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)

A month after PNG quake, cash-strapped government struggles to help the hardest-hit

FILE PHOTO - A supplied image shows locals inspecting a landslide and damage to a road located near the township of Tabubil after an earthquake that struck Papua New Guinea's Southern Highlands, February 26, 2018

By Tom Westbrook

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Almost a month after a deadly earthquake, Papua New Guinea is struggling to get aid to desperate survivors, having allocated just a fraction of its relief funds, while a rent dispute left disaster officials briefly locked out of their offices.

The scale of the emergency is testing the finances and capacity of one of the world’s poorest countries, disaster and relief officials say, after the magnitude 7.5 quake rocked its remote mountainous highlands on Feb. 26, killing 100 people.

Thousands of survivors have walked to remote airstrips and jungle clearings, awaiting helicopters bringing supplies of food, water and medicines, aid agencies and authorities say.

“To date, we do not have any money to do all the necessary things,” Tom Edabe, the disaster coordinator for the hardest-hit province of Hela, said by telephone from Tari, its capital.

“(The) government is trying to assist and have budgeted some money, but to date we have not received anything…we have only been given food, and non-food items supplied by other NGOs.”

Continuing aftershocks rattle residents, who have to collect water brought by daily rainstorms to ensure adequate supplies, Edabe, the disaster coordinator, said.

“The biggest thing that people need, apart from food, is water,” said James Pima, a helicopter pilot and flight manager at aviation firm HeliSolutions in the Western Highlands capital of Mt. Hagen, about 170 km (100 miles) from the disaster zone.

“They don’t have clean water to cook or drink … they are standing there staring. The expression on their faces is blank.”

His firm’s three helicopters fly relief missions “fully flat-out every day,” Pima added.

Destruction to roads and runways means authorities must rely on helicopters to fly in relief. But while nimble, the craft can only carry smaller loads than fixed-wing aircraft and cannot fly during the afternoon thunderstorms.

The logistics problems wind all the way to PNG’s disaster center, where officials told Reuters they had been locked out of their office in Port Moresby, the capital, for two days last week after the government missed a rental payment.

“That was correct, Monday and Tuesday,” a spokeswoman said.

In a joint report with the United Nations published on Friday, the agency cited “lack of quality data” about food shortages, limited aircraft assets and “significant gaps” in sanitation support as being the biggest problems it faced.

The office of Prime Minister Peter O’Neill did not respond to emailed questions from Reuters.

On his website, O’Neill has previously said, “There will be no quick fix, the damage from this disaster will take months and years to be repaired.”

‘POLITICAL GAMES’

The government had approved relief funds amounting to 450 million kina ($130 million), O’Neill said initially, but a later statement mentioned only 3 million kina in initial relief – or less than 1 percent – had been allocated to the worst-hit areas.

In its November budget, the government made plans to rein in spending and trim debt projected to stand at 25.8 billion kina in 2018.

The impoverished country is also missing its largest revenue earner, after the quake forced a shutdown of Exxon Mobil Corp’s liquefied natural gas project, which has annual sales of $3 billion at current LNG prices. The firm is still assessing quake damage at its facilities.

O’Neill last week hit out at critics of the aid effort for playing “political games,” while thanking Australia and New Zealand for military aircraft that provided assistance beyond the capacity of PNG’s own defense forces.

His political opponent, former Prime Minister Mekere Morauta, had called the government’s response “tardy” and inadequate.

“Relief sources say mobile medical centers and operating theaters are needed urgently, and that only international partners can supply them,” Morauta said last week.

Foreign aid pledges of about $49 million have come in from Australia, China, the European Union, Japan, New Zealand and the United States, says the United Nations, most of it provided by private companies.

Exxon and its partner, Oil Search Ltd, say they have provided $6 million in cash and kind for quake relief.

Local officials say the scale of destruction, with villages buried by landslides and provincial towns flattened, has overwhelmed authorities in Papua New Guinea, which straddles the geologically active Pacific Ring of Fire.

“Policemen are still struggling because there is no support flying in and out,” said Naring Bongi of the quake-damaged police station in the Southern Highlands capital of Mendi.

“There is not enough food to supply care centers, they need fresh water,” he added.

 

(Reporting by Tom Westbrook in SYDNEY; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

White roses, hundreds of police as Florida shooting school reopens

Students and parents arrive for voluntary campus orientation at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, for the coming Wednesday's reopening, following last week's mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Angel Valentin

By Bernie Woodall

PARKLAND, Fla. (Reuters) – Students returned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Wednesday, bearing white roses and wearing white ribbons to commemorate the 17 people killed there two weeks ago in the second deadliest public school shooting in U.S. history.

The mood was subdued as roughly 3,000 teenagers walked past hundreds of uniformed police officers to resume classes at the school in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Parkland. The building where most of the victims died will remain closed indefinitely, however.

Parents who had never accompanied their children to high school tagged along with their teens to offer moral support. Jeannine Gittens, 44, and a friend and fellow mother, had gone ahead of their sons to greet them as they came off the bus.

“We just wanted to make sure they know we are there and that they have our support,” said Gittens, who said her son Jevon, 16, and his friend had ridden the bus alone “because they wanted to make today feel as normal as possible.”

Freshman Nicholas Rodrigues, 15, said he decided to walk the mile (1.6 km) from his home in neighboring Coral Springs rather than ride his bicycle as usual because “wanted to think about things.”

Even as students went into the sprawling Douglas campus, supporters remained gathered outside.

“We feel for these kids so much,” said Beverly Turner, a 63-year-old youth pastor, who said she had two children who graduated from the school. “We’ve seen them grow up and us being there for them is the least we can do.”

Investigators have accused 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, who had been kicked out of the school for disciplinary reasons, of carrying out his attack with a legally purchased AR-15 assault-style rifle. The shooting inflamed the nation’s long-running debate on gun rights as defined in the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Debates over how to respond to the school shootings has seen in recent years erupted in Washington and at state capitals since the Feb. 14 massacre. They also pulled in corporate America, with gun retailer Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc on Wednesday saying it would no longer sell assault-style rifles, the type of weapon used in four of the five deadliest mass shootings by a single gunman in U.S. history, as well as Parkland.

Well-wishers place mementos the day students and parents arrive for voluntary campus orientation at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, for the coming Wednesday's reopening, following last week's mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. REUTERS/Angel Valentin

Well-wishers place mementos the day students and parents arrive for voluntary campus orientation at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, for the coming Wednesday’s reopening, following last week’s mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. REUTERS/Angel Valentin

EYES ON WASHINGTON

The Republican leaders of the U.S. Congress on Tuesday rejected new limits on guns after the attack, saying they would not raise the minimum age for gun buyers. The powerful National Rifle Association lobbied forcefully against any restrictions on gun sales, saying the infringe on the rights of law-abiding citizens.

President Donald Trump has suggested arming teachers, as well as reopening mental hospitals, as a way of combating school violence. Trump is scheduled to meet with lawmakers from both parties at the White House later on Wednesday to discuss proposals.

Teenage survivors of the carnage have launched an extraordinary student-led campaign to lobby lawmakers on Capitol Hill and the statehouse in Tallahassee for new restrictions on firearms.

Following the shooting, several large American companies said they were ending programs that offered discounts or other benefits to NRA members. Some have faced blowback, particularly in Georgia where a lawmaker said he would try to kill lucrative tax benefits at Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines after it cut ties with the group.

Nonetheless, retailer Dick’s on Wednesday said it was taking action, including banning sales of guns at its stores to anyone under 21 and no longer selling high-capacity ammunition magazines. The company noted that it had sold a firearm to Cruz, although not the one used in the rampage.

“We have to help solve the problem that’s in front of us,” the company’s chief executive, Edward Stack, said in a statement. “Gun violence is an epidemic that’s taking the lives of too many people, including the brightest hope for the future of America – our kids.”

Dick’s had also removed assault-style weapons from its stories after the 2012 massacre of 26 children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, but later returned them to the sales floor.

Cruz was 18 when he bought the gun he is accused of using to attack the school. A Florida court on Wednesday scheduled a hearing to determine whether he has the assets to pay for his own defense.

The Broward County Sheriff’s Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have faced criticism that they failed to properly follow through on multiple tips warning that Cruz had the potential and capacity for deadly violence.

Sheriff Scott Israel has come under heavy criticism after disclosing that one of his armed deputies, assigned as the school resource officer, stayed outside of the building while it was under attack rather than enter and confront the gunman. The deputy has said he believed the gunman was outside.

The sheriff has acknowledged his office is examining reports from a neighboring police department that three more deputies who were present took cover outside the building with guns drawn rather than go into the school immediately.

(Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Bill Trott)

Search for survivors of devastating California mudslide enters third day

Damaged properties are seen after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. January 11, 2018.

By Alex Dobuzinskis

MONTECITO, Calif. (Reuters) – The search for survivors from a devastating Southern California mudslide that has killed at least 17 people moved into its third day on Friday, with some 700 rescue workers expecting to find more dead victims.

Triggered by heavy rains, the massive slide struck before dawn on Tuesday, when a wall of mud and debris cascaded down hillsides that were denuded last month by wildfires, including the Thomas Fire, the largest blaze in the state’s history.

“Realistically we suspect we are going to have the discovery of more people killed in this incident,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said at a Thursday news briefing, adding that he was hoping to find “miracle” survivors.

Brown said 43 people remain missing, although some may just be out of communication.

In one of the hardest hit areas, the affluent seaside community of Montecito, the devastation wrought by the slide and the gruesome undertaking faced by emergency crews was evident.

Neighborhoods were littered with uprooted trees and downed power lines, and front yards in homes filled with mud were strewn with boulders.

Elsewhere, cars carried away by the flow were perched on mounds of earth and mangled garage doors crushed by the mud rested at odd angles.

The cause of death for all 17 victims who perished will be listed as multiple traumatic injuries due to flash flood with mudslides, the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s office said in a statement on Thursday.

The dead victims range in age from three to 89.

Josephine Gower, 69, died when she opened the door to her home, her son, Hayden Gower, told NBC station KSBY. Her daughter-in-law Sarah Gower confirmed Gower’s death in a Facebook post. Her body was found that night, near a highway hit by the slide.

“I told her to stay on the second floor, but she went downstairs and opened the door and just got swept away,” Hayden Gower said. “I should have just told her to leave. You just don’t even think that this is possible.”

The sheriff’s office also expanded the evacuation zone in the Montecito area on Thursday, as traffic on the already-clogged roads is hindering efforts by rescue and repair crews to access the devastation.

Rescue workers in helicopters and high-wheeled military vehicles, some with search dogs, were deployed in the hunt for the missing in a disaster zone littered with the remnants of hundreds of damaged or destroyed homes.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) granted a request on Thursday by Governor Jerry Brown for expanded financial aid that was first allocated for the Thomas Fire, the governor’s office said in a statement.

“This declaration ensures that federal funds are available for emergency response and eligible disaster recovery costs,” the governor’s statement said.

(Additional reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver, Chris Kenning in Chicago, Gina Cherelus and Peter Szekely in New York and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Mexico in three-day countdown to search for earthquake survivors

Rescue teams remove rubble of a collapsed building after an earthquake in Mexico City, Mexico September 26, 2017. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril

By Daniel Trotta

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Rescuers are unlikely to find any more survivors of Mexico’s earthquake still buried in the ruins and will cease operations to find them at the end of Thursday, the emergency services chief said.

Tuesday marks one week since the 7.1 magnitude quake struck around lunchtime, killing 331 people, damaging 11,000 homes and leading to a outpouring of civilian volunteers to aid and comfort the victims.

Luis Felipe Puente, coordinator of Mexico’s Civil Protection agency, told Reuters that rescuers would continue hand-picking through the debris at four sites until Thursday.

“I can say that at this time it would be unlikely to find someone alive,” Puente said, considering that specially trained dogs have yet to pick up the scent of survivors.

Forty-three people were still missing, including 40 who may have been trapped beneath a collapsed office building in the Roma district of Mexico City, Puente said. One person was believed missing at each of three other sites in the capital.

At the office building, relatives protested overnight, increasingly angry with the slow progress recovering their loved ones and an alleged lack of information.

Asked how much longer search and rescue operations would continue, the official responded, “As of today (Monday), we have agreed to another 72 hours.”

The week began with signs that Mexico was resuming its routine as the streets filled with traffic and more than 44,000 schools in six states reopened.

But in the capital city, only 676 of the more than 8,000 public and private schools resumed classes.

The quake, coming exactly 32 years after a 1985 earthquake killed some 10,000 people, delivered a massive psychological blow that specialists say will take time to overcome.

“The children are in crisis and don’t want to talk. Some kids didn’t even remember their own names,” said Enriqueta Ortuno, 57, a psychotherapist who has been working with victims in the hard-hit Xochimilco district.

Much of the nation’s attention was focused on a fallen school in Mexico City where 19 children and seven adults died. Later on Tuesday, the top official in the municipality where the school was located was due to reveal documents related to the its construction.

That school was one of many buildings that prosecutors will investigate, Puente said. Roughly 10 percent of damaged buildings were constructed after strict building codes were enacted in the wake of the 1985 earthquake.

“The Mexico City mayor and the national government have already ordered judicial investigations to determine who was responsible for new construction that did not meet the requirements,” Puente said from Civil Protection headquarters, where a roomful of technicians monitored seismic activity and tropical storms on an array of screens.

In Mexico City, 187 people died in 38 buildings that collapsed. Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera said thousands of families who lost their homes in uninhabitable buildings would be offered 3,000 ($170) pesos monthly in temporary rent assistance.

Rescuers pulled 69 people from quake-damaged properties, of whom 37 were still in the hospital as of Monday, 11 of them in grave condition, Puente said.

Demolitions of buildings that are beyond repair could begin as soon as Tuesday, he said.

Responders from 18 countries came to Mexico to help, but with the search for survivors down to four sites most of them had gone home, with Americans and Israelis among the few to remain, Puente said. The Japanese contingent left on Monday.

International aid was now focused on humanitarian needs, Puente said, with China providing large numbers of beds, tents and kitchen and bathroom fixtures for temporary shelters for the homeless.

But the biggest contributions came from Mexicans themselves, who responded with so much food, supplies and volunteer work that officials had difficulty moving largesse from wealthy and accessible neighborhoods to the most needy.

Puente recognized some “deficiencies” in coordinating relief efforts, but overall, he said, “The government today is an international benchmark.”

(Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Bill Trott)

Most schools in Mexico City still closed after earthquake

A girl hugs a Mexican marine officer as she offers hugs to people near the site of a collapsed building after an earthquake, in Mexico City.

By Lizbeth Diaz and Ana Isabel Martinez

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Most schools in Mexico City remained closed on Monday after last week’s deadly earthquake, but children outside the capital were set to return to their classrooms even though aftershocks are still jolting the country.

Search operations in Mexico City were narrowed to five buildings destroyed last Tuesday by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake that killed at least 320 people, Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera told local broadcaster Televisa on Monday.

“These are the places where rescue efforts continue,” said Mancera, ticking off locations in central and southern portions of the metropolis.

The quake rendered thousands of people homeless, with many of them living in tents in the streets or emergency shelters, but there were signs the 20 million people who live in Mexico City’s greater metropolitan area were gradually resuming their routines. (Graphics on ‘Earthquake strikes Mexico’ –

“Our neighborhood is in mourning,” said Deborah Levy, 44, from the trendy Condesa district that was among the worst hit by the quake. “Some neighbors and friends got together (Sunday). We went to eat to cheer ourselves up, looking for a little normality.”

Members of rescue teams search for survivors, in the rubble of a collapsed building, after an earthquake in Mexico City, Mexico September 25, 2017.

Members of rescue teams search for survivors, in the rubble of a collapsed building, after an earthquake in Mexico City, Mexico September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Henry Romero

Some of the most affected neighborhoods, those built on top of a soft ancient lake bed, still had entire blocks cordoned off.

More than 44,000 schools in six states were due to reopen on Monday, but only 103 in Mexico City, or barely 1 percent of its schools, were set to resume classes after they were certified as structurally safe.

Officials said they did not want to impede relief efforts, so more than 4,000 public schools and nearly as many private schools in the capital will remain closed for now.

The National Autonomous University of Mexico, with 350,000 students at campuses in and around Mexico City, resumed classes on Monday.

Of 6,000 damaged buildings, some 1,500 have yet to be inspected, said Horacio Urbano, president of Centro Urbano, a think tank specializing in urban issues and real estate.

Ten percent of the damaged buildings were constructed after 1990, by which time strict building codes had been enacted in the wake of the 1985 earthquake that killed some 10,000 people.

 

SEARCH FOR SURVIVORS

Search operations, using advanced audio equipment to detect signs of life beneath tonnes of rubble, continued at a few buildings with help from teams from as far afield as Israel and Japan.

At a school in southern Mexico City where 19 children and six adults had previously been reported killed, officials recovered another body on Sunday, that of an adult women.

The search for survivors continued in a ruined office building in the Roma neighborhood and in a five-story apartment building in historic Tlalpan.

Authorities called off efforts in the upper-middle class Lindavista zone after pulling 10 bodies from the rubble over several days, and work at the Tlalpan building was briefly halted on Saturday by a magnitude 6.2 aftershock.

Another 5.7 aftershock struck on Sunday off Mexico’s west coast, jolting the southwestern part of the country, and seismologists predicted more tremors to come.

While aid and volunteer workers have flooded into the accessible districts of Mexico City, people in more remote neighborhoods and surrounding states have received less attention.

Mexican and international rescue teams remove a painting as they search for survivors in a collapsed building after an earthquake, at Roma neighborhood in Mexico City.

Mexican and international rescue teams remove a painting as they search for survivors in a collapsed building after an earthquake, at Roma neighborhood in Mexico City. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

Miguel Angel Luna, a 40-year old architect, joined a caravan of civilians that headed out late last week to help isolated communities scattered around the base of the Popocatepetl volcano, located about 50 miles (80 km) southeast of the Mexican capital.

Around 40 percent of the adobe homes he saw in poor villages had been completely destroyed and some 80 percent were heavily damaged, Luna said.

“We’re talking about very poor communities,” Luna said. “They don’t have tools, they don’t have materials, they don’t have money to rebuild.”

 

(Additional reporting by Michael O’Boyle, Veronica Gomez and David Alire Garcia; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)