Cyclone Kompasu strikes Philippines, kills 9

MANILA (Reuters) – Nine people have been killed in the Philippines and 11 were missing on Tuesday due to floods and landslides caused by heavy rain from tropical cyclone Kompasu, the national disaster agency said.

Kompasu, with maximum sustained winds of 100 kilometers (62 miles) per hour, had absorbed remnants of an earlier cyclone before making landfall in the Philippines on Monday evening. Nearly 1,600 people were evacuated.

The disaster agency said it was verifying information from its regional units that reported four people killed in landslides in northern Benguet province and five killed in flash floods in Palawan, an island province in the country’s southwest.

Authorities were conducting search and rescue operations for 11 people missing mostly after landslides.

The Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,600 islands is hit by about 20 storms or typhoons annually, bringing heavy rains that trigger deadly landslides.

President Rodrigo Duterte was monitoring the government’s disaster response, his spokesperson, Harry Roque said on Tuesday.

Rescue personnel were at the scene, while power and water restoration and road clearing was ongoing, he added.

Kompasu, the 13th tropical storm to enter the Philippines, is expected to leave its territory on Tuesday, the state weather agency said.

(Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Martin Petty)

Colombia’s cemeteries may hold answers for families of disappeared

By Julia Symmes Cobb

LA DORADA, Colombia (Reuters) – When her 17-year-old son Jose Andres was kidnapped by paramilitaries at the height of Colombia’s civil conflict, Gloria Ines Urueña vowed she would not leave the sweltering riverside town of La Dorada until she found him.

She has been true to her word for more than two decades – searching for her son’s body despite threats from the group that killed him.

An estimated 120,000 people have gone missing during Colombia’s nearly 60 years of conflict. A 2016 peace deal between the government and the Marxist FARC rebels brought some respite, but another left-wing insurgency and armed criminal gangs – many descended from right-wing paramilitaries – persist.

Now a national plan to identify victims buried anonymously in cemeteries has renewed the hope Urueña and thousands like her hold of finding their loved ones’ remains.

The Search Unit for Disappeared People, founded under the 2016 deal to fulfill one of its key promises, is investigating cemeteries across Colombia, hoping to untangle years of chaotic record-keeping and neglect, identify remains, and return them to families.

“Back then, I spent a month looking near the river, near the dump, farms, all that, and I was alone,” said Urueña, as a forensic team examined human remains at La Dorada’s cemetery.

“I’ve always said I don’t just want to find my son: I want to find all of the disappeared.”

Many of Colombia’s disappeared were killed by leftist rebels, right-wing paramilitaries or the military. Others were kidnapped, forcibly recruited, or willingly joined armed groups.

Most are likely dead, buried in clandestine graves high in the windswept Andes or deep in thick jungle, dumped in rivers or ravines.

But some ended up in graveyards. Found by the roadside or pulled from waterways, remains were buried anonymously by locals risking the wrath of armed groups, their graves marked with NN for ‘no name’.

The strategy may be unique: the recovery of potentially tens of thousands of bodies from cemeteries has likely not been tried before, especially during an ongoing conflict.

Some remains have been moved or mixed together, exhumed multiple times during efforts to identify them or saved in trash bags in storage rooms.

Some remains have been assigned multiple case numbers, while others were buried in cemeteries but never autopsied and so have no case number at all.

Other remains have case numbers, but cannot be located.

“It’s not just a recovery of bodies, but also of information,” said unit head Luz Marina Monzon. “It’s a jigsaw puzzle.”

PIECING IT TOGETHER

The unit has no estimate of how many disappeared people may be in Colombia’s cemeteries. Many graveyards have had no consistent management or resources, or are run by religious organizations with their own records and rules.

DNA from nearly 5,200 unidentified bodies is stored in a database at the government’s National Institute of Legal Medicine, along with nearly 44,400 samples from families of the disappeared to cross-check genetic material with newly-discovered remains.

The institute also holds a separate database of reports of missing people. So far, the unit has uncovered some 15,000 reports of disappeared persons that were not previously in it.

Threats to families and ex-combatants providing information to the unit can stymie its work, Monzon said.

“The persistence of the armed conflict is a huge challenge to accessing information, to accessing locations and to guaranteeing the participation of victims in the search,” Monzon said.

This scale of cemetery exhumations is unusual, largely because many people disappeared in countries like Argentina, Chile, Bosnia, Guatemala and Kosovo were buried in clandestine graves. Scattered graveyard exhumations have been conducted in some places.

But Colombia’s effort may hold particular lessons for Mexico, which is facing perhaps the world’s most active disappearance crisis and where the unidentified are sometimes buried in cemeteries but rarely exhumed.

“Mexico needs to start looking at what the Colombians are doing,” said Dr. Arely Cruz-Santiago of the University of Exeter, who researches citizen forensics in Mexico and Colombia. “Especially because they are very similar countries in the sense of the scale more or less of the conflict.”

BONES IN BAGS

Beads of sweat bloomed at the temples of forensic anthropologist Carlos Ariza as he cradled a cranium in one hand, using his finger to indicate the bullet’s likely trajectory.

This skull belonged to a man, about 40. Later during the examination in a stifling tent in La Dorada’s cemetery, Ariza discovered a second bullet hole in the cranium, hidden under caked mud.

“NN Mar. 17 2003,” read the label on the plastic trash bag which had held the remains in a dark storage room.

Over a few days, forensic staff opened the bags, delicately removing each bone, fragment of fabric or tuft of hair. They packed 27 sets of remains off to a regional lab for DNA testing.

La Dorada lies in the southernmost point of the Magdalena Medio region east of Medellin, once a hotbed of violence where hundreds of thousands of people were murdered, disappeared, raped and displaced.

Paramilitary groups were frequent perpetrators. They demobilized between 2003 and 2006 under a peace deal, though many members later formed crime gangs.

HOW MUCH LONGER?

About a month after Urueña’s son was taken in 2001, two men showed up at her house in La Dorada on a motorcycle and told her to stop looking.

“‘He was my son and I will not move from this house until I know what’s become of him. And if your boss wants to kill me that’s my answer’,” she said she responded. “I told him ‘do it now if you want and that way you’ll end my suffering too.'”

Jose used to bring his mother flowers on his way home. When his sister became pregnant as a teenager, he helped support the baby.

“If he were here it would be different, as much for the family as for me, because the family fell apart,” Urueña said.

Her older son fled town in the face of paramilitary threats, not returning for 11 years. Her older daughter left to find work, leaving Urueña to raise her grandchildren.

Her granddaughter, now 18, has promised Urueña she will continue the search for Jose even after Urueña’s death.

“We ask how much longer we have to wait,” Urueña said. “Even though the years pass, I am still full of hope.”

“And though you don’t want to cry, the tears come.”

(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb, additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City, Nicolas Misculin in Buenos Aires, Gabriela Donoso in Santiago, Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City and Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Tennessee flooding was more destructive than first estimated

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) -The weekend flooding in Tennessee that killed at least 21 people was more destructive than originally estimated, with about 120 homes washed off foundations, destroyed or simply “gone,” officials said Tuesday.

The scope of the damage came into sharper focus in hardest hit Humphreys County, as rescue teams continue to search house-to-house with trained dogs for dozens believed still missing.

“Our damage is much more massive than what we thought,” Humphreys County Sheriff Chris Davis told NPR in an interview Tuesday.

It was already believed that hundreds of homes were water-damaged and uninhabitable, officials said after the storm brought 17 inches of rain in just three hours.

Davis and other officials surveyed the damage from a helicopter late Monday, focusing largely on the hardest hit town of Waverly, about 55 miles west of Nashville.

“Yesterday we thought it was 20-something houses that had been removed from the foundations,” Davis said. “That’s not even close. Well over 100 – 120 houses have been moved, or are gone, no longer exist.”

Displaced residents found shelter with relatives, local churches and with housing provided by the American Red Cross, the sheriff said.

Officials who had been seeking federal aid were granted it late Monday as President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in the state of Tennessee and ordered federal aid, the White House said in a statement.

Local officials said that those killed in the flooding ranged in age from babies to the elderly. The Washington Post, citing family members, reported that 7-month-old twins died after they were swept away from their parents’ arms.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Bhargav Acharya in Bengaluru; Editing by Kim Coghill and Chizu Nomiyama)

At least 21 dead, 50 missing in Tennessee flooding

(Reuters) – At least 21 people have died and 50 others are reported missing after heavy flooding hit parts of Tennessee, authorities said on Sunday.

A dispatcher at the Humphreys County Sheriff’s Office confirmed the number of those killed and missing and said authorities were working to conduct house-to-house searches of the area.

Record rainfall of up to 17 inches (43 cm) in some areas sparked massive flooding on Saturday afternoon and evening. Especially hard hit was the town of Waverly, about 55 miles (88 km) west of Nashville. Hundreds of homes were left uninhabitable.

Waverly Mayor Wallace Frazier told the Tennessean newspaper that those killed in flooding ranged in age from babies to the elderly. The Washington Post, citing family members, reported that 7-month-old twins died after they were swept away from their parents’ arms.

The flooding uprooted massive trees, tore through homes and tossed cars and pickup trucks into ditches and atop sheds and other structures.

Cindy Dunn, 48, told the Tennessean that she and her husband had been stranded in their attic for several hours after floodwaters rose to 6 feet (1.8 m) high in their home. The pair were saved by a rescue crew that raised the bucket of a bulldozer up to a window they could get through.

“Hell. That’s what we had to go through,” Dunn told the newspaper.

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas; Editing by Peter Cooney)

FBI probe shows amount of chemicals in Beirut blast was a fraction of original shipment

(Reuters) – The amount of ammonium nitrate that blew up at Beirut port last year was one fifth of the shipment unloaded there in 2013, the FBI concluded after the blast, adding to suspicions that much of the cargo had gone missing.

As the first anniversary approaches on Aug. 4, major questions remain unanswered, including how a huge quantity of ammonium nitrate – which can be used to make fertilizer or bombs – was left unsafely stored in a capital city for years.

The blast was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded, killing more than 200 people, wounding thousands, and devastating swathes of Beirut.

The FBI’s Oct. 7, 2020 report, which was seen by Reuters this week, estimates around 552 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded that day, much less than the 2,754 tonnes that arrived on a Russian-leased cargo ship in 2013.

The FBI report does not give any explanation as to how the discrepancy arose, or where the rest of the shipment may have gone.

In response to a detailed request for comment, an FBI spokesperson referred Reuters to the Lebanese authorities.

FBI investigators came to Beirut after the blast at Lebanon’s request.

A senior Lebanese official who was aware of the FBI report and its findings said the Lebanese authorities agreed with the Bureau on the quantity that exploded.

Many officials in Lebanon have previously said in private they believe a lot of the shipment was stolen.

The ammonium nitrate was going from Georgia to Mozambique on a Russian-leased cargo ship when the captain says he was instructed to make an unscheduled stop in Beirut and take on extra cargo.

The ship arrived in Beirut in November 2013 but never left, becoming tangled in a legal dispute over unpaid port fees and ship defects. No one ever came forward to claim the shipment.

The senior Lebanese official said there were no firm conclusions as to why the quantity that exploded was less than the original shipment. One theory was that part of it was stolen. A second theory was that only part of the shipment detonated, with the rest blown out to sea, the official said.

The FBI report said “an approximate amount reaching around 552 metric tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded in warehouse 12.”

It noted the warehouse was large enough to house the 2,754 tonne shipment, which was stored in one-tonne bags, but added “it is not logical that all of them were present at the time of the explosion.”

(Editing by William Maclean)

Blast in German industrial park kills one, four others missing

BERLIN (Reuters) -An explosion in a German industrial park on Tuesday killed at least one person and injured 31 others, setting off a fierce blaze that sent a pall of smoke over the western city of Leverkusen. Four people were still missing.

Emergency services took three hours to extinguish the fire at the Chempark site, home to chemicals companies Bayer and Lanxess, that flared up after the blast at 9:40 a.m. (0740 GMT), park operator Currenta said.

“We are deeply shaken by the tragic death of one colleague,” said Chempark chief Lars Friedrich, adding that a search was underway for the four missing people.

Police said five of the 31 injured people were affected seriously enough to need intensive care.

“This is a tragic moment for the city of Leverkusen,” said Uwe Richrath, mayor of the city, which lies north of Cologne.

The area and surrounding roads were sealed off for much of the day.

Police told residents living nearby to stay indoors and shut doors and windows in case there were toxic fumes. Currenta said locals should also turn off air conditioning systems while it measured the air around the site for possible toxic gases.

Chempark’s Friedrich said it was not clear what had caused the explosion, which led to a fire starting in a tank containing solvents.

“Solvents were burned during the incident, and we do not know precisely what substances were released,” Friedrich added. “We are examining this with authorities, taking samples.”

Sirens and emergency alerts on the German civil protection agency’s mobile phone app warned citizens of “extreme danger.”

Leverkusen is less than 50 km (30 miles) from a region hit last week by catastrophic floods that killed at least 180 people.

More than 30 companies operate at the Chempark site in Leverkusen, including Covestro, Bayer, Lanxess and Arlanxeo, according to its website.

Bayer and Lanxess in 2019 sold Chempark operator Currenta to Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets for an enterprise value of 3.5 billion euros ($4.12 billion).

($1 = 0.8492 euros)

(Reporting by Maria Sheahan, Madeline Chambers, Caroline Copley; Editing by William Maclean, Edmund Blair and Gareth Jones)

Torrential rains kill over 160 in India, dozens trapped in landslides

By Rajendra Jadhav

MUMBAI (Reuters) – Rescue teams in India were digging through thick sludge and debris on Monday to find over 60 people trapped in landslides caused by torrential monsoon rains that have so far claimed more than 160 lives four days.

The western states of Maharashtra and Goa, as well as Karnataka and Telangana in the south are the most affected by heavy rains that have flooded croplands over thousands of hectares and forced authorities to move over 230,000 people to safer places.

In Maharashtra, 149 people have died mainly in landslides and other monsoon related accidents, while another 64 are still missing, the state government said in a statement.

“We are trying hard to rescue people trapped under landslide debris in Raigad and Satara but the possibility of evacuating them alive is remote. They are trapped under mud for more than three days,” said a senior official with the state government, referring to two badly affected districts.

Rescuers couldn’t reach affected villages quickly because approach roads were cut off by overflowing rivers and landslides, officials said.

In Karnataka and Telangana, more than a dozen people died because of floods but waters in the main Krishna and Godavari rivers are receding, authorities said.

In Goa, a hugely popular tourist destination on the western coast, hundreds of houses were damaged as the state recorded the worst floods in nearly four decades, the state’s chief minister Pramod Sawant said.

Rains are easing on the west coast and that will help in rescue operations, said a Pune-based senior scientist with the India Meteorological Department.

“This week also, the west coast will receive rainfall, but the intensity would be much lower compared to the last week,” he said.

Last week, parts of India’s west coast received up to 594 mm (23 inches) of rainfall over 24 hours, forcing authorities to evacuate people from vulnerable areas as they released water from dams that were threatening to overflow.

(Reporting by Rajendra Jadhav; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Germany counts cost of floods as hopes of finding survivors fade

By Kirsti Knolle and Riham Alkousaa

BERLIN (Reuters) – A relief official dampened hopes on Wednesday of finding more survivors in the rubble of villages devastated by floods in western Germany, as a poll showed many Germans felt policymakers had not done enough to protect them.

More than 170 people died in last week’s flooding, Germany’s worst natural disaster in more than half a century, and thousands went missing.

“We are still looking for missing persons as we clear roads and pump water out of basements,” Sabine Lackner, deputy chief of the Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW), told Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland.

Any victims found now are likely to be dead, she said.

One woman in Insul, in the rural Eifel region, said people had emerged from their houses like ghosts last week to see whether their neighbors were alive. In the Ahrweiler district, of which Insul is part, 123 people died.

For immediate relief, the federal government will initially provide up to 200 million euros ($235.5 million) in emergency aid, and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz said more funds can be made available if needed.

That will come on top of at least 250 million euros provided by the affected states to repair buildings and damaged local infrastructure and to help people in crisis situations.

Scholz said the government would contribute to the cost of rebuilding infrastructure such as roads and bridges. The full extent of the damage is not clear, but Scholz said that rebuilding after previous floods cost about 6 billion euros.

PUBLIC CRITICISM

The floods have dominated the political agenda before a national election in September and raised uncomfortable questions about why Europe’s richest economy was caught flat-footed.

Two-thirds of Germans believe that federal and regional policymakers should have done more to protect communities from flooding, a survey by the INSA institute for German mass-circulation paper Bild showed on Wednesday.

Interior minister Horst Seehofer, who faced calls from opposition politicians to resign over the high death toll, said there would be no shortage of money for reconstruction.

“That is why people pay taxes, so that they can receive help in situations like this. Not everything can be insured,” he told a news conference.

Insured losses from the floods may total 4 billion to 5 billion euros ($4.7-5.9 billion), said the GDV insurance industry association. Damage in the states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate is likely to exceed the 4.65 billion euros recorded after a deluge in August 2002, it said.

The estimate does not include losses from the southern German state of Bavaria and in Saxony in the east last weekend.

Only around 45% of homeowners in Germany have insurance that covers flood damage, according to the GDV, triggering a discussion about the need for compulsory insurance.

“As the time interval between heavy natural disasters gets shorter and shorter, one needs a debate about a protection scheme and how it could be designed,” Seehofer said.

Economy Minister Peter Altmaier told Deutschlandfunk radio aid would include funds to help businesses such as restaurants or hair salons make up for lost revenue.

($1 = 0.8490 euros)

(Writing by Maria Sheahan, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Some 170 still missing around Koblenz, victim numbers set to rise – police

BERLIN (Reuters) – Some 170 people are still listed as missing the area of western Germany hardest hit by deadly flooding, Koblenz deputy police chief Juergen Sues said on Monday, adding the number of victims would surely rise.

Criminal police chief Stefan Heinz added that he expected many bodies were in places the police had not yet reached or where flood waters had still not receded from.

“The focus of our work is on giving certainty as soon as possible,” Heinz told a news conference. “And that includes identifying the victims.”

(Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Douglas Busvine)

Floodwaters still rising in western Europe with death toll over 120

By Martin Schlicht and David Sahl

SCHULD/ERFTSTADT, Germany (Reuters) – German officials feared more deaths on Friday after “catastrophic” floods swept through western regions, demolishing streets and houses, killing more than 100 people and leaving hundreds more missing and homeless.

Communications were cut in many areas and entire communities lay in ruins after swollen rivers tore through towns and villages in the western states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate as well as parts of Belgium and the Netherlands.

After days of heavy rain, 103 people have died in Germany alone, the largest number killed in a natural disaster in the country in almost 60 years. They included 12 residents of a home for disabled people surprised by the floods during the night.

In Belgium, which has declared a day of mourning on Tuesday, officials said there were at least 20 dead and another 20 missing.

The flooding was a “catastrophe of historic dimensions,” said Armin Laschet, state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia and the ruling CDU party’s candidate to replace Chancellor Angela Merkel when she steps down after an election in September.

The devastation of the floods, attributed by meteorologists to a climate-change driven shift in the jet stream that has brought inland water that once stayed at sea, could shake up an election that has until now seen little discussion of climate.

“It is a sad certainty that such extreme events will determine our day-to-day life more and more frequently in the future,” Laschet said, adding that more measures were needed to fight global warming.

Proposals by the Greens, running a distant second in polls to Merkel’s conservatives, to introduce motorway speed limits to cut carbon emissions had previously drawn outrage.

Days after the European Commission unveiled plans to make Europe the “first climate-neutral continent, Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said the scale and intensity of the flooding was a clear indication of climate change and demonstrated the urgent need to act.

CONCERN OVER DAMS

Achim Hueck, a fish farmer in the town of Schuld, said he had only just managed to escape. “It was rising really fast, it started from the path back here,” he said, pointing to the wreckage of his business.

“There was a path, there were ponds, lots of them up there. Fishing hut, toilet facilities, everything is gone,” he said.

As officials assessed the damage, the devastation appeared to have exceeded that caused by disastrous flooding in eastern Germany almost 20 years ago.

Some 114,000 households in Germany were without power on Friday and mobile phone networks had collapsed in some flooded regions, making it hard for authorities to keep track of the number of missing.

Roads in many affected areas were impassable after being washed away by the floods. Rescue crews tried to reach residents by boat or helicopter and had to communicate via walkie-talkie.

“The network has completely collapsed. The infrastructure has collapsed. Hospitals can’t take anyone in. Nursing homes had to be evacuated,” a spokeswoman for the regional government of Cologne said.

Authorities worried that further dams could overflow, spilling uncontrolled floods into communities below, and were trying to ease pressure by releasing more water.

Some 4,500 people were evacuated downstream from the Steinbachtal dam in western Germany, which had been at risk of a breach overnight, and a stretch of motorway was closed.

REINFORCING DIKES

Thousands of residents in the north of Limburg province in neighboring Netherlands were ordered to leave their homes early Friday as floodwaters peaked.

Emergency services were on high alert, and authorities were also reinforcing dikes along vulnerable stretches where floodwaters continue to rise.

Waters were receding in the southern city of Maastricht, where there was no flooding and in the town of Valkenburg, where damage was widespread, but no one was hurt.

France sent 40 military personnel and a helicopter to Liege in Belgium to help with the flood situation, Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Twitter.

“The waters are rising more and more. It’s scary,” Thierry Bourgeois, 52, said in the Belgian town of Liege. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

In the town of Maaseik, on the Dutch border, the Meuse had risen beyond a retaining wall and was spilling past sandbags placed on top.

Several towns and villages were already submerged, including Pepinster near Liege, where around 10 houses partially or fully collapsed.

The death toll in Germany is the highest of any natural catastrophe since a deadly North Sea flood in 1962 that killed around 340 people.

Floods at the Elbe river in 2002, which at the time were billed by media “once-in-a-century floods”, killed 21 people in eastern Germany and more than 100 across the wider central European region.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told magazine Spiegel the federal government aimed to provide financial support for the affected regions as quickly as possible, adding a package of measures should go to the cabinet for approval on Wednesday.

(Additional reporting by Riham Alkousaa, Kirsti Knolle, Douglas Busvine, Anneli Palmen, Matthias Inverardi, Tom Sims, Thomas Escritt, Anthony Deutsch, Phil Blenkinsop; Writing by Maria Sheahan; editing by Philippa Fletcher and Alex Richardson)