'That's art?' Baby turns heads in Manhattan auction house window

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A sculpture of a baby sleeping in an unusual New York City exhibit has Park Avenue window-shoppers alerting auction house staff that a child has been “forgotten in the display.”

Sculpted after artist Duane Hanson’s son, the lifelike artwork, titled “Baby in a Carriage, 1983,” is valued at about $80,000 to $120,000, according to director of American art at Heritage Auctions in Manhattan.

“It’s the greatest. If you could watch our footage of this baby in the window, it would crack you up because truly all day, people, women, children, mothers, grandfathers, cops will stop and look at it and wonder truly for a second, or more than a second, is that really a baby?”, Director of American art at Heritage Auctions, Aviva Lehmann, told Reuters, adding that this “is exactly what Hanson wanted you to think.”

The polyvinyl piece of a sleeping toddler wearing a lightlue sweatshirt and matching sweatpants, is topped off with a head of blonde human hair, furthering its authenticity.

“That’s art?” a stunned Rachel Leeds said with a laugh. “I thought that was a real baby.”

The baby’s shirt carries the bible verse, ”He that is without sin among you, let him first cast the first stone,” from the Gospel of John 8:7.

Hanson, a Minnesota native, is often depicted as a “hyper realist” artist.

“He’s been grouped with the pop artists, but he’s just all about capturing middle America, whether it’s a cop or a security guard or a tourist sitting on a bench in the sun,” Lehmann said.

As the afternoon wound down, the scuplture continued to confuse midtown Manhattan.

“I passed by it a few minutes ago on my way to a store and then on my way back I took a better look at it,” said onlooker Sarah Conforti as she snapped a photo of the sculpture. “The baby doesn’t look very happy.”

Passerby Rahmel Dantzler expressed having a similar reaction to the sculpture.

“Kinda creepy,” Dantzler said. “I’d run.”

“Baby in Carriage” will hit the auction block on Nov. 30.

Reporting by Roselle Chen; Writing by Jenna Zucker

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Multiple Women Say Louis C.K. Masturbated In Front Of Them, 'New York Times' Reports

Louis C.K. attends the FX and Vanity Fair Emmy Celebration at Craft in Century City, Calif., on Sept. 16.

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Louis C.K. masturbated in front of multiple female colleagues, to their shock and dismay, according to women who spoke on the record to the New York Times about their experiences.

The famous comic has been surrounded by rumors of sexual misconduct for years — specifically, allegations that he would masturbate in front of female colleagues.

Last year, the comedian Roseanne Barr told The Daily Beast that C.K. was “about to get busted” for his conduct. “It’s Louis C.K., locking the door and masturbating in front of women comics and writers. I can’t tell you—I’ve heard so many stories,” she said. Comedian Tig Notaro acknowledged the allegations this summer and said C.K. needed to “handle” them.

But previously, those stories were shared secondhand. Now, five women have spoken to the Times directly, with only one requesting anonymity.

The women describe interactions that seemed professional or collegial — on set, at a comedy festival, on the phone talking about comedy shows. Then C.K. unexpectedly steered the encounter into overtly sexual territory. In one case he asked to masturbate in front of a female colleague on set and was rebuffed; in the other cases, he masturbated either in a room in front of the women or apparently did so while on the phone with them.

A publicist for C.K. told the Times that the comedian “is not going to answer any questions.”

Here are the incidents described by the newspaper:

  • Comedy duo Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov say they met C.K. in 2002 at his hotel room, together, after their show at the Aspen Comedy Festival. They thought he was joking when he asked if he could, as the Times puts it, “take out his penis.” Then he stripped naked and masturbated while the two women sat “paralyzed,” Goodman told the Times. They told people about the incident (later described in a famous Gawker blind item) but felt pressure from C.K.’s powerful manager to fall silent, they told the newspaper.
  • Comedian Abby Schachner called C.K. to invite him to a show and he started describing sexual fantasies and breathing heavily, she told the newspaper. Years later C.K. messaged her to apologize for the conversation ending in “a sordid fashion,” according to a message seen by the Times.
  • Comedian Rebecca Corry said C.K. asked if he could masturbate in front of her in her dressing room. She said no, and C.K. told her he “had issues,” she told the Times. That incident was confirmed by Courtney Cox and David Arquette, the Times reports.
  • A woman who wished to remain anonymous said she worked on the Chris Rock show while C.K. was a producer there, and that C.K. repeatedly asked her to watch him masturbate; she agreed. The encountered happened in his office during the workday. She described the experience as an abuse of C.K.’s power.

You can read the full story — which goes into much more detail — over at the New York Times.

The Times notes that the stories raise “sharp questions” about elements of C.K.’s enormously successful comedy career:

“He rose to fame in part by appearing to be candid about his flaws and sexual hang-ups, discussing and miming masturbation extensively in his act — an exaggerated riff that some of the women feel may have served as a cover for real misconduct. He has all but invited comparison between his private life and his onscreen work, too: In “I Love You, Daddy,” which is scheduled to be released next week, a character pretends to masturbate at length in front of other people, and other characters appear to dismiss rumors of sexual predation.”

C.K. has previously declined to comment on the allegations against him, before the accusers were public. “You can’t touch stuff like that,” he told Vulture in 2016. “My thing is that I try to speak to the work whenever I can. Just to the work and not to my life.”

This September, he told the New York Times’ Cara Buckley — one of the reporters who broke Thursday’s Times story — that the allegations were “rumors.”

“They’re rumors, that’s all that is,” he said.

Amid other sexual misconduct scandals, starting with Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, former NPR senior vice president Michael Oreskes was forced to resign after allegations of inappropriate behavior toward women at NPR and at previous jobs.

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FEMA Offers To Transport Displaced Puerto Ricans To Mainland Hotels

Two evacuees look out from the entrance of the Luis Munoz Marin public school last week in Barranquitas, Puerto Rico. Many people from Barranquitas have been living at a shelter set up in the school since Hurricane Maria destroyed their homes in September.

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It has been nearly two months since Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico, but for many residents, the devastation it left behind remains a daily fact of life. Roughly 3,000 people are still living in hundreds of shelters across the island.

Now, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is offering to fly some of those evacuees to the mainland U.S. at federal expense, where they would be put up temporarily in hotels in Florida and New York. The plan, which is reportedly the first of its kind for the agency, intends partly to ease the strain placed on hotels in Puerto Rico, where vacant rooms have been hard to come by.

At the moment, though, it appears Puerto Ricans have been reluctant to take the government up on the offer.

“We are trying to gauge demand,” Mike Byrne, a coordinating officer for FEMA, tells NPR’s Greg Allen and Marisa Peñaloza. “I think we did about 300 interviews yesterday and only maybe 35 expressed an interest.”

He says that based on the fairly low interest so far, “we’ll have to make adjustments to do something else to get them out.”

Still, more than 300 Puerto Ricans who already left for the mainland have received temporary housing in hotel rooms from federal officials. According to Florida Gov. Rick Scott, more than 140,000 people have left the island for his state since the hurricane, with or without federal assistance.

Meanwhile, some relief efforts on Puerto Rico are coming to a close, with many of troops planning to head home.

“There are about 11,000 troops on the island now — down from more than 15,000 shortly after the hurricane. Over the next few weeks, the number will drop by about half as federal troops hand over responsibilities to National Guardsmen,” Greg and Marisa report.

Yet in communities such as Morovis, where they recently visited, “there’s still no running water … and the only power available here is supplied by emergency generators. Frustration is rising over the slow pace of recovery.”

And some pillars of that recovery, like the reopening of local schools, will have to wait until all the evacuees using those schools have finally found a permanent place to live.

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5 Months After Grenfell Blaze, 320 Households Are Still In Emergency Housing

A task force found that hundreds of households are still living in emergency housing five months after the fire at London’s Grenfell Tower.

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On June 14, a fire tore through Grenfell Tower in London, killing about 80 people.

After the fire, residents of Grenfell and neighboring apartment buildings moved into temporary housing. Nearly five months later, many of them are still living in emergency accommodations.

A new report by the Grenfell Recovery Taskforce, an independent group set up to monitor how the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is responding to the disaster, found that rehousing “remains a substantial and immediate challenge.”

Among its findings: 320 households from the tower and neighboring buildings are still living in hotels.

The report shows the complicated nature of rehousing so many people at one time, especially in a way that is sensitive to the needs of different households.

“Whilst the rehousing challenge is undoubtedly a difficult process and RBKC has offered a number of enhancements to the ‘business as usual’ allocations policy, it now appears to have created a pipeline of demand in which the ultimate outcome (permanent rehousing) is happening at a painfully slow pace,” the report says. “Clearly those made homeless by the fire should not be forced in any way to move to anything other than a home of their choice with which they are satisfied. However RBKC needs to inject pace into the delivery of sensitive housing outcomes.”

Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Sajid Javid, who announced the task force in July, said “there are green shoots” in the recovery but significant room for improvement.

“The scale and impact of the fire was unprecedented in recent history, but RBKC is relying too much on tried and tested solutions that are not up to the task,” he said in Parliament. “The council should be much bolder in its response.”

Andrew Gwynne, Labour’s shadow communities minister, told The Guardian that Javid had painted a too-rosy picture of things, and that 227 children were among those who needed rehousing.

“For many survivors, things are far more bleak than the picture painted by the secretary of state,” Gwynne said. He also pointed to England’s law that households with children can only stay in emergency housing for a maximum of six weeks.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is calling on the government’s chief finance minister to commit 1 billion pounds to pay for retrofitting high-rise social housing with sprinklers, The Guardianreports.

The paper reports that former residents fear they will be pushed to return to refurbished homes before they are emotionally ready.

One resident who had lived in a nearby building talked to the newspaper about the intensity of returning there: “Out of one window you have the investigations team and on the other side you have the tower.”

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Latest 'Murder On The Orient Express' Is A Classic Whydoit

The mustache should get second billing: Kenneth Branagh is Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express.

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“Can we please stop with the remakes of Murder on the Orient Express?” I ask upon exiting Kenneth Branagh’s fatally tepid new reading of the Agatha Christie classic.

For my money, David Suchet already nailed the most satisfying Hercule Poirot we’re ever likely to know. In the British television series Agatha Christie’s Poirot (which aired on PBS in the States), if not the wholly unnecessary 2010 movie, Suchet’s Belgian detective came to us as his own complicated loner — sly, prissy, compulsive, sexually ambiguous and with a thoroughly earned tragic vision of humankind, yet full of compassion for its individual membership. When Suchet’s Poirot insisted he was happiest when alone, we believed him. But coming from Branagh’s Poirot, there is room for doubt — and not only because his lips can barely move beneath a mustache so humongous it curls around corners, possibly in an attempt at a getaway.

That hairy party favor — with Branagh behind it, incessantly cracking wise and foolish — leads the action. We meet Poirot at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a scenic locale that may or may not connect to later events. For now it’s an excuse for the smirky private eye to launch into a lame gag about rabbis, imams and priests.

Then it’s on to Istanbul, where the self-professed “greatest detective in the world” boards the famously deluxe locomotive for a hard-earned break among bejeweled toffs moping about in richly varnished wooden carriages with to-die-for light fixtures.

The mustache wears a coat in bed, where we dally with Poirot until Johnny Depp shows up as an iffy-looking “businessman” who, after trying in vain to hire the sleuth as his bodyguard, turns up dead on schedule.

In deference to the six people on this planet who don’t know that his multiple stab wounds weren’t inflicted by the butler, in the library, with a poker, I must keep heroically mum about whodunit. Truthfully it’s hard to work up a head of suspense about the killer because once the train screeches to a halt on a box girder bridge, it’s all tedious talk by name actors looking shifty or inscrutable or insisting against all odds that they’re the guilty party.

When Agatha Christie maneuvered a large crowd of potential perps into a confined space, she was not just plot-thickening, but finding a way to explore human character in all its rainbow of delusion, rationalization and displaced guilt. For Branagh, it’s little more than a golden opportunity to make us “ooh” and “aah” over a clutch of majorly attired big Hollywood guns from Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi to Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe and Penelope Cruz, plus a strategic sprinkling of young ‘uns and a weak stab at diverse casting.

The slight twist that Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green have placed on this crew’s shared tie to the deceased doesn’t compel, because they generate no interest as characters. They’re movie stars draped in tableaux, and we are left following them through the carriages in showy aerial shots and tracking shots, or gazing at the expensive furs and the splendid snow-covered mountains.

After a stream of gags about how Poirot likes his oeufs cooked, we transition to unearned poignancy as the movie lumbers home to a denouement — one that, in all fairness to the filmmakers, was never one of Christie’s finest and that has going for it only a ham-fisted democratic impulse. Violins soar amid snow-covered mountains. Poirot stops his quipping and gazes mournfully into the middle distance for a bit. A very short bit.

Poirot follows this brief lunge into gravitas with a cheery wink and a nod that having sorted this lot out, he is off to try his luck on the Nile, nudge nudge. Peeps of Hollywood, I beg you, pitch that pitch straight into turnaround.

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In 'Mayhem,' Office Workers Try To Get Ahead In Business Without Really Dying

Derek (Steven Yuen) contemplates his severance package in Mayhem.

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There’s always been a special, red-stained place in our culture for the splatter film, which has the unique power to reveal society’s, um, insides.

But the current state of the world is threatening to put the genre out of work. John Waters’s Serial Mom and Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America were both about everyday people going on murder sprees over petty grievances, but one came out in 1994 and the other in 2011, and in-between the concept of the out-of-nowhere mass shooter morphed from a horrifying anomaly to a fact of American life.

So it’s possible to see how a massive slaughter of obnoxious coworkers could be played for comedy or catharsis (“that’s for taking my parking spot every day, Gerald!“). But the more violent we become as a society, openly and unrepentantly, the less of a need exists for the movies to show us how much blood is in our own bodies and souls. We can see it ourselves, flooding our streets and schools and churches.

All that’s pretty unfair to put on the back of the brisk, low-budget gorefest Mayhem, a Corporate America deathmatch that’s like The Raid meets Office Space. Under director Joe Lynch, the film would like to be remembered as a midnight oddity, or as a prank to pull on Accounting during their monthly movie night. Yet one of the reasons we likely remember Office Space so fondly is because its heroes took their most homicidal aggressions out on the printer.

In Mayhem,a virus turns the employees of an ordinary, overworked law firm into rage-induced killing machines, and we can pick out the infected because one eye turns red and splotchy. But the virus and the pink-eye is practically unnecessary, because we already believe that everyone in this company is capable of murder. The film is over-the-top right out of the gate: the CEO is a coke-snorting maniac, the C-suite exec jogs at her treadmill desk as she berates her assistant, the HR rep is a sniveling Grim Reaper type who dresses in black and walks with a cane. All that’s left is the fuse, the pathogen that forces them all to quarantine in the building for eight hours, and suddenly those sharp office supplies look pretty tantalizing.

At the center of the carnage is put-upon hero Derek. He’s played by Steven Yeun, who was sent to Walking Dead Heaven last year, allowing his charming smile and vague sense of menace to fill other projects. (Yeun was so magnetic in his small, bilingual role in this summer’s Okja, it was hard not to wish for a spin-off movie centered around him.) Derek is a mid-level attorney with the wounded soul of a pencil-pusher, meaning he stands up for the underdog and paints in his spare time, although the most cutting satire in the film might be the fact that all of his paintings are of his coworkers.

When Derek, already an irritable mess obsessed over a missing coffee cup, discovers he’s been set up as the fall guy on a case that’s doomed to fail, he tries to beg mercy from “The Nine”: the company’s suited, stern-faced board of directors, who have locked themselves away in a far-away floor that requires special keycards to enter. But before he can reach them, the pandemic hits (side effects may include “involuntary, aberrant, shocking impulses,” a.k.a., bloodlust with a side of sex) and the cubicle farm turns into a warzone. Derek teams up with Melanie (Samara Weaving), a screwed-over former client who’s on her own death march, and together the pair go medieval on the org chart, collecting the keycards that will fast-track them to the top.

Shot in bright colors so we know it’s a joke, the action sequences are goofy but often clumsily staged. For how much is going on, with nail guns and scissor-stabbings and one very unconvincing dislocated tongue, the chaos can feel as sterile as a Wednesday morning meeting. This is very much B-movie capitalism: The golf club-toting boss (Steven Brand) mourns the unintended death of a beloved employee by howling, “Do you have any idea how many man-hours I’m gonna lose?” And then there’s the attempt to give us one of those fan-favorite kick-ass blondes, so awkward and thudding that it just might be a parody of a male screenwriter’s idea of a kick-ass blonde. (“Hey guys, what if we let her say the p-word?”)

To be fair, although Mayhem‘s product is wall-to-wall violence, it’s of the Wile E. Coyote variety — they’re not taking it seriously, and neither should we. Splatter-film violence is distinct from regular movie violence in that it has no basis in reality, which in turn frees it from moral responsibility. But reality’s catching up quick, and it’s getting harder to laugh.

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A Young Woman Gains Independence — And More — In 'Thelma'

How Do You Say ‘Carrie’ In Norwegian?: Eili Harboe’s Thelma gets hooked up in Thelma.

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The protagonist of Thelma is immensely powerful. But does teenage Thelma (Eili Harboe) derive this mojo from her budding sexuality? Does the woman, just beginning college in Oslo, squeeze demonic juice from rejecting her parents’ austere Christianity? Is the small-town naif’s chandelier-shaking force a medical matter?

Or is Thelma just a fledgling filmmaker?

In his four features, Thelma director Joachim Trier has demonstrated that he’s no exponent of naturalism. His influence over his characters is always evident, and the scripts he writes with regular collaborator Eskil Vogt exult in artifice.

Thelma is a bit like her creators, although she doesn’t comprehend her own aptitude for manipulating people. When her abilities manifest themselves, she’s terrified. Fear is a central motif of Thelma, which is something of a horror movie. The gore is limited to one nosebleed, which picturesquely splashes red into a glass of milk. But Trier deploys other ominous stuff, including snakes, flames and guns. In the supremely disturbing prologue, a man points a rifle at a little girl, although he doesn’t pull the trigger.

Thelma has never drunk alcohol or smoked pot when she arrives at the university her helicopter parents (Ellen Dorrit Petersen and Henrik Rafaelsen) have reluctantly let her attend in the big, bad city. Wearing a small cross around her neck, she explains her abstemious lifestyle to fellow students who are incredulous, yet unable to out-debate her. It’s jarring when Thelma simply shows up at party sporting bright lipstick.

Has Thelma ever had a boyfriend? Probably not, since the thing that utterly destabilizes her is attraction to a female classmate, sophisticated and exotic Anja (Kaya Wilkins). Thelma knows mom and dad would not approve.

Grasped by lust, Thelma begins to have seizures which threaten herself and others, and lead to a course of eerie medical tests, as well as some theological speculation. (In the end credits, Trier and Vogt detail their research into epilepsy and its historical links to supposed witchcraft and demonic possession.) Science and magic duel for control of the overloaded scenario, in which Thelma’s father is both a doctor and a fundamentalist.

With her life in chaos and her classmates in peril, Thelma returns to her parents’ rural home. There, with the help of flashbacks, much is revealed. Among the assumptions to be questioned is the reason for mom and dad’s protectiveness.

Trier is a ingenious filmmaker, and he makes Thelma visually compelling even when the story lazily turns to the usual scare-flick tropes. The viewpoint switches fluidly between sweeping and intimate, much as the tone alternates between offhand and portentous. This not Trier’s first movie to neatly emulate an adolescent’s mercurial, egocentric outlook.

This time, though, Trier gives too much weight to teenage grandiosity. In his first and still best film, 2006’s Reprise, the director managed to be both serious and playful. Thelma would benefit from a similarly light touch.

Occasionally, the filmmakers do seem to be winking. In a tale full of possible drownings in pools and lakes — including one that’s iced over — a doctor presiding over an extreme brain-scan instructs Thelma to “dive in” to her repressed memories. Under the circumstances, it’s laughably bad advice.

Maybe the physician is just another of the movie’s many control freaks. Thelma watches God, Satan, medicine, cinema, dear old dad, and a young woman’s id simultaneously play 3D chess for the prize of a single soul. No wonder the outcome is a jumble.

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Algae Toxins In Drinking Water Sickened People In 2 Outbreaks

A algae bloom in Lake Erie contaminated the water supply for Toledo, Ohio, in August 2014. About 400,000 people were without useable water.

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The city of Toledo and nearby communities have earned the dubious distinction of being the first to report outbreaks of human illness due to algae toxins in municipal drinking water, according to a report published Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Both areas take their drinking water from Lake Erie. Blue-green algae are common there and in many other in freshwater lakes, were they can multiply in the heat of summer and produce toxins, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Exposure to water contaminated by toxins can cause rashes, respiratory issues and stomach or liver illness, and are an ongoing issue in recreational areas around the country.

Not to mention they can cause dead zones in bodies of water, killing marine life. And if you’ve ever seen one, they don’t exactly make for a pleasant day at the beach. The bloom can look like chunks of green, earthy scum floating on the water, or make the water look like it’s been dyed green.

In September 2013, microcystin toxin was detected in the water treatment facility for Carroll Township, Ohio, at 3.5 times the safety threshold for drinking water. The township’s 2,000 residents were told to use water only for dishes and “non-drinking uses.” Six people suffered gastrointestinal illnesses in the outbreak, according to the CDC.

Then in August 2014, the state of Ohio declared a state of emergency after algal toxin contaminated the city of Toledo’s water supply. This time around, 110 people got sick, and almost half a million people had to quit drinking tap water until they got the all clear.

Drawing water from the cold depths of a lake can reduce the risk of contamination, according to the EPA, and water treatment facilities can filter out or neutralize toxins.

Among the biggest causes of algae blooms: an excess of nitrogen and phosphorus in warm, unmoving water. Those nutrients sneak into water predominantly through the use of fertilizer in agriculture. Warmer summers and higher rainfalls that cause sewer systems to overflow also help algae flourish.

It’s too early to know whether drinking water problems due to algae are becoming more common, says Jonathan Yoder, a CDC epidemiologist and one of the report’s authors.

“The bottom line is that we can’t say whether they are increasing or not, we know that the conditions that lead to algal blooms — nutrient pollution and warm water — are present in these freshwater lakes,” Yoder says. “I think there’s a continual risk in some of these areas for algal blooms and for some of them to be the type that have toxins that cause human illness.”

Kathy Benedict, lead author of the paper and an epidemiologist with the CDC’s Waterborne Disease Prevention Branch, points out that the cases in Ohio in 2013 and 2014 were not necessarily the first — they were just the first to be reported. The CDC is tracking harmful algal blooms through One Health Harmful Algal Bloom System (OHHABS) to help prevent illnesses, she says.

Fortunately, health problems from drinking water remain rare in the U.S. The CDC report, which was published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, found than in 2013-2014, 42 outbreaks were reported in 19 states, resulting in 1,006 illnesses and 13 deaths. Most of the cases and all of the deaths were caused by Legionella, the source of Legionnaire’s disease.

For Lake Erie, blue-green algae blooms have become an “annual summer plague,” in the words of Cleveland’s newspaper, The Plain Dealer. And they’ve just had one of their worst years yet. In the summer of 2017, blooms in the great lake were the third-largest ever recorded. The good news is that this time around, no one got sick.

Greta Jochem is an intern on NPR’s Science Desk.


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Saudi Arabia Tells Its Citizens To Leave Lebanon, And It's Not Completely Clear Why

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who resigned last week in a televised speech from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, stares out from a poster on the side of a road in Tripoli, Lebanon.

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The sudden, steep escalation of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon only got steeper Thursday, when the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs advised the country’s citizens to leave Lebanon. The advisory comes just days after Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation in a televised address from Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

“Due to the situations in the Republic of Lebanon,” read the bulletin in the state-run Saudi Press Agency, a source with the ministry “stated that the Saudi nationals visiting or residing in Lebanon are asked to leave the country as soon as possible.

“The Kingdom advised all citizens not to travel to Lebanon from any other international destinations,” the bulletin added.

Saudi allies Kuwait and Bahrain have issued similar travel warnings of their own this week.

But the advisory carries particular significance in Saudi Arabia, where the Lebanese premier read his resignation announcement Saturday. Hariri, who has extensive ties to Saudi Arabia, shocked his country, party and even several of his closest advisers when he did so — and he hasn’t set foot back inside Lebanon borders since. In fact, he’s left Saudi Arabia just once, visiting the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday and immediately returning.

In Lebanon, Hariri’s absence has inspired suspicion that he is being held against his will by the Saudis. Citing anonymous state sources, Reuters reports that the Lebanese government believes this, as well.

The Saudis have denied that Hariri is under house arrest.

For his part, Hariri said in his speech Saturday that he feared an assassination attempt, and that his decision to step down reflected fear for his life. His father, who also served as Lebanon’s prime minister, was assassinated in 2005.

Still, Hariri’s rationale hasn’t stifled the churn of speculation back in Lebanon, where power is held by a coalition including Hariri’s predominantly Sunni party called the Future Movement and Hezbollah, a Shiite group supported by Iran.

Hariri served as prime minister 2009 to 2011 and returned to office late last year. And though some in Lebanon have blamed Hezbollah for his father’s assassination, Hariri has struck a moderate tone with regard to the group, telling NPR’s Rachel Martin earlier this year that “this is something that I cannot take personal. There is an international tribunal that is working on the assassination of Rafik Hariri.”

After his visit to the White House earlier this year, Hariri was asked about President Trump’s remark that the militant group is a “menace.” And Hariri would only go so far as to note “I think most administrations have said the same thing about Hezbollah.”

Hariri’s careful phrasing offers a window onto the political dynamic in the Persian Gulf region. As The Two-Way has noted previously, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been engaged in a tug-of-war over power in the region — and some believe the brash new Saudi crown prince, 32-year-old Mohammad bin Salman, might be dissatisfied by Hariri’s lighter touch.

NPR’s Greg Myre hasmore of the context behind the controversy:

“The Saudis have long supported Hariri, a fellow Sunni Muslim, and the Hariri family made its fortune from a construction business in the kingdom.

“The Saudis apparently felt Hariri was being undermined by Hezbollah, a Shiite group closely aligned with Iran. Yet many analysts are scratching their heads, wondering how Hariri’s resignation will ultimately work to Saudi Arabia’s advantage.

” ‘One of the questions I have about all these Saudi actions is what is the end game and what is your strategy for getting to it,’ said Alterman, citing Lebanon as one of several examples. ‘It still may all work out. But the fact is, none of it has worked out yet and the Saudis seem to have doubled down on a strategy of embracing more risk.’ “

Saudi Arabia, which has led airstrikes in Yemen and a blockade of Qatar, has sought to rally its allies in the region — including the UAE — to assert Sunni interests against those of Iran.

In Lebanon, Hariri’s party issued a statement Thursday declaring that it was “necessary” for him to return in order “to restore Lebanon’s dignity and respect,” according to The Associated Press. And Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil also posted a rather pointed subtweet of his own Thursday.

“We are the ones who chose our representatives,” he said, “and we are the ones who decide to remove them.”

For now, though, NPR’s Ruth Sherlock notes that the Saudi advisory against visiting Lebanon is “terrible news for this country. It has long relied on Gulf tourism” — and though that tourism faded at the start of the Syrian civil war, it “was just picking up again.”

Saudi Arabia has seen its own political upheaval of late.

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has accelerated a campaign to quash rivals and consolidate power. Just hours after the prince was picked to lead a new anti-corruption commission — and just hours after Hariri announced his resignation — Saudi authorities launched a sweeping roundup in which 11 Saudi princes and other notables were arrested.

“A total of 208 individuals have been called in for questioning so far,” Saudi Attorney General Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb said in a statement released Thursday by the Saudi Press Agency. He added that seven of those people have been released without charge.

“Based on our investigations over the past three years, we estimate that at least $100 billion USD has been misused through systematic corruption and embezzlement over several decades.”

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What Will Winter Bring For Syria's Refugees?

Syrian children who fled Raqqa, where the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces defeated the Islamic State group, are now living in a refugee camp. They hold pots as they line up for food.

Hussein Malla/AP

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Hussein Malla/AP

As winter looms, Syrians who have fled their homes have much to worry about.

October brought the defeat of ISIS in Raqqa, and the military campaign to retake that city displaced many thousands of people from their homes. Many have fled to camps in other parts of Syria, camps that were already overflowing after years of civil war and fighting in other cities.

And winter is the cruelest season for the refugees. “Last year as people fled Aleppo, it was heartbreaking to see families suffering in appalling conditions in the snow,” says Wynn Flaten, director of World Vision’s Syria response.

NPR asked Flaten and Wouter Schaap, CARE‘s country director for Syria, separately about the situation on the ground. These are two of the humanitarian groups working to help the civilians.

Here are excerpts from their interviews.

Give me a sense of the numbers. How many internally displaced people are there in Syria today?

Schaap: At the moment, we have almost 6.5 million people who are displaced internally within Syria and over 5 million that have fled the country into neighboring countries and beyond. So it’s a very large proportion of the population, and many people have been displaced multiple times. So they move from one location to another, hoping to find safety, and then are moved on again. This constant uprooting has a devastating physical and emotional toll.

What worries you most about the situation in Syria?

Schaap: I think the sheer scale of it — and the complexity of it. It’s a war that has become a global war with major powers getting very heavily involved over the last couple of years. And with that level of complexity — regional players, global players all getting involved — it becomes a very difficult conflict to resolve. And people’s coping capacity sort of, seven years into this crisis, is being eroded.

And what also worries us as an organization is that this may spread regionally. We’re seeing more instability in Iraq in this recent period. And we all hope that this conflict can be resolved through talks peacefully, but unfortunately at the moment the signs on the ground are not positive.

What concerns you most heading into winter?

Flaten: With temperatures dropping, we can expect to see an increase in respiratory diseases, especially among children and older people. We’ll be helping to supply fuel and heaters. Rain is also likely to damage personal belongings for many people when areas become flooded, meaning they’ll need new mattresses and blankets to stay warm. Many people are living in dire conditions in the countryside, which is a particular worry as winter approaches. Last year, as people fled Aleppo, it was heartbreaking to see families suffering in appalling conditions in the snow. Many people have to leave all their belongings behind and arrive in a new place with nothing but the clothes on their backs. There’s no denying the conditions become terrible each year as temperatures plummet.

I’ve heard that the crisis is especially hard for women and children. Why?

Flaten: It’s always children who bear the brunt of conflict. They’ve had absolutely nothing to do with the war but are the most vulnerable and suffer the most. It’s not just the immediate impact; children have lost years of education which will have an effect on their futures, and for the future of Syria as a whole. For women, who may be single mothers if their husbands have died, it can be a difficult environment.

Can you talk a bit more about the mental toll this conflict is taking?

Flaten: Children have faced seemingly endless misery. Violence, heartache and uncertainty are all that many have ever known. Of course, years of being exposed to this environment can affect mental health.

How is support at this moment? It is diminishing due to the length of the conflict?

Flaten: The level of concern and interest from the public still seems remarkable to us here in the region, so many years into the conflict, and this is encouraging. But each year of the war is more violent than the last, and funding is reducing.

Is there a particular family you’ve met whose story stays with you?

Schaap: There’s a family I met in Jordan that had fled from Syria …. The father wouldn’t leave the house anymore because he just struggled with all the memories of what he’d seen and loss of family members inside Syria. Another example is a story of a lady with three young children inside southern Syria at the moment. And she saw several of her [family] members being executed by one of the warring parties.

So these are sort of normal stories in the Syria context.

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