Greeks in mourning and disbelief after flood that killed at least 15

Greeks in mourning and disbelief after flood that killed at least 15

MANDRA, Greece (Reuters) – Greeks voiced despair and disbelief on Thursday after a flash flood killed at least 15 people and left hundreds homeless, with many blaming a system that allowed houses to be built on dried up river beds.

In the towns of Nea Peramos and Mandra west of the capital Athens, crumpled cars and mangled furniture lay on roads caked in the thick mud left behind by a raging torrent that smashed through homes on Wednesday morning. [nL8N1NL22V]

“We are ruined. My tavern and my house are gone,” said Paraskevas Stamou, a restaurant owner in Mandra. “Everything is gone, the road is gone, the water is still flowing and we were flooded again last night and this morning.

“We are expecting another downpour tonight. It’s like God hates us,” he told Reuters.

Maria Kriada is comforted outside her destroyed house following flash floods which hit areas west of Athens on November 15 killing at least 15 people, in Nea Peramos, Greece, November 16, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Maria Kriada is comforted outside her destroyed house following flash floods which hit areas west of Athens on November 15 killing at least 15 people, in Nea Peramos, Greece, November 16, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

To escape the lethal floodwaters, residents took desperate measures.

“We had nowhere to sleep. We slept on the roof, we found carpets to cover ourselves,” said a man in Mandra whose house was gutted by the flood but remained standing.

Between sobs, his mother added: “Everything went. We don’t have anyone to help us. I don’t have help from anyone.”

Bad weather continued on Thursday. Officials said they were waiting for conditions to improve before giving a clearer picture of the damage. Five people were still missing.

Flags flew half-mast from state buildings and the Acropolis on Thursday as the government declared three days of national mourning.

Newspapers expressed anger. “A Crime,” was the headline in Ta Nea daily, superimposed on a picture of a woman being comforted next to an overturned car. “The Deeds of Man,” wrote the leftist Avgi, referring to unlicensed constructions.

Experts blamed haphazard construction which the natural path for water runoff, and soil erosion on a mountain range hit by fires.

Both towns were built along an old motorway linking Athens to the Peloponnese city of Corinth. As building crept closer to the road, streams that would have drained runoff from the nearby Pateras mountains were blocked.

“Of course the state wasn’t prepared … we cannot compete with nature,” said Christos Zeferos, head of the research center for Atmospheric Physics and Climatology Academy of Athens, adding that climate change meant people should expect more weather-related disasters.

“We should be prepared for more frequent, and different phenomena,” he told Reuters.

Many of the victims were elderly. The youngest was a 36-year old truck driver who called his mother as the floodwaters rose around his lorry. The line went dead soon afterwards.

General aerial view of a flooded area following flash floods in Mandra, West Attica, Greece November 15, 2017 in this still image taken from social media video.     NATIONAL AND KAPODISTRIAN UNIVERSITY OF ATHENS/via REUTERS

General aerial view of a flooded area following flash floods in Mandra, West Attica, Greece November 15, 2017 in this still image taken from social media video. NATIONAL AND KAPODISTRIAN UNIVERSITY OF ATHENS/via REUTERS

(Reporting By Michele Kambas, Renee Maltezou, Alkis Konstantinidis and Lefteris Papadimas; Writing by Michele Kambas; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Tiny Montana firm’s Puerto Rico power deal draws scrutiny

A pick up from Montana-based Whitefish Energy Holdings is parked as workers (not pictured) help fix the island's power grid, damaged during Hurricane Maria in September, in Manati, Puerto Rico October 25, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

By Susan Heavey, Richard Cowan and Scott DiSavino

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – Federal emergency officials raised “significant concerns” on Friday about a $300 million contract between Puerto Rico’s storm-hit power utility and a tiny Montana firm, as Democratic lawmakers stepped up calls for an investigation of the deal.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said in a statement that after its initial review it “has not confirmed whether the contract prices are reasonable” under the agreement between Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority and Whitefish Energy Holdings, a two-year-old firm with just two full-time employees.

The contract between PREPA and Whitefish was awarded without a competitive bidding process.

Whitefish spokesman Ken Luce said the deal was secured when its chief executive and co-owner, Andy Techmanski, flew to Puerto Rico on Sept. 26, six days after Hurricane Maria tore into the bankrupt U.S. territory and knocked out power to all 3.4 million residents.

The contract, and the slow restoration of power on the island, has raised questions about who is effectively managing PREPA’s response to the hurricane, as about 75 percent of homes and businesses still lack electricity after several weeks.

Jose Roman, interim chairman of Puerto Rico’s Energy Commission, said the commission is looking into how Whitefish got the contract as part of a larger investigation to “determine the prudence of the actions of PREPA; not just the Whitefish contract,” he said.

PREPA did not respond to requests for comment.

Puerto Rico’s financial oversight board earlier this week said it would appoint an emergency manager to oversee PREPA, though that has met with pushback from Governor Ricardo Rossello, who may challenge such an effort in court.

It took more than a week after Maria hit the island for a damage assessment to be completed by PREPA, the chronically underfunded state utility. Eventually, FEMA put the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in charge of short-term power restoration.

 

ZINKE: I HAD “NOTHING TO DO” WITH CONTRACT

A growing number of U.S. lawmakers have raised questions about the contract, the slow pace of power restoration, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s connections with Whitefish.

Representative Raul Grijalva, the senior Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, and Representative Peter DeFazio, the top Democrat on the Transportation Committee, asked the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general in a letter to investigate the contract’s execution, its terms, and “whether there was any political impetus behind the contract.”

The representatives noted that Whitefish is based in Zinke’s hometown and that Zinke’s son once worked for Whitefish. The letter also stated that a Whitefish financial backer, HBC Investments, was founded by Joe Colonnetta, a contributor to President Donald Trump’s campaign, as well as “many other Republican candidates.”

Zinke said in a release that “I had absolutely nothing to do with Whitefish Energy receiving a contract in Puerto Rico.” After the initial contract was awarded, “I was contacted by the company, on which I took no action,” he said.

White House spokesman Raj Shah said that the administration’s “understanding” was that the contract was awarded solely by PREPA, and they are “not aware of any federal involvement” in the deal.

U.S. Senate Democrats urged FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in a letter to unify efforts to restore power on the island.

They also called on FEMA and PREPA to name a top official to oversee all electrical contracts, and urged federal officials to more quickly clear crews from two companies, Fluor Corp <FLR.N> and PowerSecure, so they can begin restoration work.

Several utilities are involved in restoration, including Fluor, Whitefish, JEA, New York Power Authority, and others. Whitefish and its subcontractors have more than 300 people on the island, Luce said.

Techmanski first got in touch with PREPA following Hurricane Irma, during a bidding process to repair damages from that storm, which hit Puerto Rico two weeks before Maria, Luce said.

A copy of the contract surfaced online Thursday night, raising more questions, particularly over language blocking oversight of costs and profits.

“In no event shall PREPA, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the FEMA administrator, the Comptroller General of the United States or any other authorized representatives have the right to audit or review the cost and profit elements,” said the document, published by several media outlets, whose authenticity was confirmed by Democratic staffers for the Natural Resources Committee.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called for the immediate termination of the contract, saying “no federally-funded contract should be immune from routine oversight or circumvent a federal audit.”

Costs listed for hourly wages ranged in the hundreds of dollars and daily per diems of more than $330 for accommodations and nearly $80 for food, according to the “bid schedule” published online. The document put the cost of one-way airline flights for employees at $1,000.

Luce defended the deal, saying the company welcomed an audit or questions from Washington. “The contract was done in good faith with PREPA,” he said.

Rossello has also defended the contract, even as he ordered an audit. Initial results of the audit are expected to be released later on Friday, according to NBC News.

 

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Richard Cowan, Timothy Gardner; additional reporting by Scott DiSavino, Jessica Resnick-Ault and Nicholas Brown; editing by Tom Brown and Diane Craft)

 

Three dead as Storm Ophelia batters Ireland

Three dead as Storm Ophelia batters Ireland

By Clodagh Kilcoyne

LAHINCH, Ireland (Reuters) – Three people died as Tropical Storm Ophelia battered Ireland’s southern coast on Monday, knocking down trees and power lines and whipping up 10-metre (30-foot) waves.

Over 360,000 homes and businesses were without electricity with another 100,000 outages expected by nightfall, Ireland’s Electricity Supply Board said, describing it as an unprecedented event that would effect every part of the country for days.

Around 170 flights from Ireland’s two main airports at Dublin and Shannon were canceled.

Two people were killed in separate incidents when trees fell on their cars — a woman in her 50s in the south east and a man on the east coast. Another man in his 30s died while trying to clear a fallen tree in an incident involving a chainsaw.

The storm, downgraded from a hurricane overnight, was the worst to hit Ireland in half a century. It made landfall after 10:40 a.m. (0940 GMT), the Irish National Meteorological Service said, with winds as strong as 190 kph (110 mph) hitting the most southerly tip of the country. Coastal flooding was likely.

“This storm is still very active and there are still very dangerous conditions in parts of the country. Do not be lulled into thinking this has passed,” the chairman of Ireland’s National Emergency Coordination Group, Sean Hogan, told national broadcaster RTE.

The Galway Atlantaquaria National Aquarium of Ireland building is seen submerged in floodwater during Storm Ophelia in Galway, Ireland October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

The Galway Atlantaquaria National Aquarium of Ireland building is seen submerged in floodwater during Storm Ophelia in Galway, Ireland October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

The armed forces were sent to bolster flood defenses, public transport services and hospitals were closed and schools across Ireland and Northern Ireland will remain shut for a second day on Tuesday.

Hundreds of roads were blocked by fallen trees, Hogan said. Photos on social media showed roofs flying off buildings, including at Cork City soccer club’s Turner’s Cross stadium where the roof of one stand had collapsed.

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar advised people to stay indoors. The transport minister said it was not safe to drive.

The storm winds were due to peak between 1600 GMT and 1800 GMT in Dublin and Galway, two of Ireland’s most populous cities, and later on Monday in northern areas.

Britain’s meteorological service put an Amber Weather Warning into effect for Northern Ireland from 1400-2100 GMT, saying the storm posed a danger to life and was likely to cause transport cancellations, power cuts and flying debris.

It is expected to move towards western Scotland overnight and “impactful weather” is expected in other western and northern parts of the United Kingdom, it said.

British media are comparing Ophelia to the “Great Storm” of 1987, which subjected parts of the United Kingdom to hurricane strength winds 30 years ago to the day.

The Irish government said the storm was likely to be the worst since Hurricane Debbie, which killed 11 in Ireland in 1961.

It passed close to a western Ireland golf course owned by U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been planning a wall to protect its greens from coastal erosion.

Similar storms in the past have changed the shape of stretches of the Irish coastline, climatologists said.

(Additional reporting and writing by Padraic Halpin and Conor Humphries; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Thousands evacuated in Vietnam as floods, landslides kill 46

Thousands evacuated in Vietnam as floods, landslides kill 46

By Mai Nguyen

HANOI (Reuters) – Heavy rain in northern and central Vietnam triggered floods and landslides that killed 46 people and 33 people were missing in the worst such disaster in years, the search and rescue committee said on Thursday.

Vietnam often suffers destructive storms and floods due to its long coastline. More than 200 people were killed in storms last year.

“In the past 10 years, we haven’t suffered from such severe and intense floods,” state-run Vietnam Television quoted agriculture minister Nguyen Xuan Cuong as saying.

A typhoon tore a destructive path across central Vietnam just last month, flooding and damaging homes and knocking out power lines.

The latest floods hit Vietnam on Monday.

“Our entire village has had sleepless nights…it’s impossible to fight against this water, it’s the strongest in years,” a resident in northwestern Hoa Binh province was quoted by VTV as saying.

Vietnam’s Central Steering Committee for Natural Disaster Prevention and Control said authorities were discharging water from dams to control water levels.

Some 317 homes had collapsed, while more than 34,000 other houses were submerged or had been damaged.

Earlier reports said more than 8,000 hectares (19,800 acres) of rice had been damaged and around 40,000 animals were killed or washed away.

Hoa Binh province in the northwest declared a state of emergency and opened eight gates to discharge water at Hoa Binh dam, Vietnam’s largest hydroelectric dam, the first time it has done so in years, VTV reported.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited northern Ninh Binh province where water levels in the Hoang Long river are their highest since 1985.

Rising sea levels are also threatening Vietnam’s more than 3,260 km (2,000 mile) coastline, resulting in increased flooding of low lying coastal regions, erosion and salt water intrusion.

Floods have also affected seven of 77 provinces in Thailand, Vietnam’s neighbor to the west, the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation said on Thursday. More than 480,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) of agricultural land have been hit, the department said.

Thailand is the world’s second-biggest exporter of rice.

“It is still too soon to tell whether there will be damage to rice crops because most of the rice has already been harvested,” Charoen Laothamatas, president of the Thai Rice Exporters Association, told Reuters.

In 2011, Thailand was hit by its worst flooding in half a century. The floods killed hundreds and crippled industry, including the country’s key automotive sector.

(Additional reporting by Mi Nguyen in HANOI and; Suphanida Thakral in BANGKOK; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Neil Fullick and Nick Macfie)

In the mountains of Puerto Rico, hurricane recovery is slower

In the mountains of Puerto Rico, hurricane recovery is slower

By Hugh Bronstein

TRUJILLO ALTO, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – In the lowlands of Trujillo Alto, a sprawling suburb of San Juan, clean water once again flows in the homes of most residents. But in the mountainous part of the city, which is largely poor and semi-rural, finding clean water remains a daily struggle.

Across Puerto Rico, officials say, altitude matters. While workers are making steady progress restoring power and running water to coastal regions, where the territory’s largest cities are located, the mountainous regions at the island’s center are proving challenging.

“Are people in the mountains in a worse situation than urban people? Of course,” said Puerto Rico’s minister of public policy, Ramon Rosario, “because they are more distant from the power generators on the coasts.” Without electricity, he noted, the pumps that carry water up into the mountains can’t operate or must rely on generators.

A mix of Puerto Ricans live in the “Cordillera Central,” or central range of Puerto Rico, which is far more sparsely populated than coastal regions. Many residents are poor, living in rural, agrarian-based communities. But the region also has wealthy residents seeking the cooler temperatures and beauty of the cordillera.

In Trujillo Alto, a community of 85,000 that sits partly on flat land but also extends into the mountains, hurricane recovery varies sharply by altitude.

Lydia Perez Molina, 72, still relies on government-provided food and water in her mountain-top home, where she weathered hours of howling winds and hammer-blow rains during the Sept. 20 storm.

“Water came in through the window and the wind was like a monster,” Perez Molina said.

Now, she said, tears welling up in her eyes, her son spends his time “searching and struggling to bring us what we need. He’s standing in line for water at one place and for food at another.”

Debris is seen outside a home damaged by Hurricane Maria is seen in the Trujillo Alto municipality outside San Juan, Puerto Rico, October 9, 2017. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Debris is seen outside a home damaged by Hurricane Maria is seen in the Trujillo Alto municipality outside San Juan, Puerto Rico, October 9, 2017. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

On Monday, Lourdes Zayas, president of the Trujillo Alto town council, gathered with dozens of other volunteers in the municipality’s basketball gym to put together care packages of rice, beans, milk and other basic foods that are trucked out several times a day to hard-hit parts of town.

“We can keep supplying food and drinking water as long as we need to,” Zayas said. “As for the electricity, who knows.”

Trujillo Alto Mayor Jose Luis Cruz said 70 percent of the richer, low-lying parts of town now have steady supplies of water, but there is no electricity to pump water up to the poorer parts of the municipality.

Moving heavy trucks and machinery into mountain areas to clear hazards and restore electrical lines is proving difficult, too, said a civilian employee of the Army Corps of Engineers, who was deployed to Puerto Rico to work on restoring the electrical grid.

He said he was sent to Florida after Hurricane Irma to work on restoring power, but that the two situations were starkly different.

“Irma was a repair job,” he said, asking that his name not be used as he was not authorized to speak to the press. “This is a rebuild.”

(Reporting by Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Sue Horton)

Weakening Nate brings rain, tornado warnings to U.S. South

Weakening Nate brings rain, tornado warnings to U.S. South

By Rod Nickel and Jessica Resnick-Ault

BILOXI/PASCAGOULA, Miss. (Reuters) – Hurricane Nate weakened to a tropical depression on Sunday after coming ashore in Mississippi, flooding roads and buildings but sparing the state from catastrophic damages.

Maximum sustained winds from Nate, the fourth major storm to hit the United States in less than two months, dropped to 35 miles per hour (55 km per hour) as it moved through Alabama and into Tennessee.

The remnants of the storm spawned tornado warnings in those states and the western portions of North Carolina and South Carolina. It is forecast to bring gusty winds and up to 4 inches (10 cm) of rain to parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York on Monday.

The storm made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane, the weakest designation by the U.S. National Hurricane Center. Only a few hours earlier, its winds had been blowing at 70 mph (113 kph) but appeared to lack the devastating punch of its recent predecessors.

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant told reporters there had been no deaths or reports of catastrophic damage. “We are very fortunate this morning and have been blessed,” he said.

Nate killed at least 30 people in Central America before entering the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and bearing down on the U.S. South. It has also shut down most oil and gas production in the Gulf.

Nate follows hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, which have devastated areas of the Caribbean and southern United States.

The tropical depression’s center will move up through Alabama into Tennessee and Kentucky through Monday, the hurricane center said. Heavy rainfall and storm-surge flooding remained a danger across the region, and the hurricane center said Florida’s Panhandle and parts of Alabama and Georgia might feel tropical storm-force wind gusts.

The storm was expected to bring three to six inches of rain to parts of western North Carolina through midday Monday, with up to 10 inches possible in isolated spots. Power outages, damaged homes and roads closed by debris were all reported in the region.

Nate made its first U.S. landfall on Saturday evening near the mouth of the Mississippi River and then made a second one early on Sunday near Biloxi, Mississippi.

In Biloxi, water surged over roads during the storm and quickly receded on Sunday, leaving a boat that broke loose marooned on the beach. At a Waffle House restaurant, the storm surge deposited a dumpster in its parking lot.

Jeff Pickich, a 46-year-old wine salesman from D’Iberville, Mississippi, was counting his blessings. Heavy winds left only minor damage, blowing down part of a fence on his rental property in Biloxi.

“I’m just glad,” he said, digging fresh holes for fence posts. “I was afraid of the water. The water is Mother Nature. You can’t stop it.”

Water flowed through Ursula Staten’s yard in Biloxi, pushing over part of her fence and scattering debris, but did not breach her house.

“I have a mess,” the retired massage therapist said. “If we had got Irma, I would have lost everything.”

At the Golden Nugget Casino, one of eight Biloxi gaming establishments, workers rushed to clean up mud, debris and minor damage from 3 feet (1 m) of water sloshing into an entrance and the parkade. The gaming room stayed dry.

Three hundred guests remained in the hotel, some eager to try their luck after surviving Nate.

But dangers from the storm remain, with Florida Governor Rick Scott warning of tornadoes springing up in the Panhandle region and Alabama Governor Kay Ivey urging residents to prepare for strong winds and storm surges.

U.S. President Donald Trump declared federal emergencies in Alabama and Florida on Sunday, which provides additional funding for disaster relief.

Mississippi Power had restored electricity to 10,000 customers, but 4,800 were still without it. More than 1,000 people had arrived at shelters, the state Emergency Management Agency said.

Alabama Power said it had restored electricity to 58,000 of 146,000 customers who lost it.

Rainfall of 3 to 6 inches (8 to 15 cm), with a maximum of 10 inches (25 cm), was expected east of the Mississippi River in Alabama and Tennessee, the hurricane center said.

NEW ORLEANS THREAT DOWNGRADED

Forecast at one point to make landfall in Louisiana, Nate headed farther east and spared many New Orleans parishes that were devastated by Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago.

“I had prayed for this – that we would be spared,” said Amos Cormier, president of Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana’s equivalent to a county.

Bernice Barthelemy, a 70-year-old Louisiana resident, died from cardiac arrest overnight after telling Reuters on Saturday that she did not mind having to evacuate, Cormier said on Sunday. He attributed her death to the stress of the move.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said he expected that evacuated residents could return home soon.

Vessel traffic and port operations at New Orleans resumed on Sunday afternoon, while the Port of Mobile in Alabama remained closed. Oil ports, producers and refiners in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were planning reopenings as the storm moved inland on Sunday.

The storm curtailed 92 percent of daily oil production and 77 percent of daily natural gas output in the Gulf of Mexico, more than three times the amount affected by Harvey.

The storm doused Central America with heavy rains on Thursday, killing at least 16 people in Nicaragua, 10 in Costa Rica, two in Honduras and two in El Salvador.

(Reporting by Rod Nickel in Biloxi, Miss. and Jessica Resnick-Ault in Pascagoula, Miss.; Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga, Erwin Seba and Gary McWilliams in Houston; Jonathan Allen in New York; Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Peter Cooney)

Hurricane Nate threatens U.S. central Gulf Coast after killing 25

Heavy machinery is used to remove mud from a highway that connects with the south of the country collapsed by Storm Nate in Casa Mata, Costa Rica October 6, 2017. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate

By Oswaldo Rivas

MANAGUA (Reuters) – Hurricane Nate may strengthen on Saturday, threatening to hit the U.S. central Gulf Coast with strong winds and storm surges after it killed at least 25 people in Central America.

New Orleans evacuated some residents from areas outside its levee system as Nate, a Category 1 hurricane, the weakest on a five-category scale used by meteorologists, churned towards the central Gulf of Mexico.

“Nate is at our doorstep or will be soon,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said, adding that the winds could cause significant power outages, and storm surges are projected to be six to nine feet (1.8 to 2.7 meters) high.

“We have been through this many, many times. There is no need to panic,” Landrieu told a news conference.

The storm brushed by Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, home to beach resorts such as Cancun and Playa del Carmen, as it headed north, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said.

With maximum sustained winds of 80 miles per hour (130 kmh), Nate was about 345 miles (550 km) south-southeast of the Mississippi river and expected to strengthen before it makes landfall, the NHC said.

A state of emergency was declared for 29 Florida counties and states – Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi – as well as the New Orleans, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The NHC issued a hurricane watch from Grand Isle, Louisiana to the Alabama-Florida border.

“By Saturday noon you should be in your safe place,” Alabama Governor Kay Ivey told a news conference. “This is a fast-moving storm and we must begin preparing now.”

Nearly three-quarters of U.S. Gulf of Mexico oil production was offline ahead of the storm, and more oil companies halted operations on Friday.

On Saturday morning, Nate was moving north-northwest at 22 miles per hour (35 kmh), a fast pace which if maintained could mean the storm does less damage when it hits land.

CENTRAL AMERICA DEATHS

The storm doused Central America with heavy rains on Thursday, killing at least 12 people in Nicaragua, nine in Costa Rica, two in Honduras and two in El Salvador.

Thousands were forced to evacuate their homes and Costa Rica’s government declared a state of emergency.

Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis urged residents to remain vigilant, noting rains would likely resume.

In Honduras, residents wondered whether they would have to flee. Norma Chavez and her two children anxiously watched a river rise outside their home in Tegucigalpa, the capital.

“We are worried that it will grow more and carry away the house,” said Chavez, 45.

Through Monday, Nate is expected to produce two to four inches (5 to 10 cm) more rain in eastern Yucatan and western Cuba and three to six inches (8 to 15 inches) in the U.S. central Gulf Coast.

About 71 percent of U.S. Gulf of Mexico oil production and 53 percent of natural gas output is offline ahead of Nate’s arrival, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) said on Friday.

Oil companies have evacuated staff from 66 platforms and five drilling rigs, it said. Oil production equaling 1.24 million barrels of crude per day is offline, according to BSEE.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; editing by Alexander Smith)

Top Puerto Rico bank says four months too long to wait for power

An America flag is seen after Hurricane Maria hit San Lorenzo, Morovis, Puerto Rico, October 4, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

By Hugh Bronstein

SAN JUAN (Reuters) – Puerto Rico needs to accelerate the timetable for restoring its power grid or else residents will flee for the mainland rather than live without electricity for months, the chairman of the territory’s largest bank said on Friday.

In an interview with Reuters on Friday, Banco Popular Chairman Richard Carrion said prolonged outages could shrink the U.S. territory’s economy and hurt its banking system. More than two weeks after Hurricane Maria hit the island, most of Puerto Rico is still without electricity.

With about $40 billion in assets, Banco Popular is Puerto Rico’s biggest financial institution. Carrion said 85 of the bank’s 169 branches were open, and that only about 40 percent of its cash machines were operating.

Puerto Rican authorities have estimated that it will take at least four months to restore the electrical grid, something Carrion says is “not acceptable.”

“The economy will suffer, and it may push people who are on the fence to say, ‘we’re leaving’,” he said, potentially pushing the bankrupt territory into even worse financial straits.

About 85 percent of the electricity that was used on the island before Maria is no longer being delivered to customers, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Wide areas are marred by telephone poles snapped in two by the storm, leaving transmission lines in tangled roadside heaps.

Carrion said 90 percent of the island’s point of sale terminals, where people buy things with a swipe of their bank card, were still not running. The situation has increased the need for cash, a demand that the U.S. Federal Reserve has met by flying in money.

He said he also worries about the effect Maria will have on Puerto Rico’s ability to deliver a debt restructuring that would be acceptable to holders of the territory’s defaulted bonds.

Asked when a debt deal might be clinched, Carrion said: “If you would have asked that before Maria, we would have said it could be done before the end of the year.”

Now, he said, it’s anybody’s bet.

(Reporting by Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Sue Horton and David Gregorio)

In Puerto Rico, lives depend on volunteer doctors and diesel generators

In Puerto Rico, lives depend on volunteer doctors and diesel generators

By Robin Respaut and Nick Brown

OROCOVIS, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – At a community center in Orocovis, an isolated agricultural town of 23,000 in the mountains of central Puerto Rico, six oxygen-dependent patients drew breath with the help of the diesel generator powering their equipment.

Then the generator sputtered as if it might die.

A dozen volunteer doctors and medical students from San Juan started assessing which patient should be transported first – in the town’s only ambulance – to a hospital an hour away, and which could survive without oxygen for a short time.

Javier Sevilla Rodriguez, a medical student, had only one way to make the agonizing decisions. He removed one woman’s oxygen tube, watching carefully to see how her blood-oxygen level responded.

“This is how we are doing triage right now,” he said.

Two weeks after hurricane Maria, many of Puerto Rico’s sick, frail and elderly are teetering on the edge, one faulty generator away from missing dialysis treatments or having critical medications go bad.

With nearly the entire island still lacking electricity, hospitals, clinics, and shelters are operating on aging generators not intended for long-term use and powered by scarce diesel fuel. Water is still not available for nearly half the population and supplies of medicines and oxygen are running low.

And residents still can’t call for help across vast swaths of the island because of widespread cellular network outages.

Many regions in the interior of the island, like this one, are only now seeing relief efforts, amid a plodding U.S. disaster response to this island of 3.4 million American citizens. The U.S. territory’s battered economy and infrastructure has magnified the humanitarian crisis wrought by the strongest hurricane to hit here in nine decades.

In Orocovis, even the sickest patients have gone largely without medical care since the storm. So the doctors worked quickly throughout the day, conferring with caregivers and writing prescriptions they would take back to San Juan to fill and then dispatch by messenger.

Now at the community center, their last stop before leaving town, time ran out.

With a loud clunk, the sounds of humming oxygen machines stopped and were replaced by a chorus of beeps and chirps warning that power had been cut.

The generator had failed.

A CALL FOR DOCTORS

The medical convoy that visited Orocovis is an entirely volunteer operation, organized by physician Carlos Mellado. After Maria hit Puerto Rico on September 20, blocking roads and crippling power and communications networks, Mellado asked other doctors at his clinic to cover for him and threw himself into hurricane relief work.

On the first day, he headed to Canovanas, east of the capital, checking on people at shelters. He promised to fill many patients’ prescriptions and send back the medications.

The next day, he went to Vieques, an island off Puerto Rico’s eastern coast, and found diabetics without insulin, heart patients under extreme stress and crucial treatments interrupted by power outages.

When Mellado returned to San Juan, he stopped by the local radio station, which in the days after the storm, had become a trusted source of information for Puerto Ricans living without communications. Invited to speak to listeners, he called for other physicians willing to join him.

Now, Mellado has a core group of 18 physicians, who rotate between the trips and their own practices, and a growing list of more doctors who want to join. Each morning, he takes out a paper map of the island covered with notes about where he’s been. The doctors pick a town and go.

The convoys have no official ties, but Mellado reports each evening on what the doctors found to Puerto Rican and federal officials in San Juan. Sometimes Puerto Rico’s housing department coordinates deliveries of the drugs back to the towns, and a pharmacy chain donates medications for patients without insurance.

The government’s death count from the storm more than doubled this week to 36. But doctors across the island believe the total would be far higher if it included people with chronic conditions who died because they lacked access to medical care.

“For these critically ill patients, if everything fails, they don’t have too much time,” said Humberto Guzman, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon and member of the medical convoy. “People are dying.”

‘WE CANNOT WAIT’

In Orocovis, after the generator failed, the doctors looked for a quick fix. Guzman ran up the street to the town’s shuttered urgent care facility.

There, he found a half-dozen oxygen tanks that locals said had been delivered the day before. Each could provide about a day’s worth of oxygen to a patient.

The tanks were quickly moved to the community center, where the doctors taught family members to use them. But before that became necessary, the generator sprang back to life.

The doctors packed up to leave, assuring patients’ families that they could switch to the tanks if the generator failed again.

“In every town right now, there are moments like this happening,” Guzman said. “That’s why you need people like us to just go. We cannot wait.”

(This version of the story corrects to fix pronoun in paragraph 4 and change “country” to “island” in paragraph 7)

(Reporting by Robin Respaut and Nick Brown; Editing by Sue Horton and Brian Thevenot)

Tropical Storm Nate kills 22 in Central America, heads for U.S.

Tropical Storm Nate kills 22 in Central America, heads for U.S.

By Enrique Andres Pretel

SAN JOSE (Reuters) – Tropical Storm Nate killed at least 22 people in Central America on Thursday as it pummeled the region with heavy rain while heading toward Mexico’s Caribbean resorts and the U.S. Gulf Coast, where it could strike as a hurricane this weekend.

In Nicaragua, at least 11 people died, seven others were reported missing and thousands had to evacuate homes because of flooding, said the country’s vice president Rosario Murillo.

Emergency officials in Costa Rica reported that at least eight people were killed due to the lashing rain, including two children. Another 17 people were missing, while more than 7,000 had to take refuge from Nate in shelters, authorities said.

Two youths also drowned in Honduras due to the sudden swell in a river, while a man was killed in a mud slide in El Salvador and another person was missing, emergency services said.

“Sometimes we think we think we can cross a river and the hardest thing to understand is that we must wait,” Nicaragua’s Murillo told state radio, warning people to avoid dangerous waters. “It’s better to be late than not to get there at all.”

Costa Rica’s government declared a state of emergency, closing schools and all other non-essential services.

Highways in the country were closed due to mudslides and power outages were also reported in parts of country, where authorities deployed more than 3,500 police.

The Miami-based National Hurricane Center (NHC) said Nate could produce as much as 15 inches (38 cm) in some areas of Nicaragua, where schools were also closed.

Nate is predicted to strengthen into a Category 1 hurricane by the time it hits the U.S. Gulf Coast on Sunday, NHC spokesman Dennis Feltgen said.

At about 11 p.m. EDT (0300 GMT) Nate was some 95 miles (153 km) east-southeast of the Honduran island of Guanaja, moving northwest at 12 mph (19 kph), the NHC said.

Blowing maximum sustained winds of 40 mph (64 kph), Nate was expected to move across eastern Honduras on Thursday and enter the northwestern Caribbean Sea through the night.

The storm will be near hurricane intensity when it approaches Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula late on Friday, where up to 8 inches (20 cm) of rain were possible, the NHC said.

Nate is expected to produce 6 to 10 inches (15 to 25 cm)of rain in southern Honduras, with up to 15 inches (38 cm) in some areas, the NHC said.

The NHC said a hurricane watch was issued from Morgan City, Louisiana, to the Mississippi-Alabama border, including metropolitan New Orleans, Lake Pontchartrain, and Lake Maurepas.

U.S. officials from Florida to Texas told residents on Thursday to prepare for the storm. A state of emergency was declared for 29 Florida counties and the city of New Orleans.

“The threat of the impact is increasing, so folks along the northern Gulf Coast should be paying attention to this thing,” the NHC’s Feltgen said.

In Mississippi, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to release as a precautionary measure 40 million gallons (151 million liters) of acidic water from storage ponds at a Pascagoula waste site.

The release to a drainage bayou is intended to prevent a greater spill during the storm, the EPA said, adding there are no anticipated impacts to the environment.

Major Gulf of Mexico offshore oil producers including Chevron <CVX.N>, BP plc <BP.L>, Exxon Mobil Corp <XOM.N>, Royal Dutch Shell Plc <RDSa.L> and Statoil <STL.OL> were shutting in production or withdrawing personnel from their offshore Gulf platforms, they said.

About 14.6 percent of U.S. Gulf of Mexico oil production and 6.4 percent of natural gas production was offline on Thursday, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said.

(Reporting by Enrique Andres Pretel in San Jose, Oswaldo Rivas in Managua, Elida Moreno in Panama City, Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, Nelson Renteria in San Salvador, Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City, Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City; Additional reporting by Nallur Sethuraman and Arpan Varghese in Bengaluru; Writing by David Alire Garcia and Bernie Woodall; Editing by Alistair Bell, Sandra Maler and Tom Hogue)