other disasters exacerbated by climate change are "going to be very expensive and very painful to deal with."

    Obama did not mention a possible carbon tax pushed by some activist groups. A White House official said this week no such proposal is on the table.

    Taking on climate change in a serious way will require "tough political choices" at a time when Americans are more focused on the economy and jobs, Obama said. "If the message is somehow we're going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don't think anybody's going to go for that. I won't go for that."

    But if Republicans and Democrats can shape an agenda that helps create jobs and makes "a serious dent in climate change," then the American people will be supportive, Obama said.

    The right-leaning American Enterprise Institute held an all-day discussion Tuesday on a possible carbon tax, which would make people pay more for using fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas that produce heat-trapping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The more liberal Brookings Institution has released a "modest" carbon tax proposal that would raise $150 billion a year, with $30 billion annually earmarked for clean energy investments.

    Brad Johnson, campaign manager for ClimateSilence.org, an environmental group, said he welcome Obama's "belated call for a national conversation about how to address climate pollution."

    But Johnson said Obama's assertion that climate change should be secondary to economic concerns was "a gross disappointment and an insult to the deep suffering of the millions of victims of climate disasters across this nation," including Hurricane Sandy. Obama is scheduled to tour New York City Thursday to view storm damage and recovery efforts.

    "While conventional D.C. wisdom is focused on the manufactured crisis of the 'fiscal cliff,'" Johnson said, "the truth is that the most urgent threat to our national safety and economic well-being is the climate cliff that we are already beginning to tumble over."

     

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    A man stands outside his beachfront home in Coney Island's Sea Gate community after it was damaged in superstorm Sandy. (AP Photo)

    NEW YORK (AP) - Despite days of dire forecasts and explicit warnings, hundreds of thousands of people in New York and New Jersey ignored mandatory evacuation orders as Superstorm Sandy closed in. Now, after scores of deaths and harrowing escapes, emergency officials will look at what more can be done to persuade residents to get out when their lives are in danger.

    "The issue of those who either can't or won't abide by those orders - that is a question that we have to address," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said during a tour of ravaged Staten Island over the weekend.

    The same troubling pattern has been seen in previous storms, and the ideas tried across the country include stern warnings about the dangers of staying behind, moral appeals not to imperil rescuers, scary ads, and laws that threaten fines or jail time. And yet people refuse to leave, and some come to regret it - that is, if they survive.

    "Staying there was the stupidest thing I've ever done," acknowledged Steve Shapiro, a 55-year-old Staten Island resident who witnessed Sandy's surge lift nearby houses off their foundations. Two of his neighbors, a 13-year-old girl and her 55-year-old father, died when the rushing water destroyed their house.

    Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz said officials should work to make sure residents can feel safe in shelters and confident their homes will be safeguarded in their absence.

    But to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, it's a matter of changing minds, not tactics. The city notified people by such means as automated phone calls and sending around police officers with loudspeakers.

    "People have got to start learning that when we say something, we mean it - it's based on the best prognostication," he said.

    Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,800 people and left others stranded for days on roofs, in attics and on streets in flooded New Orleans in 2005, starkly illustrated to the rest of the country the importance of getting out.

    Often, though, people believe that a storm won't be so bad or that their homes are built tough enough. Some want to avoid shelters or the expense of staying in a hotel. Still others worry that their homes will be looted.

    Florida State University professor Jay Baker, who has studied the subject for decades, said it is not unusual for one-third to half of all residents to defy mandatory evacuation orders, especially in places that haven't been hit hard recently.

    Sandy was blamed for more than 100 deaths in 10 states, with many victims drowning in their homes or while belatedly trying to escape. In New York City alone, 35 of the 43 deaths were from drowning, largely in areas ordered to evacuate. Other people survived after police and firefighters risked their lives in churning floodwaters to reach them.

    Only about half of the more than 350,000 people in New York City who were told to flee did so, officials say. New Jersey officials estimated 90 percent of the 115,000 people ordered to evacuate obeyed. But the areas under mandatory orders in New Jersey included many vacation homes. In New York, the threatened neighborhoods consisted mostly of year-round homes.

    Ginger Matthews has lived all her 59 years in Long Beach, N.Y. - long enough to remember Hurricane Donna's strike nearby in 1960. But determined to watch over her home and the coin laundry she owns nearby, she defied evacuation orders.

    "I would never have imagined something so devastating," she recalled later, after at least 4 feet of water rushed into the newly refinished downstairs apartment in her split-level home. "Nobody would have convinced me to leave. ... I wanted to be here to prevent anything if it was going to happen. But that was senseless."

    In urging evacuations before Sandy, officials around the metropolitan area sounded a note of moral obligation: Think of the emergency workers who might have to risk their lives to rescue you. As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie put it in his usual sledgehammer style, staying is "both stupid and selfish."

    There are other avenues to try to get people to obey:

    PUNISHMENTS

    Some states make it a crime to ignore an evacuation order. North Carolina recently raised the potential fine from $200 to $1,000 and the possible jail term from 20 to 60 days. New York has a similar law that carries up to 90 days in jail.

    Still, it's unclear how often such laws are enforced, if ever. Indeed, Bloomberg said there would be no arrests in the city for defying evacuation orders during Sandy.

    Some scholars suggest it's legally possible to force people to leave. It could be seen as analogous to quarantining people in disease outbreaks, said Amy Fairchild, a Columbia University public health professor who co-wrote a paper on the subject.

    But in general, the image of forcing people out of their homes, or arresting them for staying, has little political or practical appeal.

    Under a principle known as the rescue doctrine, a rescuer who gets hurt saving someone can sue if the emergency was the result of negligence. That arguably could apply if an emergency worker was injured rescuing someone who ignored an order to evacuate, said Hayes Hunt, a Philadelphia lawyer who mulled over the issue on his blog, From the Sidebar.

    It's not clear, though, whether any emergency department would want to take that step against a citizen.

    SCARE TACTICS

    When Hurricane Rita threatened Louisiana a month after Katrina, then-Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco suggested anyone who defied evacuation orders should "write their Social Security numbers on their arms with indelible ink" so that their corpses could be more easily identified. (Rita ultimately pointed at a different problem: More than 100 people died during the clogged and chaotic evacuation of Houston.)

    Some communities ask residents to sign waivers documenting their refusal to leave - a tactic that drives home the danger.

    As hurricane season started in 2006, Florida launched controversial ads featuring genuine, panicky 911 calls from people begging for help during 2004's Hurricane Ivan and being told it was too dangerous to send rescuers.

    It's unclear exactly what effect such scare strategies have on evacuation rates, though.

    The most effective approach? Going door-to-door to tell residents in person that they should flee, but that's often impossible with big populations and short timeframes, said Florida State's Baker.

    It can help to enlist community leaders to spread the word, so people hear it repeatedly from trusted figures and not just from politicians at podiums, said Richard Olson, a disaster risk specialist at Florida International University in Miami.

    And officials and scientists might look for a more easily understood way to explain the threat of a storm's surge, now often expressed as a number of feet above normal tides, said Arthur Lerner-Lam, a disaster risk assessment expert at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

    But what might be most likely to persuade people to flee a hazardous storm is simply having been through one before.

    "Obviously, next time, I'll leave," said Shapiro, the Staten Islander. "No question about it."

    RELATED ON SKYE: Stunning Aerial Photos of Manhattan in Darkness

     

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    President Barack Obama in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

    WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama was traveling to New York City on Thursday to view recovery efforts from the massive Superstorm Sandy.

    Obama will meet Thursday with affected families, local officials and first responders who have been dealing with the deadly storm, which slammed into New York, New Jersey and other East Coast states last month, killing more than 100 people and leaving millions without power.

    Obama's visit will include an aerial tour of storm damage with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan.

    Obama also will visit a Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster recovery center and take a walking tour of a neighborhood affected by the storm.

    Obama traveled to New Jersey on Oct. 31 to meet with Gov. Chris Christie and view recovery efforts in coastal communities. The president viewed flattened houses, flooded neighborhoods, sand-strewn streets and a still-burning fire along the state's battered coastline.

    Obama pledged to those affected by the storm that "we are here for you, and we will not forget."

    Thousands of people in the New York region remained without power Thursday, especially in New York City's low-income public housing complexes, where some elderly and infirm people find it hard or impossible to leave their homes.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Stunning Aerial Photos of Manhattan in Darkness

     

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    Consolidated Edision trucks submerged near the Con Ed power plant on Oct. 29, 2012, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

    ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - The utility companies Consolidated Edison and Long Island Power Authority confirmed Wednesday they received subpoenas from the state attorney general and were cooperating with his investigation into their preparation for and response to Superstorm Sandy.

    An official familiar with the investigation said Attorney General Eric Schneiderman seeks plans and performance records on restoring power, communicating with customers without power and other aspects of the utilities' responses to the storm. The official wasn't authorized to speak during the investigation and requested anonymity.

    The superstorm, formed when Hurricane Sandy merged with two other weather systems, killed more than 100 people in 10 states but vented the worst of its fury on New York and New Jersey, where beach towns were flooded and power was knocked out to thousands of homes and businesses. It sapped electricity for more than 2 million New York customers alone.

    Con Ed said it looked forward "to reviewing the company's storm preparations and response with the attorney general and all interested parties."

    LIPA has reviewed the attorney general's subpoena and intends to "comply with it in all respects," spokeswoman Elizabeth Flagler said.

    On Tuesday, LIPA chief executive Mike Hervey resigned after 12 years. A permanent CEO slot and several board seats have been vacant for months awaiting appointment by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo, however, has said LIPA is simply an outdated political entity he wants to overhaul and that National Grid, contracted by LIPA, is responsible for providing power to Long Island.

    A spokeswoman for Schneiderman declined to comment.

    The probe is separate from a commission created by Cuomo to investigate utilities involved in Sandy.

    Schneiderman plans a broad look at the preparation and response to Sandy and a nor'easter that followed, the official said. The attorney general's office has investigation powers and the power to enforce state laws including public service and consumer protection laws, which could provide greater latitude than the state's Moreland commission.

    The Moreland Act Commission, created by Cuomo, can investigate and refer evidence of wrongdoing to a local district attorney or the attorney general's office. It also could issue a report recommending legislative changes.

    The official said Schneiderman is specifically looking into areas that include efforts to restore power, how well the companies communicated with customers without power, power line maintenance and the trimming of tree limbs near power lines and the loss of power distribution equipment and service at substations.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Stunning Aerial Photos of Manhattan in Darkness

     

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    Raw: 2 Rare Tornados Strike Japan

    The Western region of Japan was slammed by two tornadoes on Wednesday, one of which was filmed from a helicopter. The tornado lasted approximately 10 minutes and dissipated when it reached land, according to The Telegraph. No injuries were reported.

    RELATED ON SKYE: 18 Incredible Photos of Tornadoes

     

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    Stack Of Old Love Letters Lost In Sandy, Returned To Owners

    ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS, N.J. (AP) - World War II-era love letters written by a New Jersey woman to her boyfriend washed ashore during Superstorm Sandy.

    A 14-year-old found the 57 letters inside a box while walking along a beach in Atlantic Highlands the day after Sandy struck. They chronicled life for Dorothy Fallon and Lynn Farnham from 1942 until the week before they married in 1948. The Vermont native served in the Pacific during the war.

    Katheleen Chaney tells WNBC-TV in New York she started playing amateur detective as her son dried the letters.

    She left a message on a website where she learned Farnham had died in 1991. A niece contacted her to say 91-year-old Dorothy Fallon Farnham is in frail health in Asbury Park.

    It's believed the letters floated from the Rumson area, down a river and into Sandy Hook Bay.

     

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    Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012

    A large plume of smoke rises from fires on BP's Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico on April 21, 2010. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

    NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The largest environmental disaster in U.S. history came to reckoning Thursday, as British oil giant BP announced it was paying a record $4.5 billion in a settlement with the federal government over the 2010 Gulf oil spill disaster. Three BP employees were also charged, two of them with manslaughter.

    The settlement was the "largest total criminal resolution in the history of the United States," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said.

    The settlement and the indictments came 2 1/2 years after the drilling-rig explosion that killed 11 workers and set off the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

    The settlement includes nearly $1.3 billion in fines - the biggest criminal penalty in U.S. history - along with payments to entities inside and outside government. As part of the deal, the BP will plead guilty to charges related to the deaths of the 11 workers and to lying to Congress.

    "We believe this resolution is in the best interest of BP and its shareholders," said Carl-Henric Svanberg, BP chairman. "It removes two significant legal risks and allows us to vigorously defend the company against the remaining civil claims."

    Also, BP well site leaders Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine were indicted on manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter charges, accused of disregarding abnormal high-pressure readings that should have glaring indications of trouble just before the deadly blowout.

    In addition, David Rainey, who was BP's vice president of exploration for the Gulf of Mexico at the time, was indicted on charges of obstruction of Congress and making false statements. Prosecutors said he withheld information from Congress that indicated the amount of oil spewing from BP's blown-out well was greater than he let on.

    Rainey's lawyer said his client did "absolutely nothing wrong." And attorneys for the two rig workers accused the Justice Department of making scapegoats out of them.

    "Bob was not an executive or high-level BP official. He was a dedicated rig worker who mourns his fallen co-workers every day," Kaluza attorneys Shaun Clarke and David Gerger said in a statement. "No one should take any satisfaction in this indictment of an innocent man. This is not justice."

    The settlement, which is subject to approval by a federal judge, includes payments of nearly $2.4 billion to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, $350 million to the National Academy of Sciences and about $500 million to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The SEC accused BP of misleading investors by lowballing the amount of crude spewing from the well.

    "This marks the largest single criminal fine and the largest total criminal resolution in the history of the United States," Holder said at a news conference in New Orleans. He said much of the money will be used to restore the Gulf.

    Holder said the criminal investigation is still going on.

    The settlement does not cover the billions in civil penalties the U.S. government is seeking from BP under the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws. Nor does it cover billions of dollars in claims brought by states, businesses and individuals, including fishermen, restaurants and property owners.

    A federal judge in New Orleans is weighing a separate, proposed $7.8 billion settlement between BP and more than 100,000 businesses and individuals who say they were harmed by the spill.

    BP will plead guilty to 11 felony counts of misconduct or neglect of a vessel's officers, one felony count of obstruction of Congress and one misdemeanor count each under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Clean Water Act. The workers' deaths were prosecuted under a provision of the Seaman's Manslaughter Act. The obstruction charge is for lying to Congress about how much oil was spilling.

    The penalty will be paid over five years. BP made a profit of $5.5 billion in the most recent quarter. The largest previous corporate criminal penalty assessed by the U.S. Justice Department was a $1.2 billion fine imposed on drug maker Pfizer in 2009.

    Before Thursday, the only person charged in the disaster was a former BP engineer who was arrested in April on obstruction of justice charges. He was accused of deleting text messages about the company's response to the spill.

    Greenpeace blasted the settlement as a slap on the wrist.

    "This fine amounts to a rounding error for a corporation the size of BP," the environmental group said.

    Nick McGregor, an oil analyst at Redmayne-Bentley Stockbrokers, said the settlement would be seen as "an expensive positive."

    "This scale of bill is unpleasant," he said. "But "the worst-case scenario for BP would be an Exxon Valdez-style decade of litigation. I think that is the outcome they are trying to avoid."

    The Deepwater Horizon rig, 50 miles (80 kilometers) off the Louisiana coast, sank after an April 20, 2010, explosion that was later blamed by investigators on time-saving, cost-cutting decisions by BP and its drilling partners in cementing the well shaft.

    The well on the sea floor spewed an estimated 172 million gallons of crude in the Gulf, fouling marshes and beaches, killing wildlife and shutting vast areas to commercial fishing.

    After several failed attempts that introduced the American public to such industry terms as "top kill" and "junk shot," BP finally capped the well on July 15, 2010, halting the flow of oil after more than 85 days and putting an end to one of the most closely watched spectacles on TV and the Internet: the live spill-camera image of the gushing crude.

    Nelda Winslette's grandson Adam Weise of Yorktown, Texas, was killed in the blast. She said somebody needs to be held accountable.

    "It just bothers me so bad when I see the commercials on TV and they brag about how the Gulf is back, but they never say anything about the 11 lives that were lost. They want us to forget about it, but they don't know what they've done to the families that lost someone," she said.

    Sherri Revette, who lost her husband of 26 years, Dewey Revette, 48, of State Line, Mississippi, said the indictments against the employees brought mixed emotions.

    "I'm saddened, but I'm also happy at the same time that they will be prosecuted. I feel for them, of course. You never know what impact your actions will have on others," she said. She added: "If they had made a phone call, who knows what the outcome would have been?"

    The spill exposed lax government oversight and led to a temporary ban on deep-water drilling while officials and the oil industry studied the risks, worked to make it safer and developed better disaster plans. BP's environmentally friendly image was tarnished, and CEO Tony Hayward stepped down after the company's repeated gaffes, including his statement at the height of the crisis: "I'd like my life back."

    The cost of BP's spill far surpassed that of the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989. Exxon ultimately settled with the U.S. government for $1 billion, which would be about $1.8 billion today.

    The government and plaintiffs' attorneys also sued Transocean Ltd., the rig's owner, and cement contractor Halliburton, but a string of pretrial rulings by a federal judge undermined BP's legal strategy of pinning blame on them.

    U.S. District Carl Barbier in New Orleans will have the final say over the settlement. He is also the judge deciding whether to give final approval to the $7.8 billion deal involving shrimpers, commercial fishermen, charter captains, property owners, environmental groups, restaurants, hotels and others who claimed they suffered financial losses.

    Relatives of workers killed in the blast have also sued. And there are still other claims against BP from financial institutions, casinos and racetracks, insurance companies and local governments.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Striking Images of Islands, Rivers and Seas from Space

     

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    Imagine you're driving across congested Los Angeles streets and look up at yet another billboard. But instead of seeing an ad looming overhead, you spot a bamboo garden rustling in the breeze. It might just brighten your morning commute.

    That's the idea behind Stephen Glassman's Urban Air.

    The L.A.-based artist hopes to replace the advertisements on some billboards around the city with wi-fi enabled planters containing living bamboo trees, water misters and climate-monitoring technology. Glassman is trying to raise $100,000 for the project on Kickstarter. If he can do it, he says the first green billboard will go up in 2013.

    Watch the video for more info:


    (via GrindTV)

     

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    The presumed remains of the Bessie White, a wrecked schooner long buried under Fire Island's dunes, now lay fully exposed following Hurricane Sandy. (Photo: Cheryl Hapke, USGS)

    By Becky Oskin, OurAmazingPlanet Staff Writer

    A wrecked schooner long buried on Fire Island - a barrier island off of Long Island, N.Y. - now lays fully exposed following Hurricane Sandy's attack on the beach.

    The weathered hull of the shipwreck lies about 4 miles east of Davis Park, between Skunk Hollow and Whalehouse Point, in the Fire Island National Seashore, as first reported by Newsday.

    The remains are thought to be the Bessie White, more than 90 years old, said Paula Valentine, public affairs specialist for the park. Historic photographs and news accounts don't agree on the year of ship's grounding, but here is an outline of its story:

    The ship, a four-mast Canadian schooner, went aground in heavy fog about a mile west of Smith's Point, Long Island, in either 1919 or 1922. The men escaped in two boats. One capsized in the surf, injuring one crew member, but everyone (including the ship's cat) made it to shore safely. But the crew couldn't save the three-year-old ship or its tons of coal. The ship was salvaged in the following weeks.

    The bus-size ship's skeleton has poked up through the sand before, such as after a nor'easter in 2006, exposing long boards and metal pegs, Valentine told OurAmazingPlanet.

    The dune that used to bury the wreck eroded back an average of 72 feet, said U.S. Geological Survey coastal geologist Cheryl Hapke, who is studying the changes on Fire Island.

    Archaeologists and park officials are documenting the shipwreck before the sea reburies it with sand, Valentine said.

    "There's so little of it left we may not be not be able to determine which ship it actually is, but we may be able to learn more about its age," she said. "It's just a rare treat to see something exposed."

    Fire Island is a barrier island, a natural system that takes the brunt of the damage during powerful hurricanes and winter storms. The entire island was submerged following Hurricane Sandy. In all, 80 percent of homes were flooded and seawater breached the island in four places.

    Reach Becky Oskin at boskin@techmedianetwork.com. Follow her on Twitter @beckyoskin. Follow OurAmazingPlanet on Twitter @OAPlanet. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

    Shipwreck Alley's Sunken Treasures
    Image Gallery: Stunning Shots of the Titanic Shipwreck
    Disasters at Sea: 6 Deadliest Shipwrecks

    Copyright 2012 OurAmazingPlanet, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: 25 Indelible Images from Superstorm Sandy

     

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    President Barack Obama visits workers at the FEMA recovery center on the grounds of New Dorp High School on Staten Island, on Thursday. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

    NEW YORK (AP) - President Barack Obama vowed Thursday to stick with New Yorkers still struggling 17 days after Superstorm Sandy "until the rebuilding is complete" after getting an up-close look at devastated neighborhoods rendered unlivable.

    Obama brought the spotlight to people still living without heat or electricity, and hugged many of those trying to rebuild their lives. He also delivered a postelection message of unity, nine days after a closely divided America gave him a second term.

    "We're reminded that we are bound together and we have to look out for each other," Obama said from a block in Staten Island that was demolished by the storm. "The petty differences melt away."

    Obama announced that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, former chief of New York's Housing Authority, will be his point person to oversee long-term rebuilding in the region.

    The president encountered many still suffering in Sandy's aftermath, waiting in lines for food, supplies and other help.

    He also met privately with parents who experienced the most unthinkable tragedy - the loss of their young boys, Brandon and Connor Moore, who were swept away in the storm. Damien and Glenda Moore's sons were among more than 100 people who lost their lives because of the powerful storm.

    "Obviously, I expressed to them as a father, as a parent, my heartbreak over what they went through," Obama said. He said the Moores were "still a little shell-shocked" but wanted to thank the New York City police lieutenant who stayed with them and supported them until their boys' bodies were found.

    "That spirit and that sense of togetherness carry us through," Obama said.

    Before arriving on Staten Island, the president's helicopter flew over Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, including the waterfront community of Breezy Point, where roughly 100 homes burned to the ground in a massive wind-swept fire.

    On Staten Island, Obama met with people waiting in line at an emergency response center at New Dorp High School, where the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Small Business Administration, IRS, Red Cross and city agencies set up tents to help survivors. The White House said about 1,500 people had received services at the center, one of several in affected areas, as of Monday.

    He hugged one woman at the business tent, asking where she was staying and if her loved ones were safe. He also visited a tent where food and toiletries were being distributed and thanked the workers and volunteers who came in from around the country. Several hundred people gathered nearby to see the president and shouted, "We love you!"

    One girl collecting supplies, who said her house is unlivable, also said: "We need help. He should have been here a long time ago."

    Obama also walked along Cedar Grove Avenue, where most of the buildings were boarded up and homes were destroyed.

    He was joined on the tour by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

    Cuomo said earlier this week that he would request $30 billion in federal aid to rebuild.

    White House press secretary Jay Carney said he couldn't comment on the request because the administration was still waiting to see the details. He said the federal government will continue to do everything possible to cut red tape and help affected communities rebuild.

    Obama traveled to New Jersey on Oct. 31 to meet with Gov. Chris Christie and view recovery efforts in battered coastal communities. He saw flattened houses, flooded neighborhoods, sand-strewn streets and a still-burning fire along the coastline.

    The White House said the president didn't visit New York then so as not to interfere with recovery efforts.

    Vice President Joe Biden's office said he will travel to New Jersey on Sunday to view storm damage.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: 25 Indelible Images from Superstorm Sandy

     

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    A utility crew works to restore power on Long Beach Island, N.J., after Superstorm Sandy on Nov. 3. (AP Photo)

    NEW YORK (AP) - As the number of nights without power stretched on for thousands left in the dark after Superstorm Sandy, patience understandably turned to anger and outrage.

    But an Associated Press analysis of outage times from other big hurricanes and tropical storms suggests that, on the whole, the response to Sandy by utility companies, especially in hardest-hit New York and New Jersey, was typical - or even a little faster than elsewhere after other huge storms.

    The AP, with the assistance of Ventyx, a software company that helps utilities manage their grids, used U.S. Energy Department data to determine how many days it took to restore 95 percent of the peak number of customers left without power after major hurricanes since 2004, including Ivan, Katrina, Rita, Wilma, Ike and Irene.

    After Sandy, New York utilities restored power to at least 95 percent of customers 13 days after the peak number of outages was reported. New Jersey reached that same level in 11 days and West Virginia in 10 days.

    Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma in 2005 and Ike in 2008 all resulted in longer outages for customers in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Florida.

    The longest stretch to 95 percent restoration since 2004 was Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, where local utilities had power restored to only three-quarters of their customers after 23 days before Hurricane Rita hit and caused additional outages.

    Rita left Texas customers in the dark for 16 days; Katrina knocked out power to Mississippi customers for 15 days; Wilma and Ike knocked Florida and Texas out for 14 days each before power was restored to 95 percent of those who lost it, according to the federal data.

    New York and New Jersey recovered far faster after last year's Hurricane Irene. It took seven days for New York to restore 95 percent of customers and six days for New Jersey. But the number of outages in each state was less than half than from Sandy.

    The restoration target of 95 percent allowed the AP to compare responses to the largest number of recent storms using Energy Department data, and is considered by industry experts to provide a meaningful picture of the speed with which utilities restored service to the vast majority of customers.

    A week or two without power is, without question, a difficult and frustrating hardship. There's the spoiled food in the fridge and the dark nights. There's the fire danger from relying on candles. No electricity also can mean no heat. In tall apartment buildings, it means no elevator service, a serious problem for the infirm or elderly who can't navigate stairs. For those who rely on mobile phones for communication, it means no way to charge phones - and therefore no way to communicate with loved ones or emergency services.

    Michael Redpath of Toms River, N.J., was without power for 15 days before getting it back this week. He and his wife stayed in their home for the first week after Sandy because their friends also had lost power. As some power in the region was restored, and Redpath's wife got sick from too many nights in the cold, they started staying over with friends.

    "It's just so disorienting to be without power, to be out of your house and to not know what's going on," he says.

    Determining the quality of a utility's restoration efforts after an outage is difficult to do, experts say. That's because every storm generates a unique cocktail of mayhem that differs from location to location.

    Just because New York and New Jersey utilities restored power in a range that is normal by historical standards does not prove that all of the utilities in the region performed equally well, or that they performed better or worse than their peers responding to outages in other states, or that there isn't plenty of room for improvement.

    Frustrated residents, business owners and state and local officials lashed out at their electric utilities. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York formed a commission to investigate the responses of utilities in his state, and the operations chief of one utility, the Long Island Power Authority, resigned.

    Cuomo called LIPA "beyond repair" and also expressed frustration with the performance of Consolidated Edison, the electric utility for New York City and Westchester County to the north.

    Also, a positive general performance doesn't create any goodwill for those still suffering.

    Sam Kusack, who owns an architectural metal fabrication shop in Red Hook, Brooklyn, was still without power Thursday, 17 days after going dark. Red Hook is in an isolated section of Brooklyn, and Con Edison only began laying new underground wires near his shop this week.

    Workers told him power would be back by Friday, but, Kusack said, the utility had called him several times in the early days of the crisis to say his power would soon be restored. Those calls stopped long ago, and Kusack has continued to rely on a generator that gobbles expensive diesel fuel.

    "It was a big storm, but it's been a while," he said. "It's tough to run a company on a generator, with no power. I have 25 employees, and a payroll to meet."

    The fact that it has taken utilities roughly the same amount of time to restore the vast majority of customers as after similar-sized storms suggests that restoring power after an enormous weather event is simply a long, difficult process.

    "The work is no magic, it's hard, grueling work," says Arshad Mansoor of the Electric Power Research Institute, an industry-funded technology research group.

    Sandy's most prominent feature was its enormous footprint and record number of outages. All told, Sandy caused 8.5 million power outages across 21 states, the highest outage total ever.

    The Edison Electric Institute, an industry group, estimates 67,000 workers from utilities and other firms in several states worked to restore power, but they faced a huge volume of work. For example, New Jersey's biggest utility, Public Service Electric & Gas, had to cut down 41,000 trees, replace 2,500 poles and install 1,000 new transformers. At its peak, 77 percent of PSE&G'S 2.2 million customers lost power.

    Sandy also dumped 2-to-3 feet of snow in West Virginia, knocking power out to a quarter of that state's customers. And efforts to restore power along coastal properties were complicated by a storm surge that flooded dozens of substations on Long Island, in New York City and in New Jersey. For example, a storm surge and subsequent explosion at a substation on the East Side of Manhattan plunged the lower third of that borough into darkness.

    Equipment in all of those substations had to be cleaned or replaced before the substations could be re-energized. Only then could utilities see if the lines between each substation and the thousands of customers each one serves also had to be repaired.

    Utilities first fix problems that affect the largest number of customers, then work their way down to smaller problems affecting handfuls of customers. With Sandy and other big storms there are also thousands of customers who cannot get power because their homes are damaged and it is not possible or safe for the utility to restore power.

    This restoration approach is reasonable, experts say, but it leads to intense frustration when those last few in the dark see their neighbors back to normal. Customers are generally understanding for two days without power, utility officials say. Then they are not.

    Those last few homes and businesses, such as Kusack's firm, are often the hardest to restore; on many occasions, the days turn into weeks. After Con Edison restored power to nearly all of its customers 10 days after the storm, it said it was facing 3,600 restoration jobs in Westchester County that involved 11 or fewer customers each. LIPA said midday Thursday that 2,942 customers were still without power, not including those in flooded areas who cannot receive power until their own equipment is repaired and certified.

    This is all part of a utility's job, of course. Delivering power reliably is the single most important task for an electric utility. Without question, some do a better job of planning, managing logistics and communication with customers and local officials than others.

    "Not every utility is the same, not every utility is in the same state of readiness," says David Wright, president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

    EPRI's Mansoor said one indication that planning in the region affected by Sandy was good is that utilities did not run low on workers, poles, transformers, or other supplies. "Crews were available, spare parts were available," he said. "That was not an issue in this recovery."

    New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has defended the response of the utilities in his state, and perhaps for good reason. Sixty-five percent of New Jersey utility customers lost power, 2.6 million homes and businesses. Compared with other big storms, New Jersey's utilities restored power to most customers in the shortest amount of time for a state with such a high percentage of outages.

    A common complaint from residents throughout the region: The lack of accurate communication about when power would be restored.

    Redpath, who is served by Jersey Central Power & Light, said he understands that the restoration job was enormous and would have understood if it took utilities three or four weeks to restore power. But for an entire week he was told almost daily that power would be restored the next day. He said he just happened to discover the power had finally been restored when he noticed the lights were on his neighbor's porch while driving by.

    "I think (JCP&L) did a phenomenal job of marshaling resources, and the people on the ground did a phenomenal job," he said. "The problem was a combination of misinformation and no information. We would have managed differently if we knew what to expect."

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: 25 Indelible Images from Superstorm Sandy

     

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