As Hurricane Arthur nears North Carolina, vacationers head out; rest of East Coast on watch

KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. (AP) -- A strengthening Hurricane Arthur forced thousands of vacationers on the North Carolina coast to abandon their Independence Day plans while cities farther up the East Coast rescheduled fireworks displays threatened by rain from the storm.

After passing over or near North Carolina as a hurricane early Friday, Arthur was expected to weaken as it travels northward and slings rain along the East Coast. The annual Boston Pops Fourth of July concert and fireworks show was rescheduled for Thursday because of potential heavy rain from Arthur, while fireworks displays in New Jersey and Maine were postponed until later in the weekend.

Forecasters expect Arthur to strengthen to a Category 2 storm with winds of 96 mph or more by the time it passes early Friday over or near the Outer Banks -- a 200-mile string of narrow barrier islands with about 57,000 permanent residents.

"We don’t know for sure if the exact center of Arthur is going to pass over land or not. The chances have been increasing for that to occur with the last couple of forecasts. But even if the exact center doesn’t go over you, you will experience impacts tonight. The weather is going downhill in North Carolina, even as we speak," said Rick Knabb, the director of the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.

The islands are susceptible to high winds, rough seas and road-clogging sands, prompting an exodus that began Wednesday night.

Brazil overpass, unfinished World Cup project, collapses onto vehicles; 2 reported dead

SAO PAULO (AP) -- An overpass under construction collapsed Thursday in a World Cup host city, killing at least two people and trapping a commuter bus, two construction trucks and a car, Brazilian authorities said. Nineteen people were reported injured.

The incident took place on a main avenue, the expansion of which is one of the infrastructure improvement projects planned for the World Cup but like most urban transportation projects related to the tournament was not finished on time for the event.

There was no word of any tourists being among the casualties.

A woman who was driving a commuter bus trapped by the overpass died, said Capt. Federico Pascual of the Belo Horizonte fire department. An official in the mayor’s office said a second person died, raising the death toll to two.

The official said 19 people were known to be injured so far. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to the media about the incident.

Under pressure to fight, Ukraine president appoints new defense officials, condemns corruption

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -- Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko shook up his faltering military Thursday, appointing a new defense minister and top general while speaking angrily about the years of decay and corruption that left the forces unable to deal effectively with the well-armed eastern insurgency.

His tougher tone, analysts say, reflects public pressure to continue the fight against the insurgents in the regions bordering Russia-- even with a rickety military that’s had little success.

Poroshenko denounced the "complete collapse" of the government’s ability to supply the armed forces in a sometimes angry, finger-wagging speech in parliament.

He won quick approval for his choice of former top police official Valery Heletey as defense minister, replacing Mikhailo Koval. He also tapped Lt. Gen. Viktor Muzhenko as chief of the military’s general staff and Yury Kosyuk, an agriculture magnate and one of Ukraine’s richest men, to oversee defense issues in the presidential administration and to help "purge the army of thieves and grafters." Accusations of corruption have been rife as Kiev’s operation against the rebels continues.

"Today the revival of the army is starting from scratch, an army which is capable of fighting and winning," Poroshenko said in parliament.

VA says patient access to
medical care improving

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Department of Veterans Affairs says it has reached out to nearly 140,000 veterans in the past two months to get them off waiting lists and into clinics for medical appointments.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson revealed the number Thursday as the VA released new audit figures showing improved patient access at 731 VA hospitals and clinics nationwide.

The audit of patient access information is the third released by the VA in the past month as the agency responds to a national outcry over reports of patient deaths and treatment delays at VA facilities across the country. Audits of 731 VA hospitals and clinics also were released June 9 and June 19.

As of June 15, about 46,000 veterans waited at least 90 days for their first VA medical appointments, the agency said. That’s down from 57,000 who waited more than 90 days as of May 15.

An additional 7,000 veterans had never gotten an appointment for VA care, despite seeking one over the past decade, the VA said. That’s down from about 64,000 veterans who did not get appointments as of May 15.

Despite the improvements, Gibson said veterans in many communities still are waiting too long to receive needed care. The VA provides health care to nearly 9 million enrolled veterans.

"There is more work to be done," Gibson said Thursday. "We must restore the public’s trust in VA, but more importantly, we must restore the trust of our veterans who depend on us for care."

A veteran died this week after collapsing in an Albuquerque, New Mexico, veterans hospital cafeteria. The man waited 30 minutes for an ambulance, officials said Thursday.

Cosmic masquerade:
Habitable planet isn’t planet

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A new study says a planet outside our solar system thought to be in the so-called Goldilocks zone is not even a real planet, but a cosmic masquerade.

Four years ago, scientists proclaimed they found what could be the first planet outside our solar system in the habitable zone around its star -- not too hot and not too cold for life. Now, other researchers have shown that what was found, Gliese 581 g, wasn’t a planet.

Pennsylvania State University astronomer Paul Robertson said in a study published Thursday by the journal Science that what astronomers thought were two planets there turned out to be just magnetic outbursts from the local star. Three outside experts agreed.

There are still about 20 other planets in the habitable Goldilocks zone.

How strong is that summer drink? Plugging recipe into NIH cocktail calculator may surprise you

WASHINGTON (AP) -- How strong is that pina colada? Depending on how it’s made, it could contain as much alcohol as two glasses of wine.

The National Institutes of Health is trying to spread the word: Take a look at its online alcohol calculator to see how much you’re really drinking with those summer cocktails.

A "standard drink" is the amount of alcohol in a 12-ounce beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits. It’s a useful way to track alcohol consumption. But the multiple ingredients of mixed drinks make for a harder count.

"Most people don’t realize how much alcohol is actually in a drink," said Dr. George Koob, director of the NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

"Obviously it depends on the bartender and who’s mixing the drinks," Koob adds.

Leader of Kurds in northern Iraq tells regional lawmakers to prepare independence referendum

BAGHDAD (AP) -- With large parts of Iraq in militant hands, a top Kurdish leader called on regional lawmakers Thursday to lay the groundwork for a referendum on independence, a vote that would likely spell the end of a unified Iraq.

The recent blitz by Sunni militants across much of northern and western Iraq has given the country’s 5 million Kurds -- who have long agitated for independence -- their best chance ever to seize disputed territory and move closer to a decades-old dream of their own state.

But the Kurds still face considerable opposition from many in the international community, including the United States, which has no desire to see a fragmented Iraq.

A Western-established no-fly zone in 1991 helped the Kurds set up their enclave, which has emerged over the years as a beacon of stability and prosperity, while much of the rest of the country has been mired in violence and political turmoil. The three-province territory was formally recognized as an autonomous region within Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

Speaking to the regional legislature Thursday, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Massoud Barzani, told lawmakers to set up an electoral commission to "hurry up" and prepare for "a referendum on self-determination."