Powerful Hurricane Maria lashes St. Croix, takes aim at Puerto Rico

Trees ae seen across a road in Saint-Pierre, on the French Caribbean island of Martinique, after it was hit by Hurricane Maria, on September 19, 2017. Martinique suffered power outages but avoided major damage. / AFP / Lionel CHAMOISEAU
Updated 20 September 2017
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Powerful Hurricane Maria lashes St. Croix, takes aim at Puerto Rico

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico: Hurricane Maria, the second maximum-strength storm to hit the Caribbean this month, battered the US Virgin Island of St. Croix on Wednesday and was headed to Puerto Rico with catastrophic winds and dangerous storm surges.
It killed at least one person in Guadeloupe and devastated the tiny island nation of Dominica. The storm came just days after the region was punched by Hurricane Irma, which ranked as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record and left a trail of destruction on several Caribbean islands.
Maria, a rare Category 5 storm at the top end of the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, was packing maximum sustained winds near 165 mph (270 kph) with higher gusts, the US National Hurricane Center (NHC).
It was about 20 miles (32 kms) southwest of St. Croix as of 1 a.m. EDT (0500 GMT) on Wednesday morning and its outer eyewall was lashing the island with sustained winds of about 90 mph (145 kph), the NHC said.
Maria was predicted to be the worst storm to hit St. Croix, home to about half of the US Virgin Island’s 103,000 residents, since Hugo, a Category 4 storm, in 1989.
Many US Virgin Islands residents fled to shelters around midday Tuesday. US Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp warned people on the islands that their lives were at risk.
“You lose your life the moment you start thinking about how to save a few bucks to stop something from crashing or burning or falling apart,” he said. “The only thing that matters is the safety of your family, and your children, and yourself. The rest of the stuff, forget it.”
Hector Cintron, who works at a telephone company on St. Thomas, said he had spent the past couple of days preparing generators, securing his belongings and clearing debris as he and his neighbors prepared for a repeat of Irma.
“There’s a lot of stress and a lot of anxiety. It’s off the charts,” he said.
Maria will cross Puerto Rico on Wednesday and pass just north of the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic on Wednesday night and Thursday, the NHC said.
It was too early to know if Maria will threaten the continental United States as it moves northward in the Atlantic.
Earlier this month, Irma devastated several small islands, including Barbuda and the US Virgin Islands of St. Thomas and St. John, and caused heavy damage in Cuba and Florida, killing at least 84 people in the Caribbean and the US mainland.

Direct hit
Maria was set to be the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in nearly 90 years, likely a Category 4 or 5 when it makes landfall, the NHC said. A slow weakening is expected after the hurricane emerges over the Atlantic north of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, it added.
In Puerto Rico, Maria is expected to dump as much as 25 inches (63.5 cm) of rain on parts of the island and bring storm surges, when hurricanes push ocean water dangerously over normal levels, of up to 9 feet (2.74 m), the NHC said.
The heavy rainfall could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides, it added.
“We have not experienced an event of this magnitude in our modern history,” Ricardo Rossello, governor of Puerto Rico said in a televised message on Tuesday.
“Although it looks like a direct hit with major damage to Puerto Rico is inevitable, I ask for America’s prayers,” he said, adding the government has set up 500 shelters.
Puerto Rico, a US territory of about 3.4 million people, avoided a direct hit from Irma, but the storm knocked out power for 70 percent of the island, and killed at least three people. Maria promises to be worse.
“This is going to be catastrophic for our island,” said Grisele Cruz, who was staying at a shelter in the southeastern city of Guayama. “We’re going to be without services for a long time.”
About 150 flights were canceled at the main international airport in Puerto Rico on Wednesday morning, according to tracking service FlightAware.com.
US airlines said on Tuesday they would cap one-way fares at $99 to $384 to aid evacuations.

‘Mind boggling’
The storm plowed into Dominica, a mountainous country of 72,000 people, late on Monday causing what Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit called “mind-boggling” destruction.
“The winds have swept away the roofs of almost every person I have spoken to or otherwise made contact with,” Skerrit said on Facebook, noting that his own residence had been hit, too. He said he was now focused on rescuing people who might be trapped and getting medical help for the injured.
North of Dominica, the French island territory of Guadeloupe appeared to have been hit hard. The Guadeloupe prefecture said one person was killed by a falling tree and at least two people were missing in a shipwreck.
Some roofs had been ripped off, roads were blocked by fallen trees, 80,000 households were without power and there was flooding in some southern coastal areas, the prefecture said in Twitter posts.
Video footage released by the prefecture showed tree-bending winds whipping ferociously through deserted streets and shaking lamp posts when the storm first hit.


Indian manned space flight ‘by 2022,’ PM pledges

Updated 15 August 2018
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Indian manned space flight ‘by 2022,’ PM pledges

  • Modi highlights manned space mission and major health care initiative during independence day address
  • PM’s speech a campaign launch for next year’s elections, observers say

NEW DELHI: India is planning its first manned space mission by 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on Wednesday.

Delivering his fifth independence day speech from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort in New Delhi, Modi said that the manned flight would be the culmination of India’s recent advances in space science.

“We have decided that by 2022, when India completes 75 years of independence, or before that, a son or daughter of India will go to space with a tricolor in their hands,” he said.

India will become the fourth nation after the US, Russia and China to send a manned mission to space.

In his 90-minute speech, Modi listed his achievements of the past four-and-a-half years and announced a new health care scheme that would cover 5 billion people.

Observers described Modi’s speech as a campaign launch for next year’s elections.

“No doubt next year’s elections are playing on the PM’s mind. The tone and tenor of the address reflects that,” said political analyst and author Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay.

As expected, the Indian PM announced his government’s flagship program, Ayushman Bharat, a national health scheme that will offer health insurance from about $5,000 to 1.4 million poorer families.

Popularly named “Modicare,” the scheme targets rural and middle-class voters and will be rolled out in the final week of September.

Comparing the past four years of his leadership with the previous government, Modi said that “the red tape has gone and now there is more ease of business — the sleeping elephant has started walking.”

He boasted that “India’s standing in the world has increased in the past four years and today when any Indian goes anywhere, all countries of the world welcome them and the power of the Indian passport has increased.”

However, the opposition Congress Party described the speech as high in rhetoric and low in substance.

“The Indian economy is a virtual shambles. The rupee has crashed to a historic low. Joblessness, farmers’ suicides, atrocities against marginalized Dalit groups, attack on minorities, corruption — all these show that the government has failed,” said Sanjay Jha, a Congress Party spokesman.

Aateka Khan, of Delhi University, said Modi’s speech was “hollow” and that “India has never looked as divided as it is looking now. He has failed to assure the besieged minorities about their security.”

Mukhopadhyay said the speech was “disappointing” and failed to reflect the vision Modi set out when he addressed the nation for the first time in 2014.

“He seems to be still blaming the opposition for the ills of the country,” the political analyst said.

Mukhopadhyay believes that “Modicare” ignores India’s huge infrastructure deficiency. “In the absence of good medical facilities, how are poor people going to benefit from the insurance?” he asked.

India’s 71st independence day also offered observers a chance to reflect and assess the country’s future.

“The legacy of freedom is under siege today. We as a modern nation state with secular principle are at a crossroads,” said Santosh Sarang, a political analysts based in the eastern Indian state of Bihar.

“The forces of division are more predominant today than ever before in this independent nation.”

Sarang said that “economic growth is not the only parameter that can make India great; keeping India together and preserving its syncretic culture is also important. The way the attack on minorities has increased and their sense of insecurity has been institutionalized make us question how long we can remain a liberal and secular democracy.”

He warned that “majoritarian Hindu forces now want to rewrite the Indian constitution to make it exclusive, not inclusive.”

Urmilesh, a New Delhi-based thinker and analyst, agreed. “What is at stake is the idea of India. In 1947, we took a pledge to make India a modern, progressive nation and tried to promote scientific temper among new generation, but today a new idea of India is being promoted which sees its future in majoritarian politics. This is very much against the spirit of freedom struggle and nation-building.”

He said that independence day left him “somber and sad” that fundamentalist forces, such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its protege Bhartiya Janata Party, which never participated in the freedom struggle and opposed the creation of a liberal and secular India, are ruling the country.

“The atmosphere in the country is so vicious that religious minorities and liberals have been pushed to the edge,” he said.

The right-wing activist Nirala, however, said that “the meaning of independence day does not remain the same all the time. We cannot have the same prism of looking at India as it was in 1947. What is happening today is the redefining of nationalism, which reflects the majoritarian thinking. Hinduism is the way of life in India and it should asserted unabashedly.”