Think the recent wild weather that hammered California was bad? Experts are imagining far worse. As torrential rains pelted wildfire-stripped hillsides and flooded highways, a team of scientists hunkered down at the California Institute of Technology to work on a "Frankenstorm" scenario — a mother lode wintry blast that could potentially sock the Golden State.
The hypothetical but plausible storm would be similar to the 1861-1862 extreme floods that temporarily moved the state capital from Sacramento to San Francisco and forced the then-governor to attend his inauguration by rowboat.
The scenario "is much larger than anything in living memory," said project manager Dale Cox with the U.S. Geological Survey.
In the scenario, the storm system forms in the Pacific and slams into the West Coast with hurricane-force winds, hitting Southern California the hardest. After more than a week of ferocious weather, the system stalls for a few days. Another storm brews offshore and this time pummels Northern California.
Such a monster storm could unleash as much as 8 feet of rain over three weeks in some areas, said research meteorologist Martin Ralph with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who is part of the project.
It makes the latest Pacific storm system look like a drop in the bucket. A weeklong siege of storms walloped California, flooding coasts and roads, spawning tornados and forcing the evacuation of about 2,000 homes below fire-scarred mountains for fear of mudslides. The National Weather Service said the storms dumped up to a foot in the mountains northwest of Los Angeles in a week.
Weather experts say West Coast storms could get more frequent and severe with climate change. Last fall, a team of federal, state and academic experts was formed to tackle what would happen if a series of powerful storms lashed at the state for 23 days. The scenario is expected to be completed this summer and will be used in a statewide disaster drill next year.
Ironically, the team had scheduled meetings at Caltech to learn about the fictional storm's impact to dams, sewage treatment plants, transportation and the electrical grid. About a dozen canceled due to the storms.
"They had to deal with the real thing," said chief scientist Lucy Jones of the USGS. The next step is to estimate economic damages as well as the risk of landslides and coastal erosion and impact to infrastructure and the environment.
Several scientists on storm watch were involved in the 2008 planning of a mock "Big One" on the San Andreas Fault that was incorporated into an earthquake preparedness drill. The Great Flood of 1861-1862 was believed to be the most powerful and longest series of storms in state history, lasting a month and causing severe flooding.
The Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys were water-logged and spontaneous lakes popped up in the Mojave Desert and Los Angeles basin. Nearly a third of the music posters state's taxable land was destroyed. Since there are few meteorological records available on the 1861-1862 events, scientists stitched together data from two recent storms to create "Frankenstorm."
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The number of newly laid-off workers requesting unemployment benefits rose more than expected last week as jobs remain scarce amid a sluggish economic recovery.
The Labor Department said Thursday new claims for unemployment insurance rose by 11,000 to a seasonally adjusted 444,000. Wall Street economists polled by Thomson Reuters expected an increase of only 3,000.
The rise was partly a result of large seasonal layoffs in the retail, manufacturing and construction industries, a Labor Department analyst said. The second week of January usually sees the largest increase in claims, unadjusted for seasonal trends, during the year, the analyst said.
Still, the increase didn't disrupt the longer-term downward trend in claims. The four-week average dropped to 440,750, its 19th straight drop and lowest level since August 2008.
Initial claims are considered a gauge of the pace of layoffs and an indication of companies' willingness to hire new workers.
Claims have dropped steadily since last fall, as companies cut fewer jobs, raising hopes that hiring may increase soon. Initial claims have dropped by nearly 90,000, or 17 percent, since late October. Two weeks ago, new claims dropped to their lowest level since July 2008.
Despite the recent drop, the economy is not yet consistently generating net increases in jobs. The Labor Department said last week that employers cut 85,000 jobs in December, after adding only 4,000 in November. November's increase was the first in nearly two years. The unemployment rate was unchanged at 10 percent.
Many economists say the four week average of claims will need to fall to below 425,000 to signal that the economy is close to generating net job gains.
Meanwhile, the number of people continuing to claim benefits dropped sharply to 4.6 million from 4.8 million the previous week. The continuing claims data lags initial claims by a week.
But the so-called continuing claims do not include millions of people who have used up the regular 26 weeks of benefits customarily provided by states, and are receiving extended movie posters for up to 73 additional weeks, paid for by the federal government.
More than 5.3 million people were receiving extended benefits in the week ended Dec. 26, the latest data available. That's a drop of about 135,000 from the previous week.
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An al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen apparently ordered the Christmas Day plot against a U.S. airliner, training and arming the 23-year-old Nigerian man accused in the failed bombing, President Barack Obama said Saturday.
"This is not the first time this group has targeted us," Obama said, reporting on some of the findings of an administration review into how intelligence agencies failed to prevent Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding Detroit-bound Northwest Flight 253.
In his most direct public language to date, Obama described the path through Yemen of Abdulmutallab. He also emphasized that the United States would continue its partnerships with friendly countries - citing Yemen, in particular - to fight terrorists and extremist groups.
The U.S. plans to more than double its counterterrorism aid to the impoverished, fragmented Arab nation in the coming year to support Yemen's campaign against al-Qaida.
Obama's homeland security team has been piecing together just how Abdulmutallab was able to get on the plane. Officials have described flaws in the system and by those executing the strategy and have delivered a preliminary assessment.
A top counterterrorism official said Saturday that al-Qaida and others extremists are working to test U.S. defenses and launch an attack on American soil.
The failed attempt against the plane "is the starkest of reminders of the insidious terrorist threats we face," said Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center. "We know with absolute certainty that al-Qaida and those who support its ideology continue to refine their methods to test our defenses and pursue an attack on the homeland," he said.
The center, part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, draws experts from the CIA, FBI, Pentagon and other agencies who try to ensure that clues about potential attacks are not missed.
A senior administration official had said the United States increasingly was confident of a link between Abdulmutallab and an al-Qaida affiliate, but Obama's movie posters was the strongest connection between the two. The official said regular updates from the White House Situation Room and from his homeland security advisers gave Obama enough confidence to use this radio address - typically, focused on domestic priorities - to communicate a stark message about Abdulmutallab.
"We know that he traveled to Yemen, a country grappling with crushing poverty and deadly insurgencies. It appears that he joined an affiliate of al-Qaida, and that this group - al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula - trained him, equipped him with those explosives and directed him to attack that plane headed for America," the president said in his weekly radio and Internet address. It was released by the White House during Obama's vacation in Hawaii.
Officials have said Abdulmutallab's father warned the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria that his son had drifted into extremism in the al-Qaida hotbed of Yemen. Abdulmutallab's threat was only partially digested by the U.S. security apparatus and not linked with a visa history showing the young man could fly to the United States.
Obama has ordered a thorough look at the shortcomings that permitted the plot, which failed not because of U.S. actions but because the would-be attacker was unable to ignite an explosive device. He has summoned homeland security officials to meet with him in the White House Situation Room on Tuesday.
Intelligence officials prepared for what was shaping up to be uncomfortable hearings before Congress about miscommunication among anti-terror agencies and sweeping changes expected under Obama's watch.
Obama noted that in recent years, the al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen has bombed government facilities there as well as Western hotels, restaurants and embassies. An attack on the U.S. Embassy in 2008 killed one American.
"So, as president, I've made it a priority to strengthen our partnership with the Yemeni government - training and equipping their security forces, sharing intelligence and working with them to strike al-Qaida terrorists," he said.
The United States provided Yemen $67 million in training and support under the Pentagon's counterterrorism program last year. Only Pakistan got more, with some $112 million.
Obama said the money had been well spent: "Training camps have been struck, leaders eliminated, plots disrupted. And all those involved in the attempted act of terrorism on Christmas must know - you too will be held to account."
The U.S. general who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan told reporters in Baghdad on Friday that U.S. counterterrorism aid to Yemen would more than double in the year ahead. Gen. David Petraeus said Yemen was struggling to overcome many challenges, including declining oil revenues and an insurgency making full use of the country's rugged terrain.
"Al-Qaida are always on the lookout for places where they might be able to put down roots," he said.
Petraeus arrived in Yemen on Saturday and met with President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Yemeni government official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
Security officials in Yemen said Saturday the government deployed several hundred extra troops to two mountainous eastern provinces that are al-Qaida's main strongholds in the country and where Abdulmutallab may have visited.
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