Hurricane Ida traps Louisianans, shatters the power grid

Hurricane Ida traps Louisianans, shatters the power grid
The damage was so extensive that officials warned it could be weeks before the power grid was repaired. (AP)
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Updated 31 August 2021

Hurricane Ida traps Louisianans, shatters the power grid

Hurricane Ida traps Louisianans, shatters the power grid

NEW ORLEANS: Rescuers in boats, helicopters and high-water trucks brought people trapped by Hurricane Ida’s floodwaters to safety Monday and utility repair crews rushed in, after the furious storm swamped the Louisiana coast and ravaged the electrical grid in the stifling, late-summer heat.
Residents living amid the maze of rivers and bayous along the state’s Gulf Coast retreated desperately to their attics or roofs and posted their addresses on social media with instructions for search-and-rescue teams on where to find them.
More than 1 million homes and businesses in Louisiana and Mississippi — including all of New Orleans — were left without power as Ida, one of the most powerful hurricanes ever to hit the US mainland, pushed through on Sunday.
The damage was so extensive that officials warned it could be weeks before the power grid was repaired.
As the storm was downgraded to a tropical depression Monday afternoon and continued to make its way inland with torrential rain, it was blamed for at least two deaths — a motorist who drowned in New Orleans and a person hit by a falling tree outside Baton Rouge.
But with many roads impassable and cellphone service out in places, the full extent of its fury was still coming into focus. Christina Stephens, a spokesperson for Gov. John Bel Edwards, said that given the level of destruction, “We’re going to have many more confirmed fatalities.”
The governor’s office said damage to the power grid appeared “catastrophic” — dispiriting news for those without refrigeration or air conditioning during the dog days of summer, with highs forecast in the mid-80s to near 90 by midweek.
“There are certainly more questions than answers. I can’t tell you when the power is going to be restored. I can’t tell you when all the debris is going to be cleaned up and repairs made,” Edwards told a news conference. “But what I can tell you is we are going to work hard every day to deliver as much assistance as we can.”
In hard-hit LaPlace, squeezed between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, rescuers saved people from flooded homes in a near-constant operation.
Debbie Greco, her husband and son rode out the storm in LaPlace with Greco’s parents. Water reached the first-floor windows, then knocked down the back door and filled the brick home with 4 feet of water. They retreated to the second floor, but then screaming winds collapsed the roof.
They were finally rescued by boat after waiting in the only dry spot, five people sharing the landing on the stairs.
“When I rebuild this I’m out of here. I’m done with Louisiana,” said Greco’s father, 85-year-old Fred Carmouche, a lifelong resident.
Elsewhere in LaPlace, people pulled pieces of chimneys, gutters and other parts of their homes to the curb and residents of a mobile home park waded through floodwaters.
In just three parishes, 191 people and 27 pets had been rescued by Monday afternoon, Edwards said.
The hurricane blew ashore on the 16th anniversary of Katrina, the 2005 storm that breached New Orleans’ levees, devastated the city and was blamed for 1,800 deaths.
This time, New Orleans appeared to escape the catastrophic flooding city officials had feared.
Stephanie Blaise returned to her home with her father in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward after evacuating. The neighborhood suffered devastating flooding in Katrina, but only lost some shingles in Idaho However, with no idea when electricity would be restored, Blaise didn’t plan to stay long.
“We don’t need to go through that. I’m going to have to convince him to leave. We got to go somewhere. Can’t stay in this heat,” she said.
The city urged people who evacuated to stay away for at least a couple of days because of the lack of power and fuel. “There’s not a lot of reasons to come back,” said Collin Arnold, chief of emergency preparedness.
Also, 18 water systems serving about 255,000 customers in Louisiana were knocked out of service, the state Health Department said.
Four Louisiana hospitals were damaged and 39 medical facilities were operating on generator power, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said. Officials said they were evacuating scores of patients to other cities.
The governor’s office said over 2,200 evacuees were staying in 41 shelters, a number expected to rise as people were rescued or escaped flooded homes. The governor’s spokesperson said the state will work to move people to hotels as soon as possible so they can keep their distance from one another.
“This is a COVID nightmare,” Stephens said, adding: “We do anticipate that we could see some COVID spikes related to this.”
Preliminary measurements showed Slidell, Louisiana, got at least 15.7 inches of rain, while New Orleans received nearly 14 inches, forecasters said. Other parts of Louisiana and Mississippi, Alabama and Florida got 5 to 11 inches.
The Louisiana National Guard said it activated 4,900 Guard personnel and lined up 195 high-water vehicles, 73 rescue boats and 34 helicopters. Local and state agencies were adding hundreds more. Edwards said he decided not to tour hurricane damage by air Monday to add one more aircraft to the effort.
On Grand Isle, the 40 people who stayed on the barrier island through the brunt of the hurricane gave aircraft checking on them Monday a thumbs-up, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joe Lopinto said.
The road to the island remained impassable and rescuers would try to reach them as soon as they are able, the sheriff said.
The hurricane twisted and collapsed a giant tower that carries key transmission lines over the Mississippi River to the New Orleans area, causing widespread outages, Entergy and local authorities said. The power company said more than 2,000 miles of transmission lines were out of service, along with 216 substations. The tower had survived Katrina.
The storm also flattened utility poles, toppled trees onto power lines and caused transformers to explode.
The governor said 25,000 utility workers were in the state to help restore electricity, with more on the way. “We’re going to push Entergy to restore power just as soon as they can,” Edwards said.
AT&T said its wireless network in Louisiana was reduced to 60 percent of normal but was coming back. Many people resorted to using walkie-talkies. The governor’s office staff had no working phones. The company sent a mobile tower to the state’s emergency preparedness office so it could get some service.
Charchar Chaffold left her home near LaPlace for Alabama after a tree fell on it Sunday. She frantically tried to get in touch via text message with five family members who stayed behind.
She last heard from them Sunday night. They were in the attic after water rushed into their home. “They told me they thought they was going to die. I told them they are not and called for help,” she said.
Ida’s 150 mph (230 kph) winds tied it for the fifth-strongest hurricane ever to hit the mainland. Its winds were down to 40 mph (64 kph) around midday Monday.
In Mississippi’s southwestern corner, entire neighborhoods were surrounded by floodwaters, and many roads were impassable. Several tornadoes were reported, including a suspected twister in Saraland, Alabama, that ripped part of the roof off a motel and flipped an 18-wheeler, injuring the driver, according to the National Weather Service.
Ida was expected to pick up speed Monday night before dumping rain on the Tennessee and Ohio River valleys Tuesday, the Appalachian mountain region Wednesday and the nation’s capital on Thursday.
Forecasters said flash flooding and mudslides were possible along Ida’s path before it blows out to sea over New England on Friday.
___
Reeves reported from LaPlace, Louisiana. Associated Press writers Janet McConnaughey and Kevin McGill in New Orleans; Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge; Michael Biesecker in Washington; Sudhin Thanawala in Atlanta; and Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.


Acting now on COVID will help avoid lockdown later, Britain’s Javid says

Acting now on COVID will help avoid lockdown later, Britain’s Javid says
Updated 6 sec ago

Acting now on COVID will help avoid lockdown later, Britain’s Javid says

Acting now on COVID will help avoid lockdown later, Britain’s Javid says
LONDON: Britain’s decision to impose restrictions to slow the spread of the omicron variant of the novel coronavirus will likely avoid the need to impose much tougher controls in the new year, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said on Thursday.
Javid said the omicron variant was speading more swiftly than any other variant studied and could result in around 1 million infections across the United Kingdom by the end of the month if transmission continued at the current rate.
“I hope that most people will understand that by taking some decisive action now, we can potentially avoid action later,” Javid told Sky.
Asked if tougher measures could be imposed in January, Javid said: “No. I hope not.”
Javid said there was no plan to impose mandatory COVID vaccination for the general population. (Reporting by Alistair Smout and Guy Faulconbridge)

India’s defense chief to be laid to rest with full military honors

India’s defense chief to be laid to rest with full military honors
Updated 32 min 52 sec ago

India’s defense chief to be laid to rest with full military honors

India’s defense chief to be laid to rest with full military honors
  • General Bipin Rawat, his wife and 12 defense personnel were en route to a military staff college when their helicopter crashed

NEW DELHI: The bodies of India’s defense chief and 12 others who died in a helicopter crash will be brought to New Delhi on Thursday, where the top general will be laid to rest with full military honors, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh said.
General Bipin Rawat, his wife and 12 defense personnel were en route to a military staff college in southern India when the air force helicopter they were traveling in came down near the town of Coonoor on Wednesday.
Only one of the 14 on board survived the crash. The cause of the crash is being investigated.
Rawat, 63, was appointed as India’s first chief of defense staff by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in late 2019. The position was set up with the aim of integrating the army, navy and air force.
In a brief statement in parliament, Defense Minister Singh said the Mi-17 V5 helicopter took off at 11.48 a.m. on Wednesday from the Sulur Air Base. The base lost contact with the aircraft seven minutes before it was scheduled to land at a hillside military area at 12.15 p.m.
“Locals spotted a fire in the forest near Coonoor and rushed to the spot where they observed the wreckage of military helicopter engulfed in flames,” Singh said.
Rawat, who served in the army for over four decades, would be laid to rest with full military honors, Singh said.
The lone survivor of the crash, an air force group captain, is on life support at a military hospital.
“All efforts are being made to save his life,” Singh said.


An Afghan village shrivels in worst drought in decades

An Afghan village shrivels in worst drought in decades
Updated 09 December 2021

An Afghan village shrivels in worst drought in decades

An Afghan village shrivels in worst drought in decades
  • Afghanistan’s drought, its worst in decades, is now entering its second year, exacerbated by climate change

KAMAR KALAGH, Afghanistan: Hajji Wali Jan brought a half-dozen plastic containers to the well in Kamar Kalagh on a recent Friday — one of the handful of days each week he and those who live on his side of this Afghan village ae allowed to use the water source.
When it was finally his turn, the 66-year-old filled one container, then a second. The stream of water from the spigot got thinner. He started on another container — but the thread of water tapered away and then stopped before the vessel was full.
The well was done for the day.
Afghanistan’s drought, its worst in decades, is now entering its second year, exacerbated by climate change. The dry spell has hit 25 of the country’s 34 provinces, and this year’s wheat harvest is estimated to be down 20 percent from the year before.
Along with fighting, the drought has contributed to driving more than 700,000 people from their homes this year, and the onset of winter will only increase the potential for disaster.
“This cumulative drought impact on already debilitated communities can be yet another tipping point to catastrophe,” the UN Food and Agricultural Organization’s Afghanistan office said in a tweet Tuesday. “If left unattended, agriculture might collapse.”
UN experts blamed a late 2020 La Nina event, which can change weather patterns across the globe, for causing lower rain and snowfall in early 2021 in Afghanistan, and they predict that it will continue into 2022.
Afghanistan has long seen regular droughts. But in a 2019 report, the FAO warned that climate change could make them more frequent and more intense. The past year’s drought came on the heels of one in 2018 that at the time was the worst seen in Afghanistan in years.
In the midst of the drought, Afghanistan’s economy collapsed in the wake of the August takeover by the Taliban that resulted in a shut-off of international funds to the government and the freezing of billions of the country’s assets held abroad.
Jobs and livelihoods have disappeared, leaving families desperate for ways to find food. The FAO said last month that 18.8 million Afghans are unable to feed themselves every day, and by the end of the year that number will be 23 million, or nearly 60 percent of the population.
Already hit hard by the drought of 2018, small villages like Kamar Kalagh are shriveling away, unable to squeeze out enough water to survive.
A collection of mud brick homes in the mountains outside the western city of Herat, Kamar Kalagh is home to about 150 families who used to live off of their livestock, particularly camels and goats, and the salaries of men who worked as porters at the Islam Qala border crossing with Iran.
That work has largely dried up as well, and now the village’s main income is from selling sand.
Ajab Gul and his two young sons dug sand from the riverbed and stuffed it into bags on a recent day. A full day’s work will earn them the equivalent of about $2.
“The grass used to grow up to here,” Gul said, holding his hand up to his nose. “When a camel walked through it, you’d just see his head. That was 20 years ago.”
Now there’s no grass and almost no livestock.
Two years ago, the village’s main well ran dry, so the residents pooled the money to pay for it to be dug deeper. For a while, it worked. But soon it grew weak again. The villagers began a rationing system: Half could draw water one day, the other half the next.
Even rationing is no longer enough. The water from the well is only enough for about 10 families a day, Wali Jan said.
When Wali Jan couldn’t fill his canisters, he sent two of his grandsons to an alternative source. They turned the chore into a game: The older boy, about 9, pushed the wheelbarrow, with his younger brother riding alongside the canisters, laughing.
They went up the hill, down the other side, through another dry riverbed — about 3 kilometers (2 miles) in all. Plodding along in hand-me-down tennis shoes too big for his feet, the older boy tripped, and the wheelbarrow tumbled over. Still, they made it to a pool of stagnant water in the riverbed, its surface covered in green algae. They filled the canisters.
When they got back to the village, their grandfather met them. He unwound his turban and tied one end of the long scarf around a handle on the front of the wheelbarrow to help the boys get it up the last slope to his family’s home.
The elderly and the very young are nearly the only males remaining in the village. Most of the working-age men have left to find jobs, elsewhere in Afghanistan, in Iran, Pakistan or Turkey.
“You don’t find anyone outside during the day anymore,” said Samar Gul, another man in his 60s. “There’s only women and children inside the houses.”


Reports: Myanmar troops burn alive 11 in retaliation attack

Reports: Myanmar troops burn alive 11 in retaliation attack
Updated 09 December 2021

Reports: Myanmar troops burn alive 11 in retaliation attack

Reports: Myanmar troops burn alive 11 in retaliation attack
  • Charred remains were found in a village in Sagaing, an area which has seen fierce fighting

BANGKOK: Myanmar government troops raided a small northwestern village, rounding up civilians, binding their hands and then burning them alive in apparent retaliation for an attack on a military convoy, according to witnesses and other reports.
A video of the aftermath of Tuesday’s attack showed the charred bodies of 11 victims, some believed to be teenagers, lying in a circle amid what appeared to be the remains of a hut in Done Taw village in Sagaing region.
Outrage spread as the graphic images were shared on social media over what appeared to be the latest of increasingly brutal military attacks in an attempt to put down stiffening anti-government resistance following the army takeover in February.
Human Rights Watch called Thursday for the international community to ensure that commanders who gave the order are added to targeted sanctions lists, and more broadly, efforts are stepped up to cut off any source of funding to the military.
“Our contacts are saying these were just boys and young people who were villagers who were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time,” a spokeswoman for the group, Manny Maung, said.
She added that similar incidents have been occurring regularly, but that this one happened to be caught on camera.
“This incident is quite brazen, and it happened in an area that was meant to be found, and seen, to scare people,” she said.
The images could not be independently verified, but an account given to The Associated Press by a person who said he was present when they were taken generally matched descriptions of the incident carried by independent Myanmar media.
The government has denied that it had any troops in the area.
The military ouster of the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi was initially met with nonviolent street protests, but after police and soldiers responded with lethal force, violence escalated as opponents of military rule took up arms in self-defense.
The killings in Done Taw were decried by Myanmar’s underground National Unity Government, which has established itself as the country’s alternative administration in place of the military-installed government.
The organization’s spokesperson, Dr. Sasa, said a military convoy had been hit by a roadside bomb and troops retaliated first by shelling Done Taw, then assaulting the village, rounding up anyone they could capture.
He said victims ranged in age from 14 to 40.
“Sickening scenes reminiscent of the Islamic State terrorist group bore witness to the the military’s escalation of their acts of terror,” he said in a statement.
“The sheer brutality, savagery, and cruelty of these acts shows a new depth of depravity, and proves that despite the pretense of the relative détente seen over the last few months, the junta never had any intention of deescalating their campaign of violence,” said Sasa, who uses one name.
The witness who spoke to the AP said about 50 troops marched into Done Taw village at about 11 a.m. Tuesday, seizing anyone who did not manage to flee.
“They arrested 11 innocent villagers,” said the witness, who described himself as a farmer and an activist and asked to remain anonymous for his own safety,
He added that the captured men were not members of the locally organized People’s Defense Force, which sometimes engages the army in combat. He said the captives had their hands tied behind them and were set on fire.
He did not give a reason for the soldiers’ assault.
Other witnesses cited in Myanmar media said the victims were members of a defense force, though the witness who spoke to the AP described them as members of a less formally organized village protection group.
In recent months, fighting has been raging in Sagaing and other northwestern areas, where the army has unleashed greater force against the resistance than in urban centers.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric expressed deep concern at the reports of the “horrific killing of 11 people” and strongly condemned such violence, saying “credible reports indicate that five children were among those people killed.”
Dujarric reminded Myanmar’s military authorities of their obligations under international law to ensure the safety and protection of civilians and called for those responsible “for this heinous act” to be held accountable.
He reiterated the UN’s condemnation of violence by Myanmar’s security forces and stressed that this demands a unified international response. As of Wednesday, he said security forces have killed more than 1,300 unarmed individuals, including more than 75 children, through their use of lethal force or while in their custody since the military takeover on Feb. 1.
The allegations follow Monday’s conviction of Suu Kyi on charges of incitement and violating coronavirus restrictions and sentencing to four years in prison, which was quickly cut in half. The court’s action was widely criticized as a further effort by military rulers to roll back the democratic gains of recent years.
In New York, the UN Security Council on Wednesday expressed “deep concern” at the sentencing of Suu Kyi, ousted President Win Myint and others and reiterated previous calls for the release of all those arbitrarily detained.
“The members of the Security Council once again stressed their continued support for the democratic transition in Myanmar, and underlined the need to uphold democratic institutions and processes, refrain from violence, pursue constructive dialogue and reconciliation in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar, fully respect human rights and fundamental freedoms and uphold the rule of law,” a council statement said.


Pfizer booster study lifts mood over omicron variant

Pfizer booster study lifts mood over omicron variant
Updated 09 December 2021

Pfizer booster study lifts mood over omicron variant

Pfizer booster study lifts mood over omicron variant

FRANKFURT: Three doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine appear effective against the omicron variant, a lab test indicated — encouraging news, even as Denmark and Britain announced new restrictions to stem surging caseloads.
In preliminary results published on Wednesday, the US and German companies behind one of the world’s foremost shots to combat Covid-19 said a booster generated around the same level of potent antibodies against omicron as is seen after a second dose with the initial strain.
But they warned that “the omicron variant is probably not sufficiently neutralized after two doses.”
The announcement, which has not yet been peer reviewed, was called reassuring by experts, and came as the first independent data from labs around the world emerged, indicating the new mutations are better at evading immunity from infections and vaccines than those before them.
“We still need to be very measured and take a wait and see approach, but I think what we do have is at least encouraging,” virologist Angela Rasmussen of Canada’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization told AFP.
Blood samples from around 20 people who had received two doses of the current vaccine showed on average a 25-fold reduction in neutralising antibodies compared to the early strain of the virus, the companies said.
But they added that another part of the immune response — from T cells — were probably still effective against the new variant, meaning that people with two doses “may still be protected against severe forms of the disease.”
The vaccine-makers are developing an omicron-specific version of the jab, which they hope will be ready by March, but say the decision whether to mass produce it would depend on the variant’s spread.
In Europe, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced she would extend Christmas school holidays, curtail nightlife and urge citizens to work from home as the country fights off a sharp rise in infections.
“The plan is not to have a long closure,” she said, while acknowledging a return to home offices would also be unwelcome for many.
Her British counterpart Boris Johnson likewise brought back guidance to work from home and vaccine passports for venues such as nightclubs and stadiums. The new measures apply to England, and were already in place in Scotland and Wales.
“We must be humble in the face of this virus,” he said, adding that it was “the proportionate and the responsible thing to move to Plan B in England.”
Johnson announced the stringent measures while facing public anger over video footage of his aides joking about an alleged illicit Christmas party at Downing Street during last year’s lockdown.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus meanwhile summed up what scientists have learned about omicron since it was first reported in South Africa in late November.
It evades prior immunity well, and it’s possible it may cause milder disease, he said.
But even if it’s confirmed to be less severe, the variant’s heightened transmissibility — thought to be greater even than the currently dominant Delta strain — mean it could sicken many people.
Pfizer and BioNTech’s news came after other preliminary results from a small study in South Africa suggested there was up to a 40-fold drop in the ability of the antibodies from the same vaccine to neutralize omicron, compared to an early strain.
Willem Hanekom, executive director of the Africa Health Research Institute, which carried out the study, said it was important to be “extraordinarily careful” interpreting the results because they only reflect a laboratory setting, while real-world data was the true test.
Antibody reductions were also seen in studies by German and Swedish researchers, but they varied in magnitude.
omicron counts more than 30 mutations on the spike protein that dots the surface of the coronavirus and allows it to invade cells, and a high degree of immune evasion was widely anticipated.
But the fact that a booster appears to restore high protection was welcomed by many experts, and provides “strong support for the campaign to give three doses of vaccine,” said Charles Bangham, an immunologist at Imperial College London.
While the positive initial assessments of omicron have helped lift the mood, especially among global markets as fears of another economic downturn subsided, the variant’s emergence has highlighted that the fight against the pandemic is far from over.
Covid-19 has officially killed more than 5.2 million people around the world since it was first declared in late 2019, although the true toll is likely to be several times higher.