Power cut to millions as California faces heightened wildfire risks

Power cut to millions as California faces heightened wildfire risks
By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Electricity was shut off to nearly 750,000 California homes and workplaces on Wednesday as Pacific Gas and Electric Co (PG&E) imposed a string of planned power outages of unprecedented scale to reduce wildfire risks posed by extremely windy, dry weather.

The power cut knocked out traffic signals, forced school closures and shut businesses and government offices across northern and central California, said Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Services.

One key disruption was at the University of California at Berkeley, which canceled classes on Wednesday during the first phase of the “public safety power shutoff”, targeting more than 500,000 homes and businesses.

A second phase began at 3 p.m. Pacific time and extended the blackout to 234,000 more customers, said the utility, which was considering a third phase for 4,600 more dwellings and businesses.

Although PG&E said changing weather conditions and work-arounds had restored power to about 44,000 customers, its action was the largest precautionary electricity shutoff undertaken by California’s biggest investor-owned utility.

“It’s too bad that it is such a large area to be turned off,” said Matthew Gallagher, a resident of Vacaville, a town 60 miles (100 km) northeast of San Francisco, where everything, from the Walmart outlet to gasoline service stations, was closed for lack of power.

A similar cutoff was under consideration by neighboring utility Southern California Edison for nearly 174,000 of its customers, about 50,000 of them in Los Angeles County, should severe winds hit southern California on Thursday as forecast, SoCal Edison spokeswoman Taelor Bakewell said.

Some of California’s most devastating wildfires were sparked in recent years by damage to electrical transmission lines from recurring bouts of high winds that then spread the flames through tinder-dry vegetation into populated areas.

“We are entering into a two-, three- or four-day period of extreme fire danger in California,” Governor Gavin Newsom said at an event in San Diego on Wednesday.

‘RED FLAG’

Gale-force wind gusts, mostly in higher elevations, were expected to intensify late on Wednesday across northern and central California before gradually migrating into southern California overnight and Thursday, National Weather Service meteorologist Steve Anderson said. He said extremely low humidity levels added to the fire threat.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said “red-flag” warnings were posted across the state for what was shaping up to be the strongest wind event so far this season.

PG&E warned residents to prepare for outages that could last several days. But spokeswoman Kristi Jourdan said it expected to restore supply to most customers within 24 to 48 hours after high winds abate, once power lines were inspected and any damage repaired.

Many customers live in areas where breezes were light on Wednesday, but some are served by transmission lines hit by high winds elsewhere and thus were part of a larger portion of the grid that was turned off, PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith said.

It urged customers to stock up on flashlights, fresh batteries, first-aid supplies and cash, and plan for healthcare needs, from refrigerated medicine to electrical devices.

The utility said it opened 28 community centers across the planned outage zone to provide restrooms, bottled water, battery charging and air-conditioned seating during the day.

PG&E has drawn increased scrutiny in recent years over maintenance of transmission wires and other equipment implicated in major wildfires.

In May, state fire investigators determined that PG&E transmission lines caused the deadliest and most destructive wildfire on record in California, last year’s wind-driven Camp Fire that killed 85 people in and around the town of Paradise.

Cal Fire likewise concluded that PG&E power lines had sparked a 2017 flurry of wildfires that swept California’s wine country north of San Francisco Bay.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January 2019, citing potential civil liabilities in excess of $30 billion from the fires.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Jim Christie in San Francisco, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Paul Tait and Clarence Fernandez)

Blackouts threaten death blow to Venezuela’s industrial survivors

Men work on the only operative production line at a food packaging plant in Valencia, Venezuela, April 8, 2019. Picture taken April 8, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

By Corina Pons and Mayela Armas

VALENCIA, Venezuela (Reuters) – The latest power outage kicked off another tough week for factory owner Antonello Lorusso in the city of Valencia, once Venezuela’s industrial hub.

For the past month, unprecedented nationwide blackouts have paralyzed the factory and the rest of the country, cutting off power, water and cell service to millions of Venezuelans.

Lorusso’s packaging plant, Distribuidora Marina, had already struggled through years of hyperinflation, vanishing client orders and an exodus of employees.

But now the situation was worse.

For the whole month of March, Lorusso said his company produced only its single daily capacity: 100 tonnes of packaged sugar and grains.

When Reuters visited on April 8, he was using a generator to keep just one of a dozen packaging machines running to fulfill the single order he had received. Power had been on for a few hours, but was too weak to work the machines.

“There is no information, we don’t know if the blackouts will continue or not,” said Lorusso, who has owned the factory for over 30 years. He said the plant had just a day’s worth of power during the previous week.

Power has been intermittent since early March, when the first major blackout plunged Venezuela into a week of darkness. Experts and the opposition have called the government incompetent at maintaining the national electrical grid.

President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition and the U.S. government of sabotage.

Venezuelan industry has collapsed during six years of recession that have halved the size of the economy. What is left is largely outside of the capital Caracas, the only major city that Maduro’s government has excluded from a power-rationing plan intended to restrict the load on the system.

In Valencia, a few multinational companies like Nestle and Ford Motor Co hang on. But according to the regional business association, the number of companies based there has fallen to a mere tenth of the 5,000 situated there two decades ago, when Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez became president.

‘THE GAME IS OVER’

The government said on April 4 that the power rationing plan meant Valencia would spend at most three hours a day without electricity.

But a dozen executives and workers there said outages were still lasting over 10 hours. Generators are costly and can only power a fraction of a business’s operations, they said, and many factories have shut down.

“The game is over. Companies are entering a state of despair due to their inviability,” said an executive of a food company with factories in Valencia, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Industrial companies this year are operating below 25 percent of capacity, according to industry group Conindustria. It estimated companies here lost about $220 million during the days in March without power, and would lose $100 million more in April.

Nestle’s factory, which produces baby food, halted production during the first blackout in early March and operations again froze two weeks later, with employees sent home until May, according to Rafael Garcia, a union leader at the plant.

He blamed the most recent stoppage on very low sales of baby food which cost almost a dollar per package, or about what someone earning minimum wage makes in a week.

“My greatest worry is the closure of the factory,” said Garcia, as he sat at a bus stop on Valencia’s Henry Ford Avenue, in the city’s industrial outskirts where warehouses sit empty and streets are covered in weeds.

Nestle, in a statement to Reuters, said it had “temporarily interrupted its manufacturing activities” at its Valencia factory due to a lack of demand and would resume production in May.

Ford’s plant had been operating at a bare minimum for several months, union leaders said. In December, the carmaker began offering buyouts to staff after it received no orders for 2019, they said. Ford had said in December it had “no plans to leave the country.”

The outages have idled more than just factories. In the countryside, lack of power has prevented farmers from pumping water to irrigate fields.

Since January, farmers have sown 17,500 hectares of crops – a third of the area seeded last year – and they fear losing the harvest due to the lack of water, according to agricultural associations.

In the central state of Cojedes, several rice growers have already lost their crops, farmers said.

“In the rural areas, the blackouts last longer,” said Jose Luis Perez, spokesman for a federation of rice producers.

Producers of cheese, beef, cured meats and lettuce told Reuters orders had dropped by half in March as buyers worried the food would perish once their freezers lost power in the next blackout.

Back in Valencia, Lorusso was preparing his factory for the new era of scarce power. He has converted one unused truck in his parking lot into a water tank. He plans to sell another to buy a second generator.

“We’ve spent years getting used to things. Then we were dealt this hard blow, and now we’re trying to find ways to cope,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Tibisay Romero in Valencia; writing by Angus Berwick; editing by David Gregorio and G Crosse)

Venezuela blackout drags into third day, Maduro announces ‘load management’

Locals gather outside a closed store during a blackout in Caracas, Venezuela March 27, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

By Vivian Sequera and Tibisay Romero

CARACAS/VALENCIA, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido on Wednesday called on supporters to take to the streets this weekend to protest a nationwide power outage, while President Nicolas Maduro announced a “load management” plan for the coming days.

Residents scrambled to find food and water as businesses closed and school was canceled in the second major blackout this month. Power went out in much of the country on Monday afternoon, less than two weeks after electricity was restored following the worst blackout in Venezuela’s history.

“The time has come to agitate in every state, in every community, to get water back, get electricity back, get gas back,” said Guaido, the leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

Guaido, who invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency in January, arguing President Nicolas Maduro’s May 2018 re-election was illegitimate, said the protest was scheduled for Saturday, without offering further details.

In an appearance by telephone on state television on Wednesday night, Maduro blamed the more recent blackout on a “terrorist attack” on the country’s Guri hydroelectric complex, which supplies power to most of the country, by the “perverse right-wing.”

“Thanks to Corpoelec workers we will be guaranteeing service,” Maduro said, referring to the state electricity company. “But we will need to apply a load management plan in the coming days.”

Maduro did not provide details of the plan. He said that school and work activities would be suspended on Thursday, and called on supporters to take to the streets on Saturday – the same day Guaido called a protest.

Guaido and opposition critics have said the outages are the result of a decade of corruption and mismanagement.

Power had returned to around half the country’s 24 states on Tuesday night, but went out again at dawn on Wednesday.

While blackouts have long been common in the OPEC member nation, particularly outside of capital Caracas, their increasing frequency and severity have left residents concerned that intermittent power may be the new normal.

“I think this is going to be worse than the first blackout,” said Julio Barrios, 60, an accountant in Caracas who was looking for open stores to buy food or ice. “A lot of people want to work but there’s no transportation, and if there’s nobody working the country will be paralyzed.”

In the western agriculture-heavy state of Tachira, more than 100,000 liters (26,000 gallons) of milk spoiled after 40 hours without electricity for refrigeration, according to Leonardo Figueroa, the head of the state ranchers’ association.

‘GET OUT’

In Valencia, Venezuela’s third-largest city, residents without electricity or gas in their homes cut wood off trees to cook food before it rotted.

“I am searching for wood because there is no gas in this oil-producing country, there are no public services,” said Morris de Castro, a lawyer. “It is impossible to live a normal life and we feel like we are falling backwards.”

Guaido has been recognized as Venezuela’s rightful leader by most Western and South American countries, and the United States has hit Maduro’s government with sanctions meant to cripple the Socialist Party’s sources of income.

But Maduro has held on thanks to continued loyalty by top military commanders and diplomatic support from Russia and China, who accuse the United States of seeking a coup against him. Two Russian air force planes carrying nearly 100 troops landed outside Caracas on Saturday, escalating tensions.

While hosting Guaido’s wife, journalist Fabiana Rosales, in the White House on Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump said “Russia has to get out” and that “all options are open” as to how to make that happen.

Russia has said the visit is part of a military technical cooperation agreement with Venezuela.

The blackout has harmed the oil industry, the lifeblood of Venezuela’s struggling economy. The country’s main oil export port of Jose and four crude upgraders, needed to convert Venezuela’s heavy oil into exportable grades, have been halted since Monday, industry sources said.

“Power came back at around 10 a.m., but we still were not in a condition to restart,” a worker at one of the upgraders said, adding that workers would attempt to restart the facilities later on Wednesday.

Julio Castro of non-profit organization Doctors for Health said an 81-year-old woman died on Tuesday in a hospital in the central state of Aragua because the elevators were not functioning and she could not get to the area where she could receive treatment.

The group said 24 people died during the previous blackout in public hospitals due to problems caused by the lack of power.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera and Deisy Buitrago in Caracas and Tibisay Romero in Valencia, Additional reporting by Diego Ore in Caracas, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal and Mircely Guanipa in Punto Fijo; writing by Brian Ellsworth and Luc Cohen; editing by Susan Thomas, Rosalba O’Brien & Simon Cameron-Moore)

Venezuela grinds to a halt as blackout drags into a second day

A general view of a street during a blackout in Caracas, Venezuela March 8, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

By Vivian Sequera and Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela shut schools and suspended the workday on Friday as the worst blackout in decades paralyzed most of the troubled nation for a second day, spurring outrage among citizens already suffering from hyperinflation and a crippling recession.

Power went out late on Thursday afternoon due to a problem at Venezuela’s main hydroelectric plant, the government said, calling the event an act of “sabotage” by ideological adversaries.

“We will once again defeat this electrical sabotage. We are going to recover this important service for the population,” Vice President Delcy Rodriguez said in comments broadcast over state television.

While blackouts are routine in many Venezuelan provinces, particularly along the western border with Colombia, nationwide power outages under the ruling Socialist Party have never extended for more than a day.

“This is a severe problem. It is not just any blackout,” said Luis Martinez, a 53-year-old construction worker walking to work in eastern Caracas.

Reuters witnesses could only confirm that lights were on in the southern city of Puerto Ordaz. It was not immediately clear if the power shortages affected oil operations in the OPEC nation.

State oil company PDVSA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In Caracas, scores of people walked through the streets early in the morning due to the closure of the metro, while others took the few buses that were circulating. Many did not realize the workday was suspended because they could not watch television or listen to the news.

SABOTAGE

President Nicolas Maduro always attributes major power outages to sabotage by opposition adversaries.

Maduro, who was re-elected last year in a vote widely viewed as fraudulent, blames the crisis on a U.S.-backed sabotage campaign.

His critics say his government has mismanaged the power sector since late socialist leader Hugo Chavez nationalized it in 2007 while setting aside billions of dollars for power projects that were swallowed by corruption.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido slammed the government for bungling the country’s energy supply and dismissed sabotage accusations.

“Sabotage is stealing money from Venezuelans. Sabotage is burning food and medicine. Sabotage is stealing elections,” he wrote via Twitter, referring to humanitarian aid trucks that went up in flames last month when opposition leaders attempted to bring relief supplies across the Colombian border.

More than 3 million people are believed to have fled Venezuela amid a deep economic crisis marked by shortages of food and medicine and hyperinflation.

Venezuela suffered major blackouts in 2008 and 2013 that affected significant parts of the country, but both were resolved in less than six hours.

Maduro’s televised speeches have on several occasions been interrupted by power outages, spurring chuckles from opposition critics.

Local power outages continue to be chronic, particularly in the sweltering western state of Zulia where residents complain of days without power or with limited electricity and voltage fluctuations that damage appliances.

Venezuela is mired in a major political crisis, with more than 40 foreign governments disavowing Maduro in favor of Guaido. The United States in January levied crippling oil industry sanctions meant to starve Maduro’s government of revenue.

Maduro says Guaido is a “puppet” of Washington and dismisses his claim to the presidency as an effort by the Trump administration to control Venezuela’s oil wealth.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera and Brian Ellsworth,; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Chizu Nomiyama and Jeffrey Benkoe)

California utility PG&E vows more power shutdowns to prevent wildfire

FILE PHOTO: A neighborhood destroyed by the Camp Fire is seen in Paradise, California, U.S., November 17, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester/File Photo

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – California utility PG&E Corp plans to increase the controversial practice of shutting off the power to communities at risk of wildfire when dangerous conditions such as high winds and dry heat are present.

In a report to state regulators, PG&E said it would also remove 375,000 trees near electricity lines, trim vegetation over 2,500 square miles (6,475 square km) and conduct thousands of inspections to prevent its equipment from sparking wildfires.

FILE PHOTO: PG&E works on power lines to repair damage caused by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S. November 21, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: PG&E works on power lines to repair damage caused by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S. November 21, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage/File Photo

PG&E is under intense scrutiny for its role in sparking more than a dozen wildfires over the past two years. It filed bankruptcy last month, citing anticipated liabilities, including the possibility its equipment set off November’s deadly Camp Fire, which destroyed the Northern California town of Paradise and killed 86 people.

The San Francisco-based utility, which serves 16 million customers, said it would increase nearly tenfold its efforts to turn off the power to communities threatened by wildfire, increasing the number of households and businesses potentially affected by fire-prevention blackouts in 2019 to 5.4 million.

Such shutoffs were also used last year to keep live electricity in the lines from setting off a fire when high winds and heat hit extreme levels and nearby brush or trees could be ignited.

Mark Toney, who directs the utility consumer advocacy group the Utility Reform Network (TURN), said shutting off power would harm vulnerable people, including those who rely on electricity to power life-saving medical equipment.

“The fact that there is such a dramatic expansion of power shutoffs as a strategy to stop wildfires is a sign of PG&E’s failure and mismanagement when it comes to trimming the trees and taking care of the grid,” he said.

PG&E spokeswoman Kristi Jourdan said the company would only turn off the power to a community as a last resort to keep people safe.

“We understand and appreciate that turning off the power affects the operation of critical facilities, communications systems and much more,” she said.

The company is also on probation in relation to a criminal conviction in the deadly 2010 explosion of one of its natural gas lines in the city of San Bruno near San Francisco.

The judge, in that case, said he would consider the company’s wildfire plan in deciding whether PG&E should do more to prevent wildfire.

California law requires all investor-owned utilities to file wildfire mitigation plans annually.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; editing by Bill Tarrant and Lisa Shumaker)

Hundreds of thousands without power in Ottawa after tornado hits

A man removes branches from a damaged tree after a tornado hit the Mont-Bleu neighbourhood in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, September 22, 2018. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of people were stranded without power in and around the Canadian capital Ottawa on Saturday after a tornado touched down twice, destroying some houses and ripping the roofs off others.

At the same time high winds also battered the region and Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said it could be days before electricity was fully restored. At least six people were injured.

A woman walks past debris after a tornado hit the Mont-Bleu neighbourhood in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, September 22, 2018. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

A woman walks past debris after a tornado hit the Mont-Bleu neighbourhood in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, September 22, 2018. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

“It’s in the top two or three traumatic events that have affected our city,” Watson told reporters. “It looks like something from a movie scene or a war scene.”

The tornado hit on Friday evening, demolishing homes in the town of Dunrobin to the north west of the city before crossing over to the town of Gatineau, which lies directly to the north of Ottawa in the province of Quebec.

High winds damaged part of Ottawa’s major electrical substations and officials said around 200,000 people on both sides of the river were without power. Ottawa and Gatineau together have a population of around 1.3 million people.

“We have lost absolutely everything. I have got a beer fridge that’s sitting in my garage – that is the only thing that is untouched – but everything else has gone,” Ottawa resident Todd Nicholson told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. He was not home when the tornado struck.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard broke off campaigning ahead of an Oct 1 provincial election to travel to Gatineau.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Franklin Paul)

For asylum-seekers on Greece’s Lesbos, life ‘is so bad here’

Migrants wash their clothes and fill bottles with water at a makeshift camp next to the Moria camp for refugees and migrants on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 18, 2018. REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis

LESBOS, Greece (Reuters) – Hundreds of asylum-seekers stranded on Greece’s Lesbos island are living in makeshift tents in a field overrun by garbage, without electricity or running water.

Moria, Greece’s biggest migrant camp in a former military base on the island, is holding 9,000 people, nearly three times its capacity, according to the latest government data.

A view of the Moria camp for refugees and migrants and a makeshift camp set next to Moria, on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 19, 2018. REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis

A view of the Moria camp for refugees and migrants and a makeshift camp set next to Moria, on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 19, 2018. REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis

Aerial footage obtained by Reuters shows several dozen tents have spilled over into an adjacent olive grove, where hundreds of asylum-seekers, most of them Afghan, live in grim conditions.

Young children with muddied faces play among piles of rubbish and women wash clothes and plates in buckets of murky water. Others break off tree branches to shelter their tents from the elements.

“The situation is so bad here,” said Ali, an Afghan asylum-seeker who arrived in Greece with his three children in August. “Night is so bad … my children cannot go to the toilet because everywhere it is dark here and we are in a forest.”

Greece has said it will move 2,000 asylum-seekers from the island to the mainland by the end of the month as aid groups increased pressure on the government to ease the overcrowding.

A local governor threatened to shut Moria down next month unless authorities clean up what health inspectors described as “uncontrollable amounts of waste.”

A tent is illuminated at a makeshift camp next to the Moria camp for refugees and migrants on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 18, 2018. REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis

A tent is illuminated at a makeshift camp next to the Moria camp for refugees and migrants on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 18, 2018. REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis

In Athens on Wednesday, the European Union’s top migration official, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said it was an EU “priority to create the best possible conditions on the islands”.

Small numbers of migrant boats arrive on Lesbos and other Greek islands near Turkey every week, though they are a fraction of the nearly 1 million people who landed in Greece in 2015.

(Writing by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Once oil wealthy, Venezuela’s largest state struggles to keep the lights on

Elizabeth Altuve climbs the stairs at the occupied building where she lives in Maracaibo, Venezuela July 26, 2018. Picture taken July 26, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bell

By Mayela Armas

MARACAIBO, Venezuela (Reuters) – Across Maracaibo, the capital of Venezuela’s largest state, residents unplug refrigerators to guard against power surges. Many only buy the food they will consume the same day. Others regularly sleep outside.

Judith Palmar holds her mother Sibilina Caro hand after feeding her at their home in Maracaibo, Venezuela July 25, 2018. Picture taken July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Judith Palmar holds her mother Sibilina Caro hand after feeding her at their home in Maracaibo, Venezuela July 25, 2018. Picture taken July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

The rolling power blackouts in the state of Zulia pile more misery on Venezuelans living under the fifth year of an economic crisis that has sparked malnutrition, hyperinflation and mass emigration. OPEC member Venezuela’s once-thriving socialist economy has collapsed since the 2014 fall of oil prices.

“I never thought I would have to go through this,” said bakery worker Cindy Morales, 36, her eyes welling with tears. “I don’t have food, I don’t have power, I don’t have money.”

Zulia, the historic heart of Venezuela’s energy industry that was for decades known for opulent oil wealth, has been plunged into darkness for several hours a day since March, sometimes leaving its 3.7 million residents with no electricity for up to 24 hours.

In the past, Zulians considered themselves living in a “Venezuelan Texas”, rich from oil and with an identity proudly distinct from the rest of the country. Oil workers could often be seen driving new cars and flew by private jet to the Dutch Caribbean territory of Curacao to gamble their earnings in casinos.

Once famous for its all-night parties, now Maracaibo is often a sea of darkness at night due to blackouts.

The six state-owned power stations throughout Zulia have plenty of oil to generate electricity but a lack of maintenance and spare parts causes frequent breakdowns, leaving the plants running at 20 percent capacity, said Angel Navas, the president of the national Federation of Electrical Workers.

Energy Minister Luis Motta said this month that power cuts of up to eight hours a day would be the norm in Zulia while authorities developed a “stabilization” plan. He did not provide additional details and the Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

The Zulia state government did not respond to a request to comment.

People block a street in protest during a blackout in Maracaibo, Venezuela July 26, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

People block a street in protest during a blackout in Maracaibo, Venezuela July 26, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Although Caracas has fared far better than Maracaibo, a major outage hit the capital city on Tuesday morning for around two hours due to a fault at a substation. The energy minister said “heavy rains” had been reported near the substation.

Venezuelans were forced to walk or cram into buses as much of the subway was shut. Long lines formed in front of banks and stores in the hopes power would flick back on. The fault also affected some phone lines and the main Maiquetia airport just outside the capital.

“This is terrible. I feel helpless because I want to go to work but I am in this queue instead,” said domestic worker Nassari Parra, 50, as she waited in a line of 20 people in front of a closed bank.

MARACAIBO “GHOST TOWN”

Retiree Judith Palmar, 56, took advantage of having power to cook one afternoon last week in Maracaibo.

When the lights do go out, Palmar wheels her paralyzed mother outside because the house becomes intolerably hot. One power cut damaged an air conditioning unit, which Palmar cannot afford to replace on her pension of about $1.50 a month due to inflation, estimated by the opposition-run Congress in June at 46,000 percent a year.

Outages are taking a toll on businesses in Zulia.

Zulia used to produce 70 percent of Venezuela’s milk and meat but without power to milk cows and keep meat from spoiling, the state’s production has fallen nearly in half, according to Venezuela’s National Federation of Ranchers.

Zulia’s proportion of Venezuela’s total oil production has also slipped over the past 10 years from 38 percent to 25 percent, figures from state oil company PDVSA show.

Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second largest city, seems like a “ghost town,” said Fergus Walshe, head of a local business organization. He said businesses had shortened their operating hours due to the lack of power.

“Before, business activity here was booming,” he said.

Small businesses are also affected. In an industrial park in Maracaibo’s outskirts, 80 percent of the 1,000 companies based there are affected by the power cuts, according to another business association in Zulia.

Sales at Americo Fernandez’ spare parts store are down 50 percent because card readers, which are crucial because even the cheapest goods require unwieldy piles of banknotes, cannot be used during power cuts.

“I have had to improvise to stay afloat. I connect the car battery to the store so that the card readers can work,” Fernandez said during a power outage at his home, surrounded by candles.

(Reporting by Mayela Armas in Maracaibo, additional reporting by Andreina Aponte and Shaylim Castro in Caracas; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Alistair Bell)

As Hodeidah battle grinds on, residents suffer lack of clean water, electricity

A displaced boy from Hodeidah city carries his brother who is affected by monoplegia, at a school where displaced people live, in Sanaa, Yemen June 22, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

By Dahlia Nehme

DUBAI (Reuters) – Residents unable to flee Hodeidah face constant bombardment, lack of clean water and power cuts as an Arab coalition battles to capture Yemen’s main port from Iran-aligned Houthis.

“We hear loud explosions all the time,” Assem Mohammed, a 30-year-old pharmacist, said by telephone.

“We haven’t had water for three days.”

Mohammed, with his wife and six-month-old daughter, are among a dwindling number of residents who have remained in Hawak district, a neighborhood sandwiched between the airport, captured this week by the coalition, and the sea port, the latest target of the military offensive.

Whether through lack of funds or work or personal commitments, some families like Mohammed’s cannot escape.

Drivers transporting fleeing residents out of Hodeidah have more than doubled their fares since the battle began, while the hospital where Mohammed works has threatened employees with dismissal if they are absent for long periods.

“Electricity has also been cut in most of the city since three days, and in some neighborhoods for a week,” he said. He blamed the water shortage on damage to pipes that relief workers say has been caused by the Houthis digging trenches. Houthi officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

Since 2015 Hodeidah residents have used privately-owned generators to produce electricity. But this month’s offensive has left them struggling to obtain the necessary diesel oil.

Temperatures during summer in Yemen soar to above 40 degrees Celsius (104 F) in the shade, which along with lack of clean water could help spread disease.

Coalition leaders Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have pledged a swift operation to capture the Red Sea port, without entering the city center to minimize civilian casualties and maintain a flow of essential goods.

But its maritime port is a principal entry point for Yemen’s relief supplies, and the United Nations fears heavy fighting will worsen what is already the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis, with 22 million Yemenis dependent on aid and an estimated 8.4 million believed to be on the verge of starvation.

A displaced woman from Hodeidah city carries her sick daughter at a school where displaced people live, in Sanaa, Yemen June 22, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

A displaced woman from Hodeidah city carries her sick daughter at a school where displaced people live, in Sanaa, Yemen June 22, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

“The level and degree of human suffering is heart-breaking,” Lise Grande, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Yemen said on Thursday. “Of all the things we are worried about, cholera is top of the list.”

“It wouldn’t take much to start an unstoppable outbreak.”

Dozens of displaced families have been relocated to schools in the city, Mohammed Kassem, Hodeidah ICRC system manager, told Reuters as relief workers distributed food bags at one facility.

“We ran away only with the clothes we were wearing,” said one woman while waiting to receive her share.

The coalition says it wants to prevent the Houthis receiving weapons and generating cash from imports, eventually forcing them to start talks on handing over power to the internationally recognized government of President Abd-Rabu Mansour Hadi.

UN CONCERNED

Grande warned against cholera spreading “with lightning speed” if the water system breaks down and nothing is done to immediately address the situation.

U.N. officials estimate that in a worst-case scenario the fighting could cost up to 250,000 lives, especially if a cholera epidemic occurs in the widely impoverished region.

The Arab coalition intervened in the war in 2015 to roll back Houthi control of Yemen’s main population centers and reinstate its internationally recognized government. Coalition forces retook much of the south before the war, widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, bogged down.

Tens of Hodeidah families have fled the fighting in Hodeidah for safety in the Houthi-held capital Sanaa, while others have headed to Raymah and Wusab, also in Houthi-ruled areas inland.

“They told us there’s an organization where we can register as refugees over here, but God knows,” said Marwan al-Barah, one of those displaced from Hodeidah.

In a Sanaa school, Reuters TV footage showed men who had fled Hodeidah queuing to register their families as displaced, while women sat on the floor in classrooms as their bare-foot children and toddlers played nearby.

(Reporting by Dahlia Nehme; Editing by Sami Aboudi, William Maclean)

In Puerto Rico, a new hurricane season threatens the elderly

An elderly woman prays at a chapel of the San Rafael nursing home in Arecibo, Puerto Rico February 14, 2018. Picture taken February 14, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

By Nick Brown, Jessica Resnick-Ault and Ricardo Ortiz

ADJUNTAS, PUERTO RICO (Reuters) – At 84 years old and battling cancer, Israel Gonzalez Maldonado has lived without electricity for the nine months since Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico.

His wife, Zoraida Reyes, 77, struggles to keep the house stocked with fresh food without a refrigerator. At night, she fans her husband so he can sleep.

With another hurricane season starting, older Puerto Ricans have little to protect them from another storm on an impoverished island that remains far from fully recovered. Younger and wealthier people have been moving away for years, leaving an older and sicker population in the hands of an underfunded healthcare system. Tens of thousands more have fled since Maria.

“We wish we could move, at least for the time he has left,” Reyes said of her husband.

Senior citizens make up a larger share of the population here than in all but four U.S. states, according to federal Census data. About half are disabled, more than any state.

Forty percent of seniors rely on food stamps, more than three times the percentage in New York state, the second-highest nationally.

Yet the island has just six nursing homes – with a total of 159 beds – that are certified by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) to provide rehabilitative services.

Puerto Rico relies instead on a patchwork of about 800 nursing homes licensed by the island’s Department of Family. They are typically private businesses or nonprofit organizations that care for small numbers of elderly people with limited services – and limited budgets, strained further since Maria.

A fragile healthcare system is hardly the only problem that leaves the elderly here – and all Puerto Ricans – vulnerable to another catastrophic storm.

About 7,000 houses and businesses still lack power, after Maria leveled a grid that was ill-maintained before the storm. Power utility PREPA has patched together most of the system but remains years away from making the fundamental improvements needed to enable it to withstand another hurricane.

“The grid needs to be rebuilt – not just the lines,” PREPA Chief Executive Walter Higgins said.

Maria also damaged nearly half the island’s levees. Several major water pumps, used to remove floodwater, remain in disrepair.

“God help us, but we definitely can’t handle any more hurricanes,” said Tania Vazquez, the island’s secretary of natural resources.

Governor Ricardo Rossello’s office declined to comment on the island’s hurricane preparedness or on specific efforts to protect the elderly, referring questions to other agencies.

Glorimar Andujar, Secretary of the Department of Family, said officials learned a lot from Maria about how to prepare for the next storm.

“The emergency plans are much better,” Andujar said, “because we now have an experience that no other generation of agency leaders have experienced.”

ELDERLY AT RISK

Rosa Iturrizaga runs Hostal de Amigos, a small eldercare residence in San Juan.

The home barely broke even before Maria, relying on resident fees of between $2,000 and $3,000 a month. Since then, two of 11 residents moved to the mainland, and insurance has so far not paid for about $40,000 in storm damage, Iturrizaga said. The business carries $500,000 in debt, has fallen behind on loan and tax payments and now loses up to $5,000 a month.

“I don’t know what’s kept me going,” Iturrizaga said. “I love doing this, but I’m looking at other things to do with the land.”

Another private home, the nonprofit Asilo San Rafael in Arecibo, theoretically charges residents $1,200 a month; in reality, only three of 27 residents pay full price, and at least nine pay nothing, said board member Lucila Oliver.

Operating costs run about $700,000 annually, with about $110,000 coming from a handful of subsidies from the island’s central government – subsidies she says have declined sharply in recent years as the now-bankrupt Puerto Rican government fell into a fiscal crisis, Oliver said.

The Department of Family’s Andujar disputed that the subsidies have declined, but Oliver provided Reuters with balance sheets showing a drop in department funding to $59,000 this fiscal year from $80,000 last year.

Maria brought new costs: about $1,200 a month to bring in water tanks, and thousands more on diesel for generators. Oliver said San Rafael is “used to living on the edge,” but says the edge has drawn closer since the hurricanes.

Many elderly and disabled here find a way to get by at home, with little care. Some seek help from the Department of Family, applying for a caregiver to come by just a day or two a week, said Andujar.

Many are turned away, she said.

“The funding is very limited,” she said, “and the need is very big.”

PREPARING FOR ANOTHER HIT

This hurricane season, the department is making sure it has accurate locations for all licensed nursing homes after cell phone service disruptions stymied the response to Hurricane Maria. The homes, Andujar said, are now required to have 30 days of food on hand, and the department has also requested they have generators and water tanks.

She added that about 315,000 elderly people currently receive benefits as part of a $1.27 billion federal allocation under the Nutritional Assistance Program.

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) remains on the island and said it has given municipalities money to improve community resilience.

Dr. Carmen Sanchez Salgado, Puerto Rico’s ombudsmen for the elderly, said her staff has been educating elderly people about the emergency supplies they need.

Charities and nonprofits have also helped. The nonprofit PRxPR, created in response to Maria, is funding solar panels for elderly people and community centers.

One such center in Naguabo had no power as recently as four weeks ago, said Carmen Baez, the group’s co-founder.

“Our installation was it,” she said.

(Reporting by Nick Brown, Jessica Resnick-Ault and Ricardo Ortiz; Additional reporting by Robin Respaut; Editing by Daniel Bases and Brian Thevenot)