Puerto Rico slowly brings back electricity after powerful earthquake

By Luis Valentin Ortiz

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Puerto Rico’s power grid crept back to service on Wednesday after it was shut down entirely as a safety measure on Tuesday amid a storm of earthquakes including the most powerful to strike the Caribbean island in 102 years.

The temblors including one of magnitude 6.4 killed at least one person and flattened homes across the southern coast, provoking a state of emergency on the island of 3 million people and the activation of the National Guard.

Nearly 500,000 of the island’s 1.5 million customers had service on Wednesday morning, up from 100,000 the night before, and the island was generating about 542 megawatts of electricity, the power authority AEE said, still short of the demand of some 2,000 megawatts.

The large Costa Sur plant suffered severe damage and remained out of service, though Governor Wanda Vazquez said on Tuesday power should be restored to most of the island within 48 hours provided there were no more earthquakes.

Puerto Ricans endured lengthy power outages in 2017 following devastating Hurricane Maria, one of a series of natural and man-made disasters to afflict the U.S. territory in recent years. The island is also going through bankruptcy and its former governor resigned amid a political scandal and massive street protests last year.

Vazquez ordered schools and other public offices closed while emergency responders searched crumpled buildings for possible victims and engineers inspected others for safety.

Some Puerto Ricans in the hard-hit south of the island moved beds outside on Tuesday night and slept outdoors, fearful their homes would crumble if another earthquake hit, Vazquez said.

Hundreds of quakes have touched the island, including 10 of magnitude 4 or greater, since Dec. 28, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

Around 750 people spent the night in shelters in southern towns hit hardest, the government reported.

Bottled water, batteries and flashlights ran low at supermarkets in the capital San Juan and long lines formed outside gas stations. Backup generators kept the city’s international airport functioning.

Puerto Ricans are used to dealing with hurricanes but powerful quakes are rare.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty, this is the first time this has happened to us,” said Patricia Alonso, 48, who lost power and water at her home and headed to her mother’s apartment building with her 13-year-old son as it had a generator.

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said on Tuesday that aid had been made available for earthquake response efforts.

(Reporting by Luis Valentin Ortiz; Additional reporting by Andrew Hay and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and David Gregorio)

California’s PG&E customers face new round of mass outages

By Steve Gorman

(Reuters) – Power supply to about 150,000 California homes and businesses is expected to be shut off on Wednesday, in the latest precautionary outage planned by utility giant PG&E against wildfire risks posed by extremely dry, windy weather.

Late on Tuesday, the company said it would go forward with the shutoffs from 9 a.m., with some customers likely to be unaffected until late afternoon.

The mass blackout will be the fourth imposed by Pacific Gas & Electric Co, a unit of PG&E Corp, since Oct. 9, when about 730,000 customers were left in the dark as a preventive measure called a “public safety power shutoff.”

A precautionary outage initiated on Oct. 23 hit an estimated 179,000 customers, while another run in phases from Oct. 26 through Nov. 1 affected a record 941,000 homes and workplaces, according to PG&E.

The latest mass shutoff is likely to run through midday Thursday and could ultimately affect 181,000 customers across portions of 16 counties in northern and central California, PG&E spokeswoman Katie Allen told Reuters.

The outages are a response to forecasts for humidity levels to drop and heavy desert winds to howl through the region, a scenario that strengthens the risk of wildfires ignited by downed power lines.

Wind gusts will reach between 35 mph and 55 miles (56 km to 89 km), with isolated areas of higher gusts, National Weather Service forecasters said.

PG&E, California’s largest investor-owned utility, filed for bankruptcy in January, citing $30 billion in civil liability from major fires sparked by its equipment in 2017 and 2018.

That tally includes the state’s deadliest fire on record, the Camp fire that killed 85 people in and around the northern town of Paradise last year.

The recent wave of precautionary shutoffs has provoked criticism from Governor Gavin Newsom, state regulators and consumer activists as being too broad.

Newsom blames PG&E for doing too little to properly maintain and secure its power lines against wind damage and has accused the utility of poorly managing some of the mass outages.

Utility executives have acknowledged room for improvement while defending the sprawling cutoffs as a matter of public safety.

The California Public Utilities Commission recently opened a formal investigation of whether PG&E and other utilities violated energy regulations by cutting power to millions of residents for days at a time during periods of high winds.

Even as northern California braced for heightened wildfire risks, parts of Southern California, including Los Angeles, were expected to be doused by their first substantial showers after months of little or no rainfall.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Culver City, Calif.; Additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Clarence Fernandez)

Hurricane Dorian hits North Carolina’s Outer Banks

A fallen tree and flood waters sit in a hotel parking lot after Hurricane Dorian swept through, in Wilmington, North Carolina, U.S., September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

By Amanda Becker

ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. (Reuters) – Hurricane Dorian made landfall on the Outer Banks of North Carolina on Friday, hitting the beach resort area with powerful winds and battering waves days after reducing parts of the Bahamas to rubble.

The storm, packing 90-mile-per-hour winds (150 km-per-hour) made landfall at Cape Hatteras at about 9 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT), according to the National Hurricane Center.

It lashed the Outer Banks with hurricane-force winds as far as 45 miles (72 km) from the center of the hurricane and sent tropical storm winds farther than 200 miles (320 km) from its center, the NHC said.

It has already dumped up to 10 inches (25 cm) of rain along the coast between Charleston, South Carolina, to Wilmington, North Carolina, about 170 miles (275 km) away, forecasters said.

“The rain is moving up north,” said National Weather Service forecaster Alex Lamers early on Friday. “Even the Raleigh-Durham area inland will get 3 inches today.”

Dorian is expected to push out to sea later on Friday and bring tropical storm winds to Nantucket Island and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, early on Saturday.

But it will likely spare much of the rest of the East Coast the worst of its rain and wind, before likely making landfall in Canada’s Nova Scotia that night, the NHC said.

“It’s in the process of moving out, going north,” Lamers said.

The howling west flank of Dorian has soaked the Carolinas since early Thursday, flooding coastal towns, whipping up more than a dozen tornadoes and cutting power to hundreds of thousands of people.

Floodwaters rose to a foot (30 cm) or more in parts of the historic South Carolina port city of Charleston, where more than 7 inches (18 cm) of rain fell in some areas, officials said. Another half-inch or more was expected overnight Friday.

More than 330,000 homes and businesses were without power in North Carolina and South Carolina on Friday morning. Power had mostly been restored to thousands of people in Georgia, tracking site poweroutage.us showed.

But as Dorian is expected to pick up speed from its 14 mph (22 kph) crawl on Friday, life-threatening storm surges and dangerous winds remain a threat for much of the area and Virginia, the National Hurricane Center said.

Governors in the region declared states of emergency, shut schools, opened shelters, readied National Guard troops and urged residents to heed warnings, as news media circulated fresh images of the storm’s devastation in the Bahamas.

At least 70,000 Bahamians needed immediate humanitarian relief after Dorian became the most damaging storm ever to hit the island nation.

A city park and playground are inundated with flood waters from Hurricane Dorian in Wilmington, North Carolina, U.S., September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

A city park and playground are inundated with flood waters from Hurricane Dorian in Wilmington, North Carolina, U.S., September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

In the Carolinas alone, more than 900,000 people had been ordered to evacuate their homes. It was unclear how many did so.

In Kill Devil Hills in the Outer Banks, Mark Jennings decided to ignore the order, lining his garage door with sandbags and boarding up his home with plywood.

The retired firefighter planned to stay put with his wife and two dogs, saying: “We are ready to go. If something happens, we can still get out of here.”

Dorian whipped up at least three tornadoes in the region, officials said. One in North Carolina damaged scores of trailers at a campground in Emerald Isle, but no one was injured, the News & Observer said.

Of at least four storm-related deaths reported in the United States, three were in Orange County, Florida, during storm preparations or evacuation, the mayor’s office said.

In North Carolina, an 85-year-old man fell off a ladder while barricading his home for Dorian, the governor said.

(Reporting by Nick Carey in Charleston, South Carolina, and Amanda Becker in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen, Peter Szekely, Matt Lavietes and Scott DiSavino in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Alison Williams, Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Venezuelans set up burning barricades over lack of power, water

Demonstrators set up a fire barricade at a protest against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela March 31, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Deisy Buitrago

CARACAS (Reuters) – Angry Venezuelans set up burning barricades near the presidential palace in Caracas and in other parts of the country on Sunday in protests over constant power outages and shortages of drinking water in the wake of two major blackouts this month.

The situation has fueled frustration with the government of President Nicolas Maduro and frayed nerves as schools and much of the nation’s commerce have been interrupted by problems with public services for nearly three weeks.

Protesters, some carrying rocks and their faces covered, burned tires and tree trunks along a stretch of downtown Caracas as they demanded Maduro improve the situation.

“We’re here fighting for water and power, we’ve gone twenty-some days without water,” said Yofre Gamez, 32, an informal vendor. “They put the power on for two hours, then turn it off at night, it comes on the next day for half an hour and then it goes off again – we’re tired of this.”

A Reuters witness heard shots ring out as Gamez spoke.

Demonstrators reported that one woman had been injured by gunfire, which they attributed to pro-government gangs. Reuters was unable to confirm who fired the shots.

Similar protests took place in other parts of the country, including the central state of Carabobo, where demonstrators burned tires and blocked roads, according to witnesses.

Rights group Penal Forum said that 12 people were arrested nationwide in protests against public services.

Venezuela suffered a week-long nationwide blackout starting on March 7 that left hospitals unable to attend to the sick and businesses giving away perishable food before it rotted.

The power went out again on March 25 and has been intermittent since.

Maduro in a televised broadcast on Sunday night announced a 30-day plan of “load management regime to balance the process of generation and transmission with consumption,” a phrase widely interpreted on social media as power rationing.

He did not offer further details on how this would work. Maduro first mentioned load management last week.

Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez said in a statement on Sunday that school activities, which were called off for most of last week, would remain suspended. Business hours will run only until 2 p.m., he said.

The government has offered a variety of explanations for the blackouts, ranging from Washington-backed cyberattacks to opposition-linked snipers causing fires at the country’s main hydroelectric dam.

Critics insist it is the result of more than a decade of corruption and incompetent management of the power system, which the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez nationalized in 2007.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who is recognized by most Western nations as Venezuela’s legitimate head of state, has called on residents to organize at the neighborhood level to demand better services.

Guaido in January invoked the constitution to assume the interim presidency, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was fraudulent and that he usurped power when he was sworn in for a second term.

Maduro calls Guaido a puppet of the United States, which he says is seeking to force him from office through a coup.

Washington has levied crippling sanctions against Maduro’s government in an effort to push him from power. He has hung on in large part thanks to the continued loyalty of top military commanders.

(Reporting by Deisy Buitrago; writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Phil Berlowitz, Dan Grebler and Michael Perry)

Venezuela blackout drags into third day, Maduro announces ‘load management’

Locals gather outside a closed store during a blackout in Caracas, Venezuela March 27, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

By Vivian Sequera and Tibisay Romero

CARACAS/VALENCIA, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido on Wednesday called on supporters to take to the streets this weekend to protest a nationwide power outage, while President Nicolas Maduro announced a “load management” plan for the coming days.

Residents scrambled to find food and water as businesses closed and school was canceled in the second major blackout this month. Power went out in much of the country on Monday afternoon, less than two weeks after electricity was restored following the worst blackout in Venezuela’s history.

“The time has come to agitate in every state, in every community, to get water back, get electricity back, get gas back,” said Guaido, the leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

Guaido, who invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency in January, arguing President Nicolas Maduro’s May 2018 re-election was illegitimate, said the protest was scheduled for Saturday, without offering further details.

In an appearance by telephone on state television on Wednesday night, Maduro blamed the more recent blackout on a “terrorist attack” on the country’s Guri hydroelectric complex, which supplies power to most of the country, by the “perverse right-wing.”

“Thanks to Corpoelec workers we will be guaranteeing service,” Maduro said, referring to the state electricity company. “But we will need to apply a load management plan in the coming days.”

Maduro did not provide details of the plan. He said that school and work activities would be suspended on Thursday, and called on supporters to take to the streets on Saturday – the same day Guaido called a protest.

Guaido and opposition critics have said the outages are the result of a decade of corruption and mismanagement.

Power had returned to around half the country’s 24 states on Tuesday night, but went out again at dawn on Wednesday.

While blackouts have long been common in the OPEC member nation, particularly outside of capital Caracas, their increasing frequency and severity have left residents concerned that intermittent power may be the new normal.

“I think this is going to be worse than the first blackout,” said Julio Barrios, 60, an accountant in Caracas who was looking for open stores to buy food or ice. “A lot of people want to work but there’s no transportation, and if there’s nobody working the country will be paralyzed.”

In the western agriculture-heavy state of Tachira, more than 100,000 liters (26,000 gallons) of milk spoiled after 40 hours without electricity for refrigeration, according to Leonardo Figueroa, the head of the state ranchers’ association.

‘GET OUT’

In Valencia, Venezuela’s third-largest city, residents without electricity or gas in their homes cut wood off trees to cook food before it rotted.

“I am searching for wood because there is no gas in this oil-producing country, there are no public services,” said Morris de Castro, a lawyer. “It is impossible to live a normal life and we feel like we are falling backwards.”

Guaido has been recognized as Venezuela’s rightful leader by most Western and South American countries, and the United States has hit Maduro’s government with sanctions meant to cripple the Socialist Party’s sources of income.

But Maduro has held on thanks to continued loyalty by top military commanders and diplomatic support from Russia and China, who accuse the United States of seeking a coup against him. Two Russian air force planes carrying nearly 100 troops landed outside Caracas on Saturday, escalating tensions.

While hosting Guaido’s wife, journalist Fabiana Rosales, in the White House on Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump said “Russia has to get out” and that “all options are open” as to how to make that happen.

Russia has said the visit is part of a military technical cooperation agreement with Venezuela.

The blackout has harmed the oil industry, the lifeblood of Venezuela’s struggling economy. The country’s main oil export port of Jose and four crude upgraders, needed to convert Venezuela’s heavy oil into exportable grades, have been halted since Monday, industry sources said.

“Power came back at around 10 a.m., but we still were not in a condition to restart,” a worker at one of the upgraders said, adding that workers would attempt to restart the facilities later on Wednesday.

Julio Castro of non-profit organization Doctors for Health said an 81-year-old woman died on Tuesday in a hospital in the central state of Aragua because the elevators were not functioning and she could not get to the area where she could receive treatment.

The group said 24 people died during the previous blackout in public hospitals due to problems caused by the lack of power.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera and Deisy Buitrago in Caracas and Tibisay Romero in Valencia, Additional reporting by Diego Ore in Caracas, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal and Mircely Guanipa in Punto Fijo; writing by Brian Ellsworth and Luc Cohen; editing by Susan Thomas, Rosalba O’Brien & Simon Cameron-Moore)

Venezuela blackout leaves streets empty, school and work canceled

Commercial area is pictured during a blackout in Caracas, Venezuela March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

By Vivian Sequera and Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela canceled work and school on Tuesday as the second major blackout this month left streets mostly empty in Caracas and residents of the capital wondering how long power would be out amid a deepening economic and political crisis.

President Nicolas Maduro’s Socialist government, which blamed the United States and the opposition for the previous power cut, blamed an “attack” on its electrical system for the blackout that first hit on Monday. The outage shuttered businesses, plunged the city’s main airport into darkness and left commuters stranded in Caracas.

The blackout came amid tensions with the United States over the weekend arrival of Russian military planes, which led Washington to accuse Moscow of “reckless escalation” of the country’s situation.

Russia, which has major energy investments in OPEC member Venezuela, has remained a staunch ally of Maduro, while the United States and most other Western nations have endorsed opposition leader Juan Guaido.

Citing the constitution, Guaido in January assumed the interim presidency, saying Maduro’s re-election last year was fraudulent. Maduro says Guaido is a U.S. puppet attempting to lead a coup against him and has blamed worsening economic difficulties on sanctions imposed by Washington.

Power was restored to much of the country by Monday evening but went out again during the night.

Western cities, including Maracaibo and Barquisimeto, both in the west of the South American country, as well as the central city of Valencia, had no power on Tuesday, according to witnesses.

Many people on Caracas’ streets went to work because they did not know about the government’s suspension of the workday, which was announced by the presidential press office in a 4 a.m. (0800 GMT) tweet.

“How am I supposed to find out, if there’s no power and no internet?” said dental assistant Yolanda Gonzalez, 50, waiting for the bus near a Caracas plaza. “Power’s going to get worse, you’ll see.”

Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez on Monday said the blackout that began in the early afternoon was the result of an attack on Venezuela’s main hydroelectric Guri dam which had affected three major transmission lines.

Rodriguez did not explicitly blame Monday’s outage on any particular individual or group. But he said, “the intention of Venezuela’s far right is to attack, generate anxiety and anguish, in order to seize power and steal all our resources.”

The country suffered its worst blackout ever starting on March 7. For nearly a week it left millions of people struggling to obtain food and water and hospitals without power to treat the sick. Looting in the western state of Zulia destroyed hundreds of businesses.

Electricity experts say the outages are the result of inadequate maintenance and incompetent management of the power grid since the late President Hugo Chávez nationalized the sector in 2007.

Russia, which has warned Washington against military intervention in Venezuela, declined to comment on the planes on Tuesday or respond to the accusations from the U.S. State Department.

Venezuelan Socialist Party Vice President Diosdado Cabello confirmed that two planes had flown to the country from Russia during the weekend, but he did not give a reason or say whether they carried troops.

In 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump said the “military option” was on the table regarding Venezuela, prompting a strong backlash from regional leaders wary of U.S. troops being deployed to Latin American soil.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio – like Trump, a Republican – on Tuesday wrote on Twitter, “I hope the members of Congress & the regional leaders who said they opposed U.S. ‘military intervention’ in #Venezuela will be just as forceful now that #Russia is sending (its) military to Venezuela.”

(Reporting by Diego Oré and Vivian Sequera; writing by Brian Ellsworth; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Venezuelans scramble for food and water as oil exports hit by blackout

A security force member stands next to detainees on a street after looting during an ongoing blackout in Caracas, Venezuela March 10, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Vivian Sequera and Anggy Polanco

CARACAS/SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela (Reuters) – Much of Venezuela, including parts of the capital Caracas, remained without power on Monday for a fifth day, crimping vital oil exports and leaving people struggling to obtain water and food.

President Nicolas Maduro, who has blamed the unprecedented blackout on sabotage by the United States at Venezuela’s Guri hydroelectric dam, again ordered the suspension of classes and the working day, as he had on Friday.

FILE PHOTO: People queue to try to buy potable water during a blackout in Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela March 10, 2019. REUTERS/William Urdaneta NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.

FILE PHOTO: People queue to try to buy potable water during a blackout in Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela March 10, 2019. REUTERS/William Urdaneta NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.

Sources in the energy sector, OPEC member Venezuela’s main source of foreign earnings and a vital generator of revenue for Maduro’s government, said that exports from the main oil terminal of Jose had been halted by the blackouts.

The opposition-controlled congress called an emergency session to discuss the power cuts, blaming negligence by Maduro’s socialist government.

Maduro’s rule is being challenged by Congress leader Juan Guaido, who in January invoked the constitution to assume the presidency after declaring Maduro’s 2018 re-election a fraud.

Guaido has been recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate leader by the United States and most Western countries, but Maduro retains control of the armed forces and state institutions.

The blackout, which began Thursday afternoon, has heightened frustration among Venezuelans already suffering widespread food and medicine shortages, as the once-prosperous nation’s economy suffers a hyperinflationary collapse.

Food has rotted in refrigerators, hospitals have struggled to keep equipment operating, and people have clustered on the streets of Caracas to pick up patchy telephone signals to reach relatives abroad. On Monday, people formed lines to fill containers with water from the streams cascading down the mountain overlooking Caracas.

“This is driving me crazy,” said Naile Gonzalez in Chacaito, a commercial neighborhood of Caracas. “The government doesn’t want to accept that this is their fault because they haven’t carried out any maintenance in years.”

Experts consulted by Reuters believe the nationwide blackout originated in transmission lines that transport energy from the Guri hydroelectric plant to the Venezuelan south.

Venezuela’s electricity network has suffered from years of underinvestment and lack of maintenance. Restrictions on imports have affected the provision of spare parts, while many skilled technical personnel have fled the country amid an exodus of more than three million Venezuelans in three years.

In the early hours of Monday morning, a power substation in southeastern Caracas exploded, cutting off supply to nearby areas, according to Reuters witnesses.

State television on Monday confirmed the incident, which it said left no injuries. It said the cause was being investigated but provided no further details.

Other regions, such as the Andean city of San Cristobal near the border with Colombia, were without electricity on Monday, a Reuters witness said.

The lack of electricity has aggravated a crisis in Venezuelan hospitals, also lacking investment and maintenance in addition to the shortage of medicines.

Dr Julio Castro, of the non-governmental group Doctors for Health, said in a Twitter message on Sunday night that 21 people have died in public hospitals since the start of the blackout.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera and Anggy Polanco; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Grant McCool)

Venezuela grinds to a halt as blackout drags into a second day

A general view of a street during a blackout in Caracas, Venezuela March 8, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

By Vivian Sequera and Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela shut schools and suspended the workday on Friday as the worst blackout in decades paralyzed most of the troubled nation for a second day, spurring outrage among citizens already suffering from hyperinflation and a crippling recession.

Power went out late on Thursday afternoon due to a problem at Venezuela’s main hydroelectric plant, the government said, calling the event an act of “sabotage” by ideological adversaries.

“We will once again defeat this electrical sabotage. We are going to recover this important service for the population,” Vice President Delcy Rodriguez said in comments broadcast over state television.

While blackouts are routine in many Venezuelan provinces, particularly along the western border with Colombia, nationwide power outages under the ruling Socialist Party have never extended for more than a day.

“This is a severe problem. It is not just any blackout,” said Luis Martinez, a 53-year-old construction worker walking to work in eastern Caracas.

Reuters witnesses could only confirm that lights were on in the southern city of Puerto Ordaz. It was not immediately clear if the power shortages affected oil operations in the OPEC nation.

State oil company PDVSA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In Caracas, scores of people walked through the streets early in the morning due to the closure of the metro, while others took the few buses that were circulating. Many did not realize the workday was suspended because they could not watch television or listen to the news.

SABOTAGE

President Nicolas Maduro always attributes major power outages to sabotage by opposition adversaries.

Maduro, who was re-elected last year in a vote widely viewed as fraudulent, blames the crisis on a U.S.-backed sabotage campaign.

His critics say his government has mismanaged the power sector since late socialist leader Hugo Chavez nationalized it in 2007 while setting aside billions of dollars for power projects that were swallowed by corruption.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido slammed the government for bungling the country’s energy supply and dismissed sabotage accusations.

“Sabotage is stealing money from Venezuelans. Sabotage is burning food and medicine. Sabotage is stealing elections,” he wrote via Twitter, referring to humanitarian aid trucks that went up in flames last month when opposition leaders attempted to bring relief supplies across the Colombian border.

More than 3 million people are believed to have fled Venezuela amid a deep economic crisis marked by shortages of food and medicine and hyperinflation.

Venezuela suffered major blackouts in 2008 and 2013 that affected significant parts of the country, but both were resolved in less than six hours.

Maduro’s televised speeches have on several occasions been interrupted by power outages, spurring chuckles from opposition critics.

Local power outages continue to be chronic, particularly in the sweltering western state of Zulia where residents complain of days without power or with limited electricity and voltage fluctuations that damage appliances.

Venezuela is mired in a major political crisis, with more than 40 foreign governments disavowing Maduro in favor of Guaido. The United States in January levied crippling oil industry sanctions meant to starve Maduro’s government of revenue.

Maduro says Guaido is a “puppet” of Washington and dismisses his claim to the presidency as an effort by the Trump administration to control Venezuela’s oil wealth.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera and Brian Ellsworth,; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Chizu Nomiyama and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Heavy snowstorm kills three, snarls travel in U.S. Southeast

An aerial view shows snow over the Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, U.S. in this still image taken from a social media video. Nelson Aerial Productions/via REUTERS

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – An intense snowstorm headed out to sea on Monday after dumping up to 2 feet (60 cm) of snow on parts of the Southeastern United States, leaving three people dead in North Carolina and some 138,000 customers in the region still without power.

School districts across North and South Carolina and Virginia canceled classes for the day and emergency officials warned that heavy snow and icy roads were slowing their responses to problems such as hundreds of stranded motorists.

The storm dropped its heaviest snow in the appropriately named Whitetop, Virginia, tucked in the Appalachian Mountains along the western end of the Virginia-North Carolina border, the U.S. National Weather Service said. Whitetop received 2 feet of snow, while Greensboro, North Carolina, had 16 inches (41 cm) and Durham, North Carolina, got 14 inches (36 cm).

Slippery conditions on roadways in central and western North Carolina and southwest Virginia were expected on Monday night as temperatures were forecast to drop below freezing, Daniel Petersen, NWS meteorologist, said.

But temperatures were expected to rise later in the week, reaching into the 50s F in North Carolina east of the mountains on Friday, when there is a chance of rain.

There were three storm-related deaths, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper’s office said in a statement. A person died from a heart-related condition while en route to a shelter, and a terminally ill woman died when her oxygen device stopped working.

A motorist also died and a passenger was injured in Matthews in southwestern North Carolina on Sunday when a tree fell on their vehicle as it was traveling, Matthews police officials said in a statement.

The number of customers without power in the Carolinas and Virginia had decreased to about 138,000 by Monday evening from more than 220,000, Poweroutage.us reported.

The storm prompted the cancellation of one in four flights into and out of Charlotte/Douglas International Airport, the sixth-busiest in the country, and other airports across the region, flight-tracking website FlightAware said.

The mayor of Greensboro, North Carolina, Nancy Vaughan, who declared a state of emergency for the city on Sunday, said online that its police and fire departments had responded to over 100 accidents and 450 stranded motorists.

“Stay off the roads if you can,” Vaughan tweeted on Monday.

More than 100 counties across Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia delayed or canceled classes on Monday because of severe weather.

(Reporting by Rich McKay; Additional reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago, Gina Cherelus and Maria Caspani in New York and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Richard Chang and Peter Cooney)

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)