With Venezuela in collapse, towns slip into primitive isolation

A man weighs coffee beans, given as a means of payment, in a hardware store in Guarico, Venezuela April 24, 2019. Picture taken April 24, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.

By Corina Pons

PATANEMO, Venezuela (Reuters) – At the once-busy beach resort of Patanemo, tourism has evaporated over the last two years as Venezuela’s economic collapse has deepened and deteriorating cellphone service left visitors too afraid of robbery to brave the isolated roads.

Gone are the vendors who once walked the sands of the crescent-shaped beach hawking bathing suits and empanadas – a traditional savory pastry.

These days, its Caribbean shoreline flanked by forested hills receives a different type of visitor: people who walk 10 minutes from a nearby town carrying rice, plantains or bananas in hopes of exchanging them for the fishermen’s latest catch.

With bank notes made useless by hyperinflation, and no easy access to the debit card terminals widely used to conduct transactions in urban areas, residents of Patanemo rely mainly on barter.

It is just one of a growing number of rural towns slipping into isolation as Venezuela’s economy implodes amid a long-running political crisis.

From the peaks of the Andes to Venezuela’s sweltering southern savannahs, the collapse of basic services including power, telephone and internet has left many towns struggling to survive.

The subsistence economy stands in stark contrast to the oil boom years when abundance seeped into the most remote reaches of what was once Latin America’s richest nation.

“The fish that we catch is to exchange or give away,” said Yofran Arias, one of 15 fishermen who have grown accustomed to a rustic existence even though they live a 15-minute drive from Venezuela’s main port of Puerto Cabello.

“Money doesn’t buy anything so it’s better for people to bring food so we can give them fish,” he said, while cleaning bonefish, known for abundant bones and limited commercial value.

In visits to three villages across Venezuela, Reuters reporters saw residents exchanging fish, coffee beans and hand-picked fruit for essentials to make ends meet in an economy that shrank 48% during the first five years of President Nicolas Maduro’s government, according to recent central bank figures.

Venezuela’s crisis has taken a heavy toll on rural areas, where the number of households in poverty reached 74% in 2017 compared with 34% in the capital of Caracas, according to an annual survey called Encovi carried out by private Venezuelan universities.

Residents rarely travel to nearby cities, due to a lack of public transportation, growing fuel shortages and the prohibitive cost of consumer goods.

In some regions, travel requires negotiating roads barricaded by residents looking to steal from travelers. At one such roadblock in eastern Venezuela, a Reuters witness saw a driver fire gunshots in the air to disperse a crowd

“I haven’t been to the city center in almost two years. What would I do there? I don’t have enough (money) to buy a shirt or a pair of shorts,” said a fisherman in Patanemo who identified himself only as Luis.

“I’m better off here swapping things to survive.”

COFFEE FOR FUEL

Venezuela is suffering one of the worst economic collapses in modern history. Inflation has topped 1 million percent, according to figures released by the opposition-run congress. The United Nations says 4 million citizens have fled Venezuela, 3.3 million of them since 2015.

A fisherman carries a plastic bag full of fish that can be used as a means of payment at a fishermen's camp in Patanemo, Venezuela May 17, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

A fisherman carries a plastic bag full of fish that can be used as a means of payment at a fishermen’s camp in Patanemo, Venezuela May 17, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

Maduro blames the situation on an “economic war” waged by his political adversaries as well as U.S. sanctions that have hobbled the oil industry and prevented his government from borrowing abroad.

The central bank in April released economic indicators for the first time in the nearly four years, showing a less severe cataclysm than figures published by Congress. But the bank’s data underscored a dramatic contraction and spiraling consumer prices, nonetheless.

The bolivar has lost 99% of its value since Maduro took office in 2013.

In the mountains of the central state of Lara, residents of the town of Guarico this year found a different way of paying bills – coffee beans.

Residents of the coffee-growing region now exchange roasted beans for anything from haircuts to spare parts for agricultural machinery.

“Based on the cost of the product, we agree with the customer on the kilos or number of bags of coffee that they have to pay,” said hardware store manager Haideliz Linares.

The transactions are based on a reference price for how much coffee fetches on the local market, Linares said. In April, one kilo (2.2 pounds) of beans was worth the equivalent of $3.00.

In El Tocuyo, another town in Lara state, three 100 kilo sacks of coffee buy 200 liters (53 gallons) of gasoline, which is in increasingly short supply in the OPEC nation due to chronic operational problems at state oil company PDVSA.

Keila Ovalles works in her garden to harvest vegetables and fruit, which she uses to for bartering, in Borburata, Venezuela May 17, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

Keila Ovalles works in her garden to harvest vegetables and fruit, which she uses to for bartering, in Borburata, Venezuela May 17, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

In Borburata, another town a few miles from Patanemo, Keila Ovalles harvests eggplant, tomato and passion fruit in the backyard of her modest home. She said it was similar to the way her family lived in the early 20th century.

She stopped drinking coffee after being unable to pay for it, and now makes tea out of lemongrass instead.

“I tell the guys that I’m swapping passion fruit for something else, they spread the word and someone always comes,” said the 55-year-old woman.

(Reporting by Corina Pons; additional reporting by Keren Torres in Guarico, Tibisay Romero in Valencia and Angus Berwick in Cumana; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Tom Brown)

Tornadoes kill three, hit U.S. Plains state capital

Damage is seen on a street after a tornado in Jefferson City, Missouri, U.S. May 23, 2019, in this image taken from social media. Tyler Thompson/via REUTERS T

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – Tornadoes killed at least three people in southwest Missouri and slammed into the state capital just before midnight on Wednesday, with rescue workers in Jefferson City searching into the morning for the injured, officials said.

The St. Louis office of the National Weather Service confirmed that reported twisters hit near Joplin, Mo., late Wednesday, and local media including the Joplin Globe reported at least three dead.

No other information about the deaths was immediately available from officials early Thursday.

The NWS reported that a “massive” twister also hit the southeastern part of Jefferson City, damaging buildings, toppling trees and power lines and tossing around parked cars.

There were no immediate reports of fatalities in the city as of early Thursday, said Jared Maples, a meteorologist with the NWS St. Louis office.

A damaged sign is seen after a tornado in Jefferson City, Missouri, U.S. May 23, 2019, in this still image taken from video obtained from social media. Jared Sheneman/via REUTERS

A damaged sign is seen after a tornado in Jefferson City, Missouri, U.S. May 23, 2019, in this still image taken from video obtained from social media. Jared Sheneman/via REUTERS

The Jefferson City Fire Department was sending rescuers house-to-house searching for people in need, officials posted on social media, with reports of people trapped in debris.

“We’re doing okay but praying for those that were caught in damage, some still trapped,” Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said on Twitter early Thursday.

Maples said, “As of this morning, the main parts of the storms have pushed eastward, thank goodness,” leaving the region to deal with just another expected two inches of rain through Friday.

At least three other people have been killed since Monday in Oklahoma and Iowa in a string of at least 30 tornadoes, heavy rains and floods that hit a swath from Texas to Illinois since Monday.

Residents in sections of Jefferson were under orders to evacuate Thursday ahead of the expected crest of the Missouri River at least 2 feet above the 30-foot high levees.

Rainfall is predicted to be about 2 inches (5 cm) across eastern Kansas, Oklahoma, and into western Missouri, with localized spots getting up to 5 inches (13 cm), forecasters said.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, Editing by William Maclean)

Heavy rain and widespread power outages hit southeast Texas, Louisiana

Rainfall and flooding for 5-10-19 - 5-11-19 National Weather Service

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – Hailstones the size of golf balls accompanied by as much as four inches of rain pelted the U.S. Gulf coast from Texas to Louisiana, flooding highways, downing power lines and closing some schools, officials said.

About 150,000 homes and businesses in Texas were without electricity early Friday and another 15,000 customers were in the dark in Louisiana, local power companies said.

“Most of this storm developed right over Houston Thursday evening,” said Patrick Burke, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center.

“Some of the rainfall was outlandishly fast,” Burke said. “Several of our reliable rain-spotters reported seeing multiple inches of rain in under an hour. That much water in a short time just accelerates the amount of damage that can happen.”

There were no confirmed reports of tornadoes overnight, but the rain comes atop several days of heavy precipitation. Some southeastern Texas communities received a total of 10 inches of rain since Tuesday, according to AccuWeather meteorologists.

Houston’s 209,000 public school students got the day off as the city’s Independent School District, the state’s largest school system, said it was shutting down its 280 campuses on Friday because of inclement weather.

Police did not have an assessment of damage or injuries early Friday, but the Houston Chronicle reported that parts of the U.S. Interstate 10 highway in the city was closed late Thursday in east Houston, stranding at least 40 motorists.

The Houston Fire Department rescued two people from a submerged car that flipped into a rain-filled ditch late Thursday, the Chronicle and other media reported.

Burke said the worst of the storm had pushed off eastward early Friday.

“The only good news is that the storm didn’t linger,” he said. “But Louisiana, Mississippi, western Alabama and southern Tennessee are all under the gun today.”

Flash flood warnings and flood watches were in effect from east Texas to Knoxville, Tennessee.

Danger persists from additional flooding along the southern Mississippi River and its tributaries, officials said.

More rain is in the forecast for the area this weekend, Burke said.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Additional reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Peter Graff and Steve Orlofsky)

Venezuela’s Guaido calls for uprising but military loyal to Maduro for now

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognised as the country's rightful interim ruler, talks to supporters in Caracas, Venezuela April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Vivian Sequera, Angus Berwick and Luc Cohen

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido on Tuesday made his strongest call yet to the military to help him oust President Nicolas Maduro but there were no concrete signs of defection from the armed forces leadership.

Early on Tuesday, several dozen armed troops accompanying Guaido clashed with soldiers supporting Maduro at a rally in Caracas, and large anti-government protests in the streets turned violent. But by Tuesday afternoon an uneasy peace had returned and there was no indication that the opposition planned to take power through military force.

Opposition demonstrators take cover from tear gas on a street near the Generalisimo Francisco de Miranda Airbase "La Carlota" in Caracas, Venezuela April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Opposition demonstrators take cover from tear gas on a street near the Generalisimo Francisco de Miranda Airbase “La Carlota” in Caracas, Venezuela April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN that “as we understand it” Maduro had been ready to depart for socialist ally Cuba, but had been persuaded to stay by Russia, which has also been a steadfast supporter.

In a message posted on his social media accounts on Tuesday evening, Guaido told supporters to take to the streets once again on Wednesday. He reiterated his call for the armed forces to take his side and said Maduro did not have the military’s support.

“Today Venezuela has the opportunity to peacefully rebel against a tyrant who is closing himself in,” Guaido said.

Maduro appeared in a state television broadcast on Tuesday night flanked by Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino and socialist party Vice President Diosdado Cabello, among others.

“Today the goal was a big show,” Maduro said, referring to the military members who sided with Guaido as a “small group.” “Their plan failed, their call failed, because Venezuela wants peace.”

He said he had reinstated Gustavo Gonzalez Lopez as the head of the Sebin intelligence agency, without providing details on the exit of Manuel Cristopher Figuera at the helm of the agency. Cristopher Figuera replaced Gonzalez Lopez at Sebin last year.

Other U.S. officials said three top Maduro loyalists – Padrino, Supreme Court chief judge Maikel Moreno and presidential guard commander Ivan Rafael Hernandez Dala – had been in talks with the opposition and were ready to support a peaceful transition of power.

“They negotiated for a long time on the means of restoring democracy but it seems that today they are not going forward,” said U.S. envoy for Venezuela Elliott Abrams. U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said: “All agreed that Maduro had to go.” Neither provided evidence.

Venezuela’s U.N. Ambassador Samuel Moncada rejected Bolton’s remarks as “propaganda.”

Flanked by uniformed men, Padrino said in a broadcast that the armed forces would continue to defend the constitution and “legitimate authorities,” and that military bases were operating as normal. Moreno issued a call for calm on Twitter.

Guaido, the leader of the National Assembly, invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency in January, arguing that Maduro’s re-election in 2018 was illegitimate. But Maduro has held on, despite economic chaos, most Western countries backing Guaido, increased U.S. sanctions, and huge protests.

Soldiers ride on top of a car with supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido (not pictured), who many nations have recognised as the country's rightful interim ruler, during anti-government protests, in Caracas, Venezuela April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

Soldiers ride on top of a car with supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido (not pictured), who many nations have recognised as the country’s rightful interim ruler, during anti-government protests, in Caracas, Venezuela April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

BOLD, BUT RISKY, MOVE

Tuesday’s move was Guaido’s boldest effort yet to persuade the military to rise up against Maduro. If it fails, it could be seen as evidence that he lacks sufficient support. It might also encourage the authorities, who have already stripped him of parliamentary immunity and opened multiple investigations into him, to arrest him.

Tens of thousands of people marched in Caracas in support of Guaido early on Tuesday, clashing with riot police along the main Francisco Fajardo thoroughfare. A National Guard armored car slammed into protesters who were throwing stones and hitting the vehicle.

Human rights groups said 109 people were injured in the incidents, most of them hit with pellets or rubber bullets.

Venezuela is mired in a deep economic crisis despite its vast oil reserves. Shortages of food and medicine have prompted more than 3 million Venezuelans to emigrate in recent years.

The slump has worsened this year with large areas of territory left in the dark for days at a time by power outages.

“My mother doesn’t have medicine, my economic situation is terrible, my family has had to emigrate. We don’t earn enough money. We have no security. But we are hopeful, and I think that this is the beginning of the end of this regime,” said Jose Madera, 42, a mechanic, sitting atop his motorbike.

In a video on his Twitter account, Guaido was accompanied by men in military uniform and leading opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez, a surprise public appearance for a man who has been under house arrest since 2017.

Chile’s foreign minister said later Tuesday that Lopez and his family had entered Chile’s diplomatic residence.

Oil prices topped $73 before easing, partly driven higher by the uncertainty in Venezuela, an OPEC member whose oil exports have been hit by the U.S. sanctions and the economic crisis.

WHO BACKED WHO?

The crisis has pitted supporters of Guaido, including the United States, the European Union, and most Latin American nations, against Maduro’s allies, which include Russia, Cuba and China.

The White House declined to comment on whether Washington had advance knowledge of what Guaido was planning.

Carlos Vecchio, Guaido’s envoy to the United States, told reporters in Washington that the Trump administration did not help coordinate Tuesday’s events.

“This is a movement led by Venezuelans,” he said.

But accusations flew back and forth, with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza saying the events had been “directly planned” in Washington and Bolton saying that fears of Cuban retaliation had propped up Maduro. Neither provided evidence.

Trump threatened “a full and complete embargo, together with highest-level sanctions” on Cuba for its support of Maduro.

Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro threw his support behind Guaido and said Venezuelans were “enslaved by a dictator.” But his security adviser, a retired general, said Guaido’s support among the military appeared “weak.”

Russia’s foreign ministry on Tuesday accused the Venezuelan opposition of resorting to violence in what it said was a brazen attempt to draw the country’s armed forces into clashes. Turkey also criticized the opposition.

The United Nations and other countries urged a peaceful solution and dialogue.

 

(Reporting by Angus Berwick, Vivian Sequera, Corina Pons, Mayela Armas, Deisy Buitrago, and Luc Cohen in Caracas; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Patricia Zengerle, Lesley Wroughton and Roberta Rampton in Washington, Madeline Chambers in Berlin, and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Alistair Bell and Rosalba O’Brien; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Sonya Hepinstall)

Cyclone Kenneth batters Comoros and heads to Mozambique

Tropical Cyclone Kenneth approaches the coast of Mozambique in this April 25, 2019 handout satellite image. NASA/Handout via REUTERS

By Ali Amir Ahmed

MORONI (Reuters) – Violent winds of up to 140 kph (87 mph) lashed the East African island nation of Comoros overnight, killing three people, authorities said on Thursday, as Cyclone Kenneth swept toward flood-battered Mozambique.

In Comoros, the winds caused widespread power outages in the northern part of the main island, Grande Comore, and the capital Moroni as well as on the island of Anjouan, residents said.

By Thursday afternoon, the cyclone was making its way to Mozambique, just over a month after Cyclone Idai tore through central Mozambique, virtually flattening the port city of Beira, flooding an area the size of Luxembourg and killing more than 1,000 people across the region.

Kenneth may strengthen before it makes landfall on the continent, said Dipuo Tawana, forecaster at the South African Weather Service.

It could bring seven- to nine-meter waves and a three-meter storm surge, she said, and was likely to linger over Mozambique, dumping rain until late Monday evening, bringing a risk of intense flooding.

“The rainfall that we forecast for the next four days in the northeastern part of Mozambique – we have between 500 and 1,000 millimeters (19.5 to 39 inches) of rain,” Tawana said.

FLOODS LOOM FOR MOZAMBIQUE

In Comoros, a Reuters correspondent saw fallen trees and debris from homes scattered over streets, and houses with their roofs torn off.

President Azali Assoumani told reporters that three people had been were killed and several others injured.

A few taxis were driving around the center of Moroni on Thursday morning as police and soldiers cleared blocked roads. Government offices and schools were closed.

In Mozambique, authorities said on Wednesday that five rivers as well as coastal waterways could overflow, putting over 680,000 people at risk from the storm.

Antonie Beleza, deputy national director of Mozambique’s Centre for Emergency Operations, said the center had been telling people for days to move out of 17 at-risk districts.

“There were some people, they didn’t want to move as of yesterday, so now we are just taking them out,” he said by phone from the northern port town of Pemba. At least 5,000 people had moved out.

The energy firm Anadarko, which is developing large natural gas fields off Mozambique, said it had suspended air transportation in and out of the site as a precaution.

Exxon Mobil , also involved in the fields, said its operations were normal for now, but that it was monitoring the situation.

(Additional reporting Emma Rumney and Alexander Winning in Johannesburg and Stephen Eisenhammer in Luanda; Writing by Elias Biryabarema and Alison Williams; Editing by Hereward Holland and Kevin Liffey)

Venezuelans seek joy amid the chaos

A woman holds a child as they get ready to hit a pinata at a birthday party celebration in Caracas,Venezuela, April 13, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

By Shaylim Valderrama and Ivan Alvarado

CARACAS (Reuters) – A night at a bar is interrupted by a power outage, going to a baseball game is prohibitively expensive, and a trip to a nearby beach requires months of savings. But many Venezuelans have not given up on finding ways to smile.

Despite an economic crisis that has led to shortages of food and medicine and has prompted more than three million to emigrate, Venezuelans are seeking ways to have fun and spend time with family in the hope of easing their discomfort.

Still, the increased frequency of blackouts and a political showdown between the socialist government and the opposition has cast a cloud of uncertainty, leaving many Venezuelans bereft of simple pleasures.

Venezuela fell to the 108th place in the 2019 World Happiness Report prepared by the United Nations, down from 102nd place in 2018. In the Western hemisphere, only Haiti was below the oil-rich nation, ranking 147th out of 156 countries studied by the U.N.

Leonel Martinez, who works as soldier, kisses his girlfriend as they spend a day at Coral beach in La Guaira near Caracas, Venezuela, March 23, 2019. "It's a way to think about something besides what is happening in the country," said Martinez. "It's not something you can do every day, because of the situation in the country." REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Leonel Martinez, who works as soldier, kisses his girlfriend as they spend a day at Coral beach in La Guaira near Caracas, Venezuela, March 23, 2019. “It’s a way to think about something besides what is happening in the country,” said Martinez. “It’s not something you can do every day, because of the situation in the country.” REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

The happiness report – which in its first edition in 2012 placed Venezuela in the 19th position – is based on indicators such as gross domestic product per capita, generosity, life expectancy, social freedom and absence of corruption.

Venezuela was plunged into darkness with two massive blackouts in March, generating water shortages and prompting the government to suspend work and school. Earlier this month, the government launched a power rationing plan, and electricity remains intermittent in many parts of the country.

In search of distraction, Venezuelans from the country’s capital of Caracas have long taken to the nearby seaside state of Vargas to spend weekends with family and friends on the shores of the Caribbean.

“You put your mind in another place,” said Leonel Martinez, a 26-year-old soldier while relaxing on the sand with his girlfriend while her nephews played nearby. “It’s a way to think about something besides what is happening in the country.”

But in a country where the monthly minimum wage amounts to just $6 per month, the $15-$20 a day trip to the beach can require months of savings and advance planning.

Martinez, who said he used to take the 40-kilometer (25 mile) trip to the beach frequently, said it was the first time he had gone in a year.

“It’s not something you can do every day, because of the situation in the country,” said Martinez.

Members of Family Rose softball team put their hands together before a match at Lecuna Avenue softball pitch in Caracas, Venezuela, March 24, 2019. "After the game we always had a few beers. But now they are too expensive," said Felix Babaza. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarad

Members of Family Rose softball team put their hands together before a match at Lecuna Avenue softball pitch in Caracas, Venezuela, March 24, 2019. “After the game we always had a few beers. But now they are too expensive,” said Felix Babaza. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

‘IN THIS WORLD THERE IS NO CRISIS’

For Venezuelans, queuing for food is a daily ordeal. They also are used to trying multiple pharmacies and hospitals in search of the medicines they need, and more recently have grown accustomed to collecting water from streams.

But that has not stopped Joaquin Nino, a cash-strapped 35-year-old father of two, from taking his kids to an amusement park in southern Caracas.

“We have to work miracles just to have some fun,” Nino said.

At a parade in eastern Caracas celebrating Holy Week, revelers dressed in straw hats topped with flowers sang, banged drums and blew trumpets to tropical beats. With the sun beating down, one marcher who gave his name as Carlos remembers how in past years onlookers would douse those marching with water to cool them down.

“Now, because of the problems with the water, that probably will not happen,” he said.

In central Caracas, a group of men of all ages meet every Sunday to play softball while a handful of their relatives watch. The wire fence that once surrounded the field was long ago stolen. The lights, which once allowed the group to play at night, were also pilfered.

“I always come because my husband plays,” said Delia Jimenez, a 62-year-old industrial designer who jumps up from the stands whenever her husband comes up to bat. “We have fun and we shake off our stress.”

A youth flies a homemade kite next to Gran Mision Vivienda housing project in Caracas, Venezuela, March 20, 2019. The children make their own kites using a plastic bag, sticks and a nylon line. "Most expensive is the nylon cone, which is 10 thousand Bolivar notes (approximately 3 U.S. dollars)," said Luis Flores. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

A youth flies a homemade kite next to Gran Mision Vivienda housing project in Caracas, Venezuela, March 20, 2019. The children make their own kites using a plastic bag, sticks and a nylon line. “Most expensive is the nylon cone, which is 10 thousand Bolivar notes (approximately 3 U.S. dollars),” said Luis Flores. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

A few blocks away, groups of young people come together to break-dance, which they say is a way to disconnect. But some admitted that they had not been eating enough recently to be able to spend as much time dancing as they used to.

“When we’re out here dancing, we don’t think about the state of the country,” said Yeafersonth Manrique, a 24-year-old drenched in sweat after a long practice. “In this world there is no crisis.”

 

(Editing by Vivian Sequera, Pablo Garibian and Diane Craft)

Second wave of twisters in U.S. South turns deadly as storm pushes east

4-19-2019 Twitter photograph of Macron, MS twitter - Bryce Jones

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – A second wave of tornadoes and thunderstorms to hit the U.S. South and Midwest this week turned deadly on Thursday with three people reported killed, as the storms pushed eastward on Friday, officials and media accounts said.

One person was killed after a tree fell on his vehicle in Neshoba County, Mississippi, Thursday afternoon, the local paper, the Neshoba Democrat, reported.

A second death was reported in St. Clair County, Mississippi, after a tree fell on a home, late Thursday, according to AccuWeather.

A third death was reported late Thursday in the Wattsville community, north of Pell City, Alabama, the National Weather Service (NWS) reported, after a tree fell on a home.

The deaths come in the wake of at least five people, including three children, who were killed last weekend in a storm system that drove more than three dozen tornadoes across the U.S. South.

Communities in central Texas and western Louisiana, already hit by flash floods and twisters in the first round last weekend, were hit once more by high winds, twisters, egg-sized hail and intense rain Thursday and Friday, according to AccuWeather and the NWS.

In the latest storm system, multiple possible tornadoes hit southwest and central Mississippi Thursday night and early Friday, the NWS said, but the damage will have to be surveyed before confirmation of twisters.

“We’re still under some severe storm warnings, tornado watches and flood warnings into this morning and the afternoon across a broad swipe of the U.S.,” said NWS meteorologist Bob Oravec early Friday.

“The severe thunderstorms will impact the deep South and southeastern U.S., through Georgia and the Florida panhandle, before it heads up the Atlantic Coast,” he said.

Flash flooding could remain a threat in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts on Saturday, the weather service said.

The storm system will lose much of its punch late in the weekend, but the East Coast should expect a soggy Easter, Oravec said.

Power outages were reported early Friday in Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, affecting a total of about 91,800 homes and businesses, according to the tracking site PowerOutage.Us.

(Reporting by Rich McKay; Editing by Mark Potter)

Deadly storms leave thousands without power in eastern U.S

A view of clouds, part of a weather system seen from near Franklin, Texas, U.S., in this still image from social media video dated April 13, 2019. TWITTER @DOC_SANGER/via REUTERS

(Reuters) – Tornadoes, wind gusts of up to 70 mph and pounding hail remained threats early on Monday from eastern New York and into New England, as the remnants of a deadly storm push out to sea, the National Weather Service said.

More than 79,000 homes and businesses were without power in Virginia, according to the tracking site PowerOutage.US, with 89,000 more outages reported across Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan, Maryland and New York.

The affected areas will get heavy rains, winds with gusts of up to 70 mph (110 kph) and the possibility of hail, NWS Weather Prediction Center in Maryland said.

“This is an ongoing threat,” said Brian Hurley, from the center.

“There are short spin-ups, pockets of heavy rain and damaging winds that can still hit before this pushes off shore.”

The weekend’s storm brought tornadoes that killed at least five people, including three children, in the U.S. South, officials said.

The massive storm system sped from Texas eastward with dozens of twisters reported as touching down across the South from Texas through Georgia into Pennsylvania.

Nearly 2,300 U.S. flights were canceled by Sunday evening, more then 90 percent of them at airports in Chicago; Houston, Texas; Charlotte, North Carolina; Pittsburgh; Columbus, Ohio and a dozen major airports on the Eastern Seaboard, according to FlightAware.com.

But no major flight delays were reported on the east coast before 6 a.m. Monday.

The storm’s cold front brought snow to Chicago on Sunday, with 1 to 3 inches (2.5-7.6 cm) reported in central Illinois.

Two children, siblings aged three and eight, were killed on Saturday when a tree fell on the car in which they were sitting in Pollok, Texas, said a spokeswoman for the Angelina County Sheriff’s Department.

A third child, Sebastian Omar Martinez, 13, drowned late on Saturday when he fell into a drainage ditch filled with flash floodwaters near Monroe, Louisiana, said Deputy Glenn Springfield of the Ouachita Parish Sheriff’s Office.

In another storm death nearby, an unidentified victim’s body was trapped in a vehicle submerged in floodwaters in Calhoun, Louisiana, Springfield said.

In Mississippi, Governor Phil Bryant said one person was killed and 11 injured over the weekend as tornadoes ripped through 17 counties and left 26,000 homes and businesses without electricity.

In addition, three people were killed when a private jet crashed in Mississippi on Saturday, although Bryant said it was unclear whether it was caused by the weather.

Soaking rains could snarl the Monday morning commute on the East Coast before the storm moves off to sea.

“The biggest impact rush hour-wise probably will be Boston, around 7 to 8 o’clock in the morning, and around New York City around 5 or 6 o’clock, before sunrise,” NWS meteorologist Bob Oravec said.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, and Barbara Goldberg and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Alison Williams)

Blackouts threaten death blow to Venezuela’s industrial survivors

Men work on the only operative production line at a food packaging plant in Valencia, Venezuela, April 8, 2019. Picture taken April 8, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

By Corina Pons and Mayela Armas

VALENCIA, Venezuela (Reuters) – The latest power outage kicked off another tough week for factory owner Antonello Lorusso in the city of Valencia, once Venezuela’s industrial hub.

For the past month, unprecedented nationwide blackouts have paralyzed the factory and the rest of the country, cutting off power, water and cell service to millions of Venezuelans.

Lorusso’s packaging plant, Distribuidora Marina, had already struggled through years of hyperinflation, vanishing client orders and an exodus of employees.

But now the situation was worse.

For the whole month of March, Lorusso said his company produced only its single daily capacity: 100 tonnes of packaged sugar and grains.

When Reuters visited on April 8, he was using a generator to keep just one of a dozen packaging machines running to fulfill the single order he had received. Power had been on for a few hours, but was too weak to work the machines.

“There is no information, we don’t know if the blackouts will continue or not,” said Lorusso, who has owned the factory for over 30 years. He said the plant had just a day’s worth of power during the previous week.

Power has been intermittent since early March, when the first major blackout plunged Venezuela into a week of darkness. Experts and the opposition have called the government incompetent at maintaining the national electrical grid.

President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition and the U.S. government of sabotage.

Venezuelan industry has collapsed during six years of recession that have halved the size of the economy. What is left is largely outside of the capital Caracas, the only major city that Maduro’s government has excluded from a power-rationing plan intended to restrict the load on the system.

In Valencia, a few multinational companies like Nestle and Ford Motor Co hang on. But according to the regional business association, the number of companies based there has fallen to a mere tenth of the 5,000 situated there two decades ago, when Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez became president.

‘THE GAME IS OVER’

The government said on April 4 that the power rationing plan meant Valencia would spend at most three hours a day without electricity.

But a dozen executives and workers there said outages were still lasting over 10 hours. Generators are costly and can only power a fraction of a business’s operations, they said, and many factories have shut down.

“The game is over. Companies are entering a state of despair due to their inviability,” said an executive of a food company with factories in Valencia, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Industrial companies this year are operating below 25 percent of capacity, according to industry group Conindustria. It estimated companies here lost about $220 million during the days in March without power, and would lose $100 million more in April.

Nestle’s factory, which produces baby food, halted production during the first blackout in early March and operations again froze two weeks later, with employees sent home until May, according to Rafael Garcia, a union leader at the plant.

He blamed the most recent stoppage on very low sales of baby food which cost almost a dollar per package, or about what someone earning minimum wage makes in a week.

“My greatest worry is the closure of the factory,” said Garcia, as he sat at a bus stop on Valencia’s Henry Ford Avenue, in the city’s industrial outskirts where warehouses sit empty and streets are covered in weeds.

Nestle, in a statement to Reuters, said it had “temporarily interrupted its manufacturing activities” at its Valencia factory due to a lack of demand and would resume production in May.

Ford’s plant had been operating at a bare minimum for several months, union leaders said. In December, the carmaker began offering buyouts to staff after it received no orders for 2019, they said. Ford had said in December it had “no plans to leave the country.”

The outages have idled more than just factories. In the countryside, lack of power has prevented farmers from pumping water to irrigate fields.

Since January, farmers have sown 17,500 hectares of crops – a third of the area seeded last year – and they fear losing the harvest due to the lack of water, according to agricultural associations.

In the central state of Cojedes, several rice growers have already lost their crops, farmers said.

“In the rural areas, the blackouts last longer,” said Jose Luis Perez, spokesman for a federation of rice producers.

Producers of cheese, beef, cured meats and lettuce told Reuters orders had dropped by half in March as buyers worried the food would perish once their freezers lost power in the next blackout.

Back in Valencia, Lorusso was preparing his factory for the new era of scarce power. He has converted one unused truck in his parking lot into a water tank. He plans to sell another to buy a second generator.

“We’ve spent years getting used to things. Then we were dealt this hard blow, and now we’re trying to find ways to cope,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Tibisay Romero in Valencia; writing by Angus Berwick; editing by David Gregorio and G Crosse)

Blizzard clobbers Plains and Midwest after blanketing the U.S. Rockies

A bicyclist exits the Midtown Greenway bicycle and pedestrian trail during the spring snowstorm in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S., April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Annabelle Marcovici

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) – A powerful blizzard slammed the U.S. Plains and Midwest on Thursday with heavy snow and fierce winds that caused power outages and closed highways while raising fears of more flooding in the Midwest after a deluge last month.

The system was dumping more than a foot (0.3 m) of heavy snow and winds were gusting up to 65 miles (105 km) per hour from northeast Colorado north to northern Wisconsin, the National Weather Service said in multiple advisories.

Whiteout conditions on roadways were making “travel extremely dangerous,” according to the weather service. Blizzard and winter storm warnings would remain in effect across the region through Friday morning, it said.

“Conditions will continue to deteriorate the rest of the afternoon and overnight,” said Dan Effertz, a NWS meteorologist in Minnesota. “This is a very potent storm.”

Local media reported dozens of crashes and cars in ditches as several major highways and roads were shut down in parts of the U.S. Plains and Midwest. Some counties issued “no travel” advisories, warning drivers to stay off the roads.

“Blizzard, day two. Not even the pack of sled dogs can handle these roads,” said Minnesota crime novelist Anthony Neil Smith on Twitter.

More than 30,000 homes and businesses were without power in Minnesota, 14,200 in Iowa and 22,700 in Michigan by midday on Thursday, according to PowerOutages.us, a website that tracks power outages.

The storm beginning on Wednesday has already dumped more than 2 feet of snow on parts of South Dakota and more than about a foot of snow in communities in Wyoming, Montana and Colorado.

The storm caused officials to close schools and governmental offices in dozens of communities.

In addition to snow, the storm was bombarding the region with rain, sleet, freezing rain and thunderstorms.

“You can probably even throw in the kitchen sink at this point,” the weather service said in a Tweet.

The blizzard, dubbed a “bomb cyclone” because of its rapidly intensifying funnel shape, is the second one to hit the region over the past month.

In March, another “bomb cyclone” triggered heavy rain over the region and combined with melting snow to cause flooding along the Missouri River and its tributaries. Damages and losses to property, cattle and crops in Nebraska and Iowa alone were estimated at more than $3 billion.

Officials in Nebraska on Thursday were cautiously watching the forecast and river levels to the north, said Jodie Fawl, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.

“We are waiting to see what happens when the snow melts,” she said, noting that warm temperatures since then have thawed the ground and could result in less flooding. “We are just going to have to wait and see.”

Despite the severe weather, crew members at Denver International Airport worked through the night to remove snow from runways, and only about 180 flights were canceled on Thursday morning, down from more than 700 a day earlier, according to FlightAware.come, a flight tracking service, and airport officials.

(Additional writing and reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; additional reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico, Gina Cherelus in New York and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; editing by Bernadette Baum and Phil Berlowitz)