Rescuers search for 1,000 missing in Florida Panhandle after hurricane

Bernard Sutton, 64, picks through the remains of his home destroyed by Hurricane Michael in Fountain, Florida, U.S., October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

By Steve Holland

LYNN HAVEN, Fla. (Reuters) – Rescue workers and volunteers searched for more than 1,000 people still missing in the Florida Panhandle and tens of thousands of residents remained without power on Tuesday after the area was devastated by Hurricane Michael last week.

At least 19 deaths in four states have been blamed on Michael which made landfall on Wednesday as one of the most powerful storms on record to hit the continental United States.

Volunteer rescue organization CrowdSource Rescue said its teams were trying to find 1,300 people still missing in the disaster zone in the Panhandle, according to Matthew Marchetti, co-founder of the Houston-based group.

About 30 to 40 people remained unaccounted for in Mexico Beach, according to a city councilor, Rex Putnal.

The mayor of the town of about 1,200 residents, which took a direct hit from the hurricane, has said that at least one person was killed, while CNN reported that another person was found dead on Monday.

With most Mexico Beach homes already searched for survivors, rescue workers were using dogs to find any bodies that might be buried under the debris.

More than 200,000 people were still without power in the U.S. Southeast, with residents of battered coastal towns such as Port St. Joe, Florida forced to cook on fires and barbecue grills.

At least 80 percent of customers in three mainly rural Panhandle counties were without electricity on Tuesday. Officials said it could be weeks before power returns to the areas that sustained the most damage.

CAMPING IN TENTS

Countless residents in the region’s backcountry have struggled for days without electricity, running water or sanitation as they await help from authorities. Some have been camping in tents with whatever belongings they were able to salvage.

“I’m staying out here to try to keep away looters, to try to save what I can save,” said Bernard Sutton, a 64-year-old cancer patient, who has been living out of a tent and broken-down minivan.

“This is everything we own right here,” he said, standing over a heap of clothes, books, furniture and other belongings.

Access to those stranded by the storm was hampered by downed oak trees across highways and dirt roads.

“Everyone needs help. We’re devastated out here. We’re wiped off the map,” said Gabriel Schaw, 40, gesturing to a handful of neighbors surrounding his own demolished mobile home in Fountain, Florida.

The state government is distributing ice, water and about 3 million ready-to-eat meals, according to Governor Rick Scott’s office.

With top sustained winds of 155 miles per hour (250 km per hour), Michael hit the Florida Panhandle as a Category 4 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale on Wednesday.

The winds and storm surge caused insured losses worth between an estimated $6 billion and $10 billion, risk modeler AIR Worldwide said. Those figures do not include losses paid out by the National Flood Insurance Program or uninsured property, AIR Worldwide said.

Water supply was restored to some residents in Panama City on Monday but Bay County officials said it was not yet safe to drink.

U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump visited the storm-affected areas on Monday, arriving by helicopter from Eglin Air Force Base about 100 miles (160 km) to the west.

They distributed bottles of water at an aid center in Lynn Haven, a city of about 18,500 people near Panama City in northwestern Florida.

“To see this personally is very tough – total devastation,” said Trump, who later traveled to neighboring Georgia to see the storm damage there.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Terray Sylvester in Florida, Bernie Woodall in Florida, Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, Andrew Hay in New Mexico, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Bernadette Baum)

Indonesia relief efforts in Lombok stepped up as new quakes kill 10

Debris is seen on a road at Kayangan Port, after an earthquake hit Lombok, Indonesia, August 20, 2018, in this picture obtained from social media. Bayu Wiguna/via REUTERS

MATARAM, Indonesia (Reuters) – At least 10 people were killed by strong tremors that rocked Indonesia’s holiday island of Lombok on Sunday, authorities said following the latest in a series of earthquakes that killed hundreds and forced thousands to flee their homes in recent weeks.

Nearly 500 people have died in quakes and aftershocks since July 29 across the northern coast of the island, which lies just east of Indonesia’s top tourist destination, Bali.

Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman at the national disaster mitigation agency, said on Monday relief and reconstruction efforts had been “intensified”.

“The rebuilding of public facilities like hospitals and schools is being speeded up,” he said.

He said more than 100 aftershocks had been recorded since Sunday night’s magnitude 6.9 quake, which sent panicked residents into the streets and cut power and communication lines across the island.

Aftershocks ranging between magnitude 4 and 5 were continuing on Monday morning and access to some areas had been cut off by landslides triggered by the tremors, according to officials in Mataram, Lombok’s main city.

Sunday’s quake came exactly a fortnight after another 6.9 magnitude earthquake which killed around 460 people and prompted massive search, rescue and relief efforts.

Authorities estimate that the Aug.5 earthquake caused 5 trillion rupiah ($342 million) of damage on Lombok.

Hundreds of thousands of residents have been left homeless and are camped out in open fields, refusing to shelter indoors due to continuing tremors.

Aid organizations like Save The Children said they were “ready to scale up their humanitarian response”.

“The population feels like it’s had the rug pulled from under them with this new quake,” said Caroline Haga, humanitarian & emergency communications specialist with the Red Cross.

(Additional reporting by Fanny Potkin and Kanupriya Kapoor; Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Ed Davies and Simon Cameron-Moore)

Japan PM visits flood disaster zone, promises help as new warnings issued

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meets local residents staying at an evacuation center in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo July 11, 2018. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

By Kiyoshi Takenaka and Issei Kato

KUMANO, Japan (Reuters) – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited flood-stricken parts of Japan on Wednesday as the death toll from the worst weather disaster in 36 years reached 176 and health concerns rose amid scorching heat and the threat of new floods.

Torrential rain caused floods and triggered landslides in western Japan last week, bringing death and destruction to neighborhoods built decades ago near steep mountain slopes.

At least 176 people were killed, the government said, with dozens missing in Japan’s worst weather disaster since 1982.

Rescue workers and Japan Self-Defense Force soldiers search for missing people at a landslide site caused by a heavy rain in Kumano Town, Hiroshima Prefecture, western Japan, July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

In Kumano, a mountainside community in Hiroshima prefecture that was hit by a landslide last week, Ken Kirioka anxiously watched rescuers toiling through mud, sand and smashed houses to find the missing, including his 76-year-old father, Katsuharu.

“He is old and has a heart condition. I prepared myself for the worst when I heard about the landslide on Friday night,” he said, pointing at a pile of mud and rubble where he said his father was buried.

“He is an old-fashioned father who is hard-headed and does not talk much,” Kirioka said, adding he would stay until his father was found. “It would be too bad for him if a family member were not around”.

Rescuers working under a scorching sun combed through heaps of wood and thickly caked mud in a search for bodies, helped by sniffer dogs. In some cases only the foundation of homes remained as they cut through debris with chain saws.

With temperatures of 33 degrees Celsius (91 degrees Fahrenheit) or higher in the devastated areas in Okayama and Hiroshima prefectures, attention turned to preventing heat-stroke among rescue workers and in evacuation centers where thousands of people have sought shelter.

People sat on thin mats on a gymnasium floor in one center, plastic bags of belongings piled around them and bedding folded off to the side. Portable fans turned slowly as children cried.

A family member of missing people watches search and rescue operations at a landslide site caused by a heavy rain in Kumano Town, Hiroshima Prefecture, western Japan, July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

A family member of missing people watches search and rescue operations at a landslide site caused by a heavy rain in Kumano Town, Hiroshima Prefecture, western Japan, July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

ABE PLEDGES SUPPORT

Abe, who canceled an overseas trip to deal with the disaster, was criticized after a photograph posted on Twitter showed Abe and his defense minister at a party with lawmakers just as the rains intensified.

After observing the damage from a helicopter flying over Okayama, one of the hardest-hit areas, Abe visited a crowded evacuation center. He crouched down on the floor to speak with people, many of them elderly, and asked about their health. He clasped one man’s hands as they spoke.

Later he told reporters the government would do everything it could to help the survivors.

“We’ll cut through all the bureaucracy to secure the goods people need for their lives, to improve life in the evacuation centers – such as air conditioners as the hot days continue – and then secure temporary housing and the other things people need to rebuild their lives,” he said.

Abe is up for re-election as party leader in September and has seen his popularity ratings edge back up after taking a hit over a cronyism scandal earlier this year.

His government pledged an initial $4 billion toward recovery on Tuesday, and a later special budget if needed.

Officials turned to social media to warn of the additional danger of food-borne illnesses, urging people to wash their hands and take other measures against food poisoning.

Evacuation orders were issued for 25 households in the city of Fukuyama after cracks were found in a reservoir.

Water accumulating behind piles of debris blocking rivers also posed a danger after a swollen river rushed into a Fukuyama residential area on Monday, prompting more evacuation orders.

The intensifying heat was expected to trigger thunderstorms on Wednesday, with authorities warning new landslides could be set off on mountainsides saturated with water.

Japanese media on Wednesday focused on the timing of evacuation orders issued in the hard-hit Mabi district of Kurashiki city just minutes before a levee broke and water poured into the residential area.

A number of the dead in Mabi were found in their homes, suggesting they did not have enough time to flee, media reports said.

(Additional reporting by Ritsuko Ando and Hideyuki Sano; Writing by Elaine Lies; Editing by Paul Tait and Darren Schuettler)

Flooding in wake of storm Alberto kills four in Cuba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Sam Holmes)

Puerto Rico restores power to over 70 percent of customers after blackout

A general view shows buildings after Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the island's power company, said Wednesday that a major power line failure in southern Puerto Rico cut electricity to almost all customers, in San Juan, Puerto Rico April 18, 2018. REUTERS/Gabriel Lopez Albarran

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Puerto Rico’s power company said it had restored power to over 1.1 million homes and businesses by Thursday morning after a transmission line failure cut service to almost all of the island’s 3.4 million residents the day before.

The Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority, known as PREPA, was working to restore power to the less than 30 percent of customers in the U.S. territory still without power after Wednesday morning’s blackout.

The power line failure in southern Puerto Rico was the latest in a string of operational and political headaches for the bankrupt, storm-ravaged power utility.

The utility has struggled to escape the headlines since Hurricane Maria wiped out power to all of Puerto Rico on Sept. 20.

Maria, the worst storm to hit the island in 90 years, devastated Puerto Rico’s electrical grid, and thousands were still without power at the time of Wednesday’s blackout.

PREPA said on Twitter that several power plants were back in service, including units at Central Aguirre, EcoElectrica, Central Costa Sur, Yabucoa and Palo Seco.

The blackout was caused by the failure of a 230-kilovolt transmission line between the oil-fired Aguirre generating complex in Salinas and AES Corp’s <AES.N> coal-fired power plant in Guayama, PREPA said in a statement on Wednesday.

PREPA estimated on Wednesday that it would take 24 to 36 hours to restore service to all customers that had power before Wednesday’s blackout.

Before the outage, PREPA said 1.43 million homes and businesses had electric service. That is 97.2 percent of the utility’s 1.47 million total customers.

Many of the remaining 40,000 customers have been without power since Hurricane Maria.

PREPA has suffered several blackouts since the storm, including an outage last week affecting about 870,000 customers, and has been in bankruptcy since July, owing some $9 billion to mutual funds, hedge funds and other investors.

(Reporting by Scott DiSavino; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Snow storm pounds U.S. Northeast, closing schools, snarling commutes

A man takes shelter as snow falls in Times Square in Manhattan in New York City, New York, U.S., March 7, 2018. REUTERS/Amr Alfiky

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The second winter storm in a week will continue to dump wet, heavy snow on New England on Thursday, forcing schools to close and leaving hundreds of thousands without power as it promised to slow the morning commute across the region.

A foot (30 cm) of snow and fierce wind gusts of up to 55 miles per hour (88 km/h) were expected from eastern New York through northern Maine on Thursday after the storm slammed the region on Wednesday, the National Weather Service said in several watches and warnings.

Up to 2 feet of snow accumulation was expected in some inland parts of New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts and 18 inches was possible in Maine.

Boston public schools along with dozens of schools throughout New England canceled classes on Thursday as local officials and forecasters warned commuters of whiteout conditions and slick roads.

“With snow removal efforts underway, motorists are asked to stay off roads, stay home and stay safe,” the Boston Police Department said on Twitter.

Amtrak suspended passenger train services between New York City and Boston until at least 10 a.m. local time and canceled dozens of routes on Thursday.

Two dozen flights were already canceled early on Thursday morning after about half of all scheduled flights were canceled at the three major airports serving New York City on Wednesday.

The website said more than 2,100 flights had been delayed and 2,700 canceled, most of them in the Northeast, as of 8 p.m. local time on Wednesday.

The dense snow and strong winds downed trees and power lines, knocking power out for hundreds of thousands in New England and the Mid Atlantic, according to Poweroutage.us, a website that tracks outages.

“4am, no power (no heat), waiting for a text from work to say “we will be closed today”. Fingers crossed!” tweeted Jessica Squeglia in Peabody, Massachusetts.

Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy ordered many state workers to head home early on Wednesday afternoon at staggered intervals to avoid traffic snarls on slippery roads.

The governors of New Jersey and Pennsylvania declared states of emergency, giving them access to support from the U.S. government if needed.

Last week’s storm brought major coastal flooding to Massachusetts, killed at least nine people and knocked out power to about 2.4 million homes and businesses in the Northeast.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Cyclone wreaks havoc in Tonga’s capital, parliament flattened, homes wrecked

The aftermath of cyclone Gita is seen in Nuku'alofa, Tonga, February 13, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. Twitter Virginie Dourlet/via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

By John Mair

WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Tonga’s neighbors scrambled to deliver emergency relief on Tuesday after Cyclone Gita tore across the Pacific island nation in the middle of the night, flattening the parliament, tearing roofs off homes and causing widespread flooding.

There were no confirmed reports of deaths from the Category 4 storm that bought winds of around 200 km (125 miles) per hour, but there were a lot of injured people, some seriously, said Graham Kenna, an Australian government adviser at Tonga’s National Emergency Management Office.

Photos posted on social media showed a wrecked Parliament House building in the capital, as well as extensive flooding and downed power lines. Access to areas outside the capital were hindered by the storm damage and debris.

“The full extent of damage caused by Cyclone Gita is still being assessed but there is an immediate need for assistance on the ground,” NZ Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters said in a statement.

“About 5,700 people sought shelter in evacuation centres overnight, and it is expected these numbers will increase substantially tonight.”

New Zealand is donating NZ$750,000 ($545,000) in aid, and a NZ Air Force Hercules aircraft was due to fly emergency relief supplies into Tonga on Tuesday.

Australia is donating A$350,000 ($275,000) worth of emergency shelter, kitchen and hygiene kits, while the country’s foreign minister said the Australian Defence Force personnel would assist with clean-up efforts.

The cyclone was heading towards Fiji’s southern islands on Tuesday, with some forecasts reporting it intensifying towards a Category 5 storm. Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama warned residents to “heed warnings and prepare”, although the storm is expected to bypass heavily populated areas.

Gita had pummeled Samoa and American Samoa, about 900 km (560 miles) to the northeast, over the weekend, flooding the Samoan capital, Apia.

The aftermath of cyclone Gita is seen in Nuku'alofa, Tonga, February 13, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. Facebook Noazky Langi/via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

The aftermath of cyclone Gita is seen in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, February 13, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. Facebook Noazky Langi/via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

POWER DOWN

Tonga’s clean-up began in the early hours of Tuesday as the tail of the cyclone was still over the capital, Nuku’alofa.

“Every second power pole has been knocked over and the lines are just everywhere,” Kenna said, saying it would likely be days before power could be restored. Water supplies and radio networks were also disrupted.

“They turned the power off very early before the cyclone came, knowing that the power lines would be blown down, which was a good move.”

The worst of the cyclone hit around a low tide, so there were no reports of storm surges worsening the impact of the wind and rains.

Kenna estimated around 40 percent of houses in the capital had suffered some damage, many with roofs blown off.

“A lot of the older houses, especially some of the older heritage houses, have been badly damaged or destroyed, which is very sad, they’re quite historical,” he said. “They’ve been through cyclones before, but this is the biggest cyclone this island has had for at least 60 odd years.”

($1 = 1.3776 New Zealand dollars)

($1 = 1.2718 Australian dollars)

(Reporting by John Mair in Wellington.; Additional reporting by Colin Packham in Sydney; Editing by Jane Wardell and SImon Cameron-Moore)

Quake-hit Taiwan city winds down rescue efforts, five still missing

A body of a Hong Kong Canadian is carried out from a collapsed building after an earthquake hit Hualien, Taiwan February 9, 2018.

By Fabian Hamacher and Natalie Thomas

HUALIEN, Taiwan (Reuters) – Rescue operations in Taiwan started to wind down on Friday after a devastating 6.4-magnitude earthquake rocked the tourist area of Hualien this week, taking a toll of 12 dead and five missing.

More than 270 people were injured when Tuesday’s quake hit the eastern coastal city just before midnight, toppling four buildings, ripping large fissures in roads and unleashing panic among the roughly 100,000 residents.

More than 200 aftershocks followed, hampering a round-the-clock rescue effort in which emergency personnel battled rain and cold to comb rubble in a search for survivors.

Efforts on Friday narrowed to finding five Chinese nationals still missing after rescuers pulled two bodies, identified as Canadian citizens from Hong Kong, out of a 12-storey residential building that had been left tilting at a 45-degree angle.

An excavator demolishes collapsed Marshal hotel after an earthquake hit Hualien, Taiwan February 9, 2018.

An excavator demolishes collapsed Marshal hotel after an earthquake hit Hualien, Taiwan February 9, 2018. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Authorities said they would focus their search on the single building where the five missing were believed to be.

“The military will continue to prioritize today rescuing the missing people in the Yun Men Tsui Ti residential building,” it said in a statement.

The building’s extreme displacement made the search tough, the government said in a statement, adding, “The space for our operations is small, so the progress of search and rescue can be slow.”

Power was restored to all affected areas in Hualien, although 8,500 homes are still without water.

The military will work with local government officials to develop a plan to demolish a hotel, a residential building and other dangerous buildings, it said in its statement.

The government vowed to redouble efforts to revise building regulations, aiming to limit damage in any future episodes.

Taiwan revised its building act on Jan. 30 to strengthen investigations of the structures of existing buildings and inspection of completed projects, the interior ministry said on Friday.

The revision, expected to be discussed by a cabinet meeting at the end of February, would also seek third-party views in building assessments, it said.

The government added that it would hasten reconstruction of old buildings to make them earthquake-resistant and work to boost the safety of other structures in affected areas.

“At every stage, the central government will fully assist local governments,” it added.

 

(Additional reporting by Tyrone Siu; Writing by Jess Macy Yu; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Clarence Fernandez)

Special Report: In Puerto Rico, a housing crisis U.S. storm aid won’t solve

Faded U.S. flag and Puerto Rican flag are stuck into a mound of earth near the remains of Angel Colon's house after it was destroyed during Hurricane Maria in September 2017, in Comerio, Puerto Rico

By Nick Brown

CANOVANAS, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Among the countless Puerto Rico neighborhoods battered by Hurricane Maria is one named after another storm: Villa Hugo. The illegal shantytown emerged on a public wetland after 1989’s Hurricane Hugo left thousands homeless.

About 6,000 squatters landed here, near the El Yunque National Forest, and built makeshift homes on 40 acres that span a low-lying valley and its adjacent mountainside. Wood and concrete dwellings, their facades scrawled with invented addresses, sit on cinder blocks. After Maria, many are missing roofs; some have collapsed altogether.

Amid the rubble, 59-year-old Joe Quirindongo sat in the sun one recent day on a wooden platform – the only remaining piece of his home. Soft-spoken with weathered skin and a buzzcut, Quirindongo pondered his limited options.

“I know this isn’t a good place for a house,” said Quirindongo, who survives on U.S. government assistance. “Sometimes I would like to go to another place, but I can’t afford anything.”

Villa Hugo reflects a much larger crisis in this impoverished U.S. territory, where so-called “informal” homes are estimated to house about half the population of 3.4 million. Some residents built on land they never owned. Others illegally subdivided properties, often so family members could build on their lots.

Most have no title to their homes, which are constructed without permits and usually not up to building codes. The houses range in quality and size, from one-room shacks to sizable family homes. Many have plumbing and power, though not always through official means.

The concentration of illegal housing presents a vexing dilemma for local and federal authorities already overwhelmed by the task of rebuilding an economically depressed island after its worst natural disaster in nine decades.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló has stressed the need to “build back better,” a sentiment echoed by U.S. disaster relief and housing officials. But rebuilding to modern standards or relocating squatters to new homes would take an investment far beyond reimbursing residents for lost property value. It’s an outlay Puerto Rico’s government says it can’t afford, and which U.S. officials say is beyond the scope of their funding and mission.

Yet the alternative – as Villa Hugo shows – is to encourage rebuilding of the kind of substandard housing that made the island so vulnerable to Maria in the first place.

“It’s definitely a housing crisis,” said Fernando Gil, Puerto Rico’s housing secretary. “It was already out there before, and the hurricane exacerbates it.”

In Puerto Rico, housing is by far the largest category of storm destruction, estimated by the island government at about $37 billion, with only a small portion covered by insurance. That’s more than twice the government’s estimate for catastrophic electric grid damage, which was made far worse by the shoddy state of utility infrastructure before the storm.

Puerto Rico officials did not respond to questions about how the territory estimated the damage to illegally built homes.

Maria destroyed or significantly damaged more than a third of about 1.2 million occupied homes on the island, the government estimates. Most of those victims had no hazard insurance – which is only required for mortgage-holders in Puerto Rico – and no flood insurance. Just 344,000 homes on the island have mortgages, according U.S. Census Bureau data.

Officials at the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA) acknowledged the unique challenges of delivering critical housing aid to Puerto Rico. Among them: calculating the damage to illegal, often substandard homes; persuading storm victims to follow through on application processes that have frustrated many into giving up; and allocating billions in disaster aid that still won’t be nearly enough solve the island’s housing crisis.

By far the most money for Puerto Rico housing aid is expected to come from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

HUD spokeswoman Caitlin Thompson declined to comment on how the agency would spend billions of dollars in disaster relief funds to rebuild housing, or how it planned to help owners of informally built homes. Two HUD officials overseeing the agency’s Puerto Rico relief efforts, Todd Richardson and Stan Gimont, also declined to comment.

But the disaster aid package currently under consideration by the U.S. Congress would provide far less housing aid than Puerto Rico officials say they need. Governor Rosselló is seeking $46 billion in aid from HUD, an amount that dwarfs previous allocations for even the most destructive U.S. storms.

That’s nearly half the island’s total relief request of $94 billion.

The U.S. House of Representatives instead passed a package of $81 billion, with $26 billion for HUD, that still needs Senate and White House approval. The money would be divided between regions struck by several 2017 hurricanes – including Maria, Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida – as well as the recent California wildfires. Congress could also decide to approve additional aid later.

A house destroyed during Hurricane Maria in September 2017 is seen in Utuado, Puerto Rico February 1, 2018.

FILE PHOTO – A house destroyed during Hurricane Maria in September 2017 is seen in Utuado, Puerto Rico February 1, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

‘MY MOTHER IS SCARED’

A generation ago, Maria Vega Lastra, now 61, was among the estimated 28,000 people displaced by Hurricane Hugo. Neighbors helped her build a new home in what would become Villa Hugo, in the town of Canóvanas.

Her daughter, 34-year-old Amadaliz Diaz, still recalls her older brother grinning as he sawed wood for the frame of their self-built, one-floor house, with a porch and three bedrooms.

Now, Vega Lastra’s roof has holes in it, and her waterlogged wooden floorboards buckle with each step.

Vega Lastra has been staying with her daughter, who lives in Tampa, as the family waits on applications for FEMA aid. The agency initially denied her application in December, saying it could not contact her by phone, Diaz said.

Vega Lastra is returning to her home this week, uncertain if its condition has gotten worse. Her daughter bought her an air mattress to take with her.

“My mother is scared,” Diaz said. “I hope the government helps her. I work, but I have three kids to take care of.”

The island’s housing crisis long predated the storm. According to Federal Housing Finance Agency data, Puerto Rico’s index of new home prices fell 25 percent over the last decade, amid a severe recession that culminated last May in the largest government bankruptcy filing in U.S. history.

Legal home construction, meanwhile, plummeted from nearly 16,000 new units in 2004 to less than 2,500 last year, according to consultancy Estudios Tecnicos, an economic data firm.

A 2007 study by environmental consultant Interviron Services Inc, commissioned by the Puerto Rico Builders Association, found that 55 percent of residential and commercial construction was informal. That would work out to nearly 700,000 homes.

That figure might be high, said David Carrasquillo, president of the Puerto Rico Planning Society, a trade group representing community planners. But even a “very conservative” estimate would yield at least 260,000 illegally built houses, he said.

Generations of Puerto Rican governments never made serious efforts to enforce building codes to stop new illegal housing, current and former island officials said in interviews. Past administrations had little political or economic incentive to force people out of neighborhoods like Villa Hugo.

Former Governor Rafael Hernandez Colon, in office during Hurricane Hugo, said he tried to help informal homeowners without policing them. “Our policy was not to relocate, but rather improve those places,” Hernandez Colon said in an interview.

Subsequent administrations advocated similar policies; none made meaningful headway, partly because of Puerto Rico’s constant political turnover.

Today, informal communities provide a stark contrast to San Juan’s glittering resorts and bustling business districts. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz pointed to poor barrios like those near the city’s Martín Peña Channel, hidden behind the skyscrapers of the financial hub known as the Golden Mile.

“It’s not something I’m proud of, but we hide our poverty here,” Cruz said in an interview.

RECOVERY DILEMMA

The task of rebuilding Puerto Rico’s housing stock ultimately falls to the territory government, which has no ability to pay for it after racking up $120 billion in bond and pension debt in the years before the storm.

That leaves the island dependent on U.S. relief from FEMA, the SBA and HUD.

The SBA offers low-interest home repair loans of up to $200,000. FEMA provides homeowners with emergency grants, relocation assistance and other help. HUD is focused on long-term rebuilding efforts, working directly with local agencies to subsidize reconstruction through grants.

FEMA’s cap for disaster aid to individuals is $33,300, and actual awards are often much lower. Normally, FEMA eligibility for housing aid requires proving property ownership, but the agency says it will help owners of informal homes if they can prove residency.

How exactly to help gets complicated. For example, someone who builds their own home with no permits on land they own is more likely to be treated as a homeowner, said Justo Hernandez, FEMA’s deputy federal coordinating officer. Squatters who built on land they didn’t own, however, would likely only be given money to cover lost items and relocate to a rental, he said.

Several Villa Hugo residents said they received money from FEMA, but many didn’t know what it was for and complained it wasn’t enough.

Lourdes Rios Romero, 59, plans to appeal the $6,000 grant she got for repairs to her flooded home, citing a much higher contractor’s quote. Neighbor Miguel Rosario Lopez, a 62-year-old retiree, showed a statement from FEMA saying he was eligible for $916.22, “to perform essential repairs that will allow you to live in your home.”

Without money for major changes, most homeowners said they planned to combine the aid they might get from FEMA with what little money they could raise to rebuild in the same spot.

FEMA does not police illegal building. Code enforcement is left to the same local authorities who have allowed illegal construction to persist for years.

Quirindongo is planning to buy materials to rebuild his Villa Hugo home himself with about $4,000 from FEMA. It will be the third time he has done so, having lost one home to a 2011 flood, another to a fire.

“I just want to have something that I can say, ‘This is mine,’” Quirindongo said.

GIVING UP

Many others appear to have given up on FEMA aid because the agency’s application process is entangled with a separate process for awarding SBA loans to rebuild homes.

FEMA is legally bound to assess whether applicants might qualify for SBA loans before awarding them FEMA grants. If an applicant passes FEMA’s cursory eligibility assessment, they are automatically referred to SBA for a more thorough screening.

Applicants are not required to follow through on the SBA process – but they cannot qualify for FEMA aid unless they do. FEMA only provides a grant when the SBA denies the applicant a loan.

FEMA said it has referred about 520,000 people out of 1.1 million total applicants so far to the SBA. But as of Monday, only 59,000 followed through with SBA applications. Of those, some 12,000 later withdrew, SBA data shows.

“As soon as people see SBA they say, ‘I give up, I don’t want a loan – I can’t afford a loan,’” FEMA’s Hernandez said.

SBA spokeswoman Carol Chastang said the agency is working with FEMA to educate flood victims on available benefits and the application process, including sending staffers to applicants’ homes.

330,000 VACANT HOMES

Before the storm hit, Puerto Rico already had about 330,000 vacant homes, according to Census Bureau 2016 estimates, resulting from years of population decline as citizens migrated to the mainland United States and elsewhere. Puerto Ricans are American citizens and can move to the mainland at will.

Puerto Rico and federal officials have considered rehabilitating the vacant housing for short- and long-term use, along with building new homes and buying out homeowners in illegally built neighborhoods, according to Gil and federal officials.

Rosselló, the Puerto Rican governor, has said the rebuilding plan must include a fleet of properly built new homes. Gil, the housing secretary, said the administration would like to build as many as 70,000 properties.

HUD officials declined to comment on whether the agency would finance new housing. Its Community Development Block Grant program allows for local governments to design their own solutions and seek HUD approval for funding.

The cost of constructing enough new, code-compliant properties to house people displaced by Maria could far exceed the available federal aid. Making them affordable also presents a problem.

Puerto Rico’s subsidized “social interest housing,” geared toward low-income buyers, typically provides units that sell in the mid-$100,000 range, with prices capped by the government. That’s beyond the means of many displaced storm victims.

Gil offered little detail on a solution beyond saying it will include a mix of new development, buyout programs for owners of illegally built homes and other options.

The answer will come down to how much Washington is willing to pay, he said. He invoked the island’s territorial status and colonial history as a root cause of its poor infrastructure and housing stock before the storm.

“It is precisely because we have been neglected by the federal government that the island’s infrastructure is so weak,” he said.

Many Puerto Rico officials continue to advocate for bringing relief and legitimacy to squatter communities like Villa Hugo, rather than trying to relocate their residents.

Canovanas Mayor Lornna Soto has been negotiating with island officials to provide property titles to Villa Hugo’s population. The vast majority still don’t have them.

“It’s long overdue to recognize that they are not going anywhere and their communities need to be rebuilt with proper services,” Soto said.

Diaz said she supports her mother’s decision to return to Villa Hugo, regardless of what aid the government ultimately provides.

“I grew up there,” Diaz said. “Everyone knows us there.”

(Reporting by Nick Brown in Canóvanas, Puerto Rico; editing by Brian Thevenot)

Strong earthquake in southern Peru leaves one dead, scores injured

A man observes a damage building after a strong magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck the coast of southern Peru, in Acari, Arequipa , Peru, January 14, 2018.

By Marco Aquino

LIMA (Reuters) – A strong magnitude-7.1 earthquake struck the coast of southern Peru on Sunday morning, killing one person, injuring scores and causing homes and roads to collapse.

The quake hit offshore at 4:18 a.m. local time (0918 GMT) at a depth of around 36 km (22.4 miles), the U.S. Geological Survey said. The epicenter was in the Pacific Ocean 40 km from the town of Acari.

Arequipa Governor Yamila Osorio said on Twitter that a 55-year-old man died in the town of Yauca after being crushed by rocks. Jorge Chavez, chief of Peru’s Civil Defense Institute, told local radio station RPP that 65 people were injured.

Several municipalities lost electricity, and many roads and adobe houses collapsed, Osorio said. Many residents of Lomas, a coastal town, were evacuated after feeling an aftershock.

President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski traveled to the towns of Chala and Acari, two of the areas most affected by the quake, to assess the damages and coordinate the response. He said some 100 houses had collapsed.

A man and a child stand at debris of a building after a strong magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck the coast of southern Peru, in Acari, Arequipa , Peru, January 14, 2018.

A man and a child stand at debris of a building after a strong magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck the coast of southern Peru, in Acari, Arequipa , Peru, January 14, 2018. REUTERS/Diego Ramos

“We are going to send everything that is needed, such as tents for people whose homes were destroyed,” Kuczynski told reporters in Chala.

Earthquakes are common in Peru, but many homes are built with precarious materials that cannot withstand the tremors.

In 2007 an earthquake killed hundreds in the region of Ica.

Prime Minister Mercedes Araoz said at a news conference in Lima that the government would declare a state of emergency in the affected zones to allow for faster reconstruction of roads and homes. Devastating floods last year resulted in $8 billion in rebuilding costs.

Peruvian maritime authorities said the quake did not produce a tsunami on the coast. In the morning, officials said a second person had died and that 17 people were missing in a mine, but later withdrew the reports.

Peru is the world’s No. 2 copper producer, although many mines in the south are located far inland from the quake’s epicenter. A Southern Copper Corp representative said there were no reports of damage at its Cuajone and Toquepala mines.

Jesus Revilla, a union leader at the Cerro Verde copper mine in Arequipa, said there were no reports that operations had been affected.

The quake was also felt in northern Chile, Peru’s southern neighbor, but authorities said there was no tsunami risk.

(Reporting by Marco Aquino and Luc Cohen; Additional reporting by Antonio de la Jara in Santiago; Editing by Louise Heavens, Lisa Von Ahn and Jeffrey Benkoe)