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Guy Fieri

Celebrity chef Guy Fieri visits Richmond


JOE MAHONEY/Times-Dispatch  

ABOVE: Operation Paws for Homes volunteer Joe Carlson (right) watched as Jason Getchell, also a volunteer, brought Lightning out on Wednesday. The group brought 14 dogs to the Richmond area that were evacuated from shelters in the path of Hurricane Dorian.

LEFT: Lisa Meador of Mechanicsville received a kiss from her new dog, Bindi, one of the animals saved from areas along the Carolina coast.


Column
Dorian update

Hurricane Dorian is expected to bring a dangerous combination of wind and water to coastal portions of Virginia on Friday, while the western edge of the storm brushes metro Richmond.

The storm will curve to the northeast along the South Carolina coast Thursday, then churn over the entire length of North Carolina’s beaches from Thursday night into Friday morning.

The eye could make landfalls near Cape Fear, Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras, but the wind, surge, waves and rain will spread well away from Dorian’s center and affect eastern Virginia as well.

Dorian is unlikely to dramatically strengthen or weaken before reaching North Carolina, but storm surge and rainfall will be significant regardless of its category status. Late Wednesday night, the storm intensified slightly to Category 3.

By Friday evening, the worst of the storm will be speeding out to sea northeast of the Virginia capes, and Saturday will be a calmer day across the region.

Region-by-region forecast

Metro Richmond: Plan for a breezy Friday, with peak wind gusts ranging from 35 to 45 mph. While the winds probably won’t be strong enough to cause structural damage or major outages, issues with trees, branches and power lines can’t be ruled out. Rain totals appear too low for flooding concerns.

Northern Neck, Middle Peninsula, Williamsburg and Emporia: Dorian’s winds and rain will be increasingly potent farther east. Peak gusts on Friday could hit 50 to 55 mph in these areas, leading to scattered tree damage and outages. Rain totals of 2 to 4 inches might lead to flash flooding.

Hampton Roads and the Eastern Shore: Friday will be a rough, hazardous day for travel in and around Hampton Roads. The region will face sustained tropical storm-force winds of 40 to 60 mph with higher gusts.

Inland flooding could result from several inches of rain, and a 2- to 4-foot storm surge on top of the afternoon high tide will lead to coastal flooding.

Thursday should be used to stow loose outdoor items, secure boats and park cars away from frequently flooded areas, according to the National Weather Service in Wakefield. Conditions will deteriorate Thursday night, be worst during the day Friday, then ease on Friday evening.

Outer Banks and coastal North Carolina: This area is likely to see the very worst of Dorian on Friday. Hurricane-force winds, storm surge and high surf are likely to cause significant erosion, damage to property and serious travel disruption.

Charlottesville, Lynchburg, Western Piedmont and Northern Virginia: Little or nothing of Dorian’s rain will make it this far inland. A northerly breeze will be noticeable, but not damaging. Peak gusts may top out around 25 mph on Friday across that region.

Watches and warnings

As expected, watches were upgraded to warnings ahead of Dorian on Wednesday as confidence in the forecast continued to increase.

The National Weather Service extended storm surge warnings as far north as Poquoson, including Hampton Roads, the lower James River, and the sounds and tidal rivers of North Carolina.

Warnings for coastal flooding may be expanded northward along the Middle Peninsula, Northern Neck and Eastern Shore as the storm nears.

All of North Carolina is under a hurricane warning up to the Virginia border, including the Albemarle Sound and Pamlico Sound.

As of Wednesday evening, a tropical storm warning was posted for most of coastal Virginia south of Chincoteague, and south of Smith Point in the Chesapeake Bay.

In Virginia, the tropical storm warning also includes the counties of Northumberland, Lancaster, Middlesex, Mathews, Gloucester, York, James City, Surry, Isle of Wight and Southampton; Williamsburg; and the rest of Hampton Roads and the Eastern Shore.

A new tropical storm watch posted Wednesday evening covers areas from Chincoteague to Fenwick Island, Del., the Chesapeake Bay from Smith Point to Drum Point, and the Potomac River south of Cobb Island.

The following inland localities were also included in the tropical storm watch: Richmond County, Westmoreland County, eastern Essex County, eastern King and Queen County, eastern King William County, New Kent County, Charles City County, Prince George County, Petersburg, Hopewell, Sussex County, Greensville County and Emporia.

Storm surge

There will be a significant threat for coastal flooding Friday across Hampton Roads and the lower portions of the James River and York River, especially coinciding with Friday afternoon’s high tide.

Low-lying coastal roads and properties that already experience recurrent flooding are likely to be inundated with 2 to 4 feet of water, according to the National Weather Service. In addition, minor flooding is forecast to linger into Saturday’s high tides.

Along the Outer Banks, a surge of 3 to 4 feet with 10- to 15-foot waves is expected to cause significant erosion of beaches and dunes.

Rain

The highest chance for heavy rainfall and flash flooding across inland areas will exist through coastal North Carolina and southeastern Virginia, but less so in metro Richmond, which will be on the western fringe of the precipitation.

Expect to see a significant gradient in totals across the region with very little west of Interstate 95 but several inches toward southeastern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

Most scenarios bring Richmond less than 1.5 inches of rain, so flash flooding and river flooding are not expected in or near the metro area.

It may or may not be a continuous rain, depending on where that western edge sets up.

Showers will gradually enter the region from the south Thursday, turning to a steadier rain over eastern Virginia by Friday morning. Showers will taper off in the afternoon and clear out of coastal areas late Friday as the storm heads out to sea.

Wind

Dorian will generate gusty conditions in central Virginia, though damaging wind is a greater concern for the Tidewater region and points south.

A northerly breeze will become more noticeable in Richmond on Thursday night, with some gusts of 25 or 30 mph.

The National Weather Service in Wakefield expects gusts of 40 or 45 mph as far west as Interstate 95 on Friday morning, though the forecast is subject to change.

For comparison, the highest gust Richmond International Airport reported during Michael last October was 56 mph.

Tidewater can expect sustained tropical storm conditions, likely settling in late Thursday night or early Friday morning and ending by Friday night.

Gusts could hit 70 to 75 mph right along the Atlantic.

Tornadoes

For central Virginia, we’ll be on the side of the storm that is unfavorable for a significant tornado threat.

Elsewhere in the region, a risk for brief tornadoes will be centered over eastern North Carolina on Thursday and Friday.

While a tornado can’t be ruled out in Virginia, this does not have the look of a very active Florence-type situation.


Hong Kong leader withdraws extradition bill that sparked outrage

In Nation & World | Hong Kong leader withdraws extradition bill that sparked outrage | Page B1


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JOE MAHONEY  

Lisa Meador of Mechanicsville gets a wet kiss from her new dog Bindi after the dog was one of fourteen rescued from shelters along the Carolina coast likely to be targetet by Dorian and brought to the area on Wednesday, September 4, 2019.


Mike London

W&M’s Mike London ready for emotional trip back to UVA


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featured
NRA donates $200K to Va. House Republican leader

The National Rifle Association made a $200,000 donation this week to Virginia House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, an unusually large investment in state politics for the Fairfax County-based gun rights organization.

Prior to Tuesday’s six-figure donation, the NRA had made just $13,500 in direct donations to Virginia GOP groups in 2019, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. The NRA has made an additional $12,231 in independent expenditures supporting Republican candidates.

Gilbert, a pro-gun lawmaker who represents a bright-red district and is not in serious danger of losing his seat, could use his political action committee to distribute the money to Republicans in more competitive districts.

The check’s size demonstrates the high stakes for gun policy in an election year that will decide which party controls the General Assembly for the 2020 session.

“It pales in comparison to the millions that Mayor Bloomberg has already pledged to bring New York-style gun control to Virginia,” Gilbert said when asked about the NRA’s donation.

Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group launched by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has said it plans to spend $2.5 million to help Democrats flip Republican-held seats in Virginia.

NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen said gun control groups “may outspend the NRA, but they will never outwork us.”

“The NRA is fully engaged in this election to protect the self-defense rights of every law-abiding Virginian,” Mortensen said.

John Feinblatt, Everytown’s president, said the donation to Gilbert’s PAC shows “candidates in competitive races want nothing to do with the toxic gun lobby.”

“Everytown is going all-out to hold NRA lawmakers like Gilbert accountable and elect leaders who will put public safety first,” Feinblatt said.

Gun policy has long been a dividing line in Virginia politics. The issue was elevated earlier this year by the mass shooting in Virginia Beach, which prompted Gov. Ralph Northam to call the legislature into a special session on gun issues.

Republican leaders accused the governor of politicizing a tragedy and abruptly adjourned the session, sending all the bills to the Virginia State Crime Commission for a study that won’t be completed until after the November elections.

Northam and his Democratic allies have proposed universal background checks, “red flag” laws, a ban on assault-style weapons and reinstatement of Virginia’s former one-handgun-a-month law as ways to reduce gun deaths. Republicans have focused more on mental health resources and law enforcement programs designed to curb gun violence in at-risk urban neighborhoods.

Democrats characterized the NRA’s contribution to Gilbert as a reward for putting off votes on gun control bills.

“Follow the damn money,” Democratic Party of Virginia spokesman Jake Rubenstein said in a written statement. “The NRA is paying Virginia Republicans to block commonsense safety measures.”

In 2015, the last year the entire General Assembly was up for election, the NRA made $49,100 in contributions and $430,712 in independent expenditures.

That year, Everytown spent roughly $2.4 million to support Democrats.


Local
featured
VCU president's column endorsing NH District Corp.'s coliseum plan was written by NH District Corp.

An opinion column signed by Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in January that endorsed a development proposal by the private NH District Corp. was written by NH District Corp., according to public records.

The column supported the private group’s plan for a development that includes a new downtown Richmond arena, hotel and apartments and would use tax revenue from an 80-block area of downtown to pay for the projects.

NH District Corp. is headed by Tom Farrell, the CEO of Dominion Energy, which recently built a new skyscraper downtown and may build a second one; both would be in the special 80-block tax area.

According to records obtained from VCU under the Freedom of Information Act, employees of the university relations division communicated with Jeff Kelley, a public relations consultant working for NH District Corp., about Rao doing a column in support of the plan.

On Nov. 29, 2018, Kelley wrote to VCU spokeswoman Pam Lepley: “I have a good basis for his piece, as we did the brief interview with him after the mayor’s announcement.”

Lepley replied: “If you outline major points we can put it in Mike’s voice.”

Kelley on Dec. 4: “I’ll have a draft over for review today.”

Lepley on Dec. 5: “want to make sure I didn’t miss it if you sent the draft/bullets.”

Kelley: “Draft attached. I’ve probably looked at this a bit too long, so new eyes would be appreciated. Once you are good on your end, I’ll pass it through the legal team here to make sure it’s all good to go.”

He also told Lepley to “please edit however you see fit.”

Lepley responded, “We had very few edits — mainly stylistic. I’ve attached with track changes. President Rao hasn’t reviewed yet, but thought it would be good to get the ball rolling with approvals on your end so we can roll quickly.”

Lepley had sent the draft to her colleagues in university relations saying, “The president wants to do and serendipitously was asked to do an op-ed on the Navy Hill proposal (by the city and group). Everyone is hoping we can submit it ASAP.”

The final version of the column ran with Rao’s byline on Richmond.com on Jan. 6. and in print on Jan. 7.

A reporter for The Times-Dispatch obtained the email records from VCU in January, but because of other news coverage demands, the news staff did not fully review and research them until this week.

Virginia Public Media, the local public radio affiliate, first reported Wednesday that NH District Corp. wrote the column. A reporter asked the newspaper’s leadership last week if The Times-Dispatch would have published Rao’s column had it known it was drafted by NH District Corp. Executive Editor Paige Mudd said, “No, we would not have published it. While we understand that people who submit op-eds to the RTD will sometimes receive editing help or other information from colleagues, we would not have knowingly published a piece in support of the NH project that was written by the NH spokesman and signed by the president of VCU.”

Lepley, who worked with NH’s Kelley on the column, said Rao was aware that the column was drafted by Kelley, and said the president signed off on the column.

“We were all collaborating because we were all in support of this plan,” she said.

“They were his [Rao’s] words he reviewed,” she said. “They were based on the interview with him.”

The Rao column said “VCU fully supports this project” and said the development would transform lives.

“The Navy Hill plan was not created by corporate or political interests, but informed by the people of Richmond during the past two decades,” the column said, also claiming that the plan would include $300 million in contracts for minority-owned businesses — a claim former Gov. Doug Wilder, a distinguished professor at VCU, has twice challenged as inaccurate on his blog.

NH District Corp.’s brief interview with Rao, which was recorded by a videographer working with the corporation, was done at a November 2018 announcement. The Times-Dispatch asked Kelley for a copy of the audio of the interview to compare it with the column Kelley drafted; Kelley declined to provide a copy.

“And as Pam and I have both said, the interview provided a base. That’s not to say it is word for word,” Kelley said Wednesday by email. “… I also spoke with Dr. Rao moments before we began recording, so there were probably insights that didn’t wind up on the recorder. … The draft was revised by Dr. Rao’s staff which included input from Dr. Rao himself, and it was ultimately edited, approved and submitted by VCU.”

Kelley said another column published by The Times-Dispatch online Dec. 9, 2018, and in print the next day was developed by NH District Corp. That column was signed by Hakim J. Lucas, the president of Virginia Union University; and Makola M. Abdullah, the president of Virginia State University, and several other contributors. After it was published, more contributors, including Farrell, were added at the bottom of the column online.

Mudd said the other contributors were added to the online version after the editorial staff was alerted that additional people were involved in the op-ed.

The Times-Dispatch’s Opinions staff routinely receives op-ed pieces from community leaders and subject-matter experts on topics of local interest, but not all are published. Those selected for publication appear on the daily Opinions page with the author’s byline and photo.

In June 2017, Farrell’s group publicly revealed details of a plan to redevelop the Richmond Coliseum and an area around it, including public property and the historic Blues Armory.

In November 2017, Mayor Levar Stoney announced a city request for proposals to redevelop the area that mimicked what Farrell’s group proposed. Farrell’s group was the only entity to submit a proposal.

In order to take effect, the plan must be approved by the Richmond City Council, which has created an advisory commission to review it.

The Times-Dispatch sought the records from VCU on Rao’s column this year after Jeff Thomas, a Richmond native and an author of two books about Virginia’s power structure, made a FOIA request to VCU and shared the results with the newspaper, which then filed its own FOIA request.

Thomas said part of the reason he made the FOIA request was because the drivers of a plan for urban renewal had originally proposed a special tax district of 10 blocks but expanded it to 80 blocks.

Of Lepley’s comments, Thomas said: “Jeff Kelley wrote it, then they signed off on it and failed to disclose that he wrote it. … If it’s really a collaboration, then how come Michael Rao’s name is on it alone?”

Thomas also questioned why VCU is involved in the project at all.

“They’re a public institution. Their mission is to educate people and produce research that benefits the state and the nation,” he said. “Why in the world are they getting involved in a private development project that’s not in the public interest but is in the interest of their largest donors?”

Former Gov. Bob McDonnell appointed Farrell to the VCU board of visitors in 2011 and he served until 2015; Farrell asked not to be reappointed because of conflicts with his schedule, according to the secretary of the commonwealth’s office that year.

Farrell served on the board’s Presidential Evaluation and Compensation Committee.


Plus
featured
Richmond-area schools open with 58 teacher vacancies

More classrooms in the Richmond area had full-time teachers in them at the start of this school year than they did last year.

Schools in the counties of Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico as well as the city of Richmond started the school year Tuesday with 58 vacancies, a nearly 25% decrease from the 77 openings schools had at the start of the 2018-19 school year.

Virginia is battling a shortage of teachers, a national issue that studies have shown is largely driven by low pay and poor school climate.

“It’s a complicated issue,” said Virginia Education Association President Jim Livingston. “It’s going to take a long-term financial commitment to fix.”

When full-time teachers aren’t in schools as a result of not filling the vacancies, schools place substitutes in classes or increase class sizes, both factors that research shows negatively affect student achievement.

Hanover County Public Schools has just one vacancy, which spokesman Chris Whitley said was caused by the recent promotion of another teacher. Whitley said the school system is “actively recruiting candidates and hope to have it filled soon.”

Hanover — the smallest of the four main Richmond-area school systems — had two openings at the start of last school year.

In Chesterfield, 21 teaching spots remain open. Nine of those are in elementary schools and seven are in middle and high school. There are also five special education vacancies, spokesman Shawn Smith said.

Like Hanover, Chesterfield improved on its total from last year, when there were 27 vacancies on the first day of school.

Henrico County Public Schools’ 23 open teaching positions are mostly in middle and high schools, spokesman Andy Jenks said.

Those spots are largely being filled this month by retirees who come back to work for the school system on a temporary basis or long-term substitutes “who are qualified for a given class or subject matter until the vacancy can be filled.”

“It’s fair to say our recruiting efforts are ongoing, and we’re reaching out to the best of our abilities to fill these positions,” Jenks said.

The biggest improvement in the area was in Richmond.

Richmond Public Schools has gone from 54 vacancies at the start of the 2017-18 school year to just 13 this year.

“We are heading in the right direction and I’m confident next year we will hit zero,” Superintendent Jason Kamras said Wednesday.

Kamras and others spent Wednesday morning at Franklin Military Academy touting the second priority of the school system’s five-year strategic plan, which focuses on staff.

As part of that plan, the school system hopes to better retain teachers, which would cut down on the 428 vacancies it worked to fill this year. In 2016-17, 21% of teachers didn’t return to teach in the city the next year, according to data presented to the Richmond School Board in July.

The rest of the state has a retention rate of 86%, according to that data.

“We are focused on retaining and supporting” the teachers RPS hires, Chief Talent Officer Jennifer Bramble said Wednesday.

The district hopes to improve its retention rate to 85% by the 2022-23 academic year.