Friday, September 22, 2017

Facing Months in the Dark, Ordinary Life in Puerto Rico is ‘Beyond Reach’

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Mickey Garcia, far left, tended to food with neighbors in Ingenio Toa Baja, P.R., on Friday. Credit Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times
SAN JUAN, P.R. — Two days after Hurricane Maria flattened this island of 3.5 million people, knocking out all its power and much of its water, the rebuilding of the services and structures needed for people to resume some semblance of ordinary life was looking more complicated by the day.
All or part of three towns in the northwestern part of the island — Isabela, San Sebastián and Quebradillas — were being evacuated Friday because of fears about structural damage to the nearby Guajataca Dam. Close to 70,000 people could be affected if the 90-year-old dam, which is 120-feet high and can hold about 11 billion gallons of water, collapsed, said Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló.
And with everyone from the governor of Puerto Rico to the mayor of San Juan predicting that it could take four to six months to resume electrical service, people were contemplating empty refrigerators, campfire cooking, bathing in their own sweat and perhaps wrangling for fresh water on an island accustomed to hard times but nothing like what the future may bring.
“It’s been hard to see infrastructure deteriorate in Puerto Rico, but it has been harder to meet citizens who have lost it all,” Governor Rosselló said.
The most immediate danger was from the dam, which suffered structural damage. And finding gasoline was already a big problem. Lines for ice and gas stretched for blocks. Generators needed diesel or regular gas to work, and supplies at gas stations were quickly dwindling.
“People will start going nuts pretty soon,” said Miguel A. Soto-Class, president of the Center for a New Economy, a nonpartisan research organization. “I don’t think it will be 'Mad Max,’ but people will be looking for diesel and gasoline, more than water even.”
The water supply was also becoming a problem. Even in San Juan, people need electricity to access water, and water is also critical to running some air-conditioning systems. At Centro Medico, a major hospital outside San Juan in Río Piedras, the emergency unit was treating patients but had no air-conditioning, said Dr. Johnny Rullán, a physician.
But the biggest long-term obstacle was the prospect of months without power.
Puerto Ricans are the first to say they can improvise — resolver — when a drought dries them up or a terrible storm knocks them down. But the idea of grappling long term without power hung like a pall over the island.
“This is really affecting me,” said Nina Rodriguez, a human resources manager in San Juan. “I have four children and the youngest is 6 months old. We are preparing for six months, maybe even a year without power.”
She added: “All the infrastructure has collapsed. Everything we had before the hurricane is beyond reach.”
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An aerial view of a flooded neighborhood in Catano, P.R., in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Credit Ricardo Arduengo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
While few places could withstand a Category 4 hurricane without extensive damage to power grids, Puerto Rico’s government-owned power company was particularly vulnerable because of a history of neglect, mismanagement, out-of-control debt and decrepit infrastructure, experts said. A monopoly by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or Prepa, was reviled by island residents long before Hurricane Maria shut it down.
“Our plants look like the cars in Cuba,” said Eduardo Bhatia, a Puerto Rican senator. They could produce power before the hurricane, but not efficiently and not cheaply.
Even though Hurricane Irma spared Puerto Rico, brushing it lightly as it whirled west two weeks ago, almost 70 percent of the island lost power. Some residents were still waiting for electricity when Hurricane Maria hit the island.
Eugenio Toro and his wife Cristina Bernal lost power Sept. 6. As a result, they felt ill prepared for Hurricane Maria. “We couldn’t freeze things,” Mr. Toro said. “We never got the light back. We did go buy a generator but there is little gas and we can only use it a few hours a day.”
So much of the damage still needs to be assessed that it is possible the power situation may turn out to be less dire than feared. On Friday, Prepa’s chief executive, Ricardo Ramos, said on CNBC that he was hopeful that the power plants — as opposed to the power lines, pylons, substations and transformers — may be intact.
“We’ve lost probably 80 percent of the transmission and distribution infrastructure,” he said, adding that crews had completed only about a third of an island-wide survey of the damage and would have more information in two days.
He also said that important buildings on the island, including Centro Medico and a convention center now being used by emergency workers, would have their power back in two or three days.
Mr. Ramos said he shortened estimates for how long power would be out after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York arrived Friday with teams to help restore electricity. “We expect three to four months at most,” for the whole island, he said.
Getting power back to Puerto Rico will be daunting and expensive. Transformers, poles and power lines snake from coastal areas across hard-to-access mountains. In some cases, the poles have to be maneuvered in place with helicopters.
And yet it gets worse. Puerto Rico is an island, which means the tons of much-needed supplies — trucks, poles, cables, tools, spare parts, helicopters — must be shipped into Caribbean ports, making the process infinitely more cumbersome. Trained electrical workers by the hundreds will also have to be flown into Puerto Rico, where they will have to find places to stay, not an uncomplicated task.
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Fallen trees and debris in Old San Juan. Credit Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times
So every relief delivery can be a major event.
Mr. Cuomo and a delegation from New York arrived Friday morning with supplies that included more than 34,000 bottles of water, 500 flashlights, 1,400 cots and blankets and, perhaps most important, 10 generators.
Mr. Soto-Class said Prepa has been plagued by bungling and more recently a debt it cannot pay, a shortage of cash, and layoffs. Some of its infrastructure dates back to the 1970s, or earlier.
“When the electric power authority had the money, they mismanaged it and didn’t invest,” he said. “Now there is less money to run the authority with. This compounds it all, one on top of the other.”
By some measures, the authority, formed during the Great Depression, is the largest public electric utility in the United States, with more than 1.5 million customers. Most of the electricity it produces is generated by burning fuel oil — a dirty, outmoded source. It is virtually the last power company producing electricity that way. Hearings in the Puerto Rican Senate revealed that the authority bought sludge and then billed Puerto Rico’s unsuspecting ratepayers as if they had bought high-grade oil.
The lack of electricity also affects the water supply in certain areas. Some towns need electricity to get their water pumped in.
For now, generators are the saving grace for the lucky few who have them to crank up their refrigerator and a few fans. Some restaurants, hotels and many hospitals have operating generators. But the vast majority of Puerto Ricans on the impoverished island cannot afford them.
For older residents, the lack of power could be dangerous.
Ermerita Rosa Perez, 83, sat on her porch in San Juan praying the rosary and worrying not just about comfort but about survival.
“Four to six months without electricity?! Oh no, no, no, no, we will die,” Ms. Rosa said. “Us old people can’t make it that long. Just today, I was looking at this flooded mess and I was thinking of mopping. I said, ‘No, I can’t. I need to rest.’ I will take a cold water bath — which I’m not supposed to do, because I have arthritis — and rest.”
She worried about her health. “I am diabetic. I have high blood pressure. It’s so hot I can’t take it,” she said. “I’m an old lady, hauling pots to my carport to cook on a gas stove? It’s too much. So I sit here on my porch, trying to catch a breeze, praying to God to bring things back to normal.”
Her son, Hilberto Caban, was less panicked. He said the authorities were probably exaggerating how long the lights would be out.
“That way if it takes three weeks or a month, we’ll all say, ‘Great! Look how hard they worked!” he said.

Mexico City’s People Power

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Volunteers clearing away rubble in Mexico City on Tuesday in the wake of a 7.1 magnitude earthquake. Credit Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times
MEXICO CITY — When the earthquake rattled this mountain capital on Tuesday, a five-story office and apartment block round the corner from my home collapsed into a mountain of rubble, burying computer programmers, salesmen, secretaries. Right away, a handful of neighbors approached the wreckage, calling to see if anyone was alive and removing debris. Within hours, the group had swelled into the hundreds, joined by volunteers from across the city arriving by foot, truck and bicycle.
The volunteers shoveled rubble into buckets and cleared it from the scene in human chains. Firefighters, civil defense workers and finally soldiers arrived and labored in unison with the civilians. At intervals, they would shout for people to be silent and raise their fists as they listened for the sounds of survivors. Hundreds more volunteers organized to supply water, food and tools as the force worked through the night.
This immense human effort, shown in the pictures of ordinary men and women sweating with spades, running with wheelbarrows, passing stretchers over their heads will surely be the lasting image of the 7.1 magnitude tremor that struck Mexico less than two weeks after a more distant 8.1 earthquake. It is a story of tragedy, but also of solidarity and hope.
“I felt I had to do something,” says Sergio Fragoso, a 31-year-old music producer, who came on a borrowed bike to toil at the site for 16 hours straight, his determination conquering his exhaustion. “I thought about what it would be like if it was me trapped under there. I would want people to help.”
Similar scenes were repeated at dozens of collapsed buildings across the battered capital as thousands of volunteers worked nonstop. Their efforts paid off, with more than 50 people rescued by the end of Wednesday, the mayor announced. On Thursday morning, workers used jackhammers to break up the last concrete blocks left at the building near my home. The entire office block had been cleared in less than two days, an incredible physical feat.
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The effort was all the more impressive considering the scale of the devastation. Electricity and phone lines were down in much of the city, streets were blocked by debris and broken glass, and it was difficult to move anywhere. People were scrambling to find their own loved ones and get them to hospitals. I saw a man running through the street with an unconscious girl in his arms, another stumbling with a bleeding head into an ambulance. Many abandoned their cracked homes, fearing they could also collapse. But despite people’s own problems, they were ready to help those they didn’t even know.
The roots of this human force lie in the earthquake that hammered Mexico City on exactly the same day 32 years earlier and killed thousands. Back then, civilian brigades also formed, although they took longer to mobilize and didn’t work alongside soldiers. It was an era of one-party rule, and the government tried to hide the scale of the damage and stop civilians from helping, worried that groups of Good Samaritans in the streets could turn into political protesters.
The stories of those volunteers of 1985 feature strongly in the collective memory of Mexico City residents, known as “chilangos.” When the nightmare was relived, the new generation drew on this memory to act.
Lorenzo Meyer, a politics professor and author, joined the volunteer forces of 1985, and is proud that his grown-up children took to the streets this week. He described the stark differences between the two experiences. “Back then, we took almost two days to get to the buildings,” he said. “It was very hard to find information on what was happening. This time, there were text messages and social media feeds telling people where to go. And now the social energy is so strong it’s impossible to repress.”
The brigades of 1985 had an impact on Mexican politics, Dr. Meyer said. Angry with a government they saw as uncaring, these empowered volunteers sought change. Many became activists fighting to end the hegemonic rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or P.R.I. The capital became a bastion of opposition, and the P.R.I. lost political control of it in 1997, before losing the presidency in 2000, after seven decades.
The latest mass mobilization may also have a lasting political effect. The country now has multiparty democracy, and more open media and civil society. But people are angry about officials embezzling millions of dollars, governors working with drug traffickers and brutal violence that haunts communities. The P.R.I. returned to power in 2012 under President Enrique Peña Nieto, but he has suffered his own corruption scandals and his approval ratings have at times dropped to the teens.
A certain political reaction to the earthquake is already erupting. As it became clear that thousands had lost their homes from the tremor, people started online petitions calling for Mexico’s electoral institute to redirect hefty campaign finances for a presidential vote next year to earthquake relief. One of these petitions rapidly topped a million signatures.
A group created to support the petitions, FuerzaMexico, emphasizes the links between the political movements of past and present. “After the earthquake of 1985, Mexican civil society showed a power of solidarity and union without precedent; now we need it again,” it says on its page on the Change.org petition website.
A heightened awareness of people power could favor the presidential hopeful Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who trumpets a populist anti-establishment discourse from the left. A former Mexico City mayor, he already leads many opinion polls for the 2018 election as he calls for “el pueblo” to defeat a “mafia of power.” However, the advantage could swing to an independent candidate who offers an alternative to politicians and appeals to the many young professionals in the ranks of the volunteer brigades. Various personalities, including a TV anchor, an academic and a human rights defender, have expressed interest in running.
It could also strengthen Mexico’s resolve against the aggressive stance of the Trump administration, Dr. Meyer said. Around the rubble, the armies of volunteers often raise their fists and shout in unison, “Viva México.” “When we shout this, there is an implication that we are standing up to the hostile policies of the United States,” Dr. Meyer said. “After all of the recent insults, the humiliations, it is a way of reaffirming our pride.”

Mexico Has Some Earthquake Lessons for the United States

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Credit Thoka Maer
People cannot prevent earthquakes, but they can take steps to minimize the deaths and damage. Many more might have died in Mexico City this week had the country not invested in an early warning system that rang alarms just before the catastrophic earthquake struck. The United States, which has been slow to finish a similar system on the West Coast, can learn from Mexico’s example.
Scientists say that one of the most important things countries can do, besides improving building standards, is to install a system of sensors and computers that detects and analyzes tremors and issues warnings. Thanks to modern software and telecommunications, such systems can alert people to an earthquake seconds or minutes before the shaking starts, depending on where they are in relation to the epicenter — those further away get a longer heads-up. The warnings, which can be issued through sirens or text messages, may give people just enough time to move away from windows, drop to the ground and take cover. And they allow officials to halt trains, shut off valves in chemical plants, halt delicate medical procedures and take other protective actions.
The United States Geological Survey is building a warning system called ShakeAlert for California, Oregon and Washington. A prototype is up and running. But Congress has not appropriated the money to finish it. Officials say just 40 percent of the necessary field stations have been built so far. The Geological Survey says that it would cost $38 million to finish the system and $16 million a year to operate it. Congress appropriated just $10.2 million in the current fiscal year. (California and private foundations have also contributed money to the project over the years.)
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Continue reading the main story

Earthquake Warning System

An early warning could give advanced warning to people living several miles from the epicenter of an earthquake along the San Andreas fault line.
Warning time
CALIFORNIA
60 sec.
45 sec.
SAN ANDREAS
FAULT LINE
35 sec.
24 sec.
12 sec.
Los Angeles
SIMULATED
EARTHQUAKE
EPICENTER
California
San Diego
AREA OF DETAIL
40 miles
Worse still, President Trump’s budget for the 2018 fiscal year, which is inhospitable to a broad range of science-based projects, proposed eliminating the program entirely. This makes no sense, particularly when you consider that the annual federal budget is about $4 trillion and that the price tag of just one F-35 fighter jet is nearly $100 million. The United States can afford to spend a few million dollars to provide earthquake warnings to states that are home to 50 million people, or nearly one in six Americans.
The program appears to be safe from the ax, at least for now. A House Appropriations subcommittee voted this summer to continue funding in 2018. But if Congress were truly doing its job, it would increase investment in disaster preparedness, as other countries have done. Mexico installed its system after a devastating earthquake in 1985 killed about 10,000 people. Japan began building one in the 1960s for its Shinkansen bullet trains. After the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, that system was expanded nationally, and officials started issuing public alerts in 2007. Several other countries, including China, Taiwan and Turkey, have warning systems with varying degrees of sophistication.
Most people have a hard time understanding and preparing for rare but catastrophic events, and politicians are no exception. After all, it has been more than 100 years since the great San Francisco earthquake killed an estimated 3,000 people and destroyed much of the city. But the subsequent 1989 earthquake illustrates that the threat remains. The country needs protection against what many on the West Coast nervously refer to as “the big one.”

Cruelty, Incompetence and Lies

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Bill Cassidy, at the podium, and Lindsay Graham, far left, answered questions about their health care proposal in Washington on Tuesday. Credit Al Drago for The New York Times
Graham-Cassidy, the health bill the Senate may vote on next week, is stunningly cruel. It’s also incompetently drafted: The bill’s sponsors clearly had no idea what they were doing when they put it together. Furthermore, their efforts to sell the bill involve obvious, blatant lies.

Nonetheless, the bill could pass. And that says a lot about today’s Republican Party, none of it good.

The Affordable Care Act, which has reduced the percentage of Americans without health insurance to a record low, created a three-legged stool: regulations that prevent insurers from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions, a requirement that individuals have adequate insurance (and thus pay into the system while healthy) and subsidies to make that insurance affordable. For the lowest-income families, insurance is provided directly by Medicaid.

Graham-Cassidy saws off all three legs of that stool. Like other Republican plans, it eliminates the individual mandate. It replaces direct aid to individuals with block grants to states, under a formula that sharply reduces funding relative to current law, and especially penalizes states that have done a good job of reducing the number of uninsured. And it effectively eliminates protection for Americans with pre-existing conditions.

Did Graham-Cassidy’s sponsors know what they were doing when putting this bill together? Almost surely not, or they wouldn’t have produced something that everyone, and I mean everyone, who knows anything about health care warns would cause chaos.
It’s not just progressives: The American Medical Association, the insurance industry and Blue Cross/Blue Shield have all warned that markets would be destabilized and millions would lose coverage.

How many people would lose insurance? Republicans are trying to ram the bill through before the Congressional Budget Office has time to analyze it — an attempt that is in itself a violation of all previous norms, and amounts to an admission that the bill can’t bear scrutiny. But C.B.O. has analyzed other bills containing some of Graham-Cassidy’s provisions, and these previous analyses suggest that it would add more than 30 million people to the ranks of the uninsured.

Lindsey Graham, Bill Cassidy, and the bill’s other sponsors have responded to these critiques the old-fashioned way — with lies.

Both Cassidy and Graham insist that their bill would continue to protect Americans with pre-existing conditions — a claim that will come as news to the A.M.A., Blue Cross and everyone else who has read the bill’s text.
Cassidy has also circulated a spreadsheet that purports to show most states actually getting increased funding under his bill. But the spreadsheet doesn’t compare funding with current law, which is the relevant question. Instead, it shows changes over time in dollar amounts.

That’s actually a well-known dodge, one that Republicans have been using since Newt Gingrich tried to gut Medicare in the 1990s. As everyone in Congress — even Cassidy — surely knows, such comparisons drastically understate the real size of cuts, since under current law spending is expected to rise with inflation and population growth.

Independent analyses find that most states would, in fact, experience serious cuts in federal aid — and everyone would face huge cuts after 2027.

So we’re looking at an incompetently drafted bill that would hurt millions of people, whose sponsors are trying to sell it with transparently false claims. How is it that this bill might nonetheless pass the Senate?

One answer is that Republicans are desperate to destroy President Barack Obama’s legacy in any way possible, no matter how many American lives they ruin in the process.

Another answer is that most Republican legislators neither know nor care about policy substance. This is especially true on health care, where they never tried to understand why Obamacare looks the way it does, or how to devise a nonvicious alternative. Vox asked a number of G.O.P. senators to explain what Graham-Cassidy does; the answers ranged from incoherence to belligerence to belligerent incoherence.

I’d add that the evasions and lies we’re seeing on this bill have been standard G.O.P. operating procedure for years. The trick of converting federal programs into block grants, then pretending that this wouldn’t mean savage cuts, was central to every one of Paul Ryan’s much-hyped budgets. The trick of comparing dollar numbers over time to conceal huge benefit cuts has, as I already noted, been around since the 1990s.

In other words, Graham-Cassidy isn’t an aberration; it’s more like the distilled essence of everything wrong with modern Republicans.

Will this awful bill become law? I have no idea. But even if the handful of Republican senators who retain some conscience block it — we’re looking at you, John McCain — the underlying sickness of the G.O.P. will remain.
It’s sort of a pre-existing condition, and it’s poisoning America.
 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Stunned by Quake, Mexican Town Fears It ‘Will Never Be the Same’

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Residents in Jojutla, Mexico, tried to salvage what personal items they could on Wednesday from a home damaged in the earthquake that struck a day earlier. Credit Eduardo Verdugo/Associated Press
JOJUTLA, Mexico — The remnants of their life lay before them like some crude exhibit in a gallery of loss: a pink Bible, a Mickey Mouse T-shirt, earthenware plates and enamel pots.

Their home was gone, reduced to crumbled bits of adobe that now held a menagerie of odds and ends pulled from the wreckage after Tuesday’s earthquake, which leveled large parts of Jojutla, a town unaccustomed to earthquakes, and left at least 28 people dead. Nationwide, the death toll rose to at least 273 on Thursday, the president’s office said.

“We have seen this on television but we never imagined it could happen to us,” said Hilda Nava Batalla, 59, standing among her belongings under a makeshift roof in what was her home, where the family had lined up the furniture they rescued.

Jojutla, with 60,000 residents in Morelos State, is near the epicenter of the earthquake and was among the hardest-hit places in all of Mexico. Almost half of the small one- and two-story structures in the town’s center were destroyed. Those still standing were often badly damaged: balconies twisted from their moorings and gaping holes in the sides of homes.

In years past, when tremors have shaken or rattled Mexico City, the capital, and other parts of the country, Jojutla’s residents weathered the worst with little damage. This time, they received more than their share of it.
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“For the first time in history it happened right here,” said Efraín Castro, the deputy mayor. “Jojutla will never be the same.”

Clusters of people stood on the sidewalk, uncertain of what was next, waiting for help to arrive. Late Thursday, it came in the form of T-shirts and plastic bags with rice, cooking oil and a few other staples being handed out by volunteers rolling past in trucks. But that was nowhere near enough.

“We have supplies for four days,” Mr. Castro said. “The experts tell us the need will last for three or four weeks.”

“We aren’t prepared to face a catastrophe of this dimension,” he added.

The recovery efforts continued on Thursday, two days after the most devastating earthquake to strike Mexico in three decades. Rescuers continued their hunt for those still alive, trapped beneath the rubble, but hope waned. At a school building that collapsed onto dozens of students in Mexico City, officials gave a final assessment of the toll, which was lower than initially announced: 19 dead children and six dead adults, with the faint hope that a member of the custodial staff might still be alive under the debris.

Elsewhere in the capital, life seemed to begin to return to normal. Workers and volunteers still crowded the sites of downed buildings, but traffic resumed on the streets, and businesses opened for the first time since the earthquake. The initial rush — to save people, clear debris, feed and house those in distress — had passed.

Mexico City is awash in resources, so much so that some volunteers and donations there have been turned away in some places. Two hours south, though, Jojutla is a study in scarcity. Aid trucks have begun arriving from Mexico City, but the continued need in Jojutla is in some ways a reflection of the disparity between the capital and the nation’s more rural areas.

“We are asking for help,” said Rosalba Baena Padilla, 70, opening her wallet and counting out the last 20 pesos she had left, a little more than a dollar. “We don’t have work, we don’t have clothes, we don’t have anything.”

In the immediate sense, that need is for food and water. But entire families are camped outside and more than 800 people are in shelters. Workers dressed in red and orange overalls have begun the slow process of assessing damages to buildings. Some families will be able to return home, while others will not be allowed back inside even to collect a few photos of loved ones.
 
When the earthquake hit, Gloria Arcos Carpio, 62, was buried in her home. Her husband dug her out with his hands and held out hope that she might pull through when he found her still breathing.

But the injuries were too severe. She died, her daughter, Cristina Popoca Arcos, said Thursday, standing across the street, looking at the rubble where the family’s home once stood.

Ms. Popoca broke into sobs as she told the story. A neighbor gently urged her to calm down. “Think of your son,” the neighbor said.

Her son, Mauricio, 5, was playing quietly on the sidewalk next to the black plastic bags that held all of Ms. Popoca’s belongings.
“I have nothing left,” she said.

She said she and her son would stay with friends in a nearby town.
Along Jojutla’s streets are scenes of utter destruction.

The Ebenezer Reformed Presbyterian Church was reduced to a pile of raw materials. Neighbors said no one was inside at the time of the earthquake, offering something of a note of grace to the suffering.

“That’s what important, life,” said Ángel Gutiérrez, a doctor who works at the clinic next door. “The rest follows.”

By Thursday, the government had started work with backhoes to clear away the detritus from what officials referred to as the zero zone. Two brothers, René and José Antonio Contreras Méndez, watched in a near catatonic state as the heavy machinery pushed the splintered shell of their home.

José Antonio, 26, was on the second floor when he felt the house shake. He managed to get down the stairs onto the street, then turned to see the house collapse before his eyes.

René and another brother were on the first floor where the family had an ice cream store and a butcher shop. All three brothers escaped, but with nothing.
“Everything that our father left us,” said José Antonio, “is destroyed.”

Truth

When a person lies to us, we look at their eyes, and if possible their past deeds.

The great Richard P. Feynman wrote somewhere, that Science was an antidote to the telephone game, some of us played when young.

You tell the person next to you something for their ears only. Then that person does the same with the one next over. At the end you ask the last person what you said, usually is so different that you, and your friends all laugh.

Trump lied at the UN.

How do I know?

You could say that he threatened a head of government, so that is not a lie.

The moment Trump destroys several million North Koreans, he'll end up poor and in jail.

As a matter of fact Robert S. Mueller III is close to an indictment. Trump more than anybody else, knows what Trump did.

The lie is in not telling us.

Liar!

Mexico anxiously awaits the fate of a 12-year-old schoolgirl after deadly earthquake

Joshua Partlow is The Post’s bureau chief in Mexico. He has served previously as the bureau chief in Kabul and as a correspondent in Brazil and Iraq.
  Follow @partlowj


 Play Video 1:17
Rescuers search for young girl trapped beneath rubble in Mexico
Rescuers in Mexico rushed to save a 12-year-old girl trapped beneath a collapsed school following the country’s 7.1-magnitude earthquake on Sept. 19. (Reuters)
  
 A sprawling earthquake recovery effort spanning several states turned intensely personal Thursday as rescue crews struggled to save a 12-year-old girl who was pinned in the rubble of her elementary school.
The drama played out live late Wednesday and early Thursday on the major news channels here, with television cameras tracking every movement of the Mexican navy personnel and others who sought to rescue the girl now known as “Frida Sofia.” Under a soft rain, the work was delicate and painstaking, relying on thermal cameras and other technology to try to locate and remove young children trapped for more than 30 hours after their school collapsed on Tuesday afternoon.
At one point Wednesday night in the drama that has riveted Mexicans, Televisa reporter Danielle Dithurbide learned from the navy admiral leading the recovery effort that Frida Sofia — which may not be her real name — was able to tell rescuers that five other students were possibly trapped with her. It was unclear whether they were alive.
In other rescue efforts underway simultaneously in different parts of Mexico City, at least three people were pulled alive from crushed buildings, bringing the total number of people saved to more than 50, President Enrique Peña Nieto said in an address to the nation on Wednesday night.
“The priority continues to be saving lives,” he said.
As the official death toll from Tuesday’s 7.1-magnitude earthquake reached 250 people, with at least 115 in Mexico City and the rest distributed in surrounding states, Mexicans confronted scenes out of parents’ worst nightmares as rescuers pulled children’s bodies from the ruins of the primary school. Residents also learned about a baby’s baptism in central Mexico that ended with 11 family members dead, including the baby, when the church collapsed.
More than 2,000 people have been reported injured in the quake.
The search for the girl known as Frida Sofia became the top priority at the school, and maybe for all of Mexico. Overnight and into Thursday morning, there remained confusion about how many children were inside with her and whether they were alive.
Rescuers trying to burrow into the debris realized that the girl was there when they spotted a protruding hand and asked her to wiggle her fingers as a sign of life, Televisa reported.
“There’s a girl alive in there,” Adm. José Luis Vergara told the network, “but we still don’t know how to get to her.”
The Mexican navy announced early Thursday that the body of a school worker was recovered, bringing the confirmed death toll at the school to 21 children and five adults. At least 11 other children have been rescued from the collapsed building.
Amid the scenes of devastation, a surge of civic spirit took hold as thousands volunteered to provide medical care, food and water or to pick through buildings destroyed by the quake, the second major temblor in the past month and the deadliest in three decades.
In Mexico City’s central Roma neighborhood, small stores stayed open around the clock, offering food to rescue workers and families of victims. A hardware store lent tools to people trying to claw through massive piles of debris. Signs on pay phones advertised free calls. On one quiet street in Colonia del Valle, a generator rumbled softly, with a paper taped to the wall next to it that read: “Neighbors, you can charge your phones here.”
“It’s a pleasure to help,” said Rogelio Santos, a shopkeeper, on Wednesday. “We wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now.”
In the capital, the powerful quake caused more than three dozen buildings to crumple and damaged hundreds more, a north-south band of destruction that scarred poor and wealthy neighborhoods alike.
“The priority continues to be rescuing people in collapsed structures and treating the wounded,” Peña Nieto wrote on Twitter on Wednesday as he assessed damage in Mexico City and surrounding areas. Peña Nieto declared a three-day period of national mourning, the second time the government has made such a declaration this month.
The Mexican leader spoke to President Trump on Wednesday about the quake. Trump extended his condolences and offered assistance and search-and-rescue teams, which were quickly deployed, according to a statement from the White House.
Trump has had a testy relationship with the Mexican government and was criticized for not quickly contacting Peña Nieto after a deadly quake off the Pacific coast earlier this month. (Trump blamed poor cellphone reception.)
The latest quake knocked out power across 40 percent of this city of 20 million, and rescue and medical services were stretched to their limits. Peña Nieto said Wednesday night that power had been restored to 95 percent of the population.
Authorities reported damage to at least 22 hospitals in and around Mexico City.
One, in Morelos, collapsed completely. Some 5,000 schools were damaged by the quake.
The partially destroyed Colegio Enrique Rebsamen, a private elementary school with about 400 students in southern Mexico City, quickly became a painful symbol of the tragedy. Mexicans anxiously watched on their televisions as dramatic rescue efforts continued through Tuesday night and into the next day.
On Thursday morning, the dozens, if not hundreds, of service members and rescue workers packed tightly inside the school’s courtyard watched the rescue effort as intensely as the millions of viewers glued to their television screens.
No one could say how far away the teams might be from their goal of rescuing Frida Sofia or the other students who might be trapped in the rubble with her.
The three-story wing of the school that collapsed is now shaped like a dome, and rescue teams have opened small holes in the concrete layers, supported by wooden and metal beams. They have threaded microphones into the holes to try to pick up any sounds from Frida Sofia or the others.
After 10:00 a.m., several workers on the roof of the collapsed school began using powerful saws to cut out a portion. From the neighboring property, a large yellow crane swung over the courtyard, and cables were affixed to the roof segment, presumably to remove it.
The atmosphere inside was electric with tension, as workers approached the two-day mark in the hunt for survivors. Every few minutes, someone on a megaphone called for silence and dozens of people in the courtyard raised their fists. Then the generators were cut, while the workers hanging on the periphery of the precarious structure and inside it listened for sounds.
Despite the construction-site atmosphere, there were reminders that this was an elementary school. The medical tent with triage beds and several doctors in white lab coats was covered by a tarp strung up to the rim on the basketball court. The rescue teams, who have been working around the clock, occasionally rested on the seats of tiny children’s desks dragged into the courtyard. On the part of the school that remained standing, the red, white and green bunting from the celebration of Mexican independence day still hung from the balustrades.
At 10:45 a.m., the megaphone called for a meeting of team leaders on the roof on the far side of the courtyard, where navy officers and Education Secretary Aurelio Nuño were planning the rescue. After 15 minutes, the meeting ended. The leaders clapped and marched back downstairs to their posts.
“Let’s go!” one shouted.
After one wing collapsed Tuesday afternoon — where the kindergarten and the younger grades held classes — hundreds of rescue workers descended on the scene, including police, soldiers and navy personnel.
By Wednesday morning, Lucia Arista had already visited what remained of the school. She had checked the dozens of names scrawled on paper and taped to trees that identified the survivors and deceased. She had visited eight hospitals in southern Mexico City in a desperate, predawn search for her niece.
She could discover no news, good or bad, about the fate of Jessica Laura Castrejon Hernandez, a 32-year-old cleaning woman who worked at the school.
“She has disappeared,” Arista said. The mingled emotions of anxiety, dread and hope were evident in the crowd gathered around the three-story school.
“It’s like a sandwich now,” said Eduardo Corona, 55, a search-and-rescue volunteer who began working at the building Tuesday evening. “Many of those children, they didn’t make it.”
Corona saw the bodies of young children but said he could not hear sounds from survivors. Working to the rumble of generators, rescue teams used search dogs, mirrors, hoses and other methods to probe the wreckage for survivors.
Rescue worker Pedro Serrano described to the Associated Press how he tunneled into the unstable rubble to a partially collapsed classroom of the school, only to find no one alive.
“We saw some chairs and wooden tables. The next thing we saw was a leg, and then we started to move rubble, and we found a girl and two adults — a woman and a man,” he said.
Around the security cordon, neighbors strung up sheets of paper, taped between a tree and a crosswalk sign, with names of children who survived, suffered injuries or died.
There were 31 names on two lists of the dead. At least 59 other people were listed as having gone to hospitals in the area.
“We don’t know how many children are still inside,” said Elena Villaseñor, 44, a neighbor who was helping with the notices. “They were in classes. The school was full.”
A stream of parents, grandparents and other relatives checked for the names of family members.
“It is very hard to have to point them to these two lists,” Villaseñor said, motioning to the blue and white sheets with the names of the dead children. “There aren’t words.”
The Mexican military dispatched more than 4,000 service members to Mexico City and thousands more elsewhere to help with relief operations.
Several countries made plans to send assistance. At the Mexican government’s request, the U.S. Agency for International Development will deploy a team to conduct damage assessments and help local authorities coordinate their emergency efforts, American officials said. The team will include urban search-and-rescue specialists from the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
Ordinary Mexican residents also banded together to assist in the recovery effort in any way possible: distributing water, sandwiches, tamales and coffee.
Telecom companies enabled free text messaging and provided Internet service at points across the city. Private car services, as well as public buses and subways, offered free rides.
When the traffic lights went out in the hard-hit Roma neighborhood, several private security guards and one regular civilian in a T-shirt and jeans took it upon themselves to direct traffic.
Tuesday’s earthquake occurred exactly 32 years after Mexico’s worst earthquake, which left thousands dead in 1985 and demolished entire neighborhoods in the capital.
Mexico is particularly vulnerable to earthquakes: The country is in a region where tectonic plates butt up against one another, with huge amounts of energy waiting to be unleashed.
Gabriela Martinez and Paul Imison in Mexico City and William Branigin, Andrew deGrandpre and Abby Phillip in Washington contributed to this report.

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