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AG Gets Restraining Order Against Storm Shelter Company for Alleged Dangerous Products, Deceptive Practices

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From the Office of Attorney General Luther Strange

MONTGOMERY)—The Madison County Circuit Court has granted a request filed this morning by Attorney General Luther Strange for a temporary restraining order against a North Alabama storm shelter company, as well as the appointment of a receiver to protect consumers’ interests.  Defendants in this case are Tornado Masters of Alabama Inc., located in Toney, Alabama; the company’s chief operating officer, Leslie A. Holt, and an employee, Grady Holt, also residents of Toney; and SafeSteel Inc., a company incorporated by the defendants in Tennessee which also does business as Factory Direct Tornado Shelters in Toney.

A hearing is set for March 16 for the Court to consider a preliminary injunction, based on a complaint also filed this morning by Attorney General Strange. The complaint alleges that the defendants “violated multiple provisions of Alabama’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act by soothing people’s fear of tornadoes with the false guarantee that their storm shelters will shield purchasers from the most powerful tornadoes.”  Falsely representing that their shelters exceeded FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) specifications, the defendants instead provided structures that “sat on inadequate bases, were not properly anchored, began to rot and rust within a few months, held standing water whenever it rained, and had inadequate ventilation.”

Furthermore, the defendants falsely represented that the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) approved the shelters and was awarding grants that would reduce the cost to consumers. Attorney General Strange stated in the complaint that “Defendants present themselves as reputable, earnest, and in the business of protecting Alabamians.  But this facade belies the truth.  Customers did not receive USDA grants or USDA-approved shelters; they were tricked into thinking their shelters met government standards by phony grants that defendants forged to discount an inflated price.  And for their money consumers received, sometimes months after making down payments, shelters that were poorly constructed, untested and unsafe.”

The Attorney General’s complaint details evidence of numerous and severe deficiencies in the defendants’ shelters:

Many are inadequately anchored, built on concrete slabs that are a fraction of the required thickness, poorly welded, and built with materials meant for interior use.  “These shelters are plagued with leaks, standing water, and defectively designed ventilation shafts that may allow flying debris to enter the shelter.” Far from just being unsafe for protection from storms, the Attorney General’s complaint describes such shelters as “a serious risk to occupants on fair weather days. Some of these shelters have inadequate ventilation, or, in some cases, no ventilation whatsoever. The limited static air in these shelters creates a substantial suffocation risk for occupants.” Defective door mechanisms present not only a hazard of occupants being trapped, but of heavy steel doors that could slam shut and cause “serious risk that children and adult occupants may lose fingers or break arms while trying to race into the shelter” and that “a heavy gust of wind may slam it onto someone’s hands or head.” A ladder that should lock into place for safety instead flies loosely in one shelter that is built on a foundation floating on water that has leaked inside.

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According to the Attorney General’s complaint, the defendants’ shelters lack any manufacturer’s label, operating instructions, or warning information.  Nor have defendants acquired required licenses such as city business licenses, Alabama Manufactured Housing licenses, and building permits. Although defendants advertise that they are authorized and able to build community-sized shelters, they are not licensed by the General Contractor’s Licensure Board as required for projects costing more than $50,000.

Perhaps one of the most egregious violations alleged in the Attorney General’s complaint is an $80,000 shelter constructed as an addition onto Huntsville Christian Academy in 2009, described as “an unsafe, unlicensed, and thoroughly inadequate shelter, which has no lights, flammable egg-foam crating along the walls, little or no ventilation, and dangerous in-swing doors that are hazardous in a panic situation.” The Attorney General’s motion for a temporary restraining order describes a situation at the school just three days ago, as severe weather struck again in Alabama on Friday. That afternoon, the State Fire Marshal declared the shelter to be an “imminent hazard.”

Attorney General Strange said he is relieved that the Court granted his request and took immediate action to protect Alabamians. “Our evidence indicates that these defendants callously exploited the anxiety of people who did their best to prepare and protect their loved ones from the devastation that has struck at our state through tornadoes and storms.  Unbeknownst to these consumers, their loved ones are not safer but actually may be even more endangered by the shelters which many sacrificed to pay for.  It was vital that these deceptive trade practices be halted, and steps taken to protect our citizens as we head into another season of tornadoes and unstable weather.”

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The Attorney General commended Assistant Attorneys General Noel Barnes, Kyle Beckman and Matt Bledsoe, and Special Agents of the Attorney General’s Investigations Division. He thanked the Madison County District Attorney’s Office for its assistance.

The Alabama Political Reporter is a daily political news site devoted to Alabama politics. We provide accurate, reliable coverage of policy, elections and government.

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Health

Study: COVID-19 infection rates more than double without lockdowns

Infection and fatality rates would have been higher without stay-at-home orders, a new UAB study found.

Micah Danney

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(STOCK PHOTO)

New research from the University of Alabama at Birmingham says that if there had been no stay-at-home orders issued in the U.S. in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the country would have experienced a 220 percent higher rate of infection and a 22 percent higher fatality rate than if such orders were implemented nationwide.

Seven states never imposed stay-at-home orders, or SAHOs. The study analyzed daily positive case rates by state against the presence or absence of statewide SAHOs between March 1 and May 4, the period when such orders began to be implemented. Twelve states lifted their SAHOs before May 4.

The researchers defined SAHOs as being in effect when a state’s governor issued an order for residents of the entire state to leave home only for essential activities and when schools and nonessential businesses were closed.

“During March and April, most states in the United States imposed shutdowns and enacted SAHOs in an effort to control the disease,” said Bisakha Sen, the study’s senior author. “However, mixed messages from political authorities on the usefulness of SAHOs, popular pressure and concerns about the economic fallout led some states to lift the restrictions before public health experts considered it advisable.”

The research also sought to determine if the proportion of a state’s Black residents was associated with its number of positive cases. It found that there was.

“This finding adds to evidence from existing studies using county-level data on racial disparities in COVID-19 infection rates and underlines the urgency of better understanding and addressing these disparities,” said study co-author Vidya Sagar Hanumanthu. 

The research can help advance a greater understanding of racial disparities in the health care system as a whole, and help leaders make future decisions about shutdowns as the virus continues to spread, Sen said.

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“While the high economic cost makes SAHOs unsustainable as a long-term policy, our findings could help inform federal, state and local policymakers in weighing the costs and benefits of different short-term options to combat the pandemic,” she said.

The study was published Friday in JAMA Network Open.

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Elections

Jones to attend Auburn student forum, Tuberville hasn’t yet responded to invitation

Jones has agreed to attend the forum, but it was unclear whether Tuberville planned to attend.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Sen. Doug Jones, left, and Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville, right.

The College Democrats at Auburn University and the College Republicans at Auburn University have asked U.S. Senator Doug Jones, D-Alabama, and his Republican opponent, Tommy Tuberville, to attend a student forum on Wednesday.

“We are excited to invite the candidates running for our U.S. Senate seat and provide this opportunity for any Auburn student to hear directly from them, and we hope it will inform our student bodies’ decisions with the November 3rd election only days away,” said Carsten Grove, president of the College Democrats at Auburn University, in a statement.

Jones has agreed to attend the forum, Auburn University College Democrats confirmed for APR on Sunday, but it was unclear whether Tuberville planned to attend. The student organization  was still awaiting a response from Tuberville’s campaign.

Jones has for months requested Tuberville join him in a debate, but Tuberville has declined.

“AUCR takes great pleasure in coming together with AUCD to co-host the Alabama Senate candidates in this forum. We are looking forward to a very informative and constructive event,” said Lydia Maxwell, president of the College Republicans at Auburn University.

Dr. Ryan Williamson, assistant professor of political science, is to emcee the forum, which will be open to all Auburn University students in the Mell Classroom Building at 6 p.m., according to a press release from the College Democrats at Auburn University.

Students will be permitted 30 seconds to ask a question of either candidate, and each candidate will have two minutes to answer, according to the release.

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Capacity at the forum will be limited and precautions taken due to COVID-19. Any student with an Auburn ID is welcome and attendance will be first come, first served.

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Health

122,000 Alabamians would lose health coverage if ACA is overturned, study finds

President Donald Trump’s administration and 18 states, including Alabama, are asking the country’s highest court to strike down the law. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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At least 122,000 Alabamians and 21.1 million in the U.S. overall would lose health coverage if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the Affordable Care Act, according to a recent study. 

The Washington D.C.-based think tank Urban Institute’s analysis found that Alabama’s uninsured rate would increase by 25 percent if the court strikes down the Affordable Care Act (ACA), after oral arguments in a case against the landmark health care law is to begin on Nov. 10.  

President Donald Trump’s administration and 18 states, including Alabama, are asking the country’s highest court to strike down the entire ACA. 

Trump, speaking to CBS News’s Lesley Stahl in a recent interview, said he would like the Supreme Court to end the ACA. There’s concern among many that Trump’s pick to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the court, conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett, could be a deciding factor in the repeal of the ACA when the Supreme Court hears the case just after the Nov. 3 election.

“I hope that they end it. It’ll be so good if they end it,” Trump told Stahl.

“Repealing the ACA would throw our health care system into chaos in the middle of a pandemic and a deep recession,” Alabama Arise executive director Robyn Hyden said in a statement. “Tens of thousands of Alabamians would lose health coverage when they need it most. And hundreds of thousands would pay more for coverage or lose protections for their preexisting conditions.”

Health care coverage losses could be even larger next year, as the COVID-19 pandemic and recession likely still will be ongoing, according to the study. 

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“The ACA has been a health lifeline for many Alabamians during the pandemic,” Hyden said. “It provides coverage options for people who have lost their jobs or seen sharp reductions in their income. And it ensures people aren’t denied insurance just because they got sick.”

Ending the ACA would also reverse gains made in reducing racial disparities in health care coverage, researchers in the study found, noting that overturning the ACA would strip health coverage from nearly one in 10 Black and Latino Americans under age 65, and more than one in 10 Native Americans nationwide would lose health insurance. 

People with preexisting conditions would be charged higher insurance rates, or have their coverage dropped altogether, if the ACA is struck down, according to the study, which also found that the law’s repeal would harm people who have health insurance through their jobs. 

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Those who have health insurance through their jobs could see their plans reintroduce annual and lifetime coverage limits, and requirements for plans to cover essential benefits and provide free preventive services would disappear, according to the study, as would the requirement for insurers to allow young adults to be covered through their parents’ plans.

While millions would lose health care if the law is repealed, the country’s top earners would receive tax cuts, according to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which found that the highest-income 0.1 percent of households, which earn more than $3 million annually,  would receive tax cuts averaging about $198,000 per year. 

“A portion of these tax cuts — about $10 billion per year — would come at the direct expense of the Medicare Trust Fund, since the additional Medicare tax the ACA instituted for couples with earnings over $250,000 flows to the fund,” the Center of Budget and Policy Priority study reads. 

Pharmaceutical companies would pay $2.8 billion less in taxes each year, according to the study, while millions of seniors would pay billions more for prescription drugs due to the gap in Medicare’s prescription drug benefit if the ACA is repealed. 

“The ACA has left Alabama better equipped to fight COVID-19 and rebuild our economy after the recession,” Hyden said. “And those benefits would be even greater if Alabama would adopt Medicaid expansion.

“Striking down the ACA would harm the Alabamians who have suffered the most during the pandemic and the recession. It would deprive our state of the opportunity to save lives and strengthen our health care system by expanding Medicaid,” Hyden continued. “And it would shower huge tax cuts on rich people while making life harder for everyone else. Alabama officials should stop seeking to undermine the ACA and start investing in a healthier future for our entire state.”

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Two military pilots killed in plane crash in Foley

Brandon Moseley

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Navy Lt. Rhiannon Ross, age 30, of Wixom, Michigan, died when her T-6B Texan II trainer aircraft crashed. Also killed was Coast Guard Ensign Morgan Garrett, a 24-year-old student aviator.

Friday, a Navy pilot and a Coast Guard student pilot were killed when their Navy T-6B Texan II training airplane crashed into a home in Foley. No one in the house was killed.

Commander Zach Harrell, a public affairs officer with Naval Air Forces, said that the plane crashed around 5:00 p.m. A house and two cars on the ground were hit in the crash.

“It is with a heavy heart that we mourn two of our pilots who lost their lives during an aircraft crash in Alabama today,” the Chief of Naval Air Training said in a Twitter post. “Our deepest sympathy goes to their family and friends at this difficult time. Rest in peace, Shipmates. We have the watch.”

Navy Lt. Rhiannon Ross, age 30, of Wixom, Michigan, died when her T-6B Texan II trainer aircraft crashed. She was a Navy instructor pilot, officials announced on Sunday. Also killed was Coast Guard Ensign Morgan Garrett, a 24-year-old student aviator.

Ross earned her commission in April 2012. Before joining the Florida-based Training Squadron Two in February 2018, she served three years with Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 26 out of Norfolk, Virginia.

Garrett was from Weddington, North Carolina, and was a 2019 Coast Guard Academy graduate.

“Their spirit, friendship, and devotion to their country will not be forgotten,” Navy officials said in a Sunday news release.

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Ross was a member of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor’s Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps, according to her Navy career bio. Her personal awards include a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal.

Friday’s accident marked the Navy’s first aviation-related fatality in more than a year.

“The incident is currently under investigation,” Harrell said. “The Navy is cooperating fully with local authorities.”

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U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, said on Twitter, “Very sad to hear about the Navy trainer aircraft that crashed in Foley. My thoughts and prayers are with the families of the two service members who lost their live.”

Congressman Bradley Byrne, R-Montrose, said, “As we await additional information, I hope you will join me in praying for the victims and their families. According to the Baldwin County Sheriff’s office, the plane was a US Navy aircraft.”

A home caught fire after the plane crashed but the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office also said no one on the ground was injured.

The T-6B Texan II is a tandem-seat, turboprop aircraft primarily used to train Navy and Marine Corps pilots, according to the Navy.

There are 245 T-6Bs based at the Navy’s two aviation training bases, Naval Air Station Whiting Field, outside of Pensacola and Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas. The airfield is about 45 miles from the crash site.

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