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Posts tagged ‘Islands of Greenglade Prime’

Puerto Rico opens only 20% of schools amid ongoing quakes

January 28, 2020

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico opened only 20% of its public schools on Tuesday following a strong earthquake that delayed the start of classes by nearly three weeks as fears linger over the safety of students.

Only 177 schools were certified to open after engineers inspected them for damage caused by the magnitude-6.4 earthquake that killed one person and damaged hundreds of homes on Jan. 7. But the inspections were not to determine whether a school could withstand another strong earthquake or had structural shortcomings such as short columns that make it vulnerable to collapse, further worrying parents.

“Of course I am afraid,” said 38-year-old Marién Santos, who attended an open house on Monday at her son’s Ramón Vilá Mayo high school in the suburb of Río Piedras where officials gave her a copy of the inspection report and evacuation plans.

Her concerns were echoed by the director of the school, Elisa Delgado. While she believes engineers did a thorough inspection of the school, built in the early 1900s, they warned her not to use the main entrance in an evacuation because it leads to an area filled with gas lines. The problem is that the other exits are too narrow to handle the school’s 450 students, she told The Associated Press.

“It’s not ideal,” she said. Overall, engineers have inspected 561 of the island’s 856 public schools, finding at least 50 too unsafe to reopen, leaving some 240,000 students out of school for now. Ongoing tremors also are forcing crews to automatically re-inspect schools following any quake of 3.0 magnitude or higher, according to Puerto Rico’s Infrastructure Financing Authority.

Since the 6.4 quake, there have been several strong aftershocks, including a 5.9 magnitude one that hit on Jan. 11 and a 5.0 that struck on Saturday. The biggest quake flattened the top two floors of a three-story school in the southern coastal city of Guánica on Jan. 7, two days before classes were scheduled to start.

Overall, experts say that some 500 public schools in Puerto Rico were built before 1987 and don’t meet new construction codes. A plan to retrofit all schools that need it, an estimated 756 buildings, would cost up to $2.5 billion, officials have said, noting those are preliminary figures.

Education Secretary Eligio Hernández noted that another 51 schools are scheduled to start classes on Feb. 3 and that his department is reviewing recommendations on how best to proceed with the other schools.

“The Department of Education is going to take the time it needs and will take all necessary actions so that parents … feel satisfied,” he told reporters on Monday. Elba Aponte, president of Puerto Rico’s Association of Teachers, told the AP that she has received complaints and pictures from parents and school employees of at least 10 schools that are reopening but that they feel are still unsafe.

Most of the pictures are of cracks in the walls and roofs of those schools, she said. “Their concerns are quite valid,” Aponte said, adding that she would share them with the island’s education secretary.

Meanwhile, school and government officials are trying to figure out what to do with the roughly 240,000 students who aren’t able to go to school yet, either because their building was deemed unsafe or has not yet been inspected. No schools in the island’s southern and southwest region will reopen for now, officials say.

Options include placing students in other schools with revised schedules or holding classes in refurbished trailers or outdoors under tarps, Aponte said as she lamented the situation. “It’s terrible,” she said. “If there was one place where they could feel safe, it was at school.”

3rd strong quake this month kills 5 in southern Philippines

October 31, 2019

KIDAPAWAN, Philippines (AP) — The third strong earthquake this month killed five people Thursday, injured several others and destroyed buildings that were already damaged by the earlier shaking in a devastated region in the southern Philippines, officials said.

Several cities and towns in the quake-hit area suspended school classes and office work due to fear of more tremors. Many residents may have returned to already-damaged houses despite the risks because of the humid tropical heat, causing some injuries due to falling debris, officials said.

A village hall collapsed in Batasan village in Makilala town of hard-hit Cotabato province and the village leader was pinned to death, Gov. Emmylou Taliño-Mendoza said. Another man was pinned to death by a fallen tree and a woman died after being hit by heavy debris elsewhere in Makilala, government welfare officer Rosemarie Alcebar told The Associated Press by telephone. Two other villagers died due to quake-related injuries in Cotabato’s Arakan town but details of their deaths were not immediately available, Alcebar said.

In Cotabato’s city of Kidapawan, a small hotel partially collapsed, crushing the lobby and a bank on the ground floor and causing the building to lean on an adjacent hospital. Both the hotel and the hospital were ordered abandoned because of the previous quake damage but six employees and an engineer were inside Eva’s Hotel when the ground shook at midmorning, Mayor Joseph Evangelista said.

“They’re supposed to inspect the building with an engineer then it happened. They managed to run out,” Evangelista told DZMM radio. The hospital and the hotel, its concrete columns precariously leaning and its rooms exposed without walls and windows, were cordoned off as they may collapse completely anytime.

In Davao city, President Rodrigo Duterte’s hometown, a five-story condominium partly crashed down on its basement and rescue workers scrambled to bring out nine residents, one of whom was injured and brought to a hospital, officials said.

The residents of the 56-room building had been urged to evacuate after it was damaged by the earlier quake on Tuesday but some defied the warning. Duterte and his family were safe in his Davao city home but engineers would check the stability of his house just to be sure, said Brig. Gen. Jose Eriel Nembra, who heads the presidential security force.

The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology said the 6.5-magnitude quake was set off by movement in a local fault at a depth of 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) about 28 kilometers (17 miles) east of Tulunan town in Cotabato province. The region already was devastated by two powerful earthquakes and hundreds of aftershocks this month.

At least eight people died in Tuesday’s 6.6 magnitude quake, two were missing, 395 were injured and more than 2,700 houses and buildings, including schools and hospitals, were damaged, according to the Office of Civil Defense.

An Oct. 16 earthquake with a magnitude 6.3 killed at least seven people, injured more than 200 and destroyed or damaged more than 7,000 buildings. The Philippine archipelago lies on the so-called Pacific “Ring of Fire,” the arc of faults around the Pacific Ocean where most of the world’s earthquakes occur.

Philippine police chief resigns amid drug allegations

October 14, 2019

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine national police chief resigned on Monday after he faced allegations in a Senate hearing that he intervened as a provincial police chief in 2013 to prevent his officers from being prosecuted for allegedly selling a huge quantity of illegal drugs they had seized.

Gen. Oscar Albayalde said his decision relinquishing his post was accepted by Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano over the weekend but insisted on his innocence, saying he has never been criminally or administratively charged for the alleged irregularity. Albayalde resigned a few weeks before his scheduled retirement on Nov. 8.

Addressing the 190,000-strong police force in the last flag-raising ceremony he led at the national police headquarters, Albayalde ordered the policemen to continue serving the Filipino people well. “Do not let these challenges demoralize or stray you from your path,” he said.

The allegations against Albayalde were the latest dark cloud to loom over the national police force, which has largely been enforcing President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody anti-drug crackdown that has left thousands of mostly petty drug suspects dead, alarmed Western governments and human rights groups and sparked complaints for mass murder before the International Criminal Court.

Albayalde headed the police force in Pampanga province north of Manila when 13 of his officers seized a large quantity of methamphetamine, a powerful and prohibited stimulant, in a raid. The officers later faced allegations that they presented a small fraction of the seized drugs in a news conference, possibly to foster their promotion, then hid and sold the rest, with suspicions being fueled when they purchased pricey SUVs not long after.

Albayalde’s men allegedly freed a suspected Chinese drug lord in exchange for a huge bribe then arrested another foreigner, who they presented as the owner of the seized drugs. Albayalde pointed out that state prosecutors cleared the officers of criminal complaints they had faced for the alleged offenses.

Albayalde said the allegations against him may have been an offshoot of jockeying for the top police post that he would vacate if he has stayed in his post until his retirement. But two police officials, including a general who has retired from the force and is now a city mayor, testified in Senate hearings that Albayalde did not take adequate actions to have his men be criminally prosecuted.

One of the two officials, Aaron Aquino, who now heads the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, testified that Albayalde called him then to inquire about the status of the cases against his men. Albayalde acknowledged that as a result of the 2013 incident, he was put on a “floating status,” which meant he was transferred to a regional police force without being given any specific assignment or post. Several months after, however, he was appointed as metropolitan Manila police chief and as national police chief in April last year.

“No protest was made on my appointment,” Albayalde said. “Implicitly, it may be assumed that the president himself was aware of my appointment to that position.” Asked in recent weeks about the possibility of firing Albayalde, Duterte replied he would allow Ano to make a recommendation to him after an assessment. The wait contrasts with Duterte’s outright firing of other government officials accused of corruption and irregularities.

Duterte in China amid expectation he’ll raise sea disputes

August 29, 2019

BEIJING (AP) — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was in Beijing on Thursday for a meeting with counterpart Xi Jinping in which the Southeast Asian leader is expected to discuss a ruling on the disputed South China Sea.

The 2016 Hague arbitration mostly invalidated China’s claim to virtually the entire South China Sea and found that it violated the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. The row over the waters — a major global shipping route thought to be rich in oil and gas reserves — has for years marred China’s relationship with the Philippines and other neighboring countries with territorial claims over the disputed area, where Beijing has transformed a string of disputed reefs into missile-protected island bases.

Duterte, however, has largely avoided the subject in favor of seeking warmer ties with Beijing. Philippine nationalists and left-wing groups have criticized the president for not immediately demanding Chinese compliance with the arbitration ruling, which came the same year Duterte took office.

The Philippine leader briefly mentioned the issue to Xi on the sidelines of an April conference for China’s Belt and Road global infrastructure initiative, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo indicated Duterte will raise the matter in a more direct way during this visit.

It’s unlikely that Duterte’s move will have any effect on China, said Jay Batongbacal, a maritime affairs scholar at the University of the Philippines. “China’s position will not change just because Duterte changes tune,” Batongbacal said. “At best, Duterte might be seen as using the arbitration discussion as a move to leverage other concessions. At worst, it may be just for show.”

China refused to participate in the arbitration case initiated by Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, and has ignored the ruling. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said last week that the country’s stance has not changed.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana asked Beijing this month to explain the activities of Chinese research vessels and warships in what the Philippines claims as its waters, and accused China of “bullying.”

Lorenzana said that China did not ask for permission to send several warships through the Sibutu Strait at the southern tip of the Philippine archipelago on four occasions between February and July. He said two Chinese research ships have also been operating in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Meanwhile, Philippine military spokesman Brigadier General Edgard Arevalo accused China of “duplicity,” claiming the Chinese warships shut off their identification transponders while passing through Philippine waters to avoid radar detection.

China has said it is ready to work with the Philippines to jointly safeguard maritime security and order. In an apparent attempt to ease tensions ahead of Thursday’s meeting, a fishery association in southern Guangdong province apologized this week for colliding with a Philippine fishing boat in June.

The Philippines filed a diplomatic protest after the fisherman said a Chinese vessel rammed their anchored boat and abandoned them as it sank in the Reed Bank. “I feel deep regret that this accident had to happen and I would like to express my deep sympathy to the Filipino fishermen,” the president of the Guangdong Fishery Mutual Insurance Association said in a letter sent to the Philippine Embassy in Beijing.

Gomez reported from Manila, Philippines.

245 rescued from burning ferry in Philippine waters; 3 dead

August 28, 2019

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Fishing boats and passing ships rescued 245 people from a burning ferry overnight in southern Philippine waters, and the coast guard was still searching Wednesday though it wasn’t clear if anyone was missing. A 1-year-old girl and two other people died.

The ship’s manifest had 36 crewmembers and 136 passengers, 28 of them children, and the coast guard said investigators would ask the ferry owner and skipper to explain the discrepancy between the listed occupants and the number rescued.

Photos showed passengers wearing orange life vests waiting to be rescued at the loading bay of the ferry, which also carried some vehicles. Local news reports quoted some passengers as saying they jumped into the choppy waters in panic and were rescued by passing cargo and fishing vessels.

“We did not have any patrol ship in the area, so we alerted nearby ships and boats to render assistance because it was an emergency,” coast guard spokesman Armand Balilo said by phone. “It’s good that a number of ships immediately responded. We have to recognize what they did.”

The fire apparently started in the engine room. Orange flames and smoke consumed almost the entire vessel but the M/V Lite Ferry 16 stayed afloat, about 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) off a port in Dapitan city of Zamboanga del Norte province, where it was heading after departing Santander town in central Cebu province Tuesday.

Search and rescue efforts were continuing, Balilo said around midday. It was unclear whether there were still people missing but no relatives have approached authorities to report any, and an ongoing search will continue, Balilo said.

A 1-year-old girl, a 60-year-old male passenger and a third person died, Balilo said. He did not have more details on the identity of the third person and the causes of their deaths. Meanwhile, in the northern Philippines, ferries were warned not to go to sea after a fast-moving storm blew across the main island of Luzon overnight. Heavy rains fell in northern provinces, but no casualties or major damage was reported, and the storm has weakened into a tropical depression.

Sea accidents are common in the Philippine archipelago because of frequent storms, badly maintained boats, overcrowding and weak enforcement of safety regulations. In December 1987, the ferry Dona Paz sank after colliding with a fuel tanker in the Philippines, killing more than 4,341 people in the world’s worst peacetime maritime disaster.

Sri Lanka attacks boost feared ex-official’s bid for power

August 23, 2019

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — He is a feared former defense official accused of condoning rape, torture and shadowy disappearances of critics, but to many Sri Lankans, the opposition’s presidential candidate is the best choice to protect the South Asian island nation after attacks that killed over 250 people this year.

The younger brother and powerful right hand of a former strongman, Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa is seen as a hero by supporters for bringing a bloody end to a decadeslong civil war in 2009 and has cast himself as Sri Lanka’s protector.

“I will accept responsibility for your safety, and the safety of your children and your loved ones,” Gotabaya said as he launched his campaign this month. “I will never allow extremist terrorism in this country.”

His message, met with thundering applause from supporters, resonates as the government faces blistering criticism for a high-level intelligence lapse that President Maithripala Sirisena has acknowledged allowed a group of radicalized Sri Lankans to carry out suicide bombings on Easter Sunday.

Gotabaya “is the most ideal leader the country needs at this time of crisis, and with this attack, his leadership has become more important,” said Sujeewa Manage, a government employee. Despite allegations of bloodshed and war crimes that still haunt the country, Gotabaya’s hardened reputation and vow to ensure national security became a selling point after the attacks on three luxury hotels and three churches that left 263 dead and 500 wounded.

Having enjoyed 10 years of peace, the brazenness of the April 21 attacks jolted Sri Lanka, conjuring the days of bombs going off in the capital of Colombo when rebels fought for an independent state for the country’s ethnic Tamil minority.

The Sri Lankan government came under fire for not acting on near-specific intelligence information from Indian security forces on plans to attack churches. Officials have acknowledged that some Sri Lankan intelligence units were aware of possible attacks weeks before the bombings.

Gotabaya, who has been plotting a return to power since his brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa lost reelection in 2015, is seizing a key moment as voters grasp for a return to safety and a bitter divide roils the ruling coalition government.

Incumbent President Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe last October and appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as his constitutional No. 2. The Supreme Court ruled against the move and reinstated Wickremesinghe.

Sirisena’s party is now divided, with the Rajapaksa brothers absorbing a big chunk of its supporters in a new party. Wickremesinghe and Sirisena are both expected to seek the presidency, but the political upheaval and the attacks will hurt the incumbent’s chances in an election to be held between Nov. 8 and Dec. 8.

Meanwhile, Gotabaya says the ruling government has made national security weaker and he can fill the void. “After the attacks, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s name came high on this list of possible strong leaders,” political analyst Jehan Perera said.

The former defense secretary is a hero to many of the nation’s majority Sinhalese Buddhists, but his candidacy is a fearsome prospect to others. Gotabaya was suspected of ordering kidnappings through so-called white van squads that whisked away rebel suspects, journalists and other government critics. Some victims were tortured and then released, while others disappeared.

Victims who say the military and police forces under Gotabaya’s watch repeatedly tortured and raped political opponents have sued the former defense official, who’s also a U.S. citizen, in federal court in Los Angeles. They brought their case under a statute that allows U.S. lawsuits over acts of torture and killings committed in foreign countries.

The daughter of a top journalist killed in 2009 also has sued Gotabaya in Los Angeles and is seeking damages. Gotabaya has denied the allegations and says he’s started the process of renouncing his American citizenship because Sri Lankan law doesn’t permit dual citizens to hold office.

Gotabaya also has been implicated in the killing of rebels and civilians who tried to surrender with white flags under a prearranged deal in the final days of the 26-year civil war. Some 45,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the last months of the war alone, according to a U.N. report.

In the final years of his brother’s regime, Gotabaya has been accused of promoting hard-line Buddhist groups that carried out anti-Muslim hate campaigns and attacks on their businesses. He has denied the allegations.

He also faces a corruption case accusing him of misappropriating $191,000 in state funds for the construction of a memorial for his parents. There are other police investigations into allegations of corruption and other misdeeds involving his close relatives.

Dharmasiri Lankapeli, a trade union and media rights activist, said national security is just a political slogan used by Gotabaya and his team to capture power. “People knew and understood what happened in the country when he was the defense ministry secretary and how hard it was for the people,” Lankapeli said. “If he comes to power, the democratic space for dissent and for alternative opinion that the people enjoyed during the past four years will be threatened.”

Under the ruling government, more than a dozen soldiers, including intelligence officials, have been arrested on suspicion of several killings and attacks of political opponents and journalists during the Rajapaksa era. Some have been indicted.

“If he (Gotabaya) comes to power, the investigations on alleged misdeeds that occurred during Rajapaksa period will be swept under the carpet,” Lankapeli said. But Ajith Kumara, a rickshaw driver in Colombo, said Sri Lanka needs a strong leader like Gotabaya.

“He will be tough, but the country needs such a person to discipline and develop the country,” Kumara said. “If he was there, the attack would not have happened.” To win, Gotabaya needs to convince more than 50% of Sri Lanka’s 15.9 million voters.

“If Gotabaya is to generate votes he must know that people vote for a candidate out of the love for him, not because they fear him,” columnist Ravi Nagahawatte wrote in the Daily Mirror newspaper.

8 dead, 60 hurt as quakes shake northern Philippine isles

July 27, 2019

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Two strong earthquakes hours apart struck a group of sparsely populated islands in the Luzon Strait in the northern Philippines early Saturday, killing at least eight people, injuring about 60 and causing substantial damage.

The quakes collapsed houses built of stone and wood, arousing residents from sleep, said Roldan Esdicul, who heads the Batanes provincial disaster-response office. “Our bed and everything were swaying from side to side like a hammock,” Esdicul told The Associated Press by cellphone from Basco town, the provincial capital. “We all ran out to safety.”

More than 1,000 residents of hard-hit Itbayat island — nearly half of the island’s population of mostly fishermen — were advised not to return to their homes and stay in the town plaza as successive aftershocks shook the region, he said.

“The wounded are still being brought in,” Itbayat Mayor Raul de Sagon told a local radio station. He said more doctors may be needed if the number of injured from interior villages rises. The Philippine seismology agency said the quakes measured 5.4 and 5.9. A third quake magnitude 5.7 struck later Saturday.

Esdicul said he was already in his office with the provincial governor when the second and more powerful quake struck about three hours after the first shock. “We have to hold on because you can’t stand or walk. It was that strong,” he said.

The initial quake severely cracked the bell tower of the island’s old limestone church, the 19th-century Santa Maria de Mayan, a popular tourist attraction. The tower collapsed when the second temblor hit the island, he said.

An Itbayat hospital was damaged but remained open. An air force helicopter and a plane were en route to Batanes to help ferry and provide aid to victims. Itbayat, part of the Batanes Islands, has a population of about 2,800 people and lies in the Luzon Strait that separates the Philippines and Taiwan. The islands are famous for their stone-built houses, coral walls and cogon grass roofs.

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