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Hurricane Ian shakes SW Florida’s faith but can’t destroy it

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Hurricane Ian shakes SW Florida’s faith but can’t destroy it

FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — In darkness and despair, there were flickers of light and hope, even for Jane Compton who lost her home and possessions to Hurricane Ian’s wrath. As the storm approached last week, she and her husband found sanctuary at their Baptist church, huddling with fellow parishioners through wind, rain and worry.

They prayed for the gusts to subside and for God to keep them from harm as the hurricane made landfall last Wednesday. Floodwaters swept under the pews, driving the congregation to the pulpit and further testing their faith. The intensifying storm ripped the church’s steeple away, leaving a large gap in the roof. The parishioners shuddered.

“Good Lord, please protect us,” Compton prayed, with her husband, Del, at her side.

She compared the deluge to the biblical story Noah’s Ark, saying they had no idea when the water would stop rising. When it did, there were hallelujahs.

With the storm now passed and its devastation abounding, churches across hard-hit Southwest Florida are providing a steadying force in the lives of those plunged into chaos and grief. Heartache, frustration and uncertainty now swirl in sanctuaries amid sermons about perseverance and holding on to one’s faith.

“We believe this was a blessing in disguise,” said the Rev. Robert Kasten, the Comptons’ pastor at Southwest Baptist Church, a congregation of several hundred in one of the most devastated neighborhoods of Fort Myers.

Also being tested are many of the nearly quarter million Catholics in the Diocese of Venice, which encompasses 10 counties from just south of Tampa Bay to the Everglades that bore the brunt of the hurricane. Bishop Frank Dewane has been visiting as many of the diocese’s five dozen parishes and 15 schools as possible.

“A lot of people just wanted to talk about, ‘Why is there this much suffering?’” Dewane said of parishioners he met as he celebrated weekend Mass in a church in an inundated North Port neighborhood and in the parish hall of a storm-damaged Sarasota church. “We have to go on; we’re a people of hope.”

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Priests walked a fine line between holding Mass to provide comfort and not endangering older parishioners in areas with widespread lack of running water and electricity and flooded roadways. Dewane said one rescued man had kept asking about his wife, not realizing she had drowned in the storm.

Around Kasten’s church, nearby mobile home parks where many of his parishioners lived became submerged. About a fourth of his congregation suffered major damage to their dwellings, with many like the Comptons losing nearly everything. The church’s sanctuary has become temporary quarters for nearly a dozen of the newly homeless.

Most were handling things well, until the realities of tragedy hit.

“When they saw pictures, they just burst into tears,” Kasten said.

“Just the shock of knowing and seeing what you knew happened, it overwhelmed them. But they are just praising the Lord how he protected us, kept us safe,” he said.

Barbara Wasko, a retiree who is now sleeping on a lounge chair in the sanctuary, said she has faith the community will rebuild.

“We will get by,” she said. “We will make it.”

Hurricane Ian’s fury — 150 mph (241 kph) winds and deluges of water — killed dozens of people and stranded countless in what for many communities has been their worst calamity in generations.

Rhonda Mitchell, who lives near the Baptist church, said all she had left was her faith in God.

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“We don’t know what He is going to do,” she said, her belongings splayed to dry outside her mobile home as an empty U-Haul truck waited to be loaded.

“I just lost my whole life,” she said, beginning to sob. “I’m still here but I just lost everything I own. … I’m just trying to figure things out.”

At badly damaged Catholic churches and schools, reconstruction work is already underway. But Dewane said his priority is to “meet people where they are” and ensure the Catholic community can help overall relief efforts.

That ranges from finding shelter for teachers whose homes were leveled even as many schools are re-opening this week to helping counsel elderly neighbors. The diocese is working with Catholic Charities to set up distribution centers for donations as well as supplies provided by FEMA.

But many successful efforts are grassroots. When a group of nuns in small Wauchula, an inland town, lost power, they decided to just empty out their freezers of meat and other perishables, and invite the entire neighborhood for a barbeque. The fire blazing, hundreds of people lined up and started adding what they had in their own rapidly warming fridges.

“We’re doing as well as we can,” Dewane said. “I think we can only be the Lord’s instruments.”

The Rev. Charles Cannon, pastor at St. Hilary’s Episcopal Church, sermonized about the temporariness of the community’s losses. While much was lost, he said, not all is gone.

“People think they have lost everything, but you haven’t lost everything if you haven’t lost yourself and the people you love,” Cannon said after Sunday services that were held outside amid the fallen boughs of once-majestic oaks.

Cannon pointed out that the debris that left church grounds looking like an ugly, unearthly place can be cleaned.

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“Most of the work has been to get the people feeling safe again,” he said, “Almost everybody has been without power. All of them without water. Trying hard to get them feeling comfortable again.”

Down the street, about 50 parishioners at the Assembly of God Bethlehem Ministry gathered to share in their hardships. They recounted how they had no electricity, no drinkable running water and, in many cases, were left with damaged homes.

“But God has kept them safe,” said Victoria Araujo, a parishioner and occasional Sunday school teacher.

“Some people lost a lot of things … We need to pray for the people who lost more than us,” said the Rev. Ailton da Silva, whose congregants are mostly immigrant families from Brazil.

The storm has truly tested his community’s resiliency, he said, adding that “I think people will think about faith, family and God.”

Five years ago, Hurricane Irma swept through the region, causing extensive damage to his church. Repairs were still ongoing when Ian hit. The church fared much better this time.

In the end, “it’s just a building,” da Silva said. “The church is us.”

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Dell’Orto reported from Minneapolis.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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Israel hails ‘success’ after blocking unprecedented attack from Iran

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Israel hails ‘success’ after blocking unprecedented attack from Iran

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli leaders on Sunday credited an international military coalition with helping thwart a direct Iranian attack involving hundreds of drones and missiles, calling the coordinated response a starting point for a “strategic alliance” of regional opposition to Tehran.

But Israel’s War Cabinet met without making a decision on next steps, an official said, as a nervous world waited for any sign of further escalation of the former shadow war.

The military coalition, led by the United States, Britain and France and appearing to include a number of Middle Eastern countries, gave Israel support at a time when it finds itself isolated over its war against Hamas in Gaza. The coalition also could serve as a model for regional relations when that war ends.

“This was the first time that such a coalition worked together against the threat of Iran and its proxies in the Middle East,” said the Israeli military spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari.

One unknown is which of Israel’s neighbors participated in the shooting down of the vast majority of about 350 drones and missiles Iran launched. Israeli military officials and a key War Cabinet member noted additional “partners” without naming them. When pressed, White House national security spokesman John Kirby would not name them either.

But one appeared to be Jordan, which described its action as self-defense.

“There was an assessment that there was a real danger of Iranian marches and missiles falling on Jordan, and the armed forces dealt with this danger. And if this danger came from Israel, Jordan would take the same action,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi said in an interview on Al-Mamlaka state television. U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Sunday.

The U.S. has long tried to forge a regionwide alliance against Iran as a way of integrating Israel and boosting ties with the Arab world. The effort has included the 2020 Abraham Accords, which established diplomatic relations between Israel and four Arab countries, and having Israel in the U.S. military’s Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East and works closely with the armies of moderate Arab states.

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The U.S. had been working to establish full relations between Israel and regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack sparked Israel’s war in Gaza. The war, which has claimed over 33,700 Palestinian lives, has frozen those efforts due to widespread outrage across the Arab world. But it appears that some behind-the-scenes cooperation has continued, and the White House has held out hopes of forging Israel-Saudi ties as part of a postwar plan.

Just ahead of Iran’s attack, the commander of CENTCOM, Gen. Erik Kurilla, visited Israel to map out a strategy.

Israel’s military chief, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, on Sunday thanked CENTCOM for the joint defensive effort. Both Jordan and Saudi Arabia are under the CENTCOM umbrella. While neither acknowledged involvement in intercepting Iran’s launches, the Israeli military released a map showing missiles traveling through the airspace of both nations.

“Arab countries came to the aid of Israel in stopping the attack because they understand that regional organizing is required against Iran, otherwise they will be next in line,” Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israel’s military intelligence, wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said he had spoken with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and that the cooperation “highlighted the opportunity to establish an international coalition and strategic alliance to counter the threat posed by Iran.”

The White House signaled that it hopes to build on the partnerships and urged Israel to think twice before striking Iran. U.S. officials said Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Washington would not participate in any offensive action against Iran.

Israel’s War Cabinet met late Sunday to discuss a possible response, but an Israeli official familiar with the talks said no decisions had been made. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing confidential deliberations.

Asked about plans for retaliation, Hagari declined to comment directly. “We are at high readiness in all fronts,” he said.

“We will build a regional coalition and collect the price from Iran, in the way and at the time that suits us,” said a key War Cabinet member, Benny Gantz.

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Iran launched the attack in response to a strike widely blamed on Israel that hit an Iranian consular building in Syria this month and killed two Iranian generals.

By Sunday morning, Iran said the attack was over, and Israel reopened its airspace. Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, claimed Iran had taught Israel a lesson and warned that “any new adventures against the interests of the Iranian nation would be met with a heavier and regretful response from the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

The foes have been engaged in a shadow war for years, but Sunday’s assault was the first time Iran launched a direct military assault on Israel, despite decades of enmity dating back to the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Iran said it targeted Israeli facilities involved in the Damascus strike, and that it told the White House early Sunday that the operation would be “minimalistic.”

But U.S. officials said Iran’s intent was to “destroy and cause casualties” and that if successful, the strikes would have caused an “uncontrollable” escalation. At one point, at least 100 ballistic missiles were in the air with just minutes of flight time to Israel, the officials said.

Israel said more than 99% of what Iran fired was intercepted, with just a few missiles getting through. An Israeli airbase sustained minor damage.

Israel has over the years established — often with the help of the U.S. — a multilayered air-defense network that includes systems capable of intercepting a variety of threats, including long-range missiles, cruise missiles, drones and short-range rockets.

That system, along with collaboration with the U.S. and others, helped thwart what could have been a far more devastating assault at a time when Israel is already deeply engaged in Gaza as well as low-level fighting on its northern border with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia. Both Hamas and Hezbollah are backed by Iran.

While thwarting the Iranian onslaught could help restore Israel’s image after the Hamas attack in October, what the Middle East’s best-equipped army does next will be closely watched in the region and in Western capitals — especially as Israel seeks to develop the coalition it praised Sunday.

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In Washington, Biden pledged to convene allies to develop a unified response. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. would hold talks with allies. After an urgent meeting, the Group of Seven countries unanimously condemned Iran’s attack and said they stood ready to take “further measures.”

Israel and Iran have been on a collision course throughout Israel’s war in Gaza. In the Oct. 7 attack, militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, also backed by Iran, killed 1,200 people in Israel and kidnapped 250 others. Israel’s offensive in Gaza has killed over 33,000 people, according to local health officials.

Hamas welcomed Iran’s attack, saying it was “a natural right and a deserved response” to the strike in Syria. It urged the Iran-backed groups in the region to continue to support Hamas in the war.

Hezbollah also welcomed the attack. Almost immediately after the war in Gaza erupted, Hezbollah began attacking Israel’s northern border. The two sides have been involved in daily exchanges of fire, while Iranian-backed groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have launched rockets and missiles toward Israel.

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Federman reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Zeke Miller and Michelle L. Price in Washington; Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran; Samy Magdy in Cairo; Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan; and Giada Zampano in Rome contributed to this report.

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How to get rid of NYC rats without brutality? Birth control is one idea

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How to get rid of NYC rats without brutality? Birth control is one idea

New York lawmakers are proposing rules to humanely drive down the population of rats and other rodents, eyeing contraception and a ban on glue traps as alternatives to poison or a slow, brutal death.

Politicians have long come up with creative ways to battle the rodents, but some lawmakers are now proposing city and statewide measures to do more.

In New York City, the idea to distribute rat contraceptives got fresh attention in city government Thursday following the death of an escaped zoo owl, known as Flaco, who was found dead with rat poison in his system.

City Council Member Shaun Abreu proposed a city ordinance Thursday that would establish a pilot program for controlling the millions of rats lurking in subway stations and empty lots by using birth control instead of lethal chemicals. Abreu, chair of the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management, said the contraceptives also are more ethical and humane than other methods.

The contraceptive, called ContraPest, is contained in salty, fatty pellets that are scattered in rat-infested areas as bait. It works by targeting ovarian function in female rats and disrupting sperm cell production in males, The New York Times reported.

New York exterminators currently kill rats using snap and glue traps, poisons that make them bleed internally, and carbon monoxide gas that can suffocate them in burrows. Some hobbyists have even trained their dogs to hunt them.

Rashad Edwards, a film and television actor who runs pest management company Scurry Inc. in New York City with his wife, said the best method he has found when dealing with rodents is carbon monoxide.

He tries to use the most humane method possible, and carbon monoxide euthanizes the rats slowly, putting them to sleep and killing them. Edwards avoids using rat poison whenever possible because it is dangerous and torturous to the rodents, he said.

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Some lawmakers in Albany are considering a statewide ban on glue boards under a bill moving through the Legislature. The traps, usually made from a slab of cardboard or plastic coated in a sticky material, can also ensnare small animals that land on its surface.

Edwards opposes a ban on sticky traps, because he uses them on other pests, such as ants, to reduce overall pesticide use. When ants get into a house, he uses sticky traps to figure out where they’re most often passing by. It helps him narrow zones of pesticide use “so that you don’t go spray the entire place.”

“This is not a problem we can kill our way out of,” said Jakob Shaw, a special project manager for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “It’s time to embrace these more common sense and humane methods.”

Two cities in California have passed bans on glue traps in recent years. On the federal level, a bill currently in committee would ban the traps nationwide.

“It ends a really inhumane practice of managing rat populations,” said Jabari Brisport, the New York state senator who represents part of Brooklyn and sponsored the bill proposing the new guidelines. “There are more effective and more humane ways to deal with rats.”

Every generation of New Yorkers has struggled to control rat populations. Mayor Eric Adams hired a “rat czar” last year tasked with battling the detested rodents. Last month, New York City reduced the amount of food served up to rats by mandating all businesses to put trash out in boxes.

While the war on rats has no end in sight, the exterminator Edwards said we can learn a lot from their resilience. The rodents, he said, can never be eradicated, only managed.

“They’re very smart, and they’re very wise,” he said. “It’s very inspiring but just — not in my house.”

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Coachella: Earthquake shakes SoCal desert during music fest

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Coachella: Earthquake shakes SoCal desert during music fest

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) — A small earthquake shook the Southern California desert Saturday near Coachella, where the famous music festival is being held this weekend. No damage or injuries were reported.

The quake, with a preliminary magnitude of 3.8, hit at 9:08 a.m. about 8 miles (13 kilometers) northeast of Borrego Springs in Riverside County, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The epicenter was about 20 miles (32 kilometers) southeast of Coachella. It struck at a depth of about 7 miles (11 kilometers), the USGS said.

A dispatcher with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department said there were no calls reporting any problems from the quake.

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