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Dorian grazes Carolina coast, aims for Outer Banks

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Hurricane Dorian sideswiped the Carolinas with shrieking winds, tornadoes and sideways rain Thursday as it closed in for a possible direct hit on the dangerously exposed Outer Banks. At least four deaths in the Southeast were blamed on the storm.

Twisters spun off by Dorian peeled away roofs and flipped trailers, and more than 250,000 homes and businesses were left without power as the hurricane pushed north along the coastline, its winds weakening after sunset to 100 mph. Trees and power lines littered flooded streets in Charleston’s historic downtown. Gusts had topped 80 mph in some areas.

North Carolina’s Outer Banks braced for a hit late Thursday or early Friday. At 11 p.m., Dorian was centered about 35 miles southeast of Wilmington, N.C. The Category 2 storm had maximum sustained winds of 100 mph and was moving northeast at 13 mph.

The National Hurricane Center forecast as much as 15 inches of rain for the coastal Carolinas, with flash-flooding likely.

“I think we’re in for a great big mess,” said 61-year-old Leslie Lanier, who decided to stay behind and boarded up her home and bookstore on Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks, making sure to move the volumes 5 to 6 feet off the ground.

Among the most vulnerable places was North Carolina’s easternmost county, Dare, which includes much of the Outer Banks, the 175-mile-long strip of narrow barrier islands that are accessible only by bridges, boats or planes. They are separated from the mainland United States by as much as 30 miles of open water in the Pamlico and Albemarle sounds.

In coastal Wilmington, N.C., just above the South Carolina line, heavy rain fell horizontally, trees bent in the wind and traffic lights swayed as the hurricane drew near.

Overnight winds will cause trees and branches to fall on power lines, and debris could block repair crews from accessing damaged lines, said Mike Burnette senior vice president of Electric Cooperatives, a North Carolina utility provider. Customers should prepare for prolonged power outages, he said.

“We have a long night ahead of us. Everyone needs to stay in a safe place and off the roads until the storm passes,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said.

To the north, Virginia was also in harm’s way, and a round of evacuations was ordered there. Low-lying communities such as Hampton Roads could see a storm surge of 2 to 4 feet Thursday night and Friday, according to the National Hurricane Center.

After leaving at least 30 people dead when it slammed the Bahamas with 185 mph winds, Dorian swept past Florida at a relatively safe distance, grazed Georgia, and then hugged the South Carolina-North Carolina coastline.

In Charleston, a historic port city of handsome antebellum homes on a peninsula that is prone to flooding even from ordinary storms, Dorian toppled some 150 trees, swamped roads and brought down power lines, officials said, but the flooding and wind weren’t nearly as bad as feared.

Walking along Charleston’s stone battery, college student Zachary Johnson sounded almost disappointed that Dorian hadn’t done more.

“I mean, it’d be terrible if it did, don’t get me wrong. I don’t know — I’m just waiting for something crazy to happen, I guess,” said Johnson, 24.

Still, Gov. Henry McMaster warned the state was not in the clear. “When the wind stops, we still have to deal with the water, because the water’s going to last longer,” he said.

“Don’t be surprised if there was water in your home. You might have animals, snakes,” McMaster said. “You don’t know what might be in there, so be very careful as you return.”

Dorian apparently spawned at least one tornado in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., damaging several homes, and another twister touched down in the beach town of Emerald Isle, N.C., mangling and overturning several trailer homes in a jumble of sheet metal. No immediate injuries were reported.

The four deaths attributed to the storm took place in Florida and North Carolina. All of them involved men who died in falls or by electrocution while trimming trees, putting up storm shutters or otherwise getting ready for the hurricane.

As it closed in on the Eastern Seaboard, Navy ships were ordered to ride out the storm at sea, and military aircraft were moved inland. More than 700 airline flights scheduled for Thursday and Friday were canceled. And hundreds of shelter animals were airlifted from coastal South Carolina to Delaware.

By midday Thursday, coastal residents in Georgia and some South Carolina counties were allowed to go home. Tybee Island, Ga., population 3,000, came through the storm without flooding.

“If the worst that comes out of this is people blame others for calling evacuations, then that’s wonderful,” Mayor Jason Buelterman said.

The storm is expected to remain a powerful hurricane through Friday, before transitioning into more of a nontropical storm system that may go on to batter the Canadian Maritimes. Tropical storm watches have been hoisted as far north as extreme southeastern New England, including Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, even though the center of Dorian is expected to stay about 150 miles offshore there.

Dorian is tied for the second-strongest storm (as judged by its maximum sustained winds) ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, behind Hurricane Allen of 1980, and, after striking the northern Bahamas, tied with the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane for the title of the strongest Atlantic hurricane at landfall.

With Dorian attaining Category 5 strength, this is the first time since the start of the satellite era (in the 1960s) that Category 5 storms have developed in the tropical Atlantic for four straight years, according to Capital Weather Gang tropical weather expert Brian McNoldy.


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Teacher of the year
Henrico High School psychology teacher named best in region

Standing off to the side of the school auditorium with a large cup of coffee in his hand, Gregory Lyndaker had no idea the Henrico High School senior class assembly Thursday morning would turn into a ceremony to honor him as Teacher of the Year for the Richmond region.

Recognized as the Henrico County Teacher of the Year in a ceremony last May, the high school psychology teacher was elevated Thursday to best teacher in the region for the 2019-2020 school year, setting him up to compete with seven other teachers across the state for Virginia Teacher of the Year.

Even as he was called to the stage Thursday morning, Lyndaker thought he was being recognized for the county-level award he won last spring. “I didn’t expect this at all today when I came in or even while I was standing in the meeting. I had no idea what it was about,” Lyndaker said in an interview after the assembly. “I thought it was our senior meeting that we normally have at the beginning of the year. I was shocked.”

Once the clapping ended and Superintendent Amy Cashwell called him to the stage, she made the surprise announcement that Lyndaker had been named the top teacher for Virginia Region 1, unleashing a thunderous round of applause for the beloved teacher.

Region 1 consists of 15 localities: the counties of Charles City, Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, Goochland, Hanover, Henrico, New Kent, Powhatan, Prince George, Surry and Sussex, plus the cities of Colonial Heights, Hopewell, Petersburg and Richmond.

The last winner of Teacher of the Year in Region 1, Rodney Robinson, a history and social studies teacher at the Virgie Binford Education Center in Richmond, went on to win National Teacher of the Year last spring.

Several students and faculty members stood as they cheered for Lyndaker. And in the hallway afterward, on the way to a faculty reception, several teachers shouted congratulations or stopped him for a quick embrace to share their appreciation.

Officials said what sets Lyndaker apart is his engaging lesson plans, the care he shows for his students, and his involvement in peer development and with student teams and clubs, such as the soccer team and the National Honor Society.

Deputy Secretary of Education Holly Coy, who presented him with an award certificate and a letter signed by Gov. Ralph Northam, said he has demonstrated leadership as both a teacher and a mentor to his students and colleagues.

“It’s clear you’re dedicated to serving those around you wholeheartedly,” she said. “We’re so grateful for you inspiring a love of learning in your students and taking the time to build those relationships with them. These are truly the greatest accomplishments in an educator’s life.”

Originally from upstate New York, Lyndaker comes from a family of educators and school guidance counselors. Lyndaker, who teaches International Baccalaureate Psychology and a course called Theory of Knowledge, joined the Henrico High School faculty in 2013 after working for a middle school near his hometown and at the Virginia Home for Boys and Girls.

Lyndaker said he hopes to build on his successes and to help push the school district to “innovate more and find new ways to teach our kids the best we can.”

A panel made up of professionals from various educational organizations selected Lyndaker and seven other teachers for the award in their respective regions, according to Virginia Director of Teacher Education Tara McDaniel. The same group will decide who is named the Virginia Teacher of the Year on Oct. 7.


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Jury acquits Emporia mother in hot-car infant death. No charges in deaths of Chesterfield twins.

Dameer Curry

Blondia Curry was exhausted. She had spent several days in the hospital with her daughter, who collapsed suddenly from diabetes, and was scrambling to find a replacement babysitter for one of her three other children so she could go to her second job as an assistant manager for Domino’s Pizza.

In the tumult of trying to sort things out, the single mother from Emporia made a tragic error. She arrived for work on time but forgot that her youngest child, Dameer Curry, just 6 months old, was still in the back seat.

It wasn’t until five hours later, after finishing her busy Friday evening shift without a break, that Curry, 31, made the grim discovery: Dameer was dead outside the restaurant where she worked.

“She brought the baby back in the store and was screaming and crying,” said Graven Craig, her attorney. “It’s heartbreaking. She’ll never live another day of her life without thinking about what happened.”

Apparently taking into account the tragic circumstances, a Greensville County jury recently determined that Curry was not criminally negligent and found her not guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the Aug. 10, 2018, death, after deliberating for less than an hour.

Circuit Judge W. Allan Sharrett threw out a companion charge of child neglect after ruling there was no evidence that Curry’s conduct was willful, the legal standard for a conviction.

The hot-car death was one of four last year in Virginia, with the others occurring over a three-month span in Chesterfield and Goochland counties. A fifth child died this summer in Richmond.

In the Chesterfield case, the commonwealth attorney’s office declined to prosecute the parents of 5-month-old twins, a boy and a girl whose identifies have not been disclosed. They died after they unintentionally were left inside their family’s overheated SUV at The Maisonette Apartments off Jefferson Davis Highway on May 10, 2018.

And in the Goochland death, a judge in December found the father of 17-month-old Riaan Gondesi guilty of misdemeanor child neglect in his son’s death on Aug. 8, 2018. Aditya Gondesi inadvertently left the toddler in his vehicle in a parking garage that day before going to work at the Capital One campus in the West Creek Business Park. He forgot to drop his son off at day care.

Another suspected hot-car death occurred July 16 of this year in Richmond, when police pulled a 10-month-old girl strapped in a car seat from a vehicle in the 4600 block of Britannia Road in South Side. An investigation is ongoing and police are waiting for the state medical examiner’s office to determine the child’s cause and manner of death, said Richmond police spokesman James Mercante. No charges have been filed.

KidsAndCars, a national nonprofit organization that tracks the deaths of children in and around cars, has listed the girl’s death as heat-related — the only one in Virginia so far this year.

On Wednesday, as U.S. lawmakers have been considering whether to make mandatory a system in vehicles to remind motorists of passengers in the back seat, an alliance of major automakers announced an agreement to equip all new cars and trucks by 2025 with rear-seat alert systems.

At Curry’s recent trial, Craig explained to the jury that a “trio of bad circumstances” led to the death of Dameer.

“There’s no question that she forgot,” Craig said of his client. “None of the prosecution’s evidence contradicted any of our evidence. But the question is whether it was criminal negligence or simple negligence.”

According to Craig’s case, Curry’s oldest child, a daughter, collapsed in a park on Aug. 7, 2018 — just three days before Dameer was left in the car. Physicians determined the girl was diabetic. Curry spent the next 2½ days in the hospital with her daughter and was scrambling to buy special food and learn how to administer insulin shots.

Curry had to take several days off from her job at Domino’s, and asked to take another day but was told she’d lose her job if she didn’t come to work, Craig said. So she lined up day care — three different babysitters for her four children.

But those plans blew up when, as she was driving to drop off the kids at various locations, Curry received a call from the imprisoned father of one of the children. The father “canceled” the day care services that his mother had planned to provide for the child “for no other reason than to be difficult,” Craig said.

Frantic, Curry began calling for a replacement and arranged for one of her other babysitters to watch that child. She dropped off her eldest children with that sitter.

“Her routine was that she went in a certain order with the babysitters, and [Dameer] is usually the first one that’s dropped off,” the attorney said.

Curry was heading to Dameer’s sitter when she received a call from a friend to discuss Curry’s newly diabetic child. The prosecution and defense agreed in a stipulation of evidence that Curry was talking with her friend “all the way until she got to work,” Craig said.

The combination of events resulted in Curry forgetting that Dameer was still strapped into his child seat in the rear of the car, Craig said.

After arriving at 4:02 p.m., Curry worked continuously without a break for the next five hours, Craig said.

She was asked to stay late but declined, saying she needed to pick up her children. “It was at that point she realized, ‘Oh my gosh, my baby’s in the car,’” Craig said.

After Curry rushed her overheated child into Domino’s, a customer performed CPR to try to revive the child, but it was too late.

While the circumstances are unfortunate, Greensville Commonwealth’s Attorney Patricia Watson said that the “crux of the matter” is that Curry went to work and left her child behind.

Dameer’s body core temperature when he arrived at Southside Regional Medical Center’s emergency room was over 109 degrees, “which is as high as the thermometer goes,” Watson said.

The outside temperature was 92 degrees at 4 p.m. that day in an unshaded parking lot, Watson said, and Curry’s car windows were rolled up.

“It all boils down to her leaving the baby in the car for five hours, without ever thinking once about the child,” the prosecutor said.

Like the Emporia case, the deaths of the Chesterfield twins resulted from a series of unfortunate circumstances.

The parents worked opposite shifts at a Waffle House, and at 8 a.m. the mother drove with the twins to the restaurant, where the father had worked a double shift. Upon arrival, the mother prepared to begin her shift and the father got in the SUV to drive home, said Chesterfield prosecutor Kelly Cotting, who reviewed the case.

The parents had discussion between themselves as to a neighbor/babysitter helping with their children — including their 3-year-old daughter — and that led the father to mistakenly believe that all three of their children were with the babysitter, Cotting said.

When the father arrived home about 8:30, he checked the twins’ room and saw lumps and blankets in their crib, which led him to believe they were sleeping. He then went to sleep himself.

About 2 p.m., when it was time for the father to get the mother from work, he realized the babies were in the car. He performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, tried to cool them down and called 911, Cotting said. Both infants died of hyperthermia; the prosecutor’s office ruled the deaths to be accidental and no charges were filed.


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Former Live Well Financial CEO pleads not guilty in federal court to bond fraud scheme

The former top executive of now-defunct Chesterfield County-based Live Well Financial has pleaded not guilty in federal court in New York City to five criminal charges alleging that he was a mastermind in a multimillion-dollar bond fraud scheme.

Michael C. Hild, who founded the fast-growing mortgage company in 2005 and served as its CEO until the company abruptly shut down on May 3, appeared before U.S. District Judge Ronnie Abrams in New York City on Thursday afternoon. The hearing lasted about 15 minutes.

Hild, 44, entered a not guilty plea to each of the five counts: one count of conspiracy to commit securities fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit wire and bank fraud, one count of securities fraud, one count of wire fraud, and one count of bank fraud.

His trial date was set for Oct. 13, 2020.

If convicted on all five counts, he faces a maximum sentence of 115 years in prison. The charges also contain a maximum fine of $5 million.

He is accused of fraudulently inflating the value of Live Well Financial’s portfolio of complex reverse-mortgage bonds in order to induce various securities dealers and at least one financial institution into lending more money to the company.

Federal prosecutors in New York claim he inflated the value of the mortgage-backed bonds by more than $140 million.

Also charged in the alleged scheme were Eric Rohr, who served as Live Well Financial’s chief financial officer from 2008 to late 2018, and Darren Stumberger, the company’s former executive vice president and head trader from 2014 until March 2019.

Rohr and Stumberger, both from the Richmond area, each pleaded guilty to five criminal counts last week in federal court in New York and are cooperating with the federal prosecutors.

Hild was arrested last week in Richmond and appeared before a federal magistrate, who released him on a $500,000 unsecured bond pending his appearance Thursday in federal court in New York. His bail conditions remained the same.

With him in court on Thursday were his two attorneys, Steven Feldman and William Donnelly from the Murphy & McGonigle law firm in New York. His attorneys could not be reached for comment.

Hild, along with Rohr and Stumberger, also faces civil charges filed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Those charges allege they violated the anti-fraud provisions of federal securities laws.

Live Well Financial closed on May 3 and laid off its 103 employees, most of whom worked at the company’s corporate offices in the Boulders office complex in Chesterfield.

The company provided little detail at the time as to why it had to close, saying only that it was ceasing operations because of what it called “sudden and unexpected developments.”

But according to the SEC complaint, the scheme collapsed this year when Live Well’s lenders sought to sell the bonds back to Live Well and the company did not have the necessary funds to complete the repurchase securities transactions, leaving those lenders exposed to losses in excess of $80 million.

The scheme came to a head in May when the company’s interim chief financial officer informed Hild that he would not sign the company’s interim financial statements because he believed that the company’s carrying value for its bond portfolio was significantly overstated.

After shutting down, Live Well’s interim CFO provided a balance sheet to lenders showing that the company had reduced the value of its bond portfolio by about $141 million.

“Hild’s ‘self-generating money machine’ was a brazen fraud through which Hild enriched himself at the expense of Live Well’s counterparties,” Daniel Michael, chief of the SEC’s Complex Financial Instruments Unit, said last week when Hild was charged.

Hild’s salary jumped from about $1.4 million in 2015, to $5 million in 2016, $9.7 million in 2017, and to more than $8 million in 2018, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Federal law enforcement officials last week also obtained a restraining order prohibiting Hild from taking any actions with his assets — including various real estate properties and business interests in the Richmond area — that he directly or indirectly owned.

While Hild ran Live Well Financial, he and his wife, Laura Dyer Hild, have in recent years amassed nearly three dozen properties through Church Hill Ventures LLC in Richmond’s Manchester, Blackwell and Swansboro neighborhoods with plans to redevelop those properties.


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Hurricane Dorian has finally arrived in N.C.: here's what we've learned, and here's what to watch for

After 14 days of tracking a storm named Dorian across the Atlantic, Friday will finally reveal what effect it has on Virginia.

The eye of Dorian will make its closest approach to the U.S. mainland on Friday morning. Which part (or parts) of North Carolina will experience a direct landfall, at what strength, and what kind of erosion will result?

Far from the eye of the storm, gusty 40 to 45 mph winds in central Virginia could lead to isolated issues with trees and power lines, with more widespread outages possible where stronger winds blow across the peninsulas and Tidewater.

In Hampton Roads, the afternoon high tide will coincide with the peak storm surge and lead to major coastal flooding. Though Dorian is not forecast to top the records, it will bring the highest levels at Sewell’s Point in several years. According to Thursday’s forecasts from the National Weather Service in Wakefield, Dorian’s surge is expected to rival or exceed the flooding from Sandy in 2012 but fall short of the levels seen during Irene in 2011.

Several inches of rain falling across Hampton Roads could be heavy enough to trigger inland flash flooding, as well.

Hurricane lessons

Every hurricane is unique, and each one teaches us something new about what they’re capable of. Yet certain lessons bear repeating each season. Here are a few topics — but not the only ones — that have been part of the discussion in the world of weather forecasting over the past two weeks.

Wind is always just one part of the story: It’s obviously bad news when a storm like Dorian climbs from an 80 mph Category 1 to a 185 mph Category 5 as it bears down. Damage potential is multiplied by orders of magnitude across the Saffir-Simpson scale. But a lowering isn’t universally good news, either.

As storms move northward, we often see them expand in size while losing peak wind speeds near the center. Dorian is one such example. The calm eye of the storm off of South Carolina on Thursday was nearly the size of Dorian’s entire field of hurricane-force winds when it approached the Bahamas. A broadening storm can affect a greater land area and contain more power to slosh storm surge around, so “weakening” isn’t the best word to describe that trend.

And a downgrade from a Category 5 to Category 2 based on slackening winds doesn’t mean much at all when it comes to inland flooding danger.

A hurricane is a region, not a point on a map: The National Hurricane Center’s familiar track forecast cone, or “cone of uncertainty,” predicts where the center of a storm is most likely to track over five days, not necessarily where the effects will be felt. The cone does not expand or shrink based on the level of confidence about an individual storm, but is based on the overall forecast performance from the past five years.

The cone looks smaller than it did during the days of Isabel in 2003 and Irene, because those track forecasts continue to improve on average.

There are exceptions, but the eventual path ends up within the cone about two-thirds of the time.

With Dorian, early forecasts were too far west with regards to its track across the Caribbean. Since clearing Puerto Rico on Aug. 28, however, Dorian has moved within the expected zones.

The path Dorian ultimately took, paralleling the curves of the Southeast U.S. coast, was explicitly predicted by Saturday, Aug. 31, and the forecast has performed very well all week.

But hurricanes are complicated storms bearing several unique hazards. Slight nudges in location and timing can trickle down to significant shifts in impacts. It would be nice if one map could perfectly convey all of the threats in specific terms to a wide audience, but the storms are too complicated to allow it. Fostering a better understanding of the strengths and limitations of weather maps is a good place to start.

Climate change is an important consideration, but also a nuanced one: While it’s true that we’ve always been threatened by hurricanes, it’s also true that warmer oceans and a warmer atmosphere will have an effect on their behavior going forward.

Climate change doesn’t cause any single hurricane and the record doesn’t show that they’re getting more frequent so far, but researchers are exploring long-term trends signaling slower, wetter storms and faster intensification. Sea level rise (in our region, an existing trend that’s only worsened by a global acceleration) gradually puts more land area at risk of hurricane storm surge.

In coming months and years, scientists will surely examine the factors that made Dorian one of the most violent on record in the Atlantic, and the patterns that forced it to stall over the Bahamas. As was the case with 2017’s Harvey, attribution studies may be able to shed light on whether it was more likely to occur than it would have been in years past.

Still, storm paths will naturally vary over space and time. Our next quiet Atlantic hurricane season — which will be welcome — shouldn’t fool us about the ongoing need for research and preparedness.


2015, JOE MAHONEY/TIMES-DISPATCH 

Michael Hild