Barbados, Caribbean neighbors brace for heavy rains as Dorian churns west

Tropical Storm Dorian is pictured off the coast of Venezuela in this August 26, 2019 NASA satellite photo. NASA/Handout via REUTERS

BRIDGETOWN (Reuters) – Residents of Barbados and other Caribbean islands braced for heavy rains as tropical storm Dorian churned west-northwest, with officials cautioning that it could approach hurricane strength on Tuesday.

Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced declared a state of emergency for the U.S. territory late on Monday in anticipation of the storm, the government said on Twitter.

There will be about 360 shelters open across the island, the governor announced.

Dorian is expected to pass on the southwest side of Puerto Rico as a hurricane on Wednesday night, the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory.

Barbados, which is closest to the storm’s path, was hit by strong winds and intermittent showers, with periodic jolts of thunder and lightning, on Monday evening.

The Barbados Meteorological Services warned residents to exercise caution, saying wind speeds have climbed over the past six hours and will strengthen further overnight and into Tuesday morning.

A tropical storm watch is in effect for Puerto Rico, and the island of Santa Lucia is on hurricane watch.

Dorian tracked near the Windward Islands on Monday evening and is expected to reach the eastern Caribbean later on Tuesday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said in a report.

By Tuesday morning, the storm was located about 30 miles (48 km) southeast of St. Lucia, blowing maximum sustained winds of 50 miles per hour, according to the NHC.

(Reporting by Robert Edison Sandiford; additional reporting by Rich McKay; Editing by Michael Perry and Ed Osmond)

Four Florida nursing home workers face charges in post-hurricane deaths

By Zachary Fagenson

MIAMI (Reuters) – Police in Florida have issued arrest warrants for four nursing home workers accused of criminal conduct in the death of a dozen elderly patients exposed to sweltering heat with little or no air-conditioning after Hurricane Irma struck in 2017, defense lawyers said on Sunday.

The employees of the Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills were expected to surrender to police on Monday morning and make their initial court appearance before a Broward County judge in nearby Fort Lauderdale, the defense attorneys said.

Two of the defendants, the nursing home’s administrator, Jorge Carballo, and the charge nurse on duty at the time, Sergo Collin, are expected to be booked on 12 counts of manslaughter, according to their lead attorney, David Frankel.

The other defendants, both nurses, are expected to face less serious charges, he said. Defense lawyers said their clients are innocent of criminal wrongdoing.

The loss of life at the Hollywood Hills center stirred outrage at the time at what many saw as a preventable tragedy and heightened concerns about the vulnerability of Florida’s large elderly population amid widespread, lingering power outages across the state.

“We believe that when the evidence comes out it will show that the staff at Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills was dedicated to their roles as caretakers and did everything they could under the emergency-disaster circumstances after the hurricane,” Frankel said.

He told Reuters that prosecutors have yet to decide how or whether to formally charge the four employees.

Lawrence Hashish, an attorney for one of the nurses, said his client and her colleagues were caring for residents under natural disaster conditions.

“No one could have anticipated the tragedy to come,” Hashish said.

That nurse was working for the facility as a contract employee at the time, her co-counsel, Hilham Soffan, told Reuters.

“The real crime is that the state is looking to blame selfless care givers,” Soffan said.

The Hollywood Police Department declined through a spokesman to comment, saying only that a statement on the case would be issued on Monday.

TWO-YEAR PROBE

The deaths have been the subject of a criminal investigation since they were first reported in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which was blamed for killing more than 80 people in the Caribbean and the U.S. mainland in September of 2017.

City officials said the nursing home continued to operate with little or no air conditioning after the storm knocked out its electricity, and daytime temperatures in the Miami area rose to 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius).

State authorities said nursing home managers placed eight portable air coolers throughout the building and fans in hallways.

The facility was finally evacuated, under conditions described by workers at the time as chaotic, when four residents were found dead three days after the storm made landfall. Four more died at or en route to a nearby hospital during the evacuation, and four others ultimately succumbed to the effects of heat exposure, bringing the death toll to 12.

The medical examiner ruled the deaths homicides. Frankel said the majority of those who died had been under hospice care or otherwise gravely ill.

Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration suspended the facility’s license after determining that medical personnel at the home had delayed in calling for emergency assistance when temperatures inside reached excessive levels.

The case is reminiscent of the prosecution of the owners of a New Orleans-area nursing home who were charged with negligent homicide in the deaths of 35 patients who drowned in flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

The couple, Salvador and Mabel Mangano, were acquitted by a jury in September 2007.

(Reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Miami; Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Puerto Rico power grid braces for hurricane season

Jose Alvarez, 60, uses a head lamp while walking in the dark as the island's fragile power system is still reeling from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria eight months ago, in Jayuya, Puerto Rico May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

By Jessica Resnick-Ault and Nick Brown

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.S. federal agency tasked with restoring electricity to Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria hit the Caribbean last year, is leaving the island though thousands still have no power heading into the next hurricane season starting next month.

Only a last-minute request from the governor of the island, bemoaning the “fragile state” of the power grid, managed to keep most of the generators brought by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on Puerto Rican soil for another six months.

The remaining generators might help keep the lights on for hospitals or police stations if the island gets hit again during the coming hurricane season, which begins June 1.

Contractors of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers install an electricity pole as the island's fragile power system is still reeling from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria eight months ago, in Utuado, Puerto Rico May 17, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

Contractors of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers install an electricity pole as the island’s fragile power system is still reeling from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria eight months ago, in Utuado, Puerto Rico May 17, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico last September, leaving 1.5 million homes and businesses in the dark. Both the island’s power utility and the Trump Administration’s Federal Emergency Management Agency were criticized for a slow response.

Most power has been restored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers but the electricity grid remains unreliable, and suffered an island-wide blackout last month.

“The whole world is very nervous about hurricane time,” said Rosalina Abreu Gonzalez, who lives near Mariana, on the eastern side of the island, where power has still not been restored. “There is a real concern – the government hasn’t provided an energy system that is more secure.”

The Army Corps, a unit of the U.S. armed forces, has said its task is largely complete now that most people have power. About 22,000 customers are still without electricity, most in remote areas, according to the new head of the island’s power utility, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.

“Our mission wasn’t to build a modern resilient system,” Charles Alexander, Director of Contingency Operations and Homeland Security Headquarters at the Army Corps, said at a Senate hearing last week.

On April 29, Governor Ricardo Rossello asked U.S. officials to leave behind 850 generators at critical facilities, along with three larger generators used to keep the grid stable. FEMA agreed to leave the mega-generators and generators for 700 critical facilities. Mega-generators supply 75 megawatts of power, enough to power 75,000 homes.

New PREPA Chief Executive Walter Higgins, who has only been on the job for two months, said he is focusing on emergency procedures in the event of another disaster in coming months.

He said there is a plan for building a more resilient grid in the future. Higgins took over from Ricardo Ramos, who resigned as CEO in November after coming under fire for signing unvetted, little-known contractors to restore power, rather than immediately ask for assistance from other utilities.

“Unfortunately, pain causes learning, and what we’ve learned is how to get mutual assistance called for and on the island immediately,” Higgins told Reuters.

Residents of La Chorrera neighbourhood carry an electricity pole as the island's fragile power system is still reeling from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria eight months ago, in Utuado, Puerto Rico May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Bae

Residents of La Chorrera neighbourhood carry an electricity pole as the island’s fragile power system is still reeling from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria eight months ago, in Utuado, Puerto Rico May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

Still, PREPA’s grid lacks buried power lines or reinforced poles, common in other hurricane prone areas. The power utility ran up an $8 billion debt over many years, largely due to poor bill collection, causing the system to fall into disrepair.

“It is very hard to see these messages where the government is saying we’re ready for next season. We’re not,” said Sheylda Diaz, a biology professor who lives near Utuado, in the island’s center, where some lines and poles have yet to be fixed.

The Army Corps will not provide further line restoration after Friday, FEMA said.

“People here have no idea that they are leaving,” said Abreu Gonzalez, who runs a center where people without power can go for meals.

Higgins said he sympathizes with those who want the Corps to remain. “I can understand why somebody would want them to stay longer, as long as there’s a single customer out.”

Maria hit shortly after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma slammed the U.S. mainland in 2017, but in both cases, power was largely restored within a week.

“I cannot imagine a scenario where 20,000-plus Texans or 20,000 Floridians were without power and FEMA would make that decision,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico. “I think that’s reprehensible.”

(Reporting By Jessica Resnick-Ault; Editing by Diane Craft)

Dudley sees Fed rate hikes; inflation weakness ‘fading’

William Dudley, President of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, answers a question, after addressing the Indian businessmen at the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) in Mumbai, India May 11, 2017.

By Jonathan Spicer

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (Reuters) – The Federal Reserve is on track to gradually raise interest rates given the recent inflation weakness is fading and the U.S. economy’s fundamentals are sound, an influential Fed policymaker said on Monday, reinforcing the central bank’s confident tone.

New York Fed President William Dudley, among the first U.S. central bankers to speak publicly since a decision last week to hold rates steady for now, cited the soft dollar and strong overseas growth among the reasons he expects slightly above-average U.S. economic activity and a long-sought rise in wages.

“With a firmer import price trend and the fading of effects from a number of temporary, idiosyncratic factors, I expect inflation will rise and stabilize around the (Fed’s) 2 percent objective over the medium term,” he told students and professors at Onondaga Community College.

“In response, the Federal Reserve will likely continue to remove monetary policy accommodation gradually,” added Dudley, a close ally of Fed Chair Janet Yellen and a permanent voter on monetary policy.

Dudley’s comments were similar to his speech earlier this month, and reinforced the growing expectation that the Fed is set to raise rates for a third time this year in December. That notion was driven home by Fed forecasts published last week, when the central bank held rates but announced the beginning of a long process of shedding bonds it accumulated to boost the economy.

Still, others at the Fed are less anxious to tighten policy in the face of price readings that have sagged since February, despite strong jobs growth. Futures traders give a December rate hike about a 55-percent probability, according to Reuters data.

Dudley nodded to the three devastating hurricanes that have struck parts of the U.S. south and the Caribbean, noting their effects will likely make it more difficult to interpret economic data in coming months. He said, though, that the effects would likely be short-lived and noted that such events tend to boost economic activity as rebuilding gets underway.

In a speech focused on workforce development, he said the Fed, which is tasked with achieving maximum sustainable employment, “cannot declare success if we have people who want to work but lack the skills to fill available jobs.” Yet he noted that the Fed’s tool kit is limited and best works to provide incentives for firms to invest and grow.

“There are greater incentives for businesses to invest in labor-saving technologies” and the labor market improves, he said. “Investment spending should also benefit from a better international outlook and improvement in U.S. trade competitiveness caused by the dollar’s recent weakness.”

 

(Reporting by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

 

Travelers swamp Puerto Rico’s main airport; dam on verge of collapse

An aerial view shows the damage to the Guajataca dam.

By Dave Graham and Robin Respaut

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Hundreds of stranded travelers filled the sweltering halls of San Juan International Airport on Monday anxious to know when they could leave and reconnect with families after Hurricane Maria devastated power and communications across the island.

Fearful of checking out of hotels in case they could not get on the few flights available, worried passengers waited in long lines at Puerto Rico’s main airport, struggling to get through to loved ones and airlines alike.

“Everything is hearsay at the moment because there is no communication,” said 31-year-old Rene Kessler, a medical student from Baltimore, Maryland, preparing to spend the night in the airport ahead of what he hoped would be a flight back to the United States.

Puerto Rican officials have confirmed at least 10 storm-related fatalities on the island, and the hurricane was blamed for at least 19 other deaths across the Caribbean, the bulk of them on the devastated island nation of Dominica.

A microcosm of the battered island, the San Juan airport is a top priority in efforts by Puerto Rico’s cash-strapped government to repair the vast damage caused by Maria. Experts say the work will take months and likely run into tens of billions of dollars.

Closed for days following the storm, the airport is a major test of Puerto Rico’s ability to transport people and supplies and overcome the communications vacuum that has plagued the island since the storm.

María has also turned Puerto Rico, a haven for Caribbean islanders left homeless by Hurricane Irma earlier this month, into a disaster zone with virtually no power that many are now desperate to escape.

A dam on the island has weakened by heavy rains from Hurricane Maria was in danger of failing, posing a flood threat to thousands of homes downstream.

Some 70,000 people who inhabit a river valley below the Guajataca Dam in the northwestern corner of the island have been under evacuation since Friday after authorities warned the structure was in danger of imminent collapse.

The fear of a potentially catastrophic dam break added to the extreme difficulties facing disaster relief authorities in the aftermath of Maria, which has claimed at least 29 lives across the Caribbean, according to officials and media reports.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello urged residents of the area to evacuate after surveying damage to the dam over the weekend, telling reporters that a fissure in the structure “has become a significant rupture.”

The National Weather Service in San Juan, the island’s capital, on Monday continued a flood warning for western Puerto Rico.

Maria, the second major hurricane to savage the Caribbean this month and the most powerful to strike Puerto Rico in nearly a century, carved a path of destruction through the island after plowing ashore early on Wednesday.

 

‘WE LOST EVERYTHING’

“We lost our house, it was completely flooded,” said resident Carmen Gloria Lamb, a resident near the rain-swollen Guajataca. “We lost everything. Cars, clothes, everything.”

Severe flooding, structural damage to homes and the loss of all electricity, except from backup generators, were three of the most pressing problems facing Puerto Ricans, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said during a tour of the island. New York is home to many of Puerto Rican descent.

“It’s a terrible immediate situation that requires assistance from the federal government, not just financial assistance,” he said on CNN on Saturday.

Even the island’s medical facilities have been left in precarious shape, with many hospitals flooded, strewn with rubble and running critically low on diesel fuel needed to keep generators operating. Evacuation to the U.S. mainland is the only option for some patients.

The storm has caused an estimated $45 billion of damage and lost economic activity across the Caribbean, with at least $30 billion of that in Puerto Rico, said Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler at Enki Research in Savannah, Georgia.

 

(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Sandra Maler and Jeffrey Benkoe)

 

Hurricane Maria lashes Turks and Caicos after killing 30 people

People walk among debris on the seashore in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

By Dave Graham and Robin Respaut

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Hurricane Maria lashed the Turks and Caicos Islands on Friday after destroying homes, causing widespread flooding, crippling economies and killing at least 30 people on Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands.

Maria was the second major hurricane to hit the Caribbean this month and the strongest storm to hit the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico in nearly 90 years. It completely knocked out the island’s power and several rivers hit record flood levels.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello told CNN he had reports of at least 13 people being killed. El Nuevo Día‏ newspaper reported at least 15 people were killed.

“We have reports of complete devastation,” Rossello said, adding that the storm’s dangers were not over, as “mudslides and surges, as well as flooding continues.”

Fourteen deaths were reported on the island nation of Dominica, which has a population of about 71,000. Two people were killed in the French territory of Guadeloupe and one in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Communications outages throughout the region were making it difficult for officials to get a clear picture of damage.

Rossello imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew through Saturday for the island’s 3.4 million people. He said about 700 people had been rescued from floodwaters and communication was difficult with the southeastern part of the island.

Among those killed in Puerto Rico were eight people who drowned in Toa Baja, about 20 miles (32 km) west of San Juan, Mayor Bernardo Márquez told the newspaper.

Three elderly sisters were killed by a mudslide on Wednesday in the mountainous central municipality of Utuado, El Nuevo Día said, citing relatives and the mayor of Utuado.

U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters the island had been “totally obliterated” and he planned to visit.

Puerto Rico was already facing the largest municipal debt crisis in U.S. history. A team of judges overseeing its bankruptcy has advised involved parties to put legal proceedings on hold indefinitely as the island recovers, said a source familiar with the proceedings.

Maria’s tail end was still bringing drenching rain to Puerto Rico and some parts of the island could have accumulated totals of up to 40 inches (101 cm) from the storm, the NHC said.

Utility crews from the U.S. mainland headed to Puerto Rico to help restore the power grid. The U.S. military sent ground forces and aircraft to assist with search and rescue.

STORM SURGE DANGER

By 8 a.m. (1200 GMT) Friday, Maria was 30 miles (50 km) north-northeast of Grand Turk Island, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. It was carrying sustained winds of up to 125 miles per hour (205 km per hour), making it a Category 3 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale.

It was expected to bring a storm surge – ocean water pushed inland – of as much as 12 feet (3.7 m) above normal tide levels to parts of the southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Maria currently looked unlikely to hit the continental United States.

It was expected to lose strength gradually in the next couple of days, and to start curving north-northwestward, the NHC said. Storm swells from Maria would reach parts of the southeastern U.S. coast from Friday, it said.

The storm caused flooding in the Dominican Republic when it passed nearby.

In Dominica, Maria damaged about 95 percent of roofs, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said. It struck as a rare Category 5 storm on Monday, obliterating the island’s vital agricultural sector.

Maria passed close by the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix, home to about 55,000 people, early on Wednesday, knocking out electricity and most mobile phone service.

“The worst is behind us,” Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp told reporters on Thursday. The government has imposed a 24-hour curfew until further notice.

About 600 people throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands were in emergency shelters and many parts were without power, Mapp said.

Maria hit about two weeks after Hurricane Irma pounded two other U.S. Virgin Islands: St. Thomas and St. John.

Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record, killed at least 84 people in the Caribbean and the United States. It followed Harvey, which killed more than 80 people when it hit Texas in late August and caused flooding in Houston.

More than two months remain in the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, although the busiest period of storms is generally from mid-August to mid-October.

(Reporting by Dave Graham and Robin Respaut in San Juan; Additional reporting by Jorge Pineda in Santo Domingo, Nick Brown in Houston, Devika Krishna Kumar and Daniel Wallis in New York and Steve Gorman and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Frances Kerry)

Powerful Hurricane Maria makes landfall on Puerto Rico

Powerful Hurricane Maria makes landfall on Puerto Rico

By Alvin Baez and Robin Respaut

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Hurricane Maria roared ashore in Puerto Rico on Wednesday as the strongest storm to hit the U.S. territory in about 90 years after lashing the U.S. Virgin Islands and devastating a string of tiny Caribbean islands, killing at least one person.

Packing 155 mile per hour (250 kph) winds and driving high storm surges, Maria made landfall near Yabouca, the National Hurricane Center said. It was heading northwest, on a track directly over the island of 3.4 million people.

It struck just days after the region was punched by Hurricane Irma, which ranked as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record, which left a trail of destruction on several Caribbean islands and Florida.

“We have not experienced an event of this magnitude in our modern history,” Ricardo Rossello, governor of Puerto Rico, said in a televised message on Tuesday.

“Although it looks like a direct hit with major damage to Puerto Rico is inevitable, I ask for America’s prayers,” he said, adding the government has set up 500 shelters.

In Puerto Rico, Maria is expected to dump as much as 25 inches (63.5 cm) of rain on parts of the island, the NHC said. Storm surges, when hurricanes push ocean water dangerously over normal levels, could be up to 9 feet (2.74 meters).

The heavy rainfall could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides, it added.

A few hours earlier, Maria passed west of St. Croix, home to about half of the U.S. Virgin Islands’ 103,000 residents, as a rare Category 5 storm the top of the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale.

The center has hurricane warnings and watches out for the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Culebra, and Vieques, the Turks and Caicos Islands, the southeastern Bahamas and the Dominican Republic from Cabo Engano to Puerto Plata.

Many U.S. Virgin Islands residents fled to shelters around midday Tuesday. U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp warned residents that their lives were at risk.

“The only thing that matters is the safety of your family, and your children, and yourself. The rest of the stuff, forget it,” Mapp said.

Authorities expect to start assessing storm damage on St. Croix from daybreak.

After crossing Puerto Rico, Maria will pass just north of the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic on Wednesday night and Thursday, the NHC said.

It was too early to know if Maria will threaten the continental United States as it moves northward in the Atlantic.

Earlier this month, Irma devastated several small islands, including Barbuda and the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, and caused heavy damage in Cuba and Florida, killing at least 84 people in the Caribbean and the U.S. mainland.

A man looks at a fallen tree as he walks along a street after the passage of Hurricane Maria in Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe island, France, September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

A man looks at a fallen tree as he walks along a street after the passage of Hurricane Maria in Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe island, France, September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

DIRECT HIT

Maria is set to be the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico since 1928, when the San Felipe Segundo hurricane made a direct hit on the island and killed about 300 people, the National Weather Service said.

A slow weakening is expected after the hurricane emerges over the Atlantic north of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the NHC added.

Puerto Rico avoided a direct hit from Irma, but the storm knocked out power for 70 percent of the island, and killed at least three people.

“This is going to be catastrophic for our island,” said Grisele Cruz, who was staying at a shelter in the southeastern city of Guayama. “We’re going to be without services for a long time.”

Puerto Rico is grappling with the largest municipal debt crisis in U.S. history, with both its government and the public utility having filed for bankruptcy protection amid fights with creditors.

The storm plowed into Dominica, a mountainous country of 72,000 people, late on Monday causing what Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit called “mind-boggling” destruction.

North of Dominica, the French island territory of Guadeloupe appeared to have been hit hard. The Guadeloupe prefecture said one person was killed by a falling tree and at least two people were missing in a shipwreck.

Some roofs had been ripped off, roads were blocked by fallen trees, 80,000 households were without power and there was flooding in some southern coastal areas, the prefecture said in Twitter posts.

Members of the Emergency Operations Committee (COE) photograph the trajectory of Hurricane Maria in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

Members of the Emergency Operations Committee (COE) photograph the trajectory of Hurricane Maria in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

(Additional reporting by Dave Graham in San Juan, Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City, Richard Lough in Paris, Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Angus MacSwan and W Simon)

‘Avalanche of roofs’ in Dominica as Hurricane Maria lashes Caribbean

'Avalanche of roofs' in Dominica as Hurricane Maria lashes Caribbean

By Alvin Baez

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Hurricane Maria caused “mind boggling damage,” ripping off roofs across the small island of Dominica before pushing on toward the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on Tuesday as the second top-strength storm to lash the Caribbean this month.

Maria regained rare Category 5 strength, the top end of the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, as it churned about 170 miles (275 km) southeast of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, U.S. forecasters said.

It was carrying maximum sustained winds of 160 miles per hour (260 km per hour), the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said, describing Maria as “potentially catastrophic.”

The storm plowed through Dominica, a mountainous island nation of 72,000 people in the eastern Caribbean, late on Monday causing devastation that Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit described as “mind boggling.”

“The winds have swept away the roofs of almost every person I have spoken to or otherwise made contact with,” Skerrit said in a Facebook post, describing an avalanche of torn-away roofs across the country, including that of his own residence.

“My focus now is in rescuing the trapped and securing medical assistance for the injured,” he said.

The storm made landfall on Dominica as a Category 5 hurricane with 155-mph (250-kph) winds, the NHC said. Its intensity may fluctuate over the next day or two, but Maria is expected to remain a category 4 or 5 storm, the Miami-based center said.

The region was hit just days ago by Hurricane Irma, which ranked as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record and devastated several small islands, including Barbuda and the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. Thomas and St. John, and causing heavy damage in Cuba and Florida. Irma killed at least 84 people in the Caribbean and the U.S. mainland.

Maria was on track to move over the northeastern Caribbean Sea and approach the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico by Tuesday night or early on Wednesday.

The governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Kenneth Mapp, said Maria would pass within 10 miles (16 km) of the island of St. Croix, which escaped the brunt of Irma on Sept. 6. The island is home to about 55,000 year-round residents, roughly half of the entire territory’s population.

At a news conference on Monday evening, Mapp warned of drenching rains. He predicted that most islanders would be without electricity for weeks, and “some folks will not get power in months.” A curfew would be imposed starting at 10 a.m. local time on Tuesday, he said.

A man covers the windows of a supermarket in preparation for Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

A man covers the windows of a supermarket in preparation for Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

SHELTER IN A BATHTUB

Mapp urged St. Croix residents to take cover in one of three emergency shelters on the island. For those choosing to stay in their homes during the storm, he said, they might consider climbing into a second-floor bathtub and pulling a mattress over them to stay safe in the event they lose their roofs.

Forecasts predict Maria will be the worst storm to hit St. Croix since Hugo, a Category 4 storm, in 1989.

The territory’s two other main islands, St. Thomas and St. John, which lie to the north of St. Croix, sustained widespread and heavy damage from Irma.

Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory with about 3.4 million inhabitants, avoided a direct hit two weeks ago from Irma as that storm skirted north, although it still saw damage.

Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rossello, urged residents on Twitter to brace for Maria’s arrival, saying, “It is time to seek refuge with a family member, friend or head to a state shelter.”

Residents rushed to buy plywood, water and other supplies.

If Maria retains its strength, it would be the most powerful hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in 85 years, since a Category 4 storm swept the territory in 1932, Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said. The last major hurricane to strike Puerto Rico directly was Georges, which made landfall there as a Category 3 storm in 1998, he said.

FRENCH TERRITORIES

The French island of Martinique escaped Maria largely unscathed but a communications blackout with fellow French territory Guadeloupe meant it would be several more hours before damage there could be assessed, Jacques Witkowski, France’s head of civil protection, told reporters in Paris.

In Saint Martin, where nearly a third of all buildings on the Dutch half of the island were destroyed by Irma, the airport and harbor were closed ahead of Maria’s approach.

“Saint Martin is the big concern because a lot of homes lost their roofs. They are vulnerable to a lot of rain, which will only make the situation worse,” said Paul Middelberg, a spokesman for the Dutch navy.

Maria was expected to whip up storm surges – seawater driven ashore by wind – of up to 9 feet (2.7 m) above normal tide levels, the NHC said. Parts of Puerto Rico could see up to 25 inches (64 cm) of rain, it said.

Maria is the 13th named Atlantic storm of the year, the seventh hurricane so far this season and the fourth major hurricane – defined as Category 3 or higher – following Harvey, Irma and Jose, the NHC said. Those numbers are all above average for a typical season, which is only about half over for 2017.

(Additional reporting by Richard Lough in Paris, Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam, Robert Edison Sandiford in Bridgetown, Barbados; Harriet McLeod in Charleston, South Carolina and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Catherine Evans and Frances Kerry)

Maria becomes major hurricane, powers through Caribbean

Hurricane Maria is shown in the Atlantic Ocean about 85 miles east of Martinique in this September 17, 2017 NASA handout satellite photo. NASA/Handout via REUTERS

By Robert Sandiford

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados (Reuters) – Hurricane Maria picked up strength and roared toward the Leeward Islands on Monday on a track that could whip several eastern Caribbean islands with their second major storm this month.

Maria grew into a Category 3 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, with maximum sustained winds of 120 miles per hour (195 km per hour). It was located about 60 miles (95 km) east of Martinique, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said at 11 a.m. ET (1500 GMT).

It was headed west-northwest at about 10 mph (17 kph) on a track that would put it over the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico by Wednesday.

Maria was expected to be the second major hurricane this year to hit the Leeward Islands, which were hammered by Hurricane Irma earlier this month, the center said.

Streets were flooded in some residential parts of the island of Barbados, which had been experiencing heavy rain since Sunday as the storm approached.

Maria was expected to bring storm surges – seawater driven ashore by wind – of up to 6 feet to 9 feet (1.8-2.7 m), the NHC said. Parts of the central and southern Leeward Islands could see as much as 20 inches (51 cm) of rain, it said.

Hurricane and tropical storm warnings and watches were in effect for a string of islands in the area, including the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Antigua and Barbuda and the French-Dutch island of Saint Martin.

Several of those islands were devastated earlier this month when Hurricane Irma rampaged through the Caribbean as one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded, killing more than 80 people on the islands and the U.S. mainland.

The deck of a U.S. Navy landing craft is crowded with Army soldiers and their belongings as they are evacuated in advance of Hurricane Maria, off St. Thomas shore, U.S. Virgin Islands September 17, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

The deck of a U.S. Navy landing craft is crowded with Army soldiers and their belongings as they are evacuated in advance of Hurricane Maria, off St. Thomas shore, U.S. Virgin Islands September 17, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory which Irma grazed as it headed toward Cuba and Florida, opened shelters and began to dismantle construction cranes that could be vulnerable to high winds as it prepared for Maria.

“It is time to seek refuge with a family member, friend, or move to a state shelter because rescuers will not go out and risk their lives once winds reach 50 miles per hour,” Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló told reporters on Monday.

Some 450 shelters were open, including one in San Juan that is already housing people evacuated by nearby islands hit by Irma, the government said.

More than 1,700 residents of Barbuda were evacuated to neighboring Antigua after Irma damaged nearly every building there.

Further north, forecasters were also tracking Category 1 Hurricane Jose, which was carrying 75-mph (120-kph) winds and was located about 265 miles (430 km) east-southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

The eye of that storm was forecast to remain off the east coast of the United States for the next few days, bringing dangerous surf and rip currents to beaches from Delaware through Massachusetts.

 

(Additional reporting by Tracy Rucinski in Chicago; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Frances Kerry)

 

Caribbean residents fend off looters after Irma; Branson urges ‘Marshall Plan’

An aireal view shows damage after hurricane Irma passed over Providenciales on the Turks and Caicos Islands, September 11, 2017. Picture taken September 11, 2017. Cpl Darren Legg RLC/Ministry of Defence handout via REUTERS

By Alvin Baez

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Food shortages and looting on Caribbean islands hammered by Hurricane Irma sparked growing criticism of the government response, prompting British billionaire Richard Branson to call for a “Marshall plan” to help the region recover.

Irma ripped through the tiny easterly Leeward Islands last week as one of the Atlantic’s strongest ever storms, killing two dozen people, uprooting trees, tearing down power cables and severely damaging the homes of poor locals and the global jet-set alike.

Across the whole of the Caribbean, Irma killed nearly 40 people and devastated basic services, tearing cracks in law and order. Looting erupted on some Caribbean islands where residents and tourists were stranded with little food, shelter or drinking water.

Jenn Manes, who writes a blog on U.S. Virgin Island St. John, detailed a list of robberies and break-ins on the island after Irma struck, saying she had to install a bar on the inside of her door to keep out would-be burglars.

“This is not St. John anymore. I’m not sure what it is. What I do know is that I am scared. My friends are scared. And we don’t know what to do,” she wrote.

Despite sending reinforcements and ships to deliver help, France, Britain and the Netherlands have been criticized for not doing enough for the islands that they oversee.

Britain’s Defence Minister Michael Fallon at the weekend said his government’s effort was “as good as anybody else’s.”

The Dutch government on Sunday described the situation as “fragile” on its half of the island of St. Martin, where an undisclosed number of arrests of looters were made after Irma damaged or destroyed 70 percent of the local housing stock.

Alex Martinez, a 31-year-old American trapped on the Dutch part of St. Martin by Irma, said looters tried to raid his near-deserted hotel before he and others chased them off. “We had to fend for ourselves,” he told Reuters.

Struggling to get answers about loved-ones, many people resorted to sharing information and making pleas on a Facebook page set up to help people on St. Martin.

Dutch King Willem-Alexander and Interior Minister Ronald Plasterk on Monday visited St. Martin, reviewing the damage done to the battered island with local leaders. French President Emmanuel Macron was expected in the Caribbean on Tuesday.

British Army Commandos take part in recovery efforts after hurricane Irma passed Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, September 11, 2017. Picture taken September 11, 2017. Captain George Eatwell RM/Ministry of Defence handout via REUTERS

British Army Commandos take part in recovery efforts after hurricane Irma passed Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, September 11, 2017. Picture taken September 11, 2017. Captain George Eatwell RM/Ministry of Defence handout via REUTERS

BRANSON CALLS FOR AID EFFORT

Following the passage of Hurricane Luis in 1995, which killed at least 15 people in the Caribbean and damaged 60 percent of housing on St. Martin, the U.S. National Hurricane Center estimated the cost to St. Martin alone at $1.8 billion.

Businessman Branson, who has lived in the British Virgin Islands for the past 11 years, said in a blog post on www.virgin.com that the region needed a “Disaster Recovery Marshall Plan” to rebuild and revitalize its economy – a reference to the multibillion-dollar U.S. program that helped rebuild Western Europe after the devastation of World War Two.

“We must get more help to the islands to rebuild homes and infrastructure and restore power, clean water and food supplies,” said Branson, head of the Virgin Group conglomerate.

He said he was writing from Puerto Rico, where he was mobilizing aid efforts, and that he would be returning to the Virgin Islands soon for recovery work.

Branson said the British government had a “massive role to play” in rebuilding its territories, including the British Virgin Islands, an offshore financial center.

The premier of the British Virgin Islands, Orlando Smith, also appealed for urgent aid from Britain, saying the situation was critical and calling for a comprehensive package. The plan should include the possibility of more extreme weather “as the effects of climate change continue to grow,” he said.

Still, on Monday, blogger Manes on U.S. Virgin Island St. John reported the situation was improving, saying police were patrolling the streets and that a Navy ship had arrived to help.

(Additional reporting by Dave Graham in Mexico City, Daniel Flynn in Sao Paulo, Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam, Ingrid Melander in Paris; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Bill Trott and Lisa Shumaker)