Record 45 million people across Southern Africa face hunger: U.N. food agency

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – The United Nations World Food Programme said on Thursday that a record 45 million people in the 16-nation Southern African Development Community faced growing hunger following repeated drought, widespread flooding and economic disarray.

Southern Africa is in the grips of a severe drought, as climate change wreaks havoc in impoverished countries already struggling to cope with extreme natural disasters, such as Cyclone Idai which devastated Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi in 2019.

Zimbabwe, once the breadbasket of southern Africa, is experiencing its worst economic crisis in a decade, marked by soaring inflation and shortages of food, fuel, medicines and electricity.

“This hunger crisis is on a scale we’ve not seen before and the evidence shows it’s going to get worse,” the WFP’s Regional Director for Southern Africa, Lola Castro, said in a statement.

“The annual cyclone season has begun and we simply cannot afford a repeat of the devastation caused by last year’s unprecedented storms.”

The agency plans to provide “lean season” assistance to 8.3 million people grappling with “crisis” or “emergency” levels of hunger in eight of the hardest-hit countries, which include Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Madagascar, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini and Malawi.

To date, WFP has secured just $205 million of the $489 million required for this assistance and has been forced to resort heavily to internal borrowing to ensure food reaches those in need, it said.

In December, the United Nations said it was procuring food assistance for 4.1 million Zimbabweans, a quarter of the population of a country where shortages are being exacerbated by runaway inflation and climate-induced drought.

“Zimbabwe is in the throes of its worst hunger emergency in a decade, with 7.7 million people – half the population – seriously food insecure,” the agency said.

In Zambia and drought-stricken Lesotho, 20% of the population faces a food crisis, as do 10% of Namibians.

Castro said that if the agency does not receive the necessary funding, it will have no choice but to assist fewer of those most in need and with less.

(Reporting by Nqobile Dludla; Editing by Jon Boyle and Giles Elgood)

Forest fire insurance costs soar

FILE PHOTO: A group of U.S. Forest Service firefighters monitor a back fire while battling to save homes at the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S. November 8, 2018. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/File Photo

MUNICH (Reuters) – Forest fires are becoming increasingly likely because of climate change and cost insurers more than ever, with the deadly fire that ravaged northern California the single most expensive natural disaster in 2018, Munich Re said on Tuesday.

The California wildfire that devastated the small town of Paradise in November caused losses of $16.5 billion, of which $12.5 billion were insured, according to the reinsurer’s annual catastrophe report.

Worldwide natural disasters caused $160 billion in economic damage in 2018. That was down from $350 billion the previous year, but a number of devastating hurricanes had contributed to the high losses in 2017.

Insurers and reinsurers paid out $80 billion for natural disaster claims last year, down from $140 billion a year earlier but almost double the 30-year average of $41 billion, the reinsurer said.

Munich Re board member Torsten Jeworrek said that 2018 was marked by several severe natural disasters with high insured losses.

“These include the unusual coincidence of severe cyclones in the U.S. and Japan, and devastating forest fires in California,” he said, adding that climate change appears to be making such large fires more common.

Insurers spent $18 billion on two huge fires in the United States in 2018 – equivalent to one in every four dollars they paid out as a result of natural disasters.

Ernst Rauch, the reinsurer’s chief climatologist, told Reuters that forest fires were entering a whole new dimension, costing tens of billions of dollars.

“Higher and higher temperatures are leading to ever greater droughts, and high humidity in the winter means that shrubbery grows quickly, creating an easily flammable material in dry summers,” he said.

Rauch said it was questionable whether areas at high risk could continue to be populated without taking additional measures, such as building houses further from forests and with better safety standards.

In Europe, an unusually hot summer caused a drought that wrought considerable damage on the agricultural sector and was the continent’s most expensive natural disaster at $3.9 billion. However, only a fraction of those losses were insured.

Reinsurers act as a financial backstop to insurance companies, paying a chunk of the big claims for storms or earthquakes in exchange for part of the policy premiums.

Hurricanes and typhoons caused $56 billion of damage last year. Hurricane Michael, which wrought devastation in Florida, was the most expensive for insurers, causing losses of $10 billion.

The review gave no claims figures for Munich Re itself. The reinsurer is due to report fourth-quarter results on Feb. 6.

(Reporting by Alexander Huebner; Writing by Caroline Copley; Editing by David Goodman)

Powerful quake paralyzes Hokkaido in latest disaster to hit Japan

Police officers and rescue workers search for survivors from a building damaged by a landslide caused by a powerful earthquake in Atsuma town in Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo September 6, 2018. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. JAPAN OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN JAPAN.

By Kaori Kaneko and Chang-Ran Kim

TOKYO (Reuters) – A powerful earthquake paralyzed Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido on Thursday, killing at least seven people, triggering landslides and knocking out power to its 5.3 million residents.

The death toll from the 6.7-magnitude, pre-dawn quake was likely to rise as rescuers searched houses buried by landslides.

About 33 people were missing and 300 were injured, public broadcaster NHK said. Four people were in cardiopulmonary arrest, a term used before death is officially confirmed.

The quake was the latest in a string of natural disasters to batter Japan after typhoons, flooding, and a record-breaking heat wave within the past two months.

Aerial footage showed dozens of landslides exposing barren hillsides near the town of Atsuma in southern Hokkaido, with mounds of red earth and toppled trees piled at the edge of green fields.

The collapsed remains of what appeared to be houses or barns were strewn about.

A building damaged by a powerful earthquake is seen in Abira town in Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo September 6, 2018. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

A building damaged by a powerful earthquake is seen in Abira town in Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo September 6, 2018. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

“It came in four big jerks – boom! boom! boom! boom!” one unidentified woman told NHK. “Before we knew it our house was bent and we couldn’t open the door.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said 25,000 Self-Defense Force troops would be deployed for rescue operations.

The island, a tourist destination about the size of Austria known for its mountains, lakes, and seafood, lost its power when Hokkaido Electric Power Co shut down of all its fossil fuel-fired power plants after the quake as a precaution.

It was the first time since the utility was established in 1951 that had happened.

Almost 12 hours later, power was restored to parts of Sapporo, Hokkaido’s capital, and Asahikawa, its second-biggest city.

The government said there was damage to Hokkaido Electric’s Tomato-Atsuma plant, which supplies half the island’s 2.95 million households. It could take a week to restore power fully to all residents, Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko said.

All trains across the island were halted.

Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party begins a leadership contest on Friday but said there would be no campaigning through to Sunday. Abe and rival Shigeru Ishiba both canceled campaign media appearances slated for Friday.

Landslides caused by an earthquake are seen in Atsuma town in Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo September 6, 2018. Kyodo/via REUTERS

Landslides caused by an earthquake are seen in Atsuma town in Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo September 6, 2018. Kyodo/via REUTERS

‘NOTHING I CAN DO’

Television footage from Sapporo showed crumbled roads and mud covering a main street. Police directed traffic because signal lights were out while drink-vending machines, ubiquitous in Japan, and most ATMs were not working.

“Without electricity, there’s nothing I can do except to write prescriptions,” a doctor in Abira, the town next to Atsuma, told NHK.

Media reported a baby girl at a Sapporo hospital was in critical condition after the power was cut to her respirator. It wasn’t clear if the hospital had a generator.

The quake hit at 3:08 a.m. (1808 GMT Wednesday) at a depth of 40 km (25 miles), with its epicenter about 65 km (40 miles) southeast of Sapporo, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. In Atsuma, it registered a 7 on Japan’s 7-point quake intensity scale, the agency said, revising an earlier measurement.

Hokkaido’s main airport was closed, at least for the day. Debris and water could be seen on the terminal floors.

Kyodo news agency said more than 200 flights and 40,000 passengers would be affected on Thursday alone.

The closure comes just days after Kansai Airport, another major regional hub, in western Japan, was shut by Typhoon Jebi, which killed 11 people and injured hundreds.

The storm, the most powerful to hit Japan in 25 years, stranded thousands of passengers and workers at the airport, whose operator said it would resume some domestic flights on Friday.

In July, torrential rain in west Japan caused flooding that killed more than 200 people and widespread destruction. That was followed by a heat wave that reached a record 41.1 Celsius and led to the deaths of at least 80 people.

FACTORIES HALTED

Farming, tourism and other services are big economic drivers on Hokkaido, which accounts for just 3.6 percent of Japan’s gross domestic product, but there is some industry. Kirin Brewery and Sapporo Breweries both said factories were shut by the power outage.

A series of smaller shocks followed the initial quake, the JMA said. Residents were warned to take precautions.

By the afternoon, backhoes and other earth-moving equipment in Atsuma had begun clearing debris.

Japan is situated on the “Ring of Fire” arc of volcanoes and oceanic trenches that partly encircles the Pacific Basin.

Northeast Japan was hit by a 9 magnitude earthquake on March 11, 2011, that triggered a tsunami that killed nearly 20,000 people and led to meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Hokkaido’s Tomari nuclear power station, which has been shut since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, suffered a power outage but officials said it was cooling its spent nuclear fuel safely.

Saturday marked the 95th anniversary of the Great Kanto earthquake, which had a magnitude of 7.9 and killed more than 140,000 people in the Tokyo area. Seismologists have said another such quake could strike the capital at any time.

(Reporting by Kaori Kaneko and Chang-Ran Kim; Additional reporting by William Mallard, Osamu Tsukimori, Aaron Sheldrick, Elaine Lies and Takaya Yamaguchi; Writing by Malcolm Foster; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel)

Sanctions-hit North Korea warns of natural disaster brought by heat wave

FILE PHOTO: A North Korean flag flutters on top of a 160-metre tower in North Korea's propaganda village of Gijungdong, in this picture taken from the Tae Sung freedom village near the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), inside the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, April 24, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea on Thursday called for an “all-out battle” against record temperatures that threaten crops in a country already grappling with tough international sanctions over its nuclear weapons program.

The resulting drought has brought an “unprecedented natural disaster”, the isolated nation said, warning against crop damage that could savage its farm-reliant economy, battered by sanctions despite recent diplomatic overtures.

“This high-temperature phenomenon is the largest, unprecedented natural disaster, but not an obstacle we cannot overcome,” the North’s Rodong Sinmun said, urging that “all capabilities” be mobilized to fight the extended dry spell.

Temperatures have topped a record 40°C (104°F) in some regions since late July, and crops such as rice and maize have begun to show signs of damage, the mouthpiece of the ruling Workers’ Party said in a front-page commentary.

“Whether the current good crop conditions, for which the whole nation has made unsparing investment and sweated until now, will lead to a bumper year in the autumn hinges on how we overcome the heat and drought,” it added.

Similar past warnings in state media have served to drum up foreign assistance and boost domestic unity.

“I think the message was a precautionary one to minimize any impact on daily life,” said Dong Yong-seung, who runs Good Farmers, a group based in Seoul, capital of neighboring South Korea, that explores farm projects with the North.

But the mention of unprecedented weather, and a series of related articles, suggest the heat wave could further strain its capacity to respond to natural disasters, said Kim Young-hee, a defector from North Korea and an expert on its economy at Korea Finance Corp in Seoul.

The warning comes after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced in April a shift in focus from nuclear programs to the economy, and held an unprecedented June summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore.

Since then, the young leader has toured industrial facilities and special economic zones near the North’s border with China, a move experts saw as a bid to spur economic development nationwide.

“He has been highlighting his people-loving image and priority on the economy but the reality is he doesn’t have the institutions to take a proper response to heat, other than opening underground shelters,” added Kim, the economist.

GOOD CROP CONDITIONS

Drought and floods have long been a seasonal threat in North Korea, which lacks irrigation systems and other infrastructure to ward off natural disasters.

Last year, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation warned of the North’s worst drought in 16 years, but late summer rains and privately produced crops helped avert acute shortages.

There appear to be no immediate signs of major suffering in the North, with rice prices stable around 62 U.S. cents per kg through the year to Tuesday, a Reuters analysis of data compiled by the Daily NK website showed.

The website is run by defectors who gather prices through telephone calls to traders in the North, gaining a rare glimpse into the lives of ordinary citizens.

Crops are good this year because there was little flooding to disrupt the early spring planting season, said Kang Mi-jin of the Daily NK, based in Seoul.

“They say nothing remains where water flowed away, but there is something to harvest after the heat,” Kang said, citing defectors. “Market prices are mainly determined by Chinese supplies and private produce, rather than crop conditions.”

The October harvest would reveal any havoc wreaked by the weather, Kim Young-hee added.

North Korea suffered a crippling famine in the 1990s when a combination of bad weather, economic mismanagement and the demise of fuel subsidies from the Soviet Union all but destroyed its state rationing system.

However, rationing has slowly been overtaken by an increase in foreign products, mainly from China, and privately produced food sold in North Korean markets, a factor experts say U.N. reports overlook.

The neighbors are in talks to help the North modernize its economy, step up disaster response measures and expand forests in a follow-up to April’s historic summit between Kim and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in.

Across the border, temperatures hit 39.6°C (103.28°F) in Seoul on Wednesday, their highest since weather authorities began monitoring in 1907. The heat has caused 29 deaths and injuries to more than 2,350 people, health officials have said.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Editing by Soyoung Kim and Clarence Fernandez)

In Fuego volcano’s wake, a Guatemalan town became a cemetery

A house covered with ash is seen after the eruption of the Fuego volcano in San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Carlos Jasso and Sofia Menchu

SAN MIGUEL LOS LOTES, Guatemala (Reuters) – There was no time to eat. Sunday family lunches were interrupted, the food left on the table. Children abandoned toys, and clothes still hung on lines in backyards. Animals died petrified.

Guatemalan authorities reacted slowly to signs of the Fuego volcano’s impending eruption on June 3, contributing to one of the most tragic natural disasters in recent Guatemalan history.

The volcano rumbled to life early that Sunday. By midday, it was spewing ash in smoking columns miles high that then fell, dusting a wide swath of the Central American country.

But with the mountain’s rumbles and the first ash showers, many villagers made a fatal bet to stay put, gambling that luck that had protected them for decades would hold once again.

In the afternoon things took a turn for the worse. Tons of ash propelled by scalding, toxic gases poured down Fuego’s flanks. These “pyroclastic flows” hit much faster, more lethal speeds than lava, dragging trees and giant rocks down onto villages in their path.

By the time most families in the worst-hit hamlets of El Rodeo and San Miguel de Los Lotes knew what was happening, they only had time to run, if that.

“My family was having lunch, they left the plates of food and stopped eating and fled,” said Pedro Gomez, a 45-year-old welder. “They took nothing but their clothes on their backs.”

Now, everything in the previously lush, bright green landscape is coated in thick layers of sepia-colored volcanic ash, giving the place the eerie feeling of a ghost ship. Where once there was life, there is heat, dust and a lingering smell of sulfur.

In one home, the pages of a Bible are singed. Outside, cattle lay dead. A bass drum lay abandoned. In kitchens, there was food in pots ready to be served.

At least 110 people have died and close to 200 are thought buried under the rubble in the hamlet on the fertile lower slopes of the volcano. Fuego – Spanish for “fire” – rises between the regions of Sacatepequez, Escuintla and Chimaltenango about 30 miles (50 km) from Guatemala City, the nation’s capital.

Rescuers searching for bodies walked on the roofs of houses as if they were floors, digging down into buildings where they have found only corpses of those who stayed behind. Only a few dogs, chickens, rabbits and cats survived.

As the burning volcanic matter rushed at them, some escaped on foot, others by car.

“I took out the pickup truck and escaped with a lot of neighbors when we saw the smoke,” said Alejandro Velasquez, 46, a farmer.

Others with still less time ran through bushes and leaped across barbed wire and wooden fences to reach the main road of the town of Escuintla, near Los Lotes.

Many lost 10 to 50 relatives each, descendents of intertwining generations of a small families who settled in Los Lotes more than 40 years ago. They refuse to give up hope of finding relatives – or at least their remains. “My entire family is missing,” said Jose Ascon. The young man argued with police who had temporarily halted rescue efforts after more flows from the eruption.

“I would give my life to find my family.”

 

(Reporting by Carlos Jasso and Sofia Menchu; writing by Delphine Schrank; editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Jonathan Oatis)

2017 second-costliest year on record for natural-disaster insured losses

Cars drive under a partially collapsed utility pole, after the island was hit by Hurricane Maria in September, in Naguabo, Puerto Rico October 20, 2017.

(Reuters) – Insured losses in the private sector and government-sponsored programs from natural disasters came to $134 billion in 2017, making it the second-costliest year on record, broker Aon Benfield said on Wednesday.

Three major hurricanes in the United States and Caribbean alone led to losses of $100 billion in 2017, according to risk modeling agencies and reinsurers.

That compares with losses of about $74 billion caused by Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans in 2005.

There were 330 natural catastrophes last year, leading to overall economic losses of $353 billion, of which an “unprecedented” 97 percent were caused by weather-related events, according to Aon’s catastrophe report, making 2017 the costliest year on record for weather disasters.

At $132 billion, 2017 was also the costliest year for insurers for weather disasters, with 60 percent of global insurance payouts in the year caused by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

Weather losses exclude losses from other natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis.

Wildfires caused $14 billion of insurance losses in 2017 – the highest on record for the peril, Aon said.

California faced wildfires in the northern part of the state that resulted in losses to those insured of more than $9 billion in October. Later in December, a sprawling Southern California wildfire become the largest on record in the state.

Other notable weather events in the year included earthquakes in Mexico, floods and Typhoon Hato in China and drought in Southern Europe.

“The insurance industry was well-positioned to handle the cost of the 2017 disasters. Global reinsurer capital was a record $600 billion at the end of third quarter 2017,” Aon said.

As a result, some reinsurers had been expecting double-digit price rises across the board when the Jan. 1 renewals came around after all of last year’s losses.

In the end, however, global property reinsurance prices rose less than expected, with strong competition limiting increases to single-digit percentages.

German reinsurer Munich Re, said this month that insurers will have to pay claims of around $135 billion for 2017, the most ever, following the spate of hurricanes, earthquakes and fires in North America.

(Reporting by Noor Zainab Hussain in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Carolyn Cohn in London; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Puerto Rico moves to cancel Whitefish power contract after uproar

: A pickup truck 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.

By Ginger Gibson and David Gaffen

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – Puerto Rico’s government power company said on Sunday it will cancel a $300 million contract with a tiny Montana company to restore power to the storm-hit U.S. territory after an uproar over the deal.

The contract between Whitefish Energy Holdings and Puerto Rico’s bankrupt power utility came under fire after it was revealed last week that the terms were obtained without a competitive public bidding process. Residents, local officials and U.S. federal authorities all criticized the arrangement.

The cancellation could further complicate Puerto Rico’s most pressing challenge from the territory’s worst storm in 80 years – restoring power to its 3.4 million residents. Nearly six weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, only about a quarter of homes and businesses have power, and the utility has set a goal of having 95 percent of power back by the middle of December.

Several other utilities have been involved in recovery efforts, but Whitefish said they had more than 350 people on the island. Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s (PREPA) Director Ricardo Ramos said that he had to consider the “delay risk” of agreeing to cancel the contract. The territory has reached out to officials in Florida and New York, which have already sent people to Puerto Rico, to send more crews in the event that Whitefish departs.

Whitefish said in a statement it was “disappointed” in the decision, adding that it will “only delay what the people of Puerto Rico want and deserve – to have the power restored quickly in the same manner their fellow citizens on the mainland experience after a natural disaster.”

Earlier on Sunday, Puerto Rico’s Governor, Ricardo Rosselló had called for the contract with Whitefish to be canceled, and PREPA’s Ramos said he had accepted the governor’s recommendation.

“Following the information that has emerged, and with the goal of protecting public interest, as governor I am asking government and energy authorities to immediately activate the clause to cancel the contract to Whitefish Energy,” Rossello said in a statement.

Ramos, in a press conference Sunday, noted that the initial enthusiasm from residents over Whitefish employees coming to the island had shifted in the last several days after media reported the details of the contract.

“As soon as this whole issue was interpreted by the tabloids that PREPA has given away $300 million to a company with little experience…if you read that, and you have no light and no water that perception changes abruptly to the extent that the last four days they’ve been throwing stones and bottles” at workers, Ramos said.

Ramos said contract terms with Whitefish meant that the cancellation would become effective 30 days from notice and, signaling potential intricacies, explained that there were “a lot of logistics involved. I believe they have people on the way here.”

“The contract is not canceled as of yet. I am writing today a letter to the board of directors of PREPA asking for a resolution that will allow me to cancel the contract,” Ramos said.

Whitefish, which has a full-time staff of two, said it would complete any work that PREPA wanted it to, and noted their initial efforts “exceeded all other efforts by other parties.”

They said they completed work on two major transmission lines that crossed the island’s mountainous interior, and that PREPA’s decision to contact them “only sped up the repairs.”

Criticism increased after a copy of the contract with PREPA surfaced online on Thursday night and raised more questions, particularly over language blocking oversight of costs and profits.

Ramos noted that the federal contracting process is a long one, and that PREPA “could not wait.”

Workers from Montana-based Whitefish Energy Holdings help fix the island's power grid, damaged during Hurricane Maria in September, in Manati, Puerto Rico October 25, 2017.

FILE PHOTO: Workers from Montana-based Whitefish Energy Holdings help fix the island’s power grid, damaged during Hurricane Maria in September, in Manati, Puerto Rico October 25, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez/File Photo

APPEAL TO NEW YORK, FLORIDA

Efforts to restore power have been bumpy. It took more than a week for a damage assessment to be completed, and PREPA did not immediately ask for what is known as “mutual aid,” whereupon utilities send workers in droves to restore power to hard-hit areas.

Residents have been forced to rely on diesel generators and most of the island remained in darkness.

Eventually, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was put in charge of power restoration. Rosselló said he had reached out to Florida and New York in part because of a delay in the arrival of brigades from the Army Corps.

Speaking to CNN, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he could send hundreds of work crews to Puerto Rico to assist with the repair work. Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office said he and Rossello “have talked frequently regarding Hurricane Maria recovery. Governor Scott is proud to offer any guidance, advice and assistance they may need.”

PREPA declared bankruptcy in July. It has a $9 billion debt load caused by years of unsuccessful rate collection efforts, particularly from municipal governments and state agencies, and a lack of investment in equipment and maintenance.

The Puerto Rican government is bracing for the possibility that Whitefish would sue for breach of contract if the cancellation is approved, according to sources familiar with discussions. The government already paid Whitefish $8 million and does not expect the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse that sum, the sources said.

 

(Additional reporting by Tracy Rucinski, Jessica Resnick-Ault, Dan Bases and Nick Brown; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Mary Milliken)

 

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)

Weak columns, extra floors led to Mexico school collapse, experts say

People put floral wreaths for the students of the Enrique Rebsamen school after an earthquake in Mexico city, Mexico September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

By Michael O’Boyle and Daina Beth Solomon

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – A Mexico City school that collapsed in a powerful earthquake last week killing 19 children buckled under the heavy weight of floors added over the years with scant steel support, according to experts and witnesses.

The tragedy at the privately owned Enrique Rebsamen school in southern Mexico City, in which seven adults also died, has become a symbol of the devastation inflicted by the country’s 7.1 magnitude quake, the worst in a generation. At least 355 people died in the capital and surrounding states.

“The building was badly designed, poorly calculated and poorly constructed,” said Alfredo Perez, a 52-year old civil engineer who dashed to the school shortly after the Sept. 19 quake to help rescue efforts. “The reinforced concrete doesn’t comply with specifications in construction regulations.”

Alongside rescue workers, Perez said, he pulled bodies from the rubble. Then he sat in one of the undamaged classrooms and drew plans detailing potential design failures in the collapsed building.

Reuters showed those plans to six structural engineers along with Reuters’ photos of the ruined structure. They independently concluded that the structure’s columns lacked sufficient steel rebar to support all four floors and prevent them from snapping in such a powerful earthquake.

While the quantity of steel required under Mexico’s stringent post-1985 building code varies depending on the size of structure, all six engineers said the building’s columns were built with too little steel to withstand strong quakes.

Perez and another engineer specified that columns appeared to have less than half the required amount of steel reinforcement. They base their view on the number of vertical and horizontal steel rebar rods in the columns, which are visible in Reuters photos along with the measurements in Perez’s plans.

“It comes down to the lack of steel,” said Troy Morgan, a New York-based senior managing engineer at Exponent, an engineering consulting firm.

Since a 1985 quake toppled hundreds of buildings in Mexico City, planning officials developed a strict building code at the forefront of international standards for quake-proofing that raised the proportion of required steel reinforcement.

Reuters was unable to locate or contact the school’s owner and principal, Monica Garcia. Teachers, current and former students and their families all said she had been at the premises during the quake and survived.

Reuters was unable to identify the builder. A spokesman for the Tlalpan district where the school was located said property owners are not required to notify authorities of the builders or architects they used for modifications. The spokesman said the district had no record of the builder that worked on the new floors at the school. People living by the school said they did not know who had done the work.

The Mexico City urban development department did not respond to requests for comment on whether the inspectors who certified the school had proper licenses or any history of complaints.

Although the school was founded in 1983, before the new code took effect, the administrative building that buckled was expanded from two to four floors over the last decade or so, neighbors and former students said.

Photos published by Google Maps show the building had four floors as of 2009 with an expansion of the top floor by 2014 and a further expansion in 2016.

“It definitely did not comply with the post-1985 code,” said Eduardo Miranda, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Stanford who collected statistics on buildings that collapsed in Mexico’s 1985 earthquake, citing the code, photos and plans.

Construction permits released by local authorities dated in 1983 and 1984 authorized a four story structure at the school site. The top two floors were added much later, meaning the existing structure should have been brought up to modern standards, according to Mexico City’s construction code.

The engineers who studied the photos and plans said the existing building had not been visibly reinforced.

Mexican prosecutors said they had opened a probe into potential criminal responsibility of the owner and private inspectors for the collapse. Prosecutors also said they had opened an investigation in February into whether the school had the proper zoning permits to operate.

Luis Felipe Puente, coordinator of Mexico’s Civil Protection department, told Reuters that local officials, the construction company and the owner of the property could all be held accountable if any violations were discovered.

One inspector, Juan Apolinar Torales Iniesta, gave the buildings its most recent safety certificate in June according to documents filed with the local government, which released them publicly.

Torales did not respond to requests for comment sent to telephone numbers and emails listed in a government database. At Torales’ government-registered address, a man refused to identify himself and said the registered architectural engineer did not live there.

Claudia Sheinbaum, Tlalpan district mayor, filed a criminal complaint on Thursday accusing two prior attorneys for the district Alejandro Zepeda and Miguel Angel Guerrero of maliciously failing to enforce the law after discovering unpermitted construction between 2010 and 2014 on the upper floors.

“What we’ve found is truly outrageous,” she said, referring to a document dated Nov. 8, 2013 by the Tlalpan public works department that described demolition work on the upper floors causing structural damage to the building. Despite that document, which she made public and was reviewed by Reuters, the school was allowed to keep operating with a small fine, Sheinbaum said

Guerrero did not immediately respond to requests for comment sent to his email address. Zepeda did not respond to a message sent to his Facebook account.

‘LACK OF STEEL’

All six engineers said the addition of two floors dangerously loaded down the building, given its lack of steel support.

“If it was kept at two levels, it would have not collapsed…it would not have caused so many deaths,” said Casey Hemmatyar, managing director at Pacific Structural and Forensic Engineers Group, a consultancy firm in Los Angeles.

Based on the position of the ruins, the school lurched as much as 18 feet (5.5 m) towards the street before collapsing, a sign of weak columns, said Geoffrey Hichborn, chief engineer at Building Forensics International, a concrete consulting firm in Anaheim, California.

Mexico City’s government has not completed its own analysis, and Sheinbaum said the rubble would be left in place for engineers to investigate.

Documents published by Sheinbaum on Tlalpan district’s website, including building inspection reports and closure orders from the district’s attorneys, show that officials ordered fourth-floor construction to be halted at several points between 2010 and 2014 because it lacked proper permits.

Sheinbaum’s complaint filed Thursday refers to these documents and others filed with the district to say the irregularities were never resolved.

“No evidence or documents exist that allow the conclusion that these irregularities were corrected,” the complaint said. Reuters was unable to independently confirm whether or not corrective measures were taken.

(Additional reporting by Stefanie Eschenbacher, Anthony Esposito and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Frank Jack Daniel)

As Trump set to visit Puerto Rico, 95 percent lack power

As Trump set to visit Puerto Rico, 95 percent lack power

By Robin Respaut and Gabriel Stargardter

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – President Donald Trump is set to make his first visit to Puerto Rico on Tuesday, two weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory, and is likely to face more criticism of his handling of the disaster as the vast majority of inhabitants lack power and phone service and are scrambling for food, clean water and fuel.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz led the attack on the administration’s response on Friday, criticizing an official’s description of relief efforts as a “good news story” and urging Trump to act more decisively. Trump fired back at Cruz on Twitter, accusing her of “poor leadership.”

It is not clear if the two will meet during Trump’s visit.

“She (Cruz) has been invited to participate in the events tomorrow, and we hope those conversations will happen and that we can all work together to move forward,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters on Monday.

Trump will spend “significant time” on the island. He is due in Las Vegas on Wednesday to meet with people affected by Sunday’s mass shooting.

For 72-year-old Angel Negroni of Juana Matos, the situation has begun to improve as flood waters receded from his neighborhood, located 20 minutes from San Juan.

Locals could occasionally get spotty cellular service, an improvement from the communication vacuum of days earlier. And he can trade his neighborhood’s restored municipal water for ice made by a friend’s generator-powered freezer.

“It’s better now,” said Negroni, while standing on his covered porch on Monday, cooking fish on a propane-powered camping stove. “We’re OK.”

At least 5.4 percent of customers in Puerto Rico had their power restored by mid-morning on Monday, according to the U.S. Energy Department, with San Juan’s airport and marine terminal and several hospitals back on the power grid. It said the head of Puerto Rico’s power utility expects 15 percent of electricity customers to have power restored within the next two weeks.

Mobile phone service is still elusive. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission said on Monday 88.3 percent of cellphone sites – which transmit signals to create a cellular network – were out of service, virtually unchanged from 88.8 percent on Sunday.

FEMA Administrator Brock Long on a trip to the island on Monday said things were improving with traffic moving and businesses reopening.

“I didn’t see anybody in a life-threatening situation at all,” he told reporters. “We have a long way to go in recovery,” adding that rebuilding Puerto Rico is “going to be a Herculean effort.”

GAS FLOWING

Nearly two weeks after the fiercest hurricane to hit the island in 90 years, everyday life was still severely curtailed by the destruction. The ramping up of fuel supplies should allow more Puerto Ricans to operate generators and travel more freely.

“We’ve been increasing the number of gas stations that are open,” Governor Ricardo Rossello said at a news briefing, with more than 720 of the island’s 1,100 gas stations now up and running.

Puerto Rico relies on fuel supplies shipped from the mainland United States and distribution has been disrupted by the bad state of roads.

Within the next couple of days, Rossello expects 500,000 barrels of diesel and close to 1 million barrels of gasoline to arrive on the island. All of Puerto Rico’s primary ports have reopened but many still have restrictions, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

At least four tankers carrying fuel are waiting to unload with two more on the way, according to Thomson Reuters shipping data.

“The flow is coming, gasoline is getting here,” Rossello said. “We have been able to reduce the time that it takes to get gasoline and diesel at different stations.”

Federal and local authorities were working together to keep 50 hospitals operational and Rossello said the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort would arrive in Puerto Rico between Tuesday and Wednesday.

RUNNING OUT OF CASH

As it tries to get back on its feet, Puerto Rico is in danger of running out of cash in a matter of weeks because the economy has come to a halt in the hurricane’s aftermath, Rossello told the local El Nuevo Dia newspaper in an interview published on Monday.

After filing for the largest U.S. local government bankruptcy on record in May, Puerto Rico owes about $72 billion to creditors and another $45 billion or so in pension benefits to retired workers.

What little cash it has is now being diverted to emergency response while it works to secure aid from the federal government. The grinding halt to the economy will delay a fiscal recovery plan and negotiations with creditors.

“There is no cash on hand. We have made a huge effort to get $2 billion in cash,” Rossello said in the interview. “But let me tell you what $2 billion means when you have zero collection: it’s basically a month government’s payroll, a little bit more.”

Trump’s administration is preparing to ask Congress for $13 billion in aid for Puerto Rico and other areas hit by natural disasters, congressional sources said. The island’s recovery will likely cost more than $30 billion.

(Reporting by Robin Respaut, Gabriel Stargardter; additional reporting by Nicholas Brown and Carlos Barria in SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico; Doina Chiacu, Roberta Rampton, Tim Ahmann and Makini Brice in WASHINGTON; Marianna Parraga in HOUSTON; Rodrigo Campos and Herb Lash in NEW YORK and Esha Vaish in BENGALURU; Writing by Bill Rigby and Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Bill Trott and Mary Milliken)