Between two storms: Caribbean braces for hurricanes in coronavirus era

By Sarah Marsh and Rodrigo Campos

HAVANA/NEW YORK (Reuters) – Ken Hutton is worried Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas where he lives is far from rebuilt after being devastated by Hurricane Dorian last year yet he is bracing for another hurricane season in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The business consultant feels lucky to have survived Dorian, which tore the hurricane shutters off his house and sucked out the windows.

Yet there is still no running water or power in his area – he relies on a generator and a well – and many of the organizations that had been helping to rebuild suspended work because of the pandemic.

“We are still in no position to be ready for another hurricane,” he told Reuters Tuesday. Already, the Caribbean has been hit by two tropical storms before the official start of the hurricane season on June 1, one of which started right over the Bahamas, Hutton added.

“There are lots of people walking around here now with post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said.

Hurricane Dorian caused $3.4 billion in damages – more than a quarter of the annual output of the Bahamas or the equivalent of the United States losing the combined outputs of California, Texas and Florida, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.

Across the Caribbean, island nations are now facing the double whammy of a hurricane season forecast to be more active than usual combined with a pandemic that has already drained public coffers and leveled tourism, one of its top earners.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last week forecast 13-19 named storms this year, following 18 named storms last year and 15 in 2018, both above the average of 12.

But the Caribbean has used up much of the fiscal buffers it would usually have readied to respond to hurricane season, Caribbean Development Bank President Warren Smith said.

Countries have tapped typical sources of external emergency financing, like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to respond to the coronavirus crisis, further limiting their funding options.

Meanwhile, new health protocols for hurricane season prep comes at an added cost. The Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) has revised guidelines to prevent the virus’ spread, including social distancing, personal protective equipment and hand cleaning facilities in shelters, said CDEMA head Elizabeth Riley.

“We can’t put as many people into a shelter (with social distancing), which means we must have many more shelters available,” St Lucia Prime Minister Allen Chastanet told Reuters.

ECONOMIC STORM

Caribbean nations have had to absorb the high costs of managing virus outbreaks even as they have lost revenue from the stop in tourism caused by border closures and lockdowns, while also being forced to provide a welfare safety net to more people.

The economic outlook does not look set to improve any time soon, with the Caribbean facing a regional contraction of 6.2 % according to the IMF.

“Small island states rely heavily on tourism and remittances. Both are now at a standstill,” United Nations head Antonio Guterres said on Thursday. “Households that had a secure income are at imminent risk of poverty and hunger.”

He added that alleviating “crushing” debt “must be extended to all developing and middle-income countries” that request forbearance as they lose access to their main financial markets.

But it is not all doom and gloom. In Cuba, a meme went viral on social media in recent weeks appearing to present a duel for television airtime between the country’s chief epidemiologist and its most renowned weatherman as they cover the two crises.

The weatherman, Jose Rubiera, told Reuters much of what happens will depend on each storm’s route.

“One single hurricane can be devastating whereas you can have many that don’t hit,” he said. “It’s all very relative, but the one rule of thumb is to always be well prepared.”

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh in Havana and Rodrigo Campos in New York; Additional Reporting by Sarah Peter in Castries, St Lucia, Nelson Acosta in Havana and Karin Strohecker in London; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Aurora Ellis)

U.S. adds social distancing to Atlantic hurricane season emergency response plan

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – With the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season fast approaching, U.S. officials on Thursday said they were readying more buses, hotel rooms and shelter space for social distancing to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus during potential evacuations.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said in a telephone briefing that it anticipated a higher-than-average number of storms during the U.S. storm season beginning on June 1. It urged states and cities to step up their preparations.

“COVID will make it a little more difficult,” FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor said, referring to the disease caused by the virus. “We’re asking local leaders to think about how they will manage evacuating and shelter. You’re going to need extra space.”

Last year, there were about 15 hurricane-related deaths in the United States, and at least 70 in the Bahamas, where Hurricane Dorian caused billions of dollars in damage.

COVID-19 has killed more than 73,000 people in the United States in the past two months.

In partnership with the American Red Cross, FEMA said it was preparing to house more evacuees in hotel rooms where families can stay, instead of packing them into shelters. They are also working to provide more buses to transport evacuees to avoid tight conditions.

An official estimate on the number of storms during the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, which runs through Nov. 30, is expected to be released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on May 21.

But several forecasters see a more active season than average, with 18 named tropical storms and eight hurricanes.

Last year there were 12 named storms of which, seven strengthened into hurricanes, including two major ones, according to the National Hurricane Center.

The most deadly storm was Dorian, which ravaged the Bahamas, killed scores and left whole communities obliterated.

Gaynor said FEMA had more money than ever going into the hurricane season, with $6 billion devoted to federal response to the pandemic that officials could on draw on, as well as $80 billion remaining in disaster relief funds.

Brad Kieserman, vice president for disaster operations and logistics at the American Red Cross, said his organization had reserved more than 20,000 overnight stays at thousands of hotels.

“I can’t reinforce enough: our goal collectively is to keep people safe,” he said.

FEMA is also working to provide more face masks and other protective gear to help states fight COVID-19, as many hospitals and other U.S. facilities struggle to maintain enough masks and protective gear.

FEMA is also working with states to maximize each state’s ability to test for the virus, Gaynor said, but each state must decide how many people get tested.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Tom Brown)

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)

Flooding in wake of storm Alberto kills four in Cuba

FILE PHOTO: A view of a partially flooded farm as Subtropical Storm Alberto passes by the west coast of Cuba, in Bahia Honda, Cuba, May 26, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

HAVANA (Reuters) – Flooding in central Cuba caused by torrential rainfall in the wake of the subtropical storm Alberto has killed four people and prompted the evacuation of tens of thousands, Cuban state-run media said late on Tuesday.

After rain dumped more than 4 inches (10 cm) of water in 24 hours, flood waters swept away a bridge and damaged roads and other infrastructure, leaving many communities cut off and nearly 60,000 people without electricity, the media reported.

Authorities had to close down part of the national highway after a nearby river burst it banks when they opened the floodgates of the Palmarito reservoir because it had exceeded its maximum capacity.

Interior Minister Julio Cesar Gandarilla said in a government meeting with provincial authorities headed by new President Miguel Diaz-Canel that four people had died in the flooding.

Seventy-seven year old Cuban Quintiliano Simó Ortega died when trying to cross a flooded river by horseback in Trinidad on the south central coast to get to his farm, the Cuban News Agency reported.

This is the second crisis Diaz-Canel has faced since being selected six weeks ago to replace Raul Castro as Cuba’s president. The floods come 11 days after a plane crashed shortly after takeoff from Havana, killing 112.

On each occasion, he has appeared publicly at the forefront of the crisis management, striking a contrast that many Cubans have welcomed to Castro who operated behind the scenes.

Diaz-Canel was cited by state media as saying that authorities should focus on re-establishing basic services such as electricity and transportation when the weather started to improve.

Alberto, the first storm of the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season, which only officially starts on June 1, already weakened into a subtropical depression on Tuesday after making landfall in the south of the United States, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC).

U.S. forecasters said last week they expected the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season to be near-normal to above-normal in number and intensity of storms.

Last year, Hurricane Irma killed at least 10 people during a devastating three-day rampage along the length of Cuba.

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Sam Holmes)

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)