Alive but lost: In Bahamas, Hurricane Dorian survivors wonder what next

Abaco residents are evacuated from the island at the airport in the wake of Hurricane Dorian in Marsh Harbour, Great Abaco, Bahamas, September 8, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

y Zachary Fagenson and Nick Brown

MARSH HARBOUR/NASSAU, Bahamas (Reuters) – Days after fleeing their crumbling home and breaking into a vacant apartment to take shelter while Hurricane Dorian rampaged over the Bahamas’ Great Abaco Island, Samuel Cornish and his family caught a rescue flight to Nassau.

Asked what waited for him there, Cornish, a pastor’s son, was blunt: “Nothing,” he said. “Just a new life.”

A man searches for belongings amongst debris in a destroyed neighborhood in the wake of Hurricane Dorian in Marsh Harbour, Great Abaco, Bahamas, September 8, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

A man searches for belongings amongst debris in a destroyed neighborhood in the wake of Hurricane Dorian in Marsh Harbour, Great Abaco, Bahamas, September 8, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

By Sunday, a week after one of the strongest Caribbean hurricanes on record plowed into the archipelago nation of 400,000 people, the capital city faced a wave of thousands of evacuees fleeing hard-hit areas including Marsh Harbour in the Abacos, where some 90% of the infrastructure was damaged or destroyed.

Great Abaco was littered with mounds of unused construction materials, waterlogged notebooks and Bibles, stained piles of tattered clothes, single shoes, overturned bathtubs and rotting mattresses. Dead cats and dogs were strewn throughout the wreckage while some stray animals were digging through the garbage for food and had taken up residence on the porches of destroyed homes. At least one wild pig weathered the storm, celebrating its survival by charging at two Reuters journalists.

“What I was struck by was the focused nature of the devastation,” Mark Green, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, told reporters in Nassau on Sunday, adding that some areas in Abaco looked “almost as though a nuclear bomb was dropped.”

Bahamian officials were still pulling bodies from the wreckage across the island and acknowledged that the official death toll of 43 was likely to rise markedly.

Abaco resident Bernard Forbes is evacuated from the island by Global Support and Development personnel at the airport in the wake of Hurricane Dorian in Marsh Harbour, Great Abaco, Bahamas, September 8, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

Abaco resident Bernard Forbes is evacuated from the island by Global Support and Development personnel at the airport in the wake of Hurricane Dorian in Marsh Harbour, Great Abaco, Bahamas, September 8, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

Some 70,000 people need food and shelter, according to the United Nations’ World Food Programme’s estimate. Interviews with evacuees this week shone light on the extent of Dorian’s destruction. Survivors avoided death, but lost homes, jobs and hospitals.

“Home is more than four walls and a roof — it’s the neighborhood where people live, their friends and neighbors, their livelihoods, comfort, and security for the future,” said Jenelle Eli, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross, which is helping with the relief. “People are concerned about their next step, but also how they’ll earn an income and what their lives will look like in the future.”

Bahamian officials acknowledged on Saturday that Nassau would strain to house all the people who needed shelter.

Some institutions that had opened their doors as a place for people to ride out the storm were trying to clear out people who had lost homes, Leonardo Cargill, of the island’s Department of Social Services, told a news conference.

“They now understand that the people coming in, it will be long-term sheltering, and many of them are church facilities and they cannot allow that to go on,” Cargill said.

TENT CITIES POSSIBLE

That has Nassau officials considering other options.

“We can look at the tent city concept and the container city concept, these are all support mechanisms to help us,” Captain Stephen Russell, who heads the National Emergency Management Agency, told the news conference. “Jobs may be a challenge at this time but long term we can house them.”

International aid was also pouring into the island nation.

The U.S. Agency for International Development said it was allocating $2.8 million and had moved enough emergency supplies for 44,000 people to the islands.

The American Red Cross said it had committed an initial $2 million to help the Bahamas recover from the hurricane, with food, water and shelter and other necessities.

Norwegian energy company Equinor said on Sunday it will clean up an onshore oil spill discovered this week at its Bahamas storage terminal in the storm’s aftermath.

The storm had made its way to Canada by Sunday, where the U.S. National Hurricane Center said it was a still-powerful post-tropical cyclone with 75 mile-per-hour (120 km-per-hour) winds over the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Many in hard-hit Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco complained that aid had been too slow in arriving.

“They haven’t done a thing to help us down here,” shouted Tepeto Davis, a 37-year-old tile contractor who slammed on the brakes of his pickup truck and backed up to talk to reporters. “We are suffering out here and no one cares about us. We’ve had to funnel gasoline out of destroyed cars to get injured people back and forth. There’s no gas, there’s no food, no medicine, and no water.”

Those receiving aid in Nassau worried that they were still a long way from being able to rebuild their lives.

“The government says everyone’s being fed, and that’s good,” said Anthony Morley, 61, who fled Marsh Harbour and was staying at Breezes, a Nassau resort where local volunteers have subsidized rooms for survivors. “But for food I can fish. What I need is a house. I don’t have a bed, a refrigerator. I don’t even have a Bible.”

(Reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Marsh Harbour and Nick Brown in Nassau; Additional reporting by Victoria Klesty is Oslo; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Howard Goller)

Illinois Church abuse survivors demand perpetrators’ names

Cindy Yesko is presented as a survivor of clergy sex abuse by a legal team of attorneys Jeff Anderson and Marc Pearlman, during a news conference in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., January 3, 2019. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski

By Suzannah Gonzales

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Survivors and lawyers demanded on Thursday the Catholic Church make public the names of 500 priests or clergy members in Illinois accused of child sexual abuse, in the latest outcry of a global crisis.

They spoke out two weeks after Illinois state Attorney General Lisa Madigan issued a blistering report stating alleged abusers had not been publicly identified by the Church and many had not been properly investigated.

“We’re here to fight for the 500 that have been identified as the number of clergy offenders who the Catholic bishops … in Illinois know about who have not disclosed,” attorney Jeff Anderson said at a news conference standing alongside survivors.

Anderson said he and his colleagues will issue a report by next month that identifies every clergy offender accused of child sexual abuse who was brought to their attention.

Children cannot be protected unless the names are provided to police and the general public, Anderson said.

Knowing the names of the accused priests would also help victims who have not come forward, survivor Ken Kaczmarz said.

“If the priest that molested them is on a published list, those people that are currently suffering in silence will, I guarantee you, have the courage to seek help,” he said.

The Illinois dioceses of Rockford, Joliet and Belleville on Thursday stood by lists published on their websites of priests with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor and of clergy removed from ministry.

Representatives of the other three dioceses in Illinois did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Madigan, who opened her investigation in August and leaves office later this month, said the 500 priests and clergy members her office had identified were in addition to 185 publicly named by the six dioceses.

Facing accusations of sexual abuse and coverups by priests around the world, Pope Francis on Thursday accused U.S. bishops of failing to show unity in the face of the crisis.

Survivors gathered in downtown Chicago on Thursday as U.S. bishops met near the city for seven days of prayer and spiritual reflection ahead of a gathering at the Vatican in February to confront the global abuse crisis.

“There has to be more than 500. That’s just the start. We need a comprehensive list in order for the Church to feel safe again,” Cynthia Yesko, a survivor and plaintiff of a lawsuit seeking the disclosure of the names of clergy offenders in Illinois, said.

(Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Matthew Lewis)

Catholic bishops told to act on sex abuse or lose all credibility

FILE PHOTO: Pope Francis celebrates a special mass for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, December 12, 2018. REUTERS/Max Rossi - RC11EC66C6A0/File Photo

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – The Roman Catholic Church’s leading experts on sexual abuse told bishops on Tuesday finally to take responsibility for a global clerical abuse scandal and go and speak personally to victims, or risk seeing the Church lose its credibility worldwide.

Pope Francis has summoned the heads of some 110 national Catholic bishops’ conferences and dozens of experts and leaders of religious orders to the Vatican on Feb. 21-24 for an extraordinary gathering dedicated to the sexual abuse crisis.

Victims of clergy sexual abuse are hoping that the meeting will finally come up with a clear policy to make bishops themselves accountable for the mishandling of abuse cases.

“Absent a comprehensive and communal response, not only will we fail to bring healing to victim-survivors, but the very credibility of the Church to carry on the mission of Christ will be in jeopardy throughout the world,” the conference’s steering committee said in a letter to all participants.

“But each of us needs to own this challenge, coming together in solidarity, humility, and penitence to repair the damage done, sharing a common commitment to transparency, and holding everyone in the Church accountable,” said the letter, which was released by the Vatican.

The committee is made up of Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the Vatican’s leading sex abuse investigator, and Father Hans Zollner, an abuse expert based in Rome.

“The first step must be acknowledging the truth of what has happened,” they said.

Each bishop was asked to visit survivors of clergy sex abuse in their area to learn first-hand the suffering that they have endured.

“PUTTING VICTIMS FIRST”

“This is a concrete way of putting victims first, and acknowledging the horror of what happened,” said Vatican spokesman Greg Burke, adding that the February gathering would focus on responsibility, accountability and transparency.

Last month, when U.S. bishops held their annual assembly in Baltimore, the Vatican asked them to wait until the February meeting before voting on a series of corrective measures.

The proposals included a telephone hotline to report accusations of mishandling of cases of abuse by bishops, a review board made up of non-clerics to handle accusations against bishops, and a bishops’ code of conduct.

Victims’ groups and some bishops saw the Vatican intervention as a setback. But the Vatican said it wanted to see if some of the U.S. proposals could be applied worldwide, not just in the United States.

The Church is also facing sexual abuse scandals in Chile, Australia and Germany.

In September, a study commissioned by the German Bishops’ Conference showed that 1,670 clerics and priests had sexually abused 3,677 minors, mostly males, in Germany over a 70-year period.

A U.S. Grand Jury report in August found that 301 priests in the state of Pennsylvania had sexually abused minors over a similar period.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Battered Indonesians seek talismans of former lives in quake rubble

A woman holds a stuffed rabbit toy after it was found at her destroyed house where she said she had lost her three children after the area was hit by an earthquake, in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 7, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva/File photo

BALAROA, Indonesia (Reuters) – Wooden beams tilted at crazy angles poke out of piles of shattered concrete littered with battered motorbikes and household items, from crumpled pots and pans to smudged notebooks and soft toys.

After an earthquake of magnitude 7.5 hit Indonesia’s coastal city of Palu, a pile of broken pink concrete is all that remains of fruit vendor Kaharuddin’s home.

He stared quietly at the rubble in his hometown of Balaroa, saying it concealed the body of his one-year-old daughter, who was among the hundreds missing after the Sept. 28 disaster.

Kaharuddin, 40, waits for excavators to dig up a pile of concrete that used to be his home and was destroyed by an earthquake in Balaroa neighbourhood, Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Kaharuddin, 40, waits for excavators to dig up a pile of concrete that used to be his home and was destroyed by an earthquake in Balaroa neighbourhood, Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

“I’m just waiting here and hope that I can find my child,” said Kaharuddin, 40, who goes by one name, like many Indonesians. “Or maybe I have to accept that one will have to remain buried here.”

Four days after the quake, he said, rescue workers found the remains of his wife, Hastuti, still holding in her arms the bodies of their other two daughters, aged four and two.

As many as 5,000 people may still be buried under the mud, disaster relief officials estimate. Indonesia called off the search for victims on Friday, two weeks after the quake, citing health concerns, despite residents’ pleas to continue.

The town in the province of central Sulawesi was among those hardest hit by the phenomenon of ground liquefaction, when the shaking earth turns soft, damp soil into a roiling quagmire, dragging thousands of houses and people under mud and asphalt.

The destructive waves of soil smashed thousands of homes, cars, and buildings into each other, carrying some of them hundreds of meters from their original position within minutes.

Two men recover a portrait of their dead parents from the rubble of their former house hit by an earthquake in Balaroa neighbourhood in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 7, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Two men recover a portrait of their dead parents from the rubble of their former house hit by an earthquake in Balaroa neighbourhood in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 7, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

“It felt like the earth was alive,” said Darmi, 48, who saw half of her two-story home collapse. “It was opening up, swallowing people, and then closing again. And the noise was so loud. This loud cracking ‘k-k-k-k’ sound.”

Returning to Balaroa for the first time two weeks after the disaster, Hesti Andayani, 27, was shocked to find her childhood home had slid downhill, far from its original location.

“It took so long to find,” she said, through tears. “I don’t know where we can live now.”

Hesti, who lost her younger sister in the quake, sat on a pile of tiles that once covered part of her second-floor bedroom, surrounded by dusty jewelry and cosmetics.

“These are all the things I have left. My makeup, my necklaces, the pins for my hijab,” she sobbed, referring to the headgear worn by devout Muslim women.

Searchers arrived with dozens of excavators to help dig out bodies, while some residents made frequent trips to retrieve treasured belongings from the rubble of destroyed homes.

Government district officer Yassir Garibaldi, 43, pushed and pulled at a white car stuck under a collapsed porch.

“I bought this car for my parents,” he said. “They’re gone now but it’s still a good car. It’s the only thing of theirs I can recover.”

He was forced to watch helplessly as his parents and niece suffocated to death after the quake trapped them in a concrete hole flooded with water.

“I found them the morning after the earthquake,” Yassir said.

Ikhmal Yudanto, 15, stands on his mother's car at his destroyed house hit by an earthquake, in Balaroa neighbourhood, Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Ikhmal Yudanto, 15, stands on his mother’s car at his destroyed house hit by an earthquake, in Balaroa neighbourhood, Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

“I managed to speak with them, even gave them some water to drink. But they were crushed against each other, and the water must have been cold. After a while, they just stopped breathing.”

Others must reconcile themselves to the loss of loved ones.

In Petobo, about 12 km (7.5 miles) away, Ameriyah, 56, lost three of her children, a grandchild and a son-in-law. She has accepted it is unlikely that searchers will now uncover their remains.

“We’ve held funeral prayers for them, so we hope their souls will be at peace,” she said.

Some remain inconsolable.

“I don’t know what to do next. There’s nothing left for me here,” said Kaharuddin, the fruit vendor still looking for his daughter’s body under the pink concrete rubble of their former home.

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Rescuers with dogs search for survivors after deadly Japan quake

A woman (C) wipes her tears after her missing father was found at an area damaged by a landslide caused by an earthquake in Atsuma town, Hokkaido, northern Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo September 7, 2018. Kyodo/via REUTERS

By Kaori Kaneko and Malcolm Foster

TOKYO (Reuters) – Rescue workers with dogs searched for survivors on Friday in debris-strewn landslides caused by an earthquake in Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, as electricity was restored to just over half of households.

Public broadcaster NHK put the death toll at 12, with five people unresponsive. Earlier, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said 16 had died, but Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga later clarified in updated numbers that nine had been confirmed dead and nine others were in a state of cardiopulmonary arrest, a term typically used before death is confirmed.

Another 24 were still missing after Thursday’s pre-dawn magnitude-6.7 quake, the latest deadly natural disaster to hit Japan over the past two months, coming after typhoons, floods and a record-breaking heat wave.

Members of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) search for survivors from a house damaged by a landslide caused by an earthquake in Atsuma town, Hokkaido, northern Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo September 7, 2018. Kyodo/via REUTERS

Members of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) search for survivors from a house damaged by a landslide caused by an earthquake in Atsuma town, Hokkaido, northern Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo September 7, 2018. Kyodo/via REUTERS

Nearly 5,000 Hokkaido residents spent the night in evacuation centers where food was distributed in the morning.

“It was an anxious night with several aftershocks, but we took encouragement from being together and now we’re grateful for some food,” one woman told public broadcaster NHK.

Some 22,000 rescue workers had worked through the night to search for survivors, Abe told an emergency meeting on Friday. With rain forecast for Friday afternoon and Saturday, he urged people to be careful about loose soil that could cause unstable houses to collapse or further landslides.

“We will devote all our energy to saving lives,” Abe said.

As of Friday afternoon, Hokkaido Electric Power Co had restored power to 1.54 million of the island’s 2.95 million households. The utility aimed to raise that number to 2.4 million, or over 80 percent, by the end of Friday, industry minister Hiroshige Seko said.

Flights resumed from midday at Hokkaido’s main airport, New Chitose. The island, about the size of Austria and with 5.3 million people, is a popular tourist destination known for its mountains, lakes, rolling farmland and seafood.

Members of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) search for survivors from a house damaged by a landslide caused by an earthquake in Atsuma town, Hokkaido, northern Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo September 7, 2018. Kyodo/via REUTERS

Members of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) search for survivors from a house damaged by a landslide caused by an earthquake in Atsuma town, Hokkaido, northern Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo September 7, 2018. Kyodo/via REUTERS

LANDSLIDES WRECK HOMES

Soldiers in fatigues and orange-clad rescue workers searched for survivors, picking through debris on huge mounds of earth near the epicenter in Atsuma in southern Hokkaido. Aerial footage showed rescuers with dogs walking through the destruction.

All the missing people are from the Atsuma area, where dozens of landslides wrecked homes and other structures and left starkly barren hillsides.

“I just hope they can find him quickly,” one unidentified man told NHK as he watched the search for his missing neighbor.

The quake damaged the big Tomato-Atsuma plant, which normally supplies half of Hokkaido’s power and is located near the epicenter, forcing it to automatically shut down. That caused such instability in the grid that it tripped all other power stations on the island, causing a full blackout.

Hokkaido Electric was bringing other smaller plants back on line and also receiving some power transferred through undersea cables from the main island of Honshu.

Kansai International Airport in western Japan has been shut since Typhoon Jebi ripped through Osaka on Tuesday, although some domestic flights operated by Japan Airlines Co Ltd and ANA Holdings Inc’s low-cost carrier Peach Aviation resumed on Friday, the carriers said.

JR Hokkaido planned to resume bullet train operations from midday. It was also trying to resume other train services on Friday afternoon, a spokesman said.

Manufacturers were still affected by power outages.

Toyota Motor Corp’s Tomakomai factory, which makes transmissions and other parts, said operations remained suspended indefinitely until power was restored, a spokesman said.

Toppan Printing Co Ltd’s operations at a plant in Chitose, which makes food packages, would remain suspended until it regained power, a spokesman said.

The quake prompted Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to cancel two joint military exercises in Hokkaido, including the first-ever drill with Australian fighter jets, and a training exercise with the U.S. Marine Corps.

A soccer friendly between Japan and Chile scheduled for Friday in Hokkaido’s main city of Sapporo was also called off.

(Reporting by Chris Gallagher, Kaori Kaneko, Makiko Yamazaki and Osamu Tsukimori; Writing by Malcolm Foster and Chris Gallagher; Editing by Paul Tait and Christopher Cushing)

Hunt on for survivors as Indonesia’s quake toll climbs to 131

Rescue team members prepare to find people trapped inside a mosque after an earthquake hit on Sunday in Pemenang, Lombok Island, Indonesia, August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Beawiharta

By Angie Teo and Kanupriya Kapoor

KARANGPANGSOR, Indonesia (Reuters) – The death toll from last weekend’s powerful earthquake on Indonesia’s Lombok island rose to 131 on Wednesday as rescuers found more people crushed under collapsed buildings, though some still held out hope of finding survivors.

“We don’t know for sure how many people are alive under the rubble,” Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, the spokesman for Indonesia’s disaster mitigation agency (BNPB) told reporters in Jakarta.

Policemen stand as heavy equipment move debris for try to find people trapped inside a mosque after an earthquake hit on Sunday in Pemenang, Lombok Island, Indonesia, August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Beawiharta

Policemen stand as heavy equipment move debris for try to find people trapped inside a mosque after an earthquake hit on Sunday in Pemenang, Lombok Island, Indonesia, August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Beawiharta

“There are reports … that there are people buried alive, it is a critical time for immediate evacuation,” he added, without giving details.

BNPB had previously put the number of dead at 105, including two on the western neighboring island of Bali, which also felt the 6.9 magnitude quake. Sutopo said the figure would rise still further.

Lombok had already been hit by a 6.4 magnitude earthquake on July 29 that killed 17 people and briefly stranded several hundred trekkers on the slopes of a volcano.

Indonesia sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire and is regularly hit by earthquakes. In 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami killed 226,000 people in 13 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.

A woman was pulled alive on Tuesday from under a grocery store that fell apart in the rural north of the tropical holiday island, near the epicenter of Sunday’s quake.

Rescuers dug through the rubble of a mosque on Wednesday, hoping to reach the aunt of a sprinter who became a national hero last month at the under-20 world championships in Finland.

Salama, 52, was at a prayer class in the Karangpangsor village mosque when the quake struck. She is an aunt by marriage of Lalu Muhammad Zohri, who just over a year ago could barely afford running shoes and was hardly known outside his village.

The 18-year-old became a household name almost overnight in July when he won the 100 meters gold at the World Junior Championships in Tampere, Finland. Now he carries the hopes of Indonesia at the Asian Games that the Southeast Asian nation is preparing to host in the next few weeks.

He lives two doors away from his aunt’s home.

Rescuers used a mechanical digger to clear a jumble of metal rods and concrete beside the still-intact green dome of the mosque, but there were no signs that the woman was alive and relatives appeared to have lost hope.

“Hopefully, now, with the arrival of heavy equipment, we can get her remains back,” said Husni, another family member.

Boats arrive at shore to evacuate people on the island of Gili Trawangan, Lombok, Indonesia, August 6, 2018, in this still image taken from a drone video obtained from social media. Melissa Delport/@trufflejournal/via REUTERS

Boats arrive at shore to evacuate people on the island of Gili Trawangan, Lombok, Indonesia, August 6, 2018, in this still image taken from a drone video obtained from social media. Melissa Delport/@trufflejournal/via REUTERS

“GHOST TOWNS”

As hopes of finding more survivors faded, a humanitarian crisis loomed for thousands left homeless and in desperate need of clean water, food, medicine, and shelter.

About three-quarters of Lombok’s north has been without electricity since Sunday, officials said, and aid workers are finding some hamlets hard to reach because bridges and roads were torn up by the disaster.

“Teams are speaking of coming across ghost towns, villages that have essentially been abandoned,” Matthew Cochrane of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said in Geneva on Tuesday.

He added that 80 percent of buildings had been damaged or destroyed, with thousands displaced.

Thousands of tourists have left Lombok since Sunday, fearing further earthquakes, some on extra flights provided by airlines and others on ferries to Bali.

Officials said that nearly 8,400 tourists and resort workers had been evacuated from the three Gili islands off the northwest coast of Lombok, where two people died, emptying out a destination popular for its white beaches and turquoise waters.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Neil Fullick)

Greek PM visits wildfire-stricken town after criticism

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras speaks with a firefighter officer as he visits the village of Mati, following a wildfire near Athens, Greece, July 30, 2018. Greek Prime Minister's Press Office/Handout via REUTERS

By Costas Pitas and Renee Maltezou

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras met survivors of a wildfire that killed at least 91 people during his first visit to the town of Mati on Monday, after facing criticism for the government’s response to the blaze.

Fires began a week ago in the coastal resort, which is 30 km (17 miles) east of Athens, and Tsipras has been attacked by opposition parties for the government’s handling of the disaster, which also left dozens injured.

Tsipras has accepted full political responsibility and pledged a series of changes, including a crackdown on illegal and haphazard construction that is thought to have worsened the blaze.

FILE PHOTO: A burnt house is seen following a wildfire in the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 28, 2018. REUTERS/Costas Baltas/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A burnt house is seen following a wildfire in the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 28, 2018. REUTERS/Costas Baltas/File Photo

He spent around an hour in the area and met locals, firefighters and police officers, his office said in a statement.

“Today I visited the place of tragedy,” Tsipras tweeted.

“(I have) untold grief but also immense respect for those who fought an uneven battle with the flames,” he said.

A total of 25 people are still missing and 28 bodies have yet to be identified, the fire brigade said on Sunday.

Tsipras’ visit comes a week after the disaster and aides said that he had been busy coordinating the response from Athens. His coalition partner went to Mati on Thursday and was shouted at by survivors.

As rescue crews still hunt for those unaccounted for, residents were trying to salvage what they can from the disaster.

“I can’t believe that it took a lifetime to build this and within 10 minutes nothing was left,” 49-year old Konstantinos Gkikas told Reuters. “It’s unbelievable.”

Out of the nearly 2,600 buildings inspected in fire-stricken areas so far, half are intact, 25 percent need to be demolished and the rest can be repaired, the infrastructure ministry said on Monday.

A Greek citizen filed a lawsuit on Monday against the government, the municipal and regional authorities and anybody else found to be involved in the disaster.

Greeks were expected to gather outside parliament to light candles in memory of those who lost their lives later on Monday.

(Additional reporting by Angeliki Koutantou and Reuters Television; Writing by Costas Pitas; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Japan struggles to get help to victims of worst floods in decades

Local residents take rest at Okada elementary school acting as an evacuation center in Mabi town in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, Japan, July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

By Kiyoshi Takenaka and Issei Kato

KURASHIKI, Japan (Reuters) – Japan struggled on Tuesday to restore utilities after its worst weather disaster in 36 years killed at least 155 people, with survivors facing health risks from broiling temperatures and a lack of water, while rescuers kept up a grim search for victims.

A local resident walks in a flooded area in Mabi town in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, Japan, July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

A local resident walks in a flooded area in Mabi town in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, Japan, July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Torrential rain unleashed floods and landslides in western Japan last week, bringing death and destruction, especially to neighborhoods built decades ago near steep slopes. About 67 people are missing, the government said.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has canceled an overseas trip to cope with the disaster, which at one point forced several million from their homes.

The premier faced some criticism after a photograph made the rounds on Twitter showing him and the defense minister at a dinner with lawmakers last Thursday, just as the rain was worsening.

Abe has seen his support rates rebound after slumping over a suspected cronyism scandal and is keen to prevent any declines ahead of a ruling-party leadership race in September.

Power had been restored to all but 3,500 households but more than 200,000 people remain without water under scorching sun, with temperatures hitting 33 Celsius (91 Fahrenheit) in some of the hardest-hit areas, such as the city of Kurashiki.

“There have been requests for setting up air-conditioners due to rising temperatures above 30 degrees today, and at the same time we need to restore lifelines,” Finance Minister Taro Aso told reporters after a cabinet meeting.

Employees of a supermarket push trolleys and shelves, with muddy items, at their store in a flooded area in Mabi town in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, Japan, July 9, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Employees of a supermarket push trolleys and shelves, with muddy items, at their store in a flooded area in Mabi town in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, Japan, July 9, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Roads caked in dried mud threw up clouds of dust when rescue vehicles or other cars drove by.

Stunned survivors recounted narrow escapes.

“It was close. If we had been five minutes later, we would not have made it,” said Yusuke Suwa, who fled by car with his wife early on Saturday when an evacuation order came after midnight.

“It was dark and we could not see clearly what was happening, although we knew water was running outside. We did not realize it was becoming such a big deal.”

A quarter of flood-prone Mabi district of Kurashiki, sandwiched between two rivers, was inundated after a levee crumbled under the force of the torrent.

The government has set aside 70 billion yen ($631 million) in infrastructure funds with 350 billion yen ($3.15 billion) in reserve, Aso said, adding that an extra budget would be considered if needed.

“When necessary amounts firm up … we would consider an extra budget later on if these funds prove insufficient.”

Japan issues weather warnings early, but its dense population means that almost every bit of usable land, including some flood plains, is built on in the mostly mountainous country, leaving it prone to disasters.

A local resident pauses as he tries to clean debris at a flood affected area in Mabi town in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, Japan, July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

A local resident pauses as he tries to clean debris at a flood affected area in Mabi town in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, Japan, July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

‘DECADES WITHOUT DISASTER’

Some residents of Mabi had shrugged off the warnings given the area’s history of floods.

“We had evacuation orders before and nothing happened, so I just thought this was going to be the same,” said Kenji Ishii, 57, who stayed at home with his wife and son.

But they were soon marooned by rising flood waters and a military boat had to pluck them from the second floor of their house, where they had taken refuge.

Hundreds of residents of Mabi were taking refuge in a school on high ground.

“Everything was destroyed and both of our cars were totaled as well,” said a woman in her forties, who was taking shelter in the gym with her brother and parents.

“We don’t know how long we’re allowed to stay here. Finding a place to live in, even if it’s temporary, is our top priority.”

Most of the deaths in hard-hit Hiroshima were from landslides in areas where homes had been built up against steep slopes, beginning in the 1970s, said Takashi Tsuchida, a civil engineering professor at Hiroshima University.

“People have been living for 40 to 50 years in an area that had latent risk, but decades went by without disaster,” he said.

“But intense rainfall has become more frequent, and the hidden vulnerability has become apparent,” he said.

Though the weather has cleared up, the disaster goes on.

A new evacuation order went out on Tuesday in a part of Hiroshima after a river blocked by debris overflowed its banks, affecting 23,000 people.

Another storm, Typhoon Maria, was bearing down on outlying islands in the Okinawa chain but it had weakened from a super-typhoon and was not expected to have any impact on Japan’s four main islands.

(Additional reporting by Tetsushi Kajimoto and Linda Sieg; Writing by Elaine Lies; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel)

Thais fear ‘no chance’ of more survivors from tourist boat, nearly 60 may be dead

A rescued woman wearing a life jacket hugs a man after a boat capsized off the tourist island of Phuket, Thailand July 5, 2018 in this still image taken from video. Video taken July 5, 2018. REUTERS via Reuters TV

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thai rescuers deployed helicopters on Friday in a search for 29 people missing after the sinking of a boat carrying Chinese tourists, with one official saying he feared “no chance” of any more survivors, which would mean a death toll of nearly 60.

The confirmed death toll from the accident off the resort island of Phuket stood at 27, but the navy said divers had spotted “quite a few bodies” in the sunken vessel, the Phoenix.

The boat capsized in rough seas on Thursday with 105 people on board, 93 of them Chinese tourists along with 12 Thai crew and tour guides.

A rescued tourist is attended by rescue personnel after a boat he was travelling in capsized off the tourist island of Phuket, Thailand, July 6, 2018. REUTERS/Sooppharoek Teepapan

Television broadcast images of dozens of divers searching for the missing, while more rescuers waited on standby at a pier nearby. Seas were calm and skies clear on Friday.

“Right now, officials from the marine police and navy are helping to dive at the spot where the boat sank,” Marine Police said in a statement.

“They are diving to a depth of about 40 meters (130 feet).”

A Marine Department official said there was probably “no chance” any more survivors could be found from inside the boat.

“A day and a night has passed,” said the department’s deputy director-general, Kritpetch Chaichuay.

Thailand is in the middle of its rainy season, which usually runs from May to October, and often generates high winds and flash storms in coastal areas, especially on its west coast on the Indian Ocean, where Phuket is located.

Police are investigating the incident. The boat, which went down about 7 km (5 miles) from shore, was properly registered and had not been overloaded, police said.

Tourist Police bureau deputy chief, Major General Surachate Hakparn, said in a post on Facebook tour operators had been warned about the severe weather.

“Be careful … nature is not a joke,” Surachate wrote.

“The Tourist Police warned businesses in Phuket already to not take boats out from shore, but they violated this order by taking foreign tourists out,” he said.

Media identified the operator of the boat as TC Blue Dream. Reuters could not find a contact number for that name.

Thai Rescue workers carry the body of a victim on a stretcher, after a boat capsized off the tourist island of Phuket, Thailand, July 6, 2018. REUTERS/Sooppharoek Teepapan

‘CLOSE ATTENTION’

Thailand has a poor record on road and boat safety. Many tour operators have complained about lax enforcement of basic safety measures, such as seatbelts in cars and lifejackets on boats.

Another boat sailing in the same area also capsized on Thursday but all 35 tourists, five crew and a guide on board were rescued, the Water Safety Department of the Harbour Department said.

The Chinese embassy in Bangkok said it had asked the Thai government to make all-out rescue efforts, and had sent a team to Phuket to help.

Chinese consulate staff in southern Thailand were on the scene helping its citizens, it said.

Chinese tourists make up the biggest number of foreign visitors to Thailand, their numbers surging in recent years, drawn by the growing popularity of the southeast Asian nation’s islands.

In Beijing, a foreign ministry spokesman said China’s top leaders, including President Xi Jinping, were paying close attention to the incident.

“China expresses gratitude for the active search and rescue efforts made by Thailand,” the spokesman, Lu Kang, told a regular briefing.

(Reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Additional reporting by Gao Liangping, Christian Shepherd and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Neil Fullick, Clarence Fernandez)

Cubans begin to bury their dead from Cuba’s worst plane crash since 1989

People react during a religious ceremony where victims of the Boeing 737 plane crash were remembered at a church in Havana, Cuba, May 20, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

By Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) – Cubans in eastern Holguin province held a funeral on Sunday for an art instructor and her small child, the first of 67 Holguin residents to be brought home for burial out of 110 people who died Friday in Cuba’s worst plane crash since 1989.

Distressed residents gathered at a cultural center in the coastal town of Gibara to sit with the remains and console the family, photos in the official Juventud Rebelde newspaper showed, a Cuban tradition that is followed by a quick burial.

People react during a religious ceremony where victims of the Boeing 737 plane crash were remembered at a church in Havana, Cuba, May 20, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

People react during a religious ceremony where victims of the Boeing 737 plane crash were remembered at a church in Havana, Cuba, May 20, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

The fiery crash of an aging Boeing <BA.N> passenger jet shortly after take-off from Havana on route to Holguin has stunned the Caribbean island nation where prayers were given for the dead and three survivors at services across the country.

The survivors, all women, are in critical condition, and their progress is being closely followed by many Cubans through regular hospital updates.

“Everyone is hoping and praying for them,” said retired Havana telephone operator Marlen Rodriguez Rebasa. “Everyone is very attentive and wants them to survive. They are very young and have families.”

Sunday marked the second and last day of official mourning for the victims, which included 99 Cuban passengers, three foreign tourists – two Argentines and a Mexican – and two Sahrawi residents in Cuba. Also among the dead were six Mexican crew members of a little-known Mexican company called Damojh, that leased the nearly 40-year-old Boeing 737 to Cuban flagship carrier Cubana.

The company has come under scrutiny due to allegations of previous safety problems and complaints by former employees.

A pilot who used to work for Damojh was quoted by Mexican newspaper Milenio criticizing the company for lack of adequate maintenance of planes.

Damojh declined to comment, while Mexico’s Directorate General of Civil Aeronautics said a new audit of the company would be undertaken to ensure it was still “fulfilling norms.”

An evangelical pastor shows a picture of Ronni Pupo and Yurisel Miranda, victims of the Boeing 737 plane crash, during a religious ceremony in a church in Havana, Cuba, May 20, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

An evangelical pastor shows a picture of Ronni Pupo and Yurisel Miranda, victims of the Boeing 737 plane crash, during a religious ceremony in a church in Havana, Cuba, May 20, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

The charter company would be allowed to continue flying its two other planes until the survey was concluded, a spokesman for the directorate general said.

“If we conclude the physical revision and there is nothing wrong with them, no issue, they continue to fly,” he said.

Investigators kept combing the wreckage on Sunday, some 20 kilometers (11 miles) from downtown Havana, searching for a second black box containing mechanical data. The cockpit voice recorder was recovered in good condition on Saturday.

Representatives from Boeing and Mexico were expected to join the investigation into what caused the crash, Transportation Minister Adel Yzquierdo said on Saturday, a process that can take weeks or months.

In Gibara, family and friends of teacher Suyen Lizandra Figueredo Driggs and her daughter Alexa Rivas Figueredo were able to find some closure on Sunday.

However, for many relatives of the dead that will take time as identification of their loved ones remains an arduous task due to the condition of the victims’ bodies.

“Out of all these corpses, we have 20 identified so far,” Sergio Rabell, head of the National Institute of Forensic Medicine, told the local media on Sunday. He said the process could take up to a month.

(Reporting by Marc Frank in Havana; Additional Reporting by Sarah Marsh in Havana and Anthony Esposito in Mexico City; Editing by Daniel Wallis)