Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Devastation in Puerto Rico, as Seen From Above

Last week, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico with winds of 155 miles an hour, leaving the United States commonwealth on the brink of a humanitarian crisis. The storm left 80 percent of crop value destroyed, 60 percent of the island without water and almost the entire island without power, as seen in the nighttime satellite images below.
July 24
Sept. 25, 5 days after landfall
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration | Note: Some areas of western central Puerto Rico were partially obscured by clouds on Sept. 25.
Juana Matos, a neighborhood in Cataño, near the capital city of San Juan, suffered severe flooding as a storm surge from nearby San Juan Bay dumped water into coastal communities. Eighty percent of the homes in the Juana Matos neighborhood were destroyed, said Cataño’s mayor, José Rosario.
From left, DigitalGlobe via Google Earth; Ricardo Arduengo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Toa Alta
Though Hurricane Maria had dropped from a Category 5 to a Category 4 storm by the time it reached Puerto Rico, it was more than powerful enough to rip apart roads and strip trees as it cut a path across the island.
Ricardo Arduengo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The Guajataca dam in northwestern Puerto Rico sustained structural damage, resulting in flash flood warnings for the nearby municipalities of Isabela and Quebradillas. The governor said that nearly 70,000 people could be affected if the dam were to collapse.
From left, DigitalGlobe via Google Earth; Alvin Baez/Reuters
The mountain municipality of Barranquitas in the central region of Puerto Rico has been rendered nearly inaccessible after landslides effectively sealed the area off from conventional means of travel. Across the island, roads were left strewn with debris.
Ricardo Arduengo/Agence France-Presse
Toa Baja
More than 2,000 people were rescued from Toa Baja, one of the hardest hit towns, as the storm surge swept residents away and neighborhoods went underwater. The town’s mayor, Bernardo Márquez, said at least eight people drowned because of the flooding.
From left, DigitalGlobe via Google Earth; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Friday, September 22, 2017

Mexico City Was Built on an Ancient Lake Bed. That Makes Earthquakes Much Worse.

Area of ancient
lake bed
Shock waves from
a simulated earthquake
The New York Times | Source: Víctor Cruz-Atienza, National University of Mexico
The earthquake that on Tuesday killed at least 135 people in Mexico City and toppled dozens of buildings there was all the more destructive because of the city’s unusual position atop an ancient lake bed.
The animation above, based on a model by Víctor Cruz-Atienza, a professor of geophysics at the National University of Mexico, shows how the shock waves of a hypothetical earthquake near Mexico City would spread. Darker red areas indicate the strongest ground movement.
The shaking in this simulation is strongest in the low parts of the Valley of Mexico, which cradles the city, and it weakens when it meets the surrounding hills. That’s no coincidence. The darker red areas showing the strongest shock waves trace the shape of an ancient lake.
The Spanish built modern Mexico City over the ruins of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, which they conquered in 1521. The Aztec city was on an island in Lake Texcoco, but the Spanish drained the surrounding lake over centuries and expanded Mexico City onto the new land.
Today, much of the city stands on layers of sand and clay — up to 100 yards deep — that used to be under the lake. These soft, water-laden sediments make the city uniquely vulnerable to earthquakes and other problems.
2 MI.
The city stands on soft
ancient lake sediments.
The lake bed
contains some hills...
...and is surrounded
by mountains.
The New York Times
During an earthquake, the looser sediments near the surface cause shockwaves to slow down from about one and a half miles per second to about 150 feet per second as they enter the valley. The slower waves grow in amplitude, similar to a tsunami approaching a coastline, and cause more violent shaking.
Worse still, the denser, deeper material below the looser sediments causes waves to linger in the valley, making the amplified shaking last longer.
The map below, based on seismological readings taken at the National University of Mexico, shows how violently the ground shook in Mexico City during Tuesday’s earthquake. Like the simulation map, the redder the area, the more violently the ground shook.
Lake bed
Strength of shaking in Mexico City
The New York Times | Source: The Institute of Engineering at the National University of Mexico
These actual readings confirm what the simulation shows: Tuesday’s earthquake grew worse in the city as its waves moved through the ancient lake bed below.
Mexico City is already a hot spot for earthquakes because vast chunks of the earth’s crust, called tectonic plates, are slowly smashing into one another nearby. Mexico rests on the North American Plate, and the Cocos Plate slides underneath it along the country’s southwestern coast.
Mexico City
The collision as one plate plunges below the other, a movement called subduction, releases huge amounts of energy, making earthquakes a common occurrence in Mexico. Unlike Tuesday’s, many of these earthquakes are small.
The unique geology of Mexico City’s basin can amplify earthquake waves to be a hundred times stronger than they would be otherwise, a phenomenon that Dr. Cruz-Atienza said is not matched anywhere else in the world.
Partly because of this amplification, earthquakes that happen relatively far away from Mexico City can still cause significant damage. A devastating earthquake in 1985 that killed as many as 10,000 people originated over 200 miles away, near the Pacific coast of Mexico.
The epicenter of Tuesday's quake was closer, around 50 miles away, but the map below shows that it shook Mexico City more violently than other areas that were a similar distance from the epicenter.
Mexico City
The New York Times | Source: United States Geological Survey
The 1985 earthquake prompted improvements to building codes that are thought to have lessened the damage on Tuesday. But earthquakes will always pose a unique threat to Mexico City, because of the geologic implications of the ancient lake bed that lies beneath it.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Protest in Catalonia Adds to Pressure Before Independence Vote

Hundreds of thousands of people celebrated the Catalan National Day on Monday in Barcelona. Credit David Ramos/Getty Images
BARCELONA, Spain — Hundreds of thousands of Catalans took over the center of Barcelona on Monday to mark their national day and raise the pressure on the Spanish government in Madrid before an independence referendum planned for Oct. 1.
The referendum has been declared illegal by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and suspended by the Spanish judiciary as a violation of Spain’s constitution. But separatist leaders in the Catalan regional government have vowed to go ahead with it, even if they risk prosecution for civil disobedience.
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Protesters carrying “esteladas” or Catalan flags and other nationalist symbols in support of an Oct. 1 referendum on independence. Credit Santi Palacios/Associated Press
Since 2012, the Diada, or Catalan national day, has been turned into the annual show of force of independence-minded Catalans.
On Monday, the protesters filled two streets of Barcelona to form a “plus” sign, representing citizens joining forces. Some demonstrators said the cross symbolized the mark they will put on their ballots in favor of independence, assuming the referendum goes ahead.
The national day marks a historic defeat for Catalans, the 1714 capture of Barcelona by the troops of Philip V of Spain. “Philip V repressed Catalonia, and three centuries later here we are, getting denied the right to vote in the Spain of Philip VI,” said Oriol Cabré, a retired industrial engineer, referring to the current king.
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Men wearing of Catalan military costumes from the 18th century performed during the rally. Credit Santi Palacios/Associated Press
Many demonstrators insisted that they would also step up their protests if the result of the vote did not then become binding — as their separatist leaders have promised it would be.
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“Civil disobedience is sadly sometimes the only way,” said Manel Angurem, an international trade consultant who drove for about an hour with his wife and three children to Barcelona to attend the demonstration. “If it weren’t for civil disobedience in the United States, black people wouldn’t have managed to get a seat on the same bus as white people.”
Still, as in previous years, Monday’s protest was a festive and peaceful occasion, with some participants even forming the traditional Catalan castells, or human towers.
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Performers built a human tower during the demonstration. Credit Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press
Catalans feel strongly about their distinct language, history and culture. But such feelings have become entwined in recent years with other issues, including how much tax revenue Catalonia should redistribute to poorer parts of Spain.
In addition to history, many of the participants cited pocketbook issues in wanting independence, after a financial crisis that helped fuel separatism in Catalonia.
“If we look after our own wealth rather than hand it over to Madrid, I’m sure independence will also bring us better economic conditions,” said Laura Solsona, who has a beauty salon in the town of Sabadell and had painted “Yes” on her forehead and a Catalan flag on her cheek.
Carles Puigdemont, the leader of Catalonia, assured the region’s voters that the independence referendum would take place, despite efforts by the Madrid government and Spanish courts to block it.
Catalan citizens “will vote, as they have always done in complete normality,” Mr. Puigdemont said. A referendum, he argued, would not escalate the secessionist conflict because “the ballot boxes don’t divide, they unite.”
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The leader of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, attended a ceremony to mark the occasion. Credit Toni Albir/European Pressphoto Agency
The demonstrators held a minute’s silence in honor of the victims of the terrorist attacks last month in Catalonia that killed 16 people, most of them mowed down by a van driver on Barcelona’s most famous promenade. Few in the crowds on Monday seemed concerned about security.
“We’ve always shown respect, and we now hope that we can convince others to respect our right to vote and become another normal European state,” said Jesús Ribera, a trade union official, who had a sticker on his sleeve showing Catalonia as a future member state of the European Union.
“I can assure you that all the people here today will be standing in front of the polling stations on Oct. 1, even if they are kept closed and Madrid also manages to seize the ballot papers and boxes.”
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In addition to hundreds of thousands of protesters, many other independence supporters watched the march. Credit Susana Vera/Reuters
As the political clock ticks toward the Oct. 1 deadline for the referendum, the tension between Madrid and Barcelona is rising. Prime Minister Rajoy is even weighing whether to take emergency measures to stop the vote, a step many fear would deepen the standoff.
Even the crowd estimates were disputed on Monday. Local police put the number at about one million, while representatives from the central government in Barcelona estimated it at between 300,000 and 350,000.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Hurricane Irma Live Updates: ‘The Storm Is Here,’ Florida Governor Says

Continue reading the main story Video

Hurricane Irma Churns Toward Florida

The Atlantic’s strongest storm has left destruction across the Caribbean. Witnesses warn others to brace themselves as Irma moves toward Florida.
By CAMILLA SCHICK, ROBIN LINDSAY and CHRIS CIRILLO on Publish Date September 6, 2017. Photo by Martin Bureau/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images. Watch in Times Video »
Hurricane Irma churned toward Florida on Saturday, leaving a trail of death and destruction across the Caribbean and prompting one of the largest emergency evacuations in American history.
The storm is driving northwest as it rips across northern Cuba, and will eventually continue toward the United States. It is expected to grip hold of land again by Sunday morning in Florida, where it will most likely move along or near the southwest coast, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Storm surges will threaten Florida’s west coast on Sunday, where more than 3 million people live, and entire neighborhoods stretching northward from Naples to Tampa Bay could be submerged.
Irma made landfall in Cuba Friday evening as a Category 5 hurricane, lashing the island’s northern coast with a direct hit. It became the first Category 5 hurricane to make landfall in Cuba since 1924.
The hurricane was downgraded to Category 3 Saturday morning, with winds of 125 miles per hour, and remained Category 3 around 2 p.m., but was expected to strengthen again over Florida. About 6.3 million people in the state have been ordered to leave their homes.
“The storm is here,” Gov. Rick Scott said Saturday morning, noting that the storm surge could reach 15 feet in some places.
“Fifteen feet is devastating and will cover your house,” he said. “Do not think the storm is over when the wind slows down. The storm surge will rush in and it could kill you.”
Here’s the latest:
• At least 25 people were confirmed dead by Saturday morning in areas affected by the storm.
• Irma’s core is expected to reach the Florida Keys by Sunday morning, with the eye on track to tear between the cities of Key West and Marathon. “THIS IS AS REAL AS IT GETS,” the National Weather Service said. “NOWHERE IN THE FLORIDA KEYS WILL BE SAFE.” The National Hurricane Center warned of “life-threatening surge and wind.” Check out our maps tracking the storm.
• In addition to an evacuation order in Miami, one of the country’s largest evacuations, 540,000 people were told to leave the Georgia coast. Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina have declared states of emergency.
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The Palmetto Expressway in Miami on Saturday as Hurricane Irma approached. Credit Scott McIntyre for The New York Times
• At 1 p.m., the National Hurricane Center said a weather station in Ciegode Avila, Cuba, reported a wind gust to 159 m.p.h.
• Hurricane Jose, upgraded to a Category 4, was barreling toward the Leeward Islands. On St. Martin, already devastated by Irma, Dutch Marines dropped fliers from a helicopter warning inhabitants to head to shelters.
• Hurricane Katia, which made landfall on Mexico’s eastern coast, was downgraded to a tropical depression, with winds of 35 m.p.h. Two people died in a mudslide in the state of Veracruz after the storm hit, The Associated Press reported.
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SEVERITY Category 5 4 3 2 1 Tropical storm

Governor to Floridians: Evacuate now

During a news conference Saturday morning, Gov. Rick Scott urged Floridians to heed evacuation orders and seek shelter immediately.
“Evacuate,” he said. “Not tonight, not in an hour. You need to go right now.”
He reassured those who were still delaying that they would not have to leave the state. More than 260 shelters were already operating across every county, with 70 more scheduled to open throughout the day.
Evacuation routes across the state were moving consistently, the governor said, adding that he had dispatched additional state troopers to maintain the flow of traffic.
“Just remember this,” he said, “Once the storm starts, law enforcement cannot save you.”
Volunteers were needed at shelters that were serving people with special needs. “We need more nurses,” the governor said, asking those who were willing to work to email “All available nurses, if you’ll please respond.”
Rob Gould, the public information officer for the Florida Power & Light Company, said the company expected 3.4 million customers to be affected by the storm. Parts of the electrical system will need to be entirely rebuilt, Mr. Gould said, with the company expecting the brunt of the damage in the western part of the state.
“Likely on the east coast, we will see a restoration, but on the west coast, a complete rebuild,” he said. “We anticipate this restoration effort will be measured in weeks, not days.”
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Many homes were destroyed on Virgin Gorda, in the British Virgin Islands. Credit Caribbean Buzz Helicopters/Caribbean Buzz Helicopters, via Associated Press

Florida Keys face being cut off from mainland

In the Florida Keys, where the hurricane is expected to make landfall on Sunday morning between Marathon and Key West, emergency officials girded for a direct hit and residents who did not evacuate began to take cover as the winds kicked up sharply Saturday afternoon.
The Keys, a thin chain of islands that sit below sea level, are especially vulnerable to Hurricane Irma’s anticipated powerful tidal surges.
The ocean is expected to rise and hurtle into buildings and houses near the coast. Pine Island, north of Key West, was already seeing rising seas at noon.
Some canals were spilling their bounds and emergency responders were evacuating to the Upper Keys.
“We’re very concerned about the potential loss of life,” said Cammy Clark, a county spokeswoman. “Storm surges could kill a lot of people because there’s nowhere to go.”
But the worst could come after the hurricane moves on. Keys residents could find themselves isolated from the mainland if any one of their 42 bridges gets damaged.
Residents and emergency officials would be cut off from food, gas and other supplies because there would be no easy way of reaching them by road.
“Just think about the Keys for a second,” Governor Scott warned residents at a recent news conference. “If we lose one bridge, everything south of the bridge, everybody’s going to be stranded. It’s going to take us a while to get back in there to try to provide services.”
With so many dire warnings, some residents left Saturday morning. But others dug in, choosing not to evacuate. Emergency officials grew so concerned about the holdouts they opened four refuges of last resort.

A dangerous storm surge

The winds of Hurricane Irma are fierce. But the surge from the storm could also cause tremendous damage to coastal cities.
“It flows in very fast,” Governor Scott said of the waters expected to rush into parts of the state. “It’s going to go faster, possibly, than you are.”
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Palm trees in Caibarién, Cuba, on Friday, before Hurricane Irma arrived. Credit Desmond Boylan/Associated Press
The National Hurricane Center provides a map of the potential storm surge from Irma, and the 5 a.m. Saturday forecast suggested a brutal surge near Naples topping nine feet.
More detailed projections can be found at the website, which is devoted to a highly respected suite of computer programs that model surge. Rick Luettich, one of the principal developers of Adcirc and director of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Institute of Marine Sciences, said that the current map of Florida under the models “looks a bit ugly,” which he acknowledged was an understatement.
“For years, we have thought about areas of the country that are particularly vulnerable to hurricanes, and particularly, storm surge,” Dr. Luettich said. New York City, New Orleans, Houston, and Miami are always high on such lists. “It’s almost as if we’ve been going down the list and checking them off,” he said.
The projections on the site, which are based on the forecasts from the National Hurricane Center and updated with each new forecast, allow users to look at any given report and see what would happen if the storm track shifts 50 percent to the west or to the east. (To try this, go to the map, pull down the advisory/track tab and hover your cursor over any report.)
With this storm, Dr. Luettich noted, those shifts can mean major differences in destructive storm surge for the Atlantic or Gulf coasts of Florida and farther up the Atlantic coast.

‘Run from the water, hide from the wind’

A hurricane watch took effect for the entire Georgia coast on Saturday, and a mandatory evacuation order covered most of the coast.
Officials warned of the potential for high winds and storm surge even as Irma’s forecasted path seemed likely to spare the region from the worst.
“Run from the water, hide from the wind,” said Dennis Jones, the director of emergency management in Chatham County, which contains Savannah. “Our focus is to get you out of the threat.”
Hundreds of people lined up outside of the convention center in Savannah, waiting for school and coach buses to evacuate them out of the city.
Doretha Harden, 53, stood with six of her neighbors from a housing complex for disabled residents. Ms. Harden has a brain disorder and was worried, she said, that the tension of the evacuation could give her a seizure.
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Boarding up windows in Miami on Friday in preparation for Hurricane Irma. Credit Scott McIntyre for The New York Times
“It’s triggered by stress,” she said.
Lorenzo Green, 66, said he worried more about the evacuation than the storm itself.
“I’m supposed to be going to Augusta,” Mr. Green said. “The only thing that’s scary is going to a place I’ve never been.”

Cuba gets a direct hit

Irma slammed into Cuba on Friday night as a Category 5 hurricane, causing widespread destruction. Meteorologists were expecting the storm to tack north earlier, and were not predicting a direct hit.
The eye of the storm passed directly through the archipelago of keys on the northern coast in the central part of the island.
Irma, downgraded to Category 3, continued to plow through Cuba on Saturday afternoon.
The damage to its central provinces was substantial: Power lines were brought down in Camaguey, houses were destroyed in Ciego de Avila and fishing towns have been submerged in Villa Clara.
By Saturday afternoon, the storm started to lash Havana. By 1 p.m. waves were crashing over the capital’s iconic breakwater and esplanade, the Malecón. Apart from the police, the only people out were a few thrill-seeking tourists.
Havana is set to avoid the brunt of the storm, but meteorologists warned that flooding could penetrate over 500 meters into the city.

An ‘apocalyptic doomsday scene’ on the British Virgin Islands

With communications limited on the British Virgin Islands, the full scope of the damage from Hurricane Irma was still revealing itself. On Saturday, at least five deaths were reported by the governor, Gus Jaspert. With communication on the island all but severed, officials were still working to assess the full scale of devastation.
Residents of Tortola, the largest island, said buildings were leveled and roads were washed away. People have limited food and water.
Mr. Jaspert said the toll on the islands was widespread and he urged citizens to prepare for incoming Hurricane Jose.
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Salvaging items from a flooded home in Fort-Liberté, Haiti, on Friday. Credit Dieu Nalio Chery/Associated Press
The British government said it sent 20 tons of aid to the affected areas, including shelter kits and solar lanterns aboard a naval ship.
Catherine Clayton, whose family owns a hotel on Tortola in Josiah’s Bay, said 25 people — including neighbors whose homes were decimated — were sheltered in the two remaining inhabitable rooms at the once eight-room Tamarind Hotel.
“It is like an apocalyptic doomsday scene here,” she said. “No trees, leaves or greenery.”
Other parts of the island had similar damage. From her apartment on Skelton Hill, which overlooks Road Town, the capital, Christine Perakis said most of the homes had their roofs torn off.
“We have been in shock for a couple of days,” she said. “It’s the most intense thing I’ve ever seen.”

Severe flooding in the Bahamas

Residents of the western Bahamas braced for Irma on Saturday even as the hurricane ripped apart sea walls, destroyed wooden homes and eroded roads on the nearby southern and central islands.
Severe flooding was reported on Acklins, where the settlement of Salina Point was cut off from the rest of the island, according to early reports from that area.
“There’s been significant damage to houses on Ragged Island, and in certain parts of Acklins there’s been a lot of road erosion,” said Dion Foulkes, the Bahamas’ minister of labor and consumer affairs, and a liaison with the National Emergency Management Agency in Nassau.
He said stone structures had fared well in the storm, and so far there have been no reports of deaths or injuries.
As soon as conditions permit, the Jamaican Defense Force has agreed to survey the affected Bahamian islands, Hubert Minnis, the Bahamian prime minister, said.
Bimini, Grand Bahama and Andros are expected to be the last group of Bahamian islands affected by Irma, starting early Sunday through Monday morning.
Around 300 residents of Bimini have been evacuated, and residents of the low-lying West End, Grand Bahama, have been urged to relocate east.