Greeks in mourning and disbelief after flood that killed at least 15

Greeks in mourning and disbelief after flood that killed at least 15

MANDRA, Greece (Reuters) – Greeks voiced despair and disbelief on Thursday after a flash flood killed at least 15 people and left hundreds homeless, with many blaming a system that allowed houses to be built on dried up river beds.

In the towns of Nea Peramos and Mandra west of the capital Athens, crumpled cars and mangled furniture lay on roads caked in the thick mud left behind by a raging torrent that smashed through homes on Wednesday morning. [nL8N1NL22V]

“We are ruined. My tavern and my house are gone,” said Paraskevas Stamou, a restaurant owner in Mandra. “Everything is gone, the road is gone, the water is still flowing and we were flooded again last night and this morning.

“We are expecting another downpour tonight. It’s like God hates us,” he told Reuters.

Maria Kriada is comforted outside her destroyed house following flash floods which hit areas west of Athens on November 15 killing at least 15 people, in Nea Peramos, Greece, November 16, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Maria Kriada is comforted outside her destroyed house following flash floods which hit areas west of Athens on November 15 killing at least 15 people, in Nea Peramos, Greece, November 16, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

To escape the lethal floodwaters, residents took desperate measures.

“We had nowhere to sleep. We slept on the roof, we found carpets to cover ourselves,” said a man in Mandra whose house was gutted by the flood but remained standing.

Between sobs, his mother added: “Everything went. We don’t have anyone to help us. I don’t have help from anyone.”

Bad weather continued on Thursday. Officials said they were waiting for conditions to improve before giving a clearer picture of the damage. Five people were still missing.

Flags flew half-mast from state buildings and the Acropolis on Thursday as the government declared three days of national mourning.

Newspapers expressed anger. “A Crime,” was the headline in Ta Nea daily, superimposed on a picture of a woman being comforted next to an overturned car. “The Deeds of Man,” wrote the leftist Avgi, referring to unlicensed constructions.

Experts blamed haphazard construction which the natural path for water runoff, and soil erosion on a mountain range hit by fires.

Both towns were built along an old motorway linking Athens to the Peloponnese city of Corinth. As building crept closer to the road, streams that would have drained runoff from the nearby Pateras mountains were blocked.

“Of course the state wasn’t prepared … we cannot compete with nature,” said Christos Zeferos, head of the research center for Atmospheric Physics and Climatology Academy of Athens, adding that climate change meant people should expect more weather-related disasters.

“We should be prepared for more frequent, and different phenomena,” he told Reuters.

Many of the victims were elderly. The youngest was a 36-year old truck driver who called his mother as the floodwaters rose around his lorry. The line went dead soon afterwards.

General aerial view of a flooded area following flash floods in Mandra, West Attica, Greece November 15, 2017 in this still image taken from social media video.     NATIONAL AND KAPODISTRIAN UNIVERSITY OF ATHENS/via REUTERS

General aerial view of a flooded area following flash floods in Mandra, West Attica, Greece November 15, 2017 in this still image taken from social media video. NATIONAL AND KAPODISTRIAN UNIVERSITY OF ATHENS/via REUTERS

(Reporting By Michele Kambas, Renee Maltezou, Alkis Konstantinidis and Lefteris Papadimas; Writing by Michele Kambas; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Flash floods kill at least 10 in downpour near Athens

Flash floods kill at least 10 in downpour near Athens

By Vassilis Triandafyllou and Alkis Konstantinidis

MANDRA, Greece (Reuters) – At least 10 people died in flash floods in Greece on Wednesday in the most deadly such incident in recent years when a torrent of red mud swept through towns west of the capital Athens after heavy rain, authorities said.

Torrential rain of this type is uncommon in Greece, where poor infrastructure can leave citizens vulnerable to flooding.

The overnight deluge turned roads in the industrial towns of Nea Peramos and Mandra, about 27 km (17 miles) west of Athens, into fast-flowing rivers and trapped dozens of people in their homes or cars.

Some residents were forced onto rooftops and balconies while cars were thrust onto porches or tipped onto their side. Twelve people were rescued from a bus on a bridge.

“This is a biblical disaster,” Mandra Mayor Yianna Krikouki told state broadcaster ERT. “Everything is gone.”

Heavy vehicles, a bus and cars were stranded under more than a meter of water on a nearby motorway. The force of the water smashed through walls and broke through roads.

In Mandra, five people – two women and three men – were found dead either in their flooded homes or in allotments. Another two were found floating in the sea.

“The walls collapsed, the cars were carried away and they broke everything here. There is nothing left,” resident Marina Kolia said. “Water is everywhere in the house.”

The wall of a local cemetery crumbled and vehicles collided with tree trunks. The fire brigade said at least three people were missing, and an unspecified number of people injured.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras expressed regret at the loss of life and called for an emergency meeting with ministers.

Greece has had around a week of heavy rain. A state of emergency was declared in the west Attica region, which includes Nea Peramos and Mandra, on Wednesday.

Both towns, which have a combined population of about 20,000 people, lie in the foothills of a mountain in western Attica. Many Greek housing settlements are built without taking into account town planning regulations.

An Athens prosecutor ordered an urgent preliminary investigation into the deaths and destruction caused and was also investigating possible urban planning offences.

On Tuesday, Greece declared a state of emergency on the eastern island of Symi, just off the coast of Turkey, after a storm swept cars into the sea, damaged homes and cut off electricity and water supplies.

(Additional reporting by Karolina Tagaris and Renee Maltezou Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Firefighters gaining edge in California wildfires that have killed at least 40

Search and Rescue teams search for two missing people amongst ruins at Journey's End Mobile Home Park destroyed by the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa.

By Salvador Rodriguez

SANTA ROSA (Reuters) – Firefighters began gaining ground on wildfires that killed at least 40 people in the past week, the deadliest blazes in California’s history, as winds eased and searchers combed charred ruins for more victims with hundreds still missing.

Two of the three most destructive Northern California fires were more than half contained early on Monday, and some residents who fled the flames in hard-hit Sonoma County could be allowed to return home later in the day, officials said.

More than 5,700 structures were destroyed by more than a dozen wildfires that ignited a week ago and consumed an area larger than New York City. Entire neighborhoods in the city of Santa Rosa were reduced to ashes.

“Overall, things are feeling optimistic. We’re very cautious about that,” said Brad Gouvea, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection incident commander. “You’d never know it’s the middle of October in Sonoma County and have fire behavior like this.”

A firefighting helicopter drops water to defend a vineyard from an approaching wildfire in Santa Rosa.

A firefighting helicopter drops water to defend a vineyard from an approaching wildfire in Santa Rosa.
REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

Warm and very dry weather is forecast to continue through Monday, the National Weather Service said. Rain could arrive on Thursday after a cooling trend, it said.

Steve Crawford, a Cal Fire operations chief, said heavy winds had lightened and helped drive flames away from populated areas. Better weather and additional equipment and manpower made available as other fires died down had also helped.

“Before we were kind of chasing the fire,” he said.

In another hopeful sign, Mendocino County authorities said power company PG&E would begin flying low in the county to check lines and re-establish power.

About 11,000 firefighters supported by air tankers and helicopters are battling blazes that have consumed more than 217,000 acres (88,000 hectares).

About 50 search-and-rescue personnel backed by National Guard troops were combing tens of thousands of charred acres in Sonoma County for bodies, sheriff’s spokeswoman Misti Harris said.

“Once it’s safe to go through, we’ll search every structure,” she said.

Twenty-two people were killed in Sonoma County and 174 were still listed as missing there, although the number has dropped from 235 on Saturday as more people checked in with authorities.

Evacuation orders were lifted for the picturesque Napa Valley resort town of Calistoga, whose 5,000 residents were ordered out by authorities four days ago with fire just miles from downtown.

Thank you banners to responders are hung above Highway 101 after wildfires tore through portions of Santa Rosa, California, U.S., October 15, 2017.

Thank you banners to responders are hung above Highway 101 after wildfires tore through portions of Santa Rosa, California, U.S., October 15, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

RETURNING TO THE UNKNOWN

Some evacuees being housed at a Sonoma raceway hoped to return home.

Retiree Stephen Garner, 68, of Sonoma, has been camped with his wife in the couple’s recreational vehicle.

“As far as we know our house is OK, but that’s the hard part, you don’t know,” he said.

In Redwood Valley, a scorched Mendocino County town of about 1,700 people, Jami Flores and her family sifted through the ruins of their two-story rental home, which was reduced to rubble.

“There’s been a lot of crying and a lot of emotions,” Flores, 42, said.

Flores, her husband and daughter fled Monday morning after being awoken by the smell of smoke, not uncommon in the area. Seeing a red haze, they rushed to leave amid falling ash and arriving firefighters.

“The mountain was on fire,” Flores said. Now she wonders, “Where do we all go next?”

The fast-moving fires north of San Francisco remained a danger, with thousands ordered to leave their homes at the weekend.

Firefighters gained control of two of the deadliest fires in wine country’s Napa and Sonoma counties: The Tubbs fire was 60 percent contained and the Atlas fire 65 percent contained, Cal Fire said. Nearly half of the Redwood Valley fire, which alone is responsible for eight deaths in Mendocino County, was extinguished by late Sunday.

The 40 confirmed fatalities make the fires California’s deadliest since record-keeping began, surpassing the 29 deaths from the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles.

About 75,000 people remain displaced.

At least a dozen Napa Valley and Sonoma County wineries were damaged or destroyed, throwing the state’s wine industry and related tourism into disarray.

Firefighters from Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Utah and New York are helping battle the blazes. Cal Fire estimated the fires would be contained by Friday.

The year’s wildfire season is one of the worst in U.S. history, with nearly 8.6 million acres (3.4 million hectares) burned by Oct. 13, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The worst on record for the same period in a year was 9.3 million acres in 2015.

 

(Editing by Chris Michaud and Paul Tait)

 

Weakening Nate brings rain, tornado warnings to U.S. South

Weakening Nate brings rain, tornado warnings to U.S. South

By Rod Nickel and Jessica Resnick-Ault

BILOXI/PASCAGOULA, Miss. (Reuters) – Hurricane Nate weakened to a tropical depression on Sunday after coming ashore in Mississippi, flooding roads and buildings but sparing the state from catastrophic damages.

Maximum sustained winds from Nate, the fourth major storm to hit the United States in less than two months, dropped to 35 miles per hour (55 km per hour) as it moved through Alabama and into Tennessee.

The remnants of the storm spawned tornado warnings in those states and the western portions of North Carolina and South Carolina. It is forecast to bring gusty winds and up to 4 inches (10 cm) of rain to parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York on Monday.

The storm made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane, the weakest designation by the U.S. National Hurricane Center. Only a few hours earlier, its winds had been blowing at 70 mph (113 kph) but appeared to lack the devastating punch of its recent predecessors.

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant told reporters there had been no deaths or reports of catastrophic damage. “We are very fortunate this morning and have been blessed,” he said.

Nate killed at least 30 people in Central America before entering the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and bearing down on the U.S. South. It has also shut down most oil and gas production in the Gulf.

Nate follows hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, which have devastated areas of the Caribbean and southern United States.

The tropical depression’s center will move up through Alabama into Tennessee and Kentucky through Monday, the hurricane center said. Heavy rainfall and storm-surge flooding remained a danger across the region, and the hurricane center said Florida’s Panhandle and parts of Alabama and Georgia might feel tropical storm-force wind gusts.

The storm was expected to bring three to six inches of rain to parts of western North Carolina through midday Monday, with up to 10 inches possible in isolated spots. Power outages, damaged homes and roads closed by debris were all reported in the region.

Nate made its first U.S. landfall on Saturday evening near the mouth of the Mississippi River and then made a second one early on Sunday near Biloxi, Mississippi.

In Biloxi, water surged over roads during the storm and quickly receded on Sunday, leaving a boat that broke loose marooned on the beach. At a Waffle House restaurant, the storm surge deposited a dumpster in its parking lot.

Jeff Pickich, a 46-year-old wine salesman from D’Iberville, Mississippi, was counting his blessings. Heavy winds left only minor damage, blowing down part of a fence on his rental property in Biloxi.

“I’m just glad,” he said, digging fresh holes for fence posts. “I was afraid of the water. The water is Mother Nature. You can’t stop it.”

Water flowed through Ursula Staten’s yard in Biloxi, pushing over part of her fence and scattering debris, but did not breach her house.

“I have a mess,” the retired massage therapist said. “If we had got Irma, I would have lost everything.”

At the Golden Nugget Casino, one of eight Biloxi gaming establishments, workers rushed to clean up mud, debris and minor damage from 3 feet (1 m) of water sloshing into an entrance and the parkade. The gaming room stayed dry.

Three hundred guests remained in the hotel, some eager to try their luck after surviving Nate.

But dangers from the storm remain, with Florida Governor Rick Scott warning of tornadoes springing up in the Panhandle region and Alabama Governor Kay Ivey urging residents to prepare for strong winds and storm surges.

U.S. President Donald Trump declared federal emergencies in Alabama and Florida on Sunday, which provides additional funding for disaster relief.

Mississippi Power had restored electricity to 10,000 customers, but 4,800 were still without it. More than 1,000 people had arrived at shelters, the state Emergency Management Agency said.

Alabama Power said it had restored electricity to 58,000 of 146,000 customers who lost it.

Rainfall of 3 to 6 inches (8 to 15 cm), with a maximum of 10 inches (25 cm), was expected east of the Mississippi River in Alabama and Tennessee, the hurricane center said.

NEW ORLEANS THREAT DOWNGRADED

Forecast at one point to make landfall in Louisiana, Nate headed farther east and spared many New Orleans parishes that were devastated by Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago.

“I had prayed for this – that we would be spared,” said Amos Cormier, president of Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana’s equivalent to a county.

Bernice Barthelemy, a 70-year-old Louisiana resident, died from cardiac arrest overnight after telling Reuters on Saturday that she did not mind having to evacuate, Cormier said on Sunday. He attributed her death to the stress of the move.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said he expected that evacuated residents could return home soon.

Vessel traffic and port operations at New Orleans resumed on Sunday afternoon, while the Port of Mobile in Alabama remained closed. Oil ports, producers and refiners in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were planning reopenings as the storm moved inland on Sunday.

The storm curtailed 92 percent of daily oil production and 77 percent of daily natural gas output in the Gulf of Mexico, more than three times the amount affected by Harvey.

The storm doused Central America with heavy rains on Thursday, killing at least 16 people in Nicaragua, 10 in Costa Rica, two in Honduras and two in El Salvador.

(Reporting by Rod Nickel in Biloxi, Miss. and Jessica Resnick-Ault in Pascagoula, Miss.; Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga, Erwin Seba and Gary McWilliams in Houston; Jonathan Allen in New York; Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Peter Cooney)

In Puerto Rico, lives depend on volunteer doctors and diesel generators

In Puerto Rico, lives depend on volunteer doctors and diesel generators

By Robin Respaut and Nick Brown

OROCOVIS, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – At a community center in Orocovis, an isolated agricultural town of 23,000 in the mountains of central Puerto Rico, six oxygen-dependent patients drew breath with the help of the diesel generator powering their equipment.

Then the generator sputtered as if it might die.

A dozen volunteer doctors and medical students from San Juan started assessing which patient should be transported first – in the town’s only ambulance – to a hospital an hour away, and which could survive without oxygen for a short time.

Javier Sevilla Rodriguez, a medical student, had only one way to make the agonizing decisions. He removed one woman’s oxygen tube, watching carefully to see how her blood-oxygen level responded.

“This is how we are doing triage right now,” he said.

Two weeks after hurricane Maria, many of Puerto Rico’s sick, frail and elderly are teetering on the edge, one faulty generator away from missing dialysis treatments or having critical medications go bad.

With nearly the entire island still lacking electricity, hospitals, clinics, and shelters are operating on aging generators not intended for long-term use and powered by scarce diesel fuel. Water is still not available for nearly half the population and supplies of medicines and oxygen are running low.

And residents still can’t call for help across vast swaths of the island because of widespread cellular network outages.

Many regions in the interior of the island, like this one, are only now seeing relief efforts, amid a plodding U.S. disaster response to this island of 3.4 million American citizens. The U.S. territory’s battered economy and infrastructure has magnified the humanitarian crisis wrought by the strongest hurricane to hit here in nine decades.

In Orocovis, even the sickest patients have gone largely without medical care since the storm. So the doctors worked quickly throughout the day, conferring with caregivers and writing prescriptions they would take back to San Juan to fill and then dispatch by messenger.

Now at the community center, their last stop before leaving town, time ran out.

With a loud clunk, the sounds of humming oxygen machines stopped and were replaced by a chorus of beeps and chirps warning that power had been cut.

The generator had failed.

A CALL FOR DOCTORS

The medical convoy that visited Orocovis is an entirely volunteer operation, organized by physician Carlos Mellado. After Maria hit Puerto Rico on September 20, blocking roads and crippling power and communications networks, Mellado asked other doctors at his clinic to cover for him and threw himself into hurricane relief work.

On the first day, he headed to Canovanas, east of the capital, checking on people at shelters. He promised to fill many patients’ prescriptions and send back the medications.

The next day, he went to Vieques, an island off Puerto Rico’s eastern coast, and found diabetics without insulin, heart patients under extreme stress and crucial treatments interrupted by power outages.

When Mellado returned to San Juan, he stopped by the local radio station, which in the days after the storm, had become a trusted source of information for Puerto Ricans living without communications. Invited to speak to listeners, he called for other physicians willing to join him.

Now, Mellado has a core group of 18 physicians, who rotate between the trips and their own practices, and a growing list of more doctors who want to join. Each morning, he takes out a paper map of the island covered with notes about where he’s been. The doctors pick a town and go.

The convoys have no official ties, but Mellado reports each evening on what the doctors found to Puerto Rican and federal officials in San Juan. Sometimes Puerto Rico’s housing department coordinates deliveries of the drugs back to the towns, and a pharmacy chain donates medications for patients without insurance.

The government’s death count from the storm more than doubled this week to 36. But doctors across the island believe the total would be far higher if it included people with chronic conditions who died because they lacked access to medical care.

“For these critically ill patients, if everything fails, they don’t have too much time,” said Humberto Guzman, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon and member of the medical convoy. “People are dying.”

‘WE CANNOT WAIT’

In Orocovis, after the generator failed, the doctors looked for a quick fix. Guzman ran up the street to the town’s shuttered urgent care facility.

There, he found a half-dozen oxygen tanks that locals said had been delivered the day before. Each could provide about a day’s worth of oxygen to a patient.

The tanks were quickly moved to the community center, where the doctors taught family members to use them. But before that became necessary, the generator sprang back to life.

The doctors packed up to leave, assuring patients’ families that they could switch to the tanks if the generator failed again.

“In every town right now, there are moments like this happening,” Guzman said. “That’s why you need people like us to just go. We cannot wait.”

(This version of the story corrects to fix pronoun in paragraph 4 and change “country” to “island” in paragraph 7)

(Reporting by Robin Respaut and Nick Brown; Editing by Sue Horton and Brian Thevenot)

Trump lifts foreign shipping restrictions for storm-hit Puerto Rico

Trump lifts foreign shipping restrictions for storm-hit Puerto Rico

By Robin Respaut

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump temporarily lifted restrictions on foreign shipping on Thursday to help get fuel and supplies to Puerto Rico as the U.S. territory reels from the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

Trump, at the request of Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello, “has authorized the Jones Act be waived for Puerto Rico. It will go into effect immediately,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a Twitter post.

The waiver of the act, which limits shipping between U.S. ports to U.S. owned-and-operated vessels, was signed by acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke and would be in force for 10 days, the DHS said in a statement. It would cover all products being shipped to Puerto Rico, the department said.

Puerto Rico’s government had sought a waiver to ensure as many supplies as possible, including badly needed fuel, reach the island of 3.4 million people quickly.

The waiver aimed to “ensure we have enough fuel and commodities to support lifesaving efforts, respond to the storm, and restore critical services and critical infrastructure operations in the wake of these devastating storms,” Duke said, referring not just to Maria but to Hurricane Irma, which grazed Puerto Rico earlier this month.

Rossello retweeted Sanders’ announcement with a “Thank you @POTUS” – referring to Trump’s official Twitter handle.

Maria struck Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, knocking out power to the entire island, causing widespread flooding and major damage to homes and infrastructure.

The U.S. government has periodically lifted the Jones Act for a temporary period following violent storms, including after hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which hit Texas and Florida in late August and earlier this month.

Even as federal emergency management authorities and the U.S. military have stepped up relief efforts in Puerto Rico, many residents have voiced exasperation at the prolonged lack of electricity, reliable supplies of drinking water and other essentials.

Rossello has strongly praised Trump’s response, defending the Republican administration against complaints of being slow to act. Critics have said the island is not getting the same response from the federal government as it would if it were a U.S. state, even though its residents are U.S. citizens.

“The president has been very diligent, he has been essentially talking to us every day,” the governor said in an interview with MSNBC on Thursday.

Outlining some of the problems facing the island, Rossello said, “Really our biggest challenge has been the logistical assets to try to get some of the food and some of the water to different areas of Puerto Rico.”

He said the territory was working closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We need truck drivers,” he said, adding he had asked the Department of Defense to send troops to help with transportation.

“The food is here, the water is here. We welcome more help. But critically, what we need is equipment,” and people, either national or state troops, Rossello said.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Frances Kerry; Editing by Bill Trott)

‘Avalanche of roofs’ in Dominica as Hurricane Maria lashes Caribbean

'Avalanche of roofs' in Dominica as Hurricane Maria lashes Caribbean

By Alvin Baez

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Hurricane Maria caused “mind boggling damage,” ripping off roofs across the small island of Dominica before pushing on toward the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on Tuesday as the second top-strength storm to lash the Caribbean this month.

Maria regained rare Category 5 strength, the top end of the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, as it churned about 170 miles (275 km) southeast of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, U.S. forecasters said.

It was carrying maximum sustained winds of 160 miles per hour (260 km per hour), the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said, describing Maria as “potentially catastrophic.”

The storm plowed through Dominica, a mountainous island nation of 72,000 people in the eastern Caribbean, late on Monday causing devastation that Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit described as “mind boggling.”

“The winds have swept away the roofs of almost every person I have spoken to or otherwise made contact with,” Skerrit said in a Facebook post, describing an avalanche of torn-away roofs across the country, including that of his own residence.

“My focus now is in rescuing the trapped and securing medical assistance for the injured,” he said.

The storm made landfall on Dominica as a Category 5 hurricane with 155-mph (250-kph) winds, the NHC said. Its intensity may fluctuate over the next day or two, but Maria is expected to remain a category 4 or 5 storm, the Miami-based center said.

The region was hit just days ago by Hurricane Irma, which ranked as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record and devastated several small islands, including Barbuda and the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. Thomas and St. John, and causing heavy damage in Cuba and Florida. Irma killed at least 84 people in the Caribbean and the U.S. mainland.

Maria was on track to move over the northeastern Caribbean Sea and approach the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico by Tuesday night or early on Wednesday.

The governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Kenneth Mapp, said Maria would pass within 10 miles (16 km) of the island of St. Croix, which escaped the brunt of Irma on Sept. 6. The island is home to about 55,000 year-round residents, roughly half of the entire territory’s population.

At a news conference on Monday evening, Mapp warned of drenching rains. He predicted that most islanders would be without electricity for weeks, and “some folks will not get power in months.” A curfew would be imposed starting at 10 a.m. local time on Tuesday, he said.

A man covers the windows of a supermarket in preparation for Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

A man covers the windows of a supermarket in preparation for Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

SHELTER IN A BATHTUB

Mapp urged St. Croix residents to take cover in one of three emergency shelters on the island. For those choosing to stay in their homes during the storm, he said, they might consider climbing into a second-floor bathtub and pulling a mattress over them to stay safe in the event they lose their roofs.

Forecasts predict Maria will be the worst storm to hit St. Croix since Hugo, a Category 4 storm, in 1989.

The territory’s two other main islands, St. Thomas and St. John, which lie to the north of St. Croix, sustained widespread and heavy damage from Irma.

Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory with about 3.4 million inhabitants, avoided a direct hit two weeks ago from Irma as that storm skirted north, although it still saw damage.

Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rossello, urged residents on Twitter to brace for Maria’s arrival, saying, “It is time to seek refuge with a family member, friend or head to a state shelter.”

Residents rushed to buy plywood, water and other supplies.

If Maria retains its strength, it would be the most powerful hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in 85 years, since a Category 4 storm swept the territory in 1932, Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said. The last major hurricane to strike Puerto Rico directly was Georges, which made landfall there as a Category 3 storm in 1998, he said.

FRENCH TERRITORIES

The French island of Martinique escaped Maria largely unscathed but a communications blackout with fellow French territory Guadeloupe meant it would be several more hours before damage there could be assessed, Jacques Witkowski, France’s head of civil protection, told reporters in Paris.

In Saint Martin, where nearly a third of all buildings on the Dutch half of the island were destroyed by Irma, the airport and harbor were closed ahead of Maria’s approach.

“Saint Martin is the big concern because a lot of homes lost their roofs. They are vulnerable to a lot of rain, which will only make the situation worse,” said Paul Middelberg, a spokesman for the Dutch navy.

Maria was expected to whip up storm surges – seawater driven ashore by wind – of up to 9 feet (2.7 m) above normal tide levels, the NHC said. Parts of Puerto Rico could see up to 25 inches (64 cm) of rain, it said.

Maria is the 13th named Atlantic storm of the year, the seventh hurricane so far this season and the fourth major hurricane – defined as Category 3 or higher – following Harvey, Irma and Jose, the NHC said. Those numbers are all above average for a typical season, which is only about half over for 2017.

(Additional reporting by Richard Lough in Paris, Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam, Robert Edison Sandiford in Bridgetown, Barbados; Harriet McLeod in Charleston, South Carolina and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Catherine Evans and Frances Kerry)

Florida braces for Hurricane Irma as storm rips through Cuba

Hurricane Irma downgraded as it tears into Cuba's northern coast

By Sarah Marsh

REMEDIOS, Cuba (Reuters) – Hurricane Irma pounded Cuba’s northern coast on Saturday and barreled toward Florida as authorities scrambled to complete an unprecedented evacuation of millions of residents hours before the storm would engulf the state.

The outer band of Irma, which has killed at least 22 people in the Caribbean, was already lashing South Florida with tropical storm-force winds and left nearly 25,000 people without power, Governor Rick Scott said.

The brunt of the hurricane, one of the fiercest Atlantic storms in a century, is due to arrive in Florida early Sunday.

Irma could inflict major damage on the fourth-largest U.S. state by population, which is braced for winds well in excess of 100 miles per hour and a huge storm surge that could trigger coastal flooding.

“This is a deadly storm and our state has never seen anything like it,” Scott said at a Saturday morning news conference.

Irma, located about 225 miles (365 km) south of Miami on Saturday morning, still ranked as a Category 5 storm when it crashed into Cuba in the early hours of Saturday. It weakened to a Category 3 as it tore along the island’s northern coastline, downing power lines, bending palm trees and sending huge waves crashing over sea walls.

Maximum sustained winds dipped to around 130 miles per hour (215 km per hour) by 8 a.m. (1200 GMT) on Saturday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.

But Irma will regain strength as it moves over the warm open water as it approaches Florida, according to the NHS, which expects the storm to arrive in the Keys, an archipelago off the peninsula’s southern tip, on Sunday morning.

On Florida’s West Coast, a long line of people in Estero, north of Naples, lined up to enter an arena that officials converted into an evacuation shelter, one of hundreds that have opened up across the state.

“We got the house all buttoned up,” said Montgomery Campbell, 82, as he stood in line.

Luise Campana Read was one of those who chose to ignore warnings and stay in her home. She said by phone she planned to ride out the storm in her beachfront condo in Fort Lauderdale, with her elderly mother and other family members.

“With a 97-year-old, there was no way I was going to have her sleep on a cot or a blow-up mattress” in a shelter, she said.

The destruction along Cuba’s north central coast was similar to that seen on other Caribbean islands over the last week as Irma plowed into Ciego de Avila province around midnight.

State media said it was the first time the eye of a Category 5 storm had made landfall since 1932. In the days before Irma struck, the island’s Communist government evacuated tens of thousands of foreign tourists from resorts on the northern coast.

In Ciego de Avila province, Irma was forecast to generate waves of up to 7 meters (23 feet), with flooding expected as far west as the capital Havana, authorities said on Saturday.

Antonia Navarro, 56, a resident of the northern Cuban port town of Nuevitas in Camaguey, said a local ice cream factory was destroyed and glass windows at a hospital were blown out.

“We are praying to God and the Virgin of Charity that nothing grave happens to the people of Florida, and in particular Miami,” said Navarro, an officer worker. “We have to pray a lot for our relatives who live there.”

“RUNNING OUT OF TIME”

With the storm barreling toward the United States, officials in Florida raced to overcome clogged highways, gasoline shortages and move elderly residents to safety.

A total of 5.6 million people, or 25 percent of the state’s population, were ordered to evacuate Florida, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

The United States has been hit by only three Category 5 storms since 1851, and Irma is far larger than the last one in 1992, Hurricane Andrew, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

On Wall Street, the S&P 500 ended slightly lower as investors braced for potential damage and massive insurance claims from Irma. Many economists are predicting that third-quarter gross domestic product will take a hit due to the hurricanes.

President Donald Trump said in a videotaped statement that Irma was “a storm of absolutely historic destructive potential” and called on people to heed recommendations from government officials and law enforcement. In Palm Beach, Trump’s waterfront Mar-a-Lago estate was ordered evacuated.

Trees sway in the wind at the main square as Hurricane Irma passes by Remedios, Cuba September 8, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

MANDATORY EVACUATIONS, GASOLINE SHORTAGES

Irma was set to hit the United States two weeks after Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm, struck Texas, killing about 60 people and causing property damage estimated at up to $180 billion in Texas and Louisiana. Officials were preparing a massive response, the head of FEMA said.

About 9 million people in Florida may lose power, some for weeks, said Florida Power & Light Co, which serves almost half of the state’s 20.6 million residents.

Amid the exodus, nearly one-third of all gas stations in Florida’s metropolitan areas were out of gasoline, with scattered outages in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, according to Gasbuddy.com, a retail fuel price tracking service.

Mandatory evacuations on Georgia’s Atlantic coast and some of South Carolina’s barrier islands were due to begin on Saturday. Virginia and Alabama were under states of emergency.

The governors of North and South Carolina warned residents to remain on guard even as the storm took a more westward track, saying their states still could experience severe weather, including heavy rain and flash flooding, early next week.

As it roared in from the east, Irma ravaged small islands in the northeastern Caribbean, including Barbuda, St. Martin and the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, flattening homes and hospitals and ripping down trees.

Irma is seen costing at least 1.2 billion euros ($1.4 billion) in Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy, a French public reinsurance body said on Saturday.

But even as they came to grips with the destruction, residents of the islands faced the threat of another major storm, Hurricane Jose.

Jose, expected to reach the northeastern Caribbean on Saturday, is an extremely dangerous storm nearing Category 5 status, with winds of up to 150 mph (240 kph), the NHC said.

(For a graphic on how Irma compares to other major hurricanes, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2gTxfqJ)

(Additional reporting by Marc Frank in Havana, Makini Brice in Cap-Haitien, Haiti,; Delana Isles in Providenciales, Turks and Caicos, Bernie Woodall, Robin Respaut and Brian Thevenot in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, Ben Gruber and Andy Sullivan in Miami, Bate Felix, Richard Lough and Dominique Vidalon in Paris, Toby Sterling in Amsterdam and Neil Hartnell in Nassau, Bahamas; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Helen Popper, Dale Hudson and Diane Craft)

Hurricane Irma will ‘devastate’ part of U.S.: emergency services head

A member of the Emergency Operations Committee monitors the trajectory of Irma in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Anticipating that Hurricane Irma will “devastate” part of the United States, U.S. officials were preparing a massive response to the storm, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said on Friday.

With Irma set to hit Florida as early as Saturday night, parts of Florida was expected to lose electricity for days, if not longer, and more than 100,000 people may need shelter, FEMA Administrator Brock Long warned at a news conference.

“Hurricane Irma continues to be a threat that is going to devastate the United States in either Florida or some of the southeastern states,” Long said.

Irma was a Category 5 hurricane, the most dangerous measure by the National Hurricane Center, before being downgraded to Category 4 early Friday after pummeling islands in the Caribbean.

The United States has experienced only three Category 5 storms since 1851 and Irma is far larger than the last one to hit the United States in 1992, Hurricane Andrew, according to Long.

He warned people not to ignore evacuation orders.

“They need to get out and listen and heed the warnings,” Long said.

A man looks out to the flooded street in Puerto Plata.

A man looks out to the flooded street in Puerto Plata.
REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Officials have thousands of personnel ready to respond and millions of meals and liters of water in place nearby, Long said.

The National Weather Service said that Friday was the last day to evacuate before winds would start to reach unsafe speeds in Florida.

Airlines added extra flights from Florida on Thursday before announcing plans to halt service from some southern Florida airports starting Friday afternoon.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price called Irma a “remarkably dangerous storm and the window to get yourself in the right spot … is closing rapidly.”

Price said the main hospital in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands was closed after being damaged by Irma, and critically ill patients were being evacuated to Puerto Rico or other islands.

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate voted 80-17 to approve a measure to more than double funding to $15.25 billion to FEMA and for local block grants to handle natural disasters. FEMA’s disaster assistance fund could run out of money Friday without action, senators said.

The House is expected to approve the measure on Friday. It had already approved $7.85 billion on Wednesday.

A worker covers the windows of a restaurant with plywood in preparation for Hurricane Irma in Miami Beach, Florida, U.S., September 7, 2017. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston

A worker covers the windows of a restaurant with plywood in preparation for Hurricane Irma in Miami Beach, Florida, U.S., September 7, 2017. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston

(Editing by Bill Trott and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Irma powers toward Florida, leaving behind path of death, destruction

Irma powers toward Florida, leaving behind path of death, destruction

By Delana Isles

PROVIDENCIALES, Turks and Caicos (Reuters) – Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms in a century, drove toward Florida on Friday after lashing the Caribbean with devastating winds and torrential rain, killing 19 people and leaving a swathe of catastrophic destruction.

Irma was about 450 miles (724 km) southeast of Miami, Florida, early Friday after saturating the northern coasts of the Dominican Republic and Haiti and pummeling the Turks and Caicos Islands.

The “extremely dangerous” hurricane was downgraded from a Category 5 to a Category 4 early Friday but still packed winds as strong as 150 miles per hour (240 km per hour), the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said in an advisory at 8 a.m EDT (noon GMT).

Irma hit the Bahamas on Friday, where it was forecast to bring 20-foot (six-meter) storm surges before moving to Cuba and then slamming into southern Florida on Sunday.

In Miami, hundreds lined up for bottled water and cars looped around city blocks to buy gas on Thursday. Shortages in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale metropolitan area worsened on Thursday, with sales up to five times the norm.

In Palm Beach, the waterfront Mar-a-Lago estate owned by U.S. President Donald Trump was ordered evacuated, media reported. Trump also owns property on the French side of St. Martin, an island devastated by the storm.

A mandatory evacuation on Georgia’s Atlantic coast was due to begin on Saturday, Governor Nathan Deal said. The storm comes two weeks after Hurricane Harvey struck Texas, claiming around 60 lives and causing property damage estimated at as much as $180 billion in Texas and Louisiana.

Irma ravaged a series of small islands in the northeast Caribbean, including Barbuda, St. Martin and the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, flattening homes and hospitals and ripping down trees.

A Reuters witness described the roof and walls of a solidly built house shaking hard as the storm rocked the island of Providenciales and caused a drop in pressure that could be felt in people’s chests.

Throughout the islands in Irma’s wake, stunned locals tried to comprehend the devastation as they were getting ready for another major hurricane, Jose, a Category 3 due to reach the northeastern Caribbean on Saturday.

A storm batters as Hurricane Irma descends on Providenciales, in the Turks and Caicos Islands, in this still image taken from September 7, 2017 social media video. MANDATORY CREDIT Aneesa Khan/via REUTERS

A storm batters as Hurricane Irma descends on Providenciales, in the Turks and Caicos Islands, in this still image taken from September 7, 2017 social media video. MANDATORY CREDIT Aneesa Khan/via REUTERS

DEATHS RISE

The death toll from the storm has risen as emergency services got access to remote areas pummeled by heavy winds and rain. French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said on Friday that nine people were killed and at least seven were missing after the hurricane crashed into France’s Caribbean islands of St. Martin and St. Barthelemy.

“One hundred and twelve people were injured,” Collomb said, adding there could be more victims.

Four people died in the U.S. Virgin islands, a government spokesman said, and a major hospital was badly damaged by the wind. A U.S. amphibious assault ship arrived in the U.S. Virgin Islands on Thursday and sent helicopters for medical evacuations from the destroyed hospital.

A man was reported missing after trying to cross a river in Cerca La Source in Haiti’s Central Plateau region.

On Barbuda one person died and the eastern Caribbean island was reduced “to rubble,” Prime Minister Gaston Browne said. In the British overseas territory of Anguilla, another person was killed and the hospital and airport were damaged, emergency service officials said.

Three people were killed in Puerto Rico and around two-thirds of the population had lost electricity, Governor Ricardo Rossello said after the storm rolled by the U.S. territory’s northern coast. A surfer was also reported killed in Barbados.

The storm passed just to the north of the island of Hispaniola, shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, causing damage to roofs, flooding and power outages as it approached the impoverished Haitian side, but did not make landfall there..

Cuba evacuated some of the 51,000 tourists visiting the island, particularly 36,000 people at resorts on the northern coast. In Caibarien, a coastal town in the hurricane’s predicted path, residents headed farther inland.

Irma is the strongest hurricane recorded in the Atlantic Ocean and one of the five most forceful storms to hit the Atlantic basin in 82 years, according to the NHC.

(For a graphic on historical perspective of Irma, click: http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/STORM-HARVEY/010050K2197/index.html)

(Reporting by Makini Brice in Cap-Haitien, Haiti, Bate Felix and Dominique Vidalon in Paris, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Dan Flynn; Editing by Larry King and Jeffrey Benkoe)