‘Four’easter’ pounds U.S. East as Californians wary of mudslides

A woman holds an umbrella as she walks toward the Washington Monument during a snowstorm in Washington, U.S., March 21, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Daniel Trotta

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.S. East’s fourth major snowstorm this month brought heavy snow on Wednesday, snarling flights and commuter travel, closing schools and triggering emergency declarations in several states.

The storm will have passed over the Northeast by dawn Thursday. By then, it will have dumped 8 inches of snow on Philadelphia, 12 inches on New York City, and 17 inches over northern Maryland and southern Pennsylvania, said Weather Prediction Center meteorologist Marc Chenard.

The storm faded as it reached New England, which received less snow than had been forecast, Chenard said.

The wintry blast on the second day of spring was dubbed “four’easter” by some media outlets because it struck after three previous storms this month. Those nor’easters left nine dead and more than 2 million homes and businesses without power.

While he offered no guarantees, Chenard told Reuters: “At this point, I would say there is a good chance this is the last” Northeast snowstorm for March.

New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo declared local emergencies for New York City and five nearby counties.

Schools in the largest U.S. school district in New York City will reopen on Thursday after being shut on Wednesday, city officials said.

“Don’t go out unless you absolutely have to go out,” New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said on Twitter on Wednesday. Murphy on Tuesday declared a state of emergency as crews cleared roadways and transit bus service was suspended statewide.

Murphy said at least one death was caused by the storm in a traffic crash, NJ.com reported, and the New York Daily News reported that a woman was killed on Long Island in another traffic accident.

Delaware Governor John Carney also declared a state of emergency for Wednesday.

Throughout the East Coast, many other buses and trains, including some Greyhound bus and Amtrak rail routes, that millions of people rely on to commute to and from work and school also canceled service on Wednesday.

With many commuters staying home, New York City’s normally bustling Times Square was sedate.

“We’re not going to let the snow get in the way of our snow day,” said Cheryl Mandelbaum, 30, an elementary school teacher who was taking pictures with a friend, another teacher who had the day off.

Several inches of snowfall in Washington and its suburbs forced the closure of federal government offices, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. The office also said federal agencies told workers to arrive two hours later than usual on Thursday, work remotely or take the day off.

Washington schools were also closed, and children in Philadelphia, parts of New Jersey and Pittsburgh also enjoyed a snow day. In Boston, students were told to trudge to school.

The National Weather Service said that farther inland, snow also blanketed parts of Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky.

Airlines scrapped 4,444 flights within, into and out of the United States, according to flight tracking website FlightAware, and 3,206 U.S. flights were delayed.

As the storm ends for the Northeast on Thursday morning, parts of coastal California will be poised for possible mudslides.

About 25,000 people were under mandatory evacuation orders in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, Santa Barbara officials said on Wednesday night. The evacuations are called mainly in hillside areas burned by winter wildfires and where in January 21 people were killed in mudslides.

No one had been hurt by Wednesday night, said Kelly Hoover of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, who added that heavy rains were expected from 5 to 11 a.m. on Thursday.

(Additional reporting by Alana Wise and Scott DiSavino in New York, Bernadette Baum in Montclair, New Jersey, Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago, Keith Coffman in Denver, Eric Walsh in Washington and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Additional reporting and writing by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Himani Sarkar)

Major highway reopened as California mudslides toll climbs to 21

Workers on the 101 Highway clear mud and debris from the roadway after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. January 12, 2018.

By Chris Kenning

(Reuters) – California’s iconic Highway 101 in Santa Barbara reopened on Sunday nearly two weeks after it was covered with 12 feet (3.7 meters) of debris from mudslides, and a day after the discovery of a missing woman’s body pushed the death toll to 21.

Torrential rains triggered the Jan. 9 mudslides, which injured dozens more people and destroyed or damaged hundreds of buildings around the affluent community of Montecito, 85 miles (137 km) northwest of Los Angeles.

The reopening of the busy north-south coastal highway followed what the state transportation agency Caltrans called a “Herculean effort,” and was expected to ease hours-long detours and traffic chaos that bedeviled commuters.

Cleanup crews had been working around the clock in 12-hour shifts, officials said, while ferry boats had been making commuter runs twice a day between Santa Barbara and Ventura to help residents trying to get to work.

Search and rescue teams continued working with dogs on Sunday in Montecito to look for a two-year-old and a 17-year-old who are still missing, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office said on Twitter.

On Saturday the teams found the body of missing 28-year-old Faviola Benitez Calderon, of Montecito. She belonged to a family that lost several members in the disaster.

“The Sheriff’s Office wants to express our deepest condolences to the Benitez family, who were already mourning the loss of Faviola’s 10-year-old son, Jonathan Benitez and his cousin 3-year-old Kailly Benitez, as well as Kailly’s mother, 27-year-old Marilyn Ramos,” the office said in a statement.

The discovery of Calderon’s body brought the number of fatalities to 21. The toll had already marked the greatest loss of life from a California mudslide in at least 13 years.

(Reporting by Chris Kenning in Chicago; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

Search for survivors of devastating California mudslide enters third day

Damaged properties are seen after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. January 11, 2018.

By Alex Dobuzinskis

MONTECITO, Calif. (Reuters) – The search for survivors from a devastating Southern California mudslide that has killed at least 17 people moved into its third day on Friday, with some 700 rescue workers expecting to find more dead victims.

Triggered by heavy rains, the massive slide struck before dawn on Tuesday, when a wall of mud and debris cascaded down hillsides that were denuded last month by wildfires, including the Thomas Fire, the largest blaze in the state’s history.

“Realistically we suspect we are going to have the discovery of more people killed in this incident,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said at a Thursday news briefing, adding that he was hoping to find “miracle” survivors.

Brown said 43 people remain missing, although some may just be out of communication.

In one of the hardest hit areas, the affluent seaside community of Montecito, the devastation wrought by the slide and the gruesome undertaking faced by emergency crews was evident.

Neighborhoods were littered with uprooted trees and downed power lines, and front yards in homes filled with mud were strewn with boulders.

Elsewhere, cars carried away by the flow were perched on mounds of earth and mangled garage doors crushed by the mud rested at odd angles.

The cause of death for all 17 victims who perished will be listed as multiple traumatic injuries due to flash flood with mudslides, the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s office said in a statement on Thursday.

The dead victims range in age from three to 89.

Josephine Gower, 69, died when she opened the door to her home, her son, Hayden Gower, told NBC station KSBY. Her daughter-in-law Sarah Gower confirmed Gower’s death in a Facebook post. Her body was found that night, near a highway hit by the slide.

“I told her to stay on the second floor, but she went downstairs and opened the door and just got swept away,” Hayden Gower said. “I should have just told her to leave. You just don’t even think that this is possible.”

The sheriff’s office also expanded the evacuation zone in the Montecito area on Thursday, as traffic on the already-clogged roads is hindering efforts by rescue and repair crews to access the devastation.

Rescue workers in helicopters and high-wheeled military vehicles, some with search dogs, were deployed in the hunt for the missing in a disaster zone littered with the remnants of hundreds of damaged or destroyed homes.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) granted a request on Thursday by Governor Jerry Brown for expanded financial aid that was first allocated for the Thomas Fire, the governor’s office said in a statement.

“This declaration ensures that federal funds are available for emergency response and eligible disaster recovery costs,” the governor’s statement said.

(Additional reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver, Chris Kenning in Chicago, Gina Cherelus and Peter Szekely in New York and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Catherine Evans)

California mudslide death toll up to 15 as rescues continue

Emergency personnel carry a woman rescued from a collapsed house after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. January 9, 2018.

By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – California rescuers worked through the night plucking stranded Santa Barbara residents from mudslides that have killed at least 15 people and devastated the coastal community after it was drenched by rain, authorities said on Wednesday.

The death toll could go higher still as rescuers continued searching for victims, mostly in the upscale enclave of Montecito – where mudslides slammed into homes, covered highways and swept away vehicles – officials warned.

“We don’t know how many additional people are still trapped,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said on the “CBS This Morning” program. “We know there are some, and we’re still making our way into certain areas of Montecito and the adjacent areas to determine if anyone is still there and still alive.”

An aerial view from a Ventura County Sheriff helicopter shows a site damaged by mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. January 9, 2018.

FILE PHOTO: An aerial view from a Ventura County Sheriff helicopter shows a site damaged by mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. January 9, 2018. Ventura County Sheriff’s Office/via REUTERS

The mudslides followed an ordeal of fire and water for the area northwest of Los Angeles. A torrential downpour on Tuesday soaked the area, which was left vulnerable after much of its vegetation burned in the state’s largest wildfire last month.

Forecasters were calling for clear skies on Wednesday.

Emergency workers began their task on Tuesday using search dogs and helicopters to rescue dozens of people stranded in mud-coated rubble in the normally pristine area, sandwiched between the ocean and the sprawling Los Padres National Forest.

A 14-year-old girl was found alive on Tuesday after firefighters using rescue dogs heard cries for help from what was left of her Montecito home, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“I thought I was dead there for a minute,” the teenager Lauren Cantin, covered in mud, told NBC News after workers spent six hours rescuing her.

Rescuers worked through the night, searching for victims amid the dozens of homes that were destroyed, and using helicopters to lift more than 50 stranded residents from the mud.

“We’re finding people continuously,” said Yaneris Muniz, spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Joint Information Center. “We had a helicopter and several crews out all night, and now that it’s day, we’ll be able to intensify those searches.”

Officials have ordered residents in a large swath of Montecito to stay in their homes so that rescuers can better go about their work.

About 300 people were stranded in a canyon. Local rescue crews, using borrowed helicopters from the U.S. Coast Guard, worked to airlift them out, officials said.

Emergency personnel evacuate local residents and their dogs through flooded waters after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. January 9, 2018. Kenneth Song/Santa Barbara

Emergency personnel evacuate local residents and their dogs through flooded waters after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. January 9, 2018. Kenneth Song/Santa Barbara News-Press via REUTERS

The county initially ordered 7,000 residents to evacuate and urged another 23,000 to do so voluntarily, but only 10 to 15 percent complied with mandatory orders, said Amber Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

The county set up an evacuation shelter at Santa Barbara City College, where some people showed up drenched in mud, and also provided a place for people to take their animals.

The number of fatalities surpassed the death toll from a California mudslide on Jan. 10, 2005, when 10 people were killed as a hillside gave way in the town of La Conchita, less than 20 miles south of the latest disaster.

Last month’s wildfires, the largest in California history, left the area vulnerable to mudslides. The fires burned away grass and shrubs that hold the soil in place and also baked a waxy layer into the earth that prevents water from sinking deeply into the ground.

Some local residents had to flee their homes due to the fires last month and again this week because of the rains.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Jonathan Oatis)

Thousands in California flee homes ahead of possible mudslides

California wildfire fight aided by better weather

(Reuters) – Thousands of Southern Californians fled their homes on Monday as a powerful rain storm that could cause flash floods and trigger mudslides soaked steep slopes where a series of intense wildfires burned off vegetation last month.

Heavy downpours that could produce more than 1 inch (2.5 cm) of rain per hour were expected through Tuesday evening, forcing officials to order or advise Ventura, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles county residents who live near where wildfires burned to evacuated their homes.

“Recent burn areas will be especially vulnerable where dangerous mud and debris flows are possible,” the National Weather Service said in a statement.

Several December wildfires, included a blaze known as the Thomas Fire which was the largest in the state’s history, burned away vegetation that holds the soil in place and baked a waxy layer into the earth that prevents water from sinking deeply into the ground.

About 30,000 residents were under evacuation orders or advisories on Monday, ABC news reported.

“I’m just tired. I can’t seem to get my life kick-started,” Teri Lebow, whose Montecito, California was damaged by the wildfires, told the Los Angeles Times.

The storm system was expected to produce 4 inches to 7 inches (10 to 18 cm) in the foothills and mountains with 9 inches (23 cm) in isolated areas. Three inches (7 cm) to two feet (61 cm) of snow was also forecast for higher elevations, the National Weather Service said.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

After fires, Southern California faces risk of mudslides

After fires, Southern California faces risk of mudslides

By Ben Gruber and Alex Dobuzinskis

CARPINTERIA, Calif./LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Firefighters in Southern California are slowly gaining control of one of the largest wildfires in state history, but residents may not enjoy much relief as experts said the flames are laying the groundwork for the next disaster – mudslides.

The intense fire is burning away vegetation that holds the soil in place and baking a waxy layer into the earth that prevents the water from sinking more than a few inches into the ground, experts said.

With one heavy rain, the soil above this waterproof layer can become saturated, start to slide in hilly areas and transform into something catastrophic.

“Pretty much anywhere there’s a fire on a steep slope, there’s cause for concern,” Jason Kean, research hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, said in a telephone interview.

And the Thomas Fire, which has burned 234,000 acres and destroyed nearly 700 homes in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, is definitely in landslide country.

“If we get hard rain, there are going to be terrible landslides in the burn areas,” Carla D’Antonio, chairman of University of California, Santa Barbara’s environmental studies program, said in an email.

“It doesn’t take a lot of rain to get the soil and rock moving, so to have burned soil on top of this and no significant plant cover creates huge potential for landslides,” she added.

Among the cities at risk is Santa Barbara, with 92,000 people, as well as the smaller communities of Carpinteria, Ojai and Summerland.

“It’s terrifying,” Jamey Geston, 19, of Carpinteria, said of possible mudslides. “I am just taking it one natural disaster at a time at this point and try to get through it.”

Once the fire is out, more work will begin as officials will likely need to rush to build retention basins and other structures to prevent debris flows before the rainy season begins, said Professor Nicholas Pinter of University of California, Davis’ Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

“This is exactly the thing we worry about in the winter following an event like the Thomas Fire,” he said by telephone.

Another large concern is the potential damage to water quality, Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider said in a telephone interview.

Heavy rainfall could bring lots of silt to waterways like Lake Cachuma, where barriers are already being erected, as well as unwanted matter, she said. In 2007, after the massive Zaca Fire, Santa Barbara spent more than $1 million on extra cleaning and filtration systems.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state could defray some costs with grants, but the best outcome would be “a nice, calm, intermittent rain,” Schneider said.

“We don’t see any rain in the immediate forecast, which is a curse and a blessing,” she said. “We could use the water to fight the fire, but we don’t want some kind of big downpour that would cause significant mudslides so soon after the area’s been burnt to nothing.”

(Reporting by Ben Gruber and Alex Dobuzinskis, Writing by Ben Klayman; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Death toll from Vietnam storm tops 60 and dams near bursting

Officials sail a boat out of a submerged local government building after typhoon Damrey hits Vietnam in Hue city, Vietnam November 5, 2017.

By Mai Nguyen

DANANG, Vietnam (Reuters) – The death toll from a typhoon and ensuing floods in Vietnam reached 61 on Monday and the government said some reservoirs were dangerously near capacity after persistent rain.

Typhoon Damrey tore across central Vietnam at the weekend just days before the region is due to host the APEC summit of Asia-Pacific leaders, among them U.S. President Donald Trump, China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

The Communist state’s Search and Rescue Committee said 61 people had been killed and 28 were recorded as missing. It said some of the victims were in vessels that capsized at sea. Others were killed in landslides. It did not give a full breakdown.

More than 2,000 homes had collapsed and more than 80,000 had been damaged, it said. Roads that had been flooded or washed away caused traffic jams across several provinces.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc chaired an emergency meeting on the disaster. Ministers said that because some dams were so full, water might need to be released to relieve pressure – potentially worsening flooding downstream.

In Danang, authorities called on soldiers and local people to clean up so that the beach resort would be ready for delegates to the meetings of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) countries, which started on Monday.

Leaders are due to meet from Nov. 10 and organizers said the schedule had not been disrupted because of the weather.

But in much of the ancient town of Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage site that spouses of APEC leaders are scheduled to visit on Saturday, muddy waters rose to head height and people boated through the streets.

People ride a boat along submerged houses in UNESCO heritage ancient town of Hoi An after typhoon Damrey hits Vietnam November 6, 2017.

People ride a boat along submerged houses in UNESCO heritage ancient town of Hoi An after typhoon Damrey hits Vietnam November 6, 2017. REUTERS/Kham

Hoang Tran Son, 37, who left his home there when the water reached his chest, said it was the worst flooding he had seen for decades.

“We’re pretty much all right in the city, but people in remote areas are devastated,” he said.

The storm moved from the coastal area into a key coffee-growing region of the world’s biggest producer of robusta coffee beans. The typhoon had damaged some coffee trees at the start of the harvest season, farm officials said. But farmers in Daklak, the heart of the region, said the damage was limited.

Authorities said that more than 7,000 farm animals had been killed.

Floods killed more than 80 people in northern Vietnam last month, while a typhoon wreaked havoc in central provinces in September. The country of more than 90 million people is prone to destructive storms and flooding, due to its long coastline.

 

(Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

 

U.S. mail carriers emerge as heroes in Puerto Rico recovery

Luis Menendez, a mail man for the U.S. Postal Service, delivers mail at an area affected by Hurricane Maria in the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico.

By Hugh Bronstein

GUAYNABO, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – With the Puerto Rico power grid shredded by Hurricane Maria, the U.S. Postal Service has taken the place of cellphone service at the forefront of island communications.

Only 15 percent of electrical power has been restored since the storm bludgeoned the U.S. territory on Sept. 20, but 99 of Puerto Rico’s 128 post offices are delivering mail. Tents have taken the place of post offices wrecked by Maria.

Mail carriers gather information on sick and elderly residents in far-flung parts where hospitals have closed. Data is fed into the Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief office in San Juan so medical attention can be provided.

Restoration of the power grid is months away and many rural roads are blocked by mudslides, sink holes and downed trees and telephone poles. Since the start of the month the Postal Service has nonetheless been delivering letters and care packages to family members desperate for news.

“It’s been a clutch situation, and you guys have totally come through,” a FEMA worker was heard telling Postal Service Caribbean customer service manager Martin Caballero on Sunday.

“We might know the general area where people need help, but the mail carriers are the only ones who really have the exact addresses,” the FEMA worker told Reuters, asking not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to news media.

Caballero regularly goes on AM radio, which can be heard by listeners lucky enough to have diesel to run generators, to tell people in inaccessible parts of the island where their mail is being held. He invites them to pick it up, but only when travel conditions become safe.

Even for urban middle-class customers in the San Juan suburb of Guaynabo, whose concrete homes were not smashed by the storm, it was a chore to recover their blown-away mailboxes or build new ones. Hurricane or not, the Postal Service will not drop off mail without a designated box.

“The wind took them all,” said resident Jenny Amador, a 42-year-old teachers’ assistant.

“I found mine in those trees,” she said, pointing to a gnarl of branches and trunks on the road. She re-attached her mailbox in a cockeyed position in front of her house, using a clothes hanger.

One plucky woman, having heard the postman was on the way, stood stoically with her mailbox tucked under her arm. No one minded when mail carrier Alfredo Martinez showed up out of uniform, unable to do laundry for lack of clean water.

One resident said the return of the mail service was comforting, a sign of a return to normalcy. But another greeted Martinez with a warning.

“If you are bringing me any utility bills, go away,” she said.

 

(Reporting by Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Howard Goller)

 

Hundreds leave homes near dangerously crumbling Puerto Rico dam

Local residents look at the flooded houses close to the dam of the Guajataca lake. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Dave Graham and Robin Respaut

SAN JUAN (Reuters) – Most people living near a crumbling dam in storm-battered Puerto Rico have been moved to safety, Governor Ricardo Rossello said on Monday, as he urged the U.S. Congress to fund an aid package to avert a humanitarian crisis after Hurricane Maria.

Most of the Caribbean island, a U.S. territory with a population of 3.4 million, is still without electricity five days after Maria swept ashore with ferocious winds and torrential rains, the most powerful hurricane to hit Puerto Rico for nearly a century.

There have been growing concerns for some 70,000 people who live in the river valley below the Guajataca Dam in the island’s northwest, where cracks were seen appearing on Friday in the 88-year-old earthen structure.

An aerial view shows the damage to the Guajataca dam. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

An aerial view shows the damage to the Guajataca dam. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

Rossello said he was working on the assumption that the dam would collapse. “I’d rather be wrong on that front than doing nothing and having that fail and costing people lives,” he said in an interview with CNN.

“Some of the dam has fallen apart and now we’re making sure that we can assess if the other part is going to fall down as well. … Most of the people in the near vicinity have evacuated.”

It was unclear if the governor was saying that most of the 70,000 valley inhabitants had left the area, or only the several hundred people living in the small towns closest to the dam. About 320 people from those towns have moved to safety, according to local media.

The fear of a potentially catastrophic dam break added to the difficulties facing disaster relief authorities after Maria, which was the second major hurricane to strike Caribbean this month and which killed at least 29 people in the region.

At least 10 of those who died were in Puerto Rico, including several people who drowned or were hit by flying debris, and three elderly sisters who died in a mudslide.

Many structures on the island, including hospitals, remain badly damaged and flooded. Clean drinking water is hard to find in some areas. Very few planes have been able to land or take off from damaged airports.

After Maria caused widespread flooding, the National Weather Service warned of further flash floods in some western parts of the island on Monday as thunderstorms moved in.

The hurricane hit at a time when Puerto Rico was already battling economic crisis. [nL2N1M31LR]

Rossello said on Monday that before the storms struck he had been embarking on an aggressive fiscal agenda that included more than $1.5 billion in cuts.

“This is a game changer,” the governor told CNN. “This is a completely different set of circumstances. This needs to be taken into consideration otherwise there will be a humanitarian crisis.”

In Washington, U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan said Congress was working with President Donald Trump’s administration to make sure the necessary assistance reaches Puerto Rico.

“Our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico remain in our prayers as we make sure they have what they need,” Ryan said in a statement.

Local residents react while they look at the water flowing over the road at the dam of the Guajataca lake.

Local residents react while they look at the water flowing over the road at the dam of the Guajataca lake.
REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Maria continued to weaken and would likely be downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm by Tuesday night, the National Hurricane Center said. As of 11 a.m. ET (1500 GMT) on Monday, it was about 315 miles (505 km) south-southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, heading slowly north, the center said.

The storm was unlikely to hit the continental United States directly, but a tropical storm warning was in effect for much of the North Carolina coast. Officials issued a mandatory evacuation order for visitors to Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks, beginning at 5 a.m. ET (0900 GMT) on Monday.

 

(Reporting by Dave Graham and Robin Respaut; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen and Peter Szekely in New York and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Frances Kerry)

 

Bangladesh raises highest danger warning as cyclone takes aim

A Sri Lankan Navy rescue team member carries an old man on a flooded road during a rescue mission in Nagoda village in Kalutara, Sri Lanka May

By Ruma Paul and Dinuka Liyanawatte

DHAKA/AGALAWATTE, Sri Lanka/ (Reuters) – Bangladesh raised its storm danger signal to the highest level of 10 on Monday as a severe and intensifying cyclone churned toward its low-lying coast and was expected to make landfall in the early hours of Tuesday.

Impoverished Bangladesh, hit by cyclones every year, warned that some coastal areas were “likely to be inundated by a storm surge of four to five feet (1.2 to 1.5 meters)” above normal because of approaching Cyclone Mora.

The Disaster Ministry ordered authorities to evacuate people from the coast, the ministry’s additional secretary, Golam Mostafa, told reporters in Dhaka. About 10 million of Bangladesh’s population of 160 million live in coastal areas.

River ferries had suspended operations and fishing boats called in to safety.

“Maritime ports of Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar have been advised to lower danger signal number seven but instead hoist great danger signal number ten (repeat) ten,” a government weather bulletin said.

“The coastal districts of Chittagong, Cox’s Bazar, Noakhali, Laxmipur, Feni, Chandpur and their offshore islands … will come under danger signal number ten (repeat) ten.”

Bangladesh is hit by storms, many of them devastating, every year. Half a million people had their lives disrupted in coastal areas such as Barisal and Chittagong in May last year.

It is still recovering from flash floods that hit the northeast, affecting millions of people, in April. Rice prices have reached record highs and state reserves are at 10-year lows in the wake of flooding that wiped out around 700,000 tonnes of rice.

The cyclone formed after monsoon rains triggered floods and landslides in neighboring Sri Lanka, off India’s southern tip, which have killed at least 177 people in recent days, authorities said, with 24 killed in storms in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, either by lightning strikes or under collapsed village huts.

India warned of heavy rain in the northeastern states of Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh as Mora moved further up the Bay of Bengal.

RUBBER AND TEA PLANTATIONS HIT

Floods reached roof level and cut off access to many rural Sri Lankan villages, disrupting life for 557,500 people, many of them workers on rubber plantations, officials said. Nearly 75,000 people had been forced out of their homes.

Villagers in Agalawatte, in a key rubber-growing area 74 km (46 miles) southeast of the capital, Colombo, said they were losing hope of water levels falling soon after the heaviest rain since 2003. Fifty-three villagers died and 58 were missing.

“All access to our village is cut off. A landslide took place inside the village and several houses are buried,” Mohomed Abdulla, 46, told Reuters.

Some areas in the southern coastal district of Galle, popular with foreign tourists, have not received relief due to lack of access.

“My entire village is cut off and nobody can come to this village,” C.M. Chandrapla, 54, told Reuters by phone from the tourist village of Neluwa.

“There have been no supplies for the past two days. Water has gone above three-storey buildings and people survive by running to higher ground.”

A boy rides his bike along a flooded road in Nagoda village, in Kalutara, Sri Lanka May 29, 2017.

A boy rides his bike along a flooded road in Nagoda village, in Kalutara, Sri Lanka May 29, 2017. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

The Sri Lankan military has sent in helicopters and boats in rescue efforts in the most widespread disaster since the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. About 100 people were missing in total.

The meteorology department forecast torrential rains over the next 36 hours.

Residents in seven densely populated districts in the south and center of Sri Lanka were asked to move away from unstable slopes in case of further landslides.

The wettest time of the year in Sri Lanka’s south is usually during the southern monsoon, from May to September. The island also receives heavy rains in the North West monsoonal season from November to February.

Reuters witnessed some people stranded on the upper floors of their homes. Civilians and relief officials in boats  distributed food, water and other relief items.

One of the worst-hit areas was the southern coastal district of Matara which is home to black tea plantations. Rohan Pethiyagod, head of the Tea Board in the world’s largest exporter of top quality teas, said supplies would be disrupted for the next auction due to a lack of transportation.

Sri Lanka has already appealed for international assistance from the United Nations and neighboring countries.

(Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal in Colombo; Writing by Shihar Aneez and Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Nick Macfie)