- Weakening Raymond soaks southwestern Mexico, no serious damage
- Australians told to flee homes as hot winds fan Sydney fire threat
- Key House Republican presses tech companies on Obamacare glitches
ZIHUATANEJO, Mexico (Reuters) - More heavy rain spawned by Hurricane Raymond as it churned over the Pacific fell on southwestern Mexico on Tuesday, soaking areas hit by record flooding last month, but forecasters said the storm was weakening and appeared unlikely to reach land.
The port and schools remained closed in the resort city of Acapulco, which also was battered by tropical storms that struck Mexico in mid-September. The freight hub of Lazaro Cardenas to the northwest also was shut.
Coastal rains caused minor mudslides in the hills behind Acapulco, but there were no reports of significant damage.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center downgraded Raymond to category 1 in the five-step hurricane intensity scale, saying it was now "barely a hurricane" and was expected to weaken to a tropical storm on Wednesday.
Raymond, located about 100 miles (161 km) off the resort town of Zihuatanejo on the coast of Guerrero state and 140 miles (225 km) west-southwest of Acapulco, generated sustained winds of 75 miles per hour (121 kph), and may draw nearer to land before starting to move slowly out to sea on Wednesday, the Miami-based center said.
The hurricane was stationary for much of Tuesday, the forecasters said. They expected it to produce between five and 10 inches (13-25 cm) of rain in Guerrero and Michoacan, and in isolated cases as much as 15 inches (38 cm).
Heavy rain came down overnight in Acapulco, but by Tuesday morning only a slight drizzle was falling with light winds. People moved about freely, beaches were open and there were no signs of serious flooding in the city center.
The city nearest to the threat of Raymond was Zihuatanejo, to the northwest of Acapulco.
While the Pacific resort city of Zihuantanejo saw a respite from heavy rains and winds Tuesday night, officials were worried Raymond could bring a heavier downpour overnight.
"Things could still get a lot worse," said Jaime Vazquez, deputy director of the resorts emergency services. "The biggest risk will be tonight with more rain."
Some 5,700 people are still in shelters in the poor southern state of Guerrero after they were driven from their homes. Some 270 people were evacuated in Zihuatenejo since Monday as the rains returned.
"We were going to go back to our home, but now we cannot," said Guadalupe Castillo, 34, as she settled down for another night in a shelter with her husband and three children.
"We do not have any other option," said Castillo's husband, Guillermo, who has not been able to find work as a waiter due to the drop in tourism after the recent storms.
Last month the country suffered its worst flooding since records began when storms Manuel and Ingrid converged from the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico, killing more than 150 people and causing damage estimated at around $6 billion.
Torrential rains brought down hotel occupancy rates in the Acapulco last month and flooded the resort's airport, stranding thousands of tourists. The city's airport was operating normally on Tuesday, authorities said.
(Editing by Simon Gardner, Jackie Frank, Jim Loney and Ken Wills)
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Thousands of Australians were told to evacuate their homes on Wednesday as dry winds created the conditions for a firestorm in mountainous bushland outside Sydney, where firefighters have battled for days to bring dozens of wildfires under control.
More than 200 homes have been destroyed in New South Wales (NSW) state since last Thursday, when bushfires tore through scattered communities to Sydney's south and west, razing entire streets. One man died after suffering a heart attack trying to protect his home.
Wednesday's fire conditions were shaping up to be the worst so far in the state's bushfire crisis, Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.
"If you don't have a plan, let me give you one," NSW Emergency Minister Michael Gallacher said. "Get into the car, drive down to the city metropolitan area and let the firefighters do what they can do to protect the community, should this turn for the worse."
Temperatures in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney are expected to reach up to 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), while in Sydney itself they could hit 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit). Hot, dry winds gusting up to 100 kmph (60 mph) are also expected, posing the greatest challenge to firefighters.
"This is the day where we've been receiving forecasts of the worst of weather for this week and that forecast is still staying with those predictions," Fitzsimmons told reporters, warning of extreme fire conditions.
There are still 59 fires burning across the state on Wednesday, with 19 out of control, according to the latest update from the RFS.
Authorities ordered schools in the Blue Mountains to be closed, evacuated nursing homes and advised people living in the area to leave before conditions deteriorated.
The Blue Mountains, whose foothills extend down to western Sydney suburbs like Penrith, are populated with a mix of farmers, small business owners and white-collar commuters who make the trip into the city every day. Known for their spectacular escarpments, eucalyptus forests and scattered small communities, they are a popular tourist spot for Sydneysiders on weekends.
But the region's often inaccessible terrain and highly combustible vegetation can become a fire nightmare during the long, hot Southern Hemisphere summer.
The insurance council of Australia said claims of more than A$93 million ($90 million) were expected to grow and the NSW government has declared a state of emergency enabling it to order evacuations.
Police have arrested several children suspected of starting a number of different fires. Other fires were sparked by power lines arcing in strong winds, according to the fire service.
With dry weather and a massive land area, Australia is particularly prone to bushfires. In 2009, the "Black Saturday" wildfires in Victoria state killed 173 people and caused $4.4 billion worth of damage.
Record hot and dry weather across the continent and an early start to the fire season have rekindled arguments on mankind's impact on climate and what can be done to mitigate it.
(Reporting by Lincoln Feast and Maggie Lu Yueyang; Editing by Stephen Coates)
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Republican chairman of a key congressional oversight committee has asked Google, Microsoft and three other U.S. companies to provide details on their possible involvement in a "tech surge" aimed at fixing a website implementing President Barack Obama's signature healthcare law.
Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, made the request in a letter to Google, Microsoft, Verizon Enterprise Solutions, Oracle and Expedia, committee spokeswoman Caitlin Carroll said.
Issa, a relentless critic of the Obama administration, wants information on contacts the companies may have had with the White House about the Healthcare.gov website by Friday. Carroll called it the first step of a "rolling inquiry" that could include other companies.
The five named companies were selected because of press reports about their potential involvement in fixing the website, Carroll said.
Google, Oracle and Verizon declined to comment on the letter. Microsoft and Expedia could not be immediately reached for comment.
Republicans, long opposed to the 2010 Affordable Care Act, known as "Obamacare," have started their own congressional investigation about the role of the White House in the October 1 rollout of the website, which serves 36 states and is meant to help the uninsured determine their eligibility for tax credits toward buying private coverage under Obamacare.
Only a trickle of users so far have been able to advance through the enrolment process on the website.
The Department of Health and Human Services said at the weekend it was launching a "tech surge" for the website, but neither it nor the White House has provided details about the cause of the problems, precisely what is being done to fix them and who exactly is doing the fixing.
Obama, who said on Monday that he was frustrated by the website's problems, turned on Tuesday to trusted adviser Jeffrey Zients to lead the surge.
Zients, who will become head of the National Economic Council in January, will provide short-term management advice and counsel on the project, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a blog posting.
She said a team of experts and specialists drawn from government and industry, "including veterans of top Silicon Valley companies," also would work to diagnose and repair the website's problems.
In his letter, a copy of which was provided to Reuters, Issa complained of a dearth of information about the project.
"Despite the President's assertion that 'we're well into a "tech surge"' neither the White House nor HHS is providing additional details about which private sector companies have been engaged or whether they are being engaged through the appropriate procurement processes," Issa said in the letter.
"Your company has, however, been prominently mentioned in public discussion related to HealthCare.gov," Issa said.
He asked that the companies indicate in writing by Friday what contacts they have had with the administration or "any entity" working on the website project, and for a "specific description of any and all problems brought to your attention."
At least two other congressional committees are investigating the glitches and whether the administration was forthright about the problems. Several contractors are due to appear at a hearing on Thursday about their work on the website.
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