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5 years after Maria, reconstruction drags on in Puerto Rico

LOÍZA, Puerto Rico — Jetsabel Osorio Chévere looked up with a sad smile as she leaned against her battered home.

Nearly five years have gone by since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, and no one has offered her family a plastic tarp or zinc panels to replace the roof that the Category 4 storm ripped off the two-story home in an impoverished corner in the north coast town of Loiza.

“No one comes here to help,” the 19-year-old said.

It’s a familiar lament in a U.S. territory of 3.2 million people where thousands of homes, roads and recreational areas have yet to be fixed or rebuilt since Maria struck in September 2017. The government has completed only 21% of more than 5,500 official post-hurricane projects, and seven of the island’s 78 municipalities report that not a single project has begun. Only five municipalities report that half of the projects slated for their region have been completed, according to an Associated Press review of government data.

And with Hurricane Fiona forecast to hit Puerto Rico on Sunday with torrential rains, more than 3,600 homes still have a tattered blue tarp serving as a makeshift roof.

“That is unacceptable,” said Cristina Miranda, executive director of local nonprofit League of Cities. “Five years later, uncertainty still prevails.”

Puerto Rico’s governor and Deanne Criswell, head of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency who recently visited the island, stressed that post-hurricane work is underway, but many wonder how much longer it will take and worry another devastating storm will hit in the meantime.

Criswell said officials focused on recovery and emergency repairs for the first three years after Maria. Reconstruction has now started, she noted, but will take time because authorities want to ensure the structures being built are robust enough to withstand stronger hurricanes projected as a result of climate change.

“We recognize the concern that recovery may seem like it’s not moving fast enough five years later,” she said. “Hurricane Maria was a catastrophic event that caused damages that are really complex.”

The hurricane damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes and caused an estimated 2,975 deaths after razing the island’s power grid. Crews only recently started to rebuild the grid with more than $9 billion of federal funds. Island-wide blackouts and daily power outages persist, damaging appliances and forcing those with chronic health conditions to find temporary solutions to keep their medications cold.

The slow pace has frustrated many on an island emerging from the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Some Puerto Ricans have opted to rebuild themselves instead of waiting for government help they feel will never come.

Osorio, the 19-year-old from Loiza, said her family bought a tarp and zinc panels out of their own pockets and set up a new roof over their second floor. But it leaks, so now she lives with her father and grandfather on the first floor.

Meanwhile, in the island’s central region, community leaders who accused the government of ignoring rural areas formed a nonprofit, vowing to never go through what they experienced after Maria. They’ve built their own well, opened a community center in an abandoned school and used their own equipment to repair a key road. They also opened a medical clinic in April and certified nearly 150 people in emergency response courses.

“That’s what we’re seeking, to not depend on anyone,” said Francisco Valentín with the Primary Health Services and Socioeconomic Development Corporation. “We’ve had to organize ourselves because there’s no other option.”

Municipal officials also have grown tired of waiting for help.

In the southern coastal town of Peñuelas, Mayor Gregory Gonsález said he sought permission to hire special brigades to repair roads, ditches and other infrastructure, with work starting in mid-September.

It is one of five municipalities that has not seen a single post-hurricane project completed, with a pier, medical center, government office and a road still awaiting reconstruction. Gonsález said that few companies make bids because they lack employees, or they quote a price higher than that authorized by federal officials as inflation drives up the cost of materials.

It’s a frustration shared by Josian Santiago, mayor of the central mountain town of Comerío. He said it’s urgent that crews repair the main road that connects his town to the capital of San Juan because landslides are closing it down with increasing frequency. Tropical Storm Earl was blamed for causing eight landslides on Sept. 6, just hours before it became a hurricane.

“It’s a terrible risk,” Santiago said, adding that engineers recently told him it could take another two years to repair. “Two years?! How much longer do we have to wait?!”

Reminders of how much time has passed since Hurricane Maria hit are scattered across Puerto Rico.

Faded red plastic tassels tied around wooden electrical posts that still lean as much as 60 degrees flapped in the wind as Tropical Storm Earl dumped heavy rain across the island in early September.

Norma López, a 56-year-old homemaker, has a post leaning just feet away from her balcony in Loiza, and it exasperates her every time she sees it.

“It’s still there. About to fall,” said López, who lost her roof to Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and again to Maria. “I’m here trying to survive.”

Sixty-five-year-old Virmisa Rivera, who lives nearby, said her roof leaks every time it rains, and the laminated walls near her bedroom are permanently soaked.

She said FEMA gave her $1,600 to rent a house while it repaired her roof, but no crews came by. Her boyfriend, who recently died, attempted to install zinc panels, but they don’t protect from heavy rain.

“My house is falling apart,” she said, adding that the government said it would move her to a new home in another neighborhood since it can’t repair hers because it’s in a flood zone.

But Rivera worries she will die if she moves: She takes 19 pills a day and uses an oxygen tank daily. Her family lives next door, which gives her security since she now lives alone.

Family also is the reason Osorio, the 19-year-old, would like to see a roof for the second floor. It’s where her mother raised her and her sister before dying. Osorio was 12, so her younger sister was sent to live with an aunt.

Plywood panels now cover the windows of the second floor that her mother built by hand with cinderblocks. It’s where she taught Osorio how to make candles and cloth wipes for babies that they used to sell, sitting side-by-side while Osorio talked about her school day.

“This is my mother’s,” Osorio said as she motioned to the second floor, “and that’s where I plan to live.”

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North Korea fires ballistic missiles in latest tests amid tension | News

Japanese official reported that the missiles travelled 400kms (250 miles) and at a maximum altitude of 50km (30 miles).

North Korea has fired two short-range ballistic missiles from the Pyongyang area towards the country’s east coast, according to South Korean and Japanese officials, marking Pyongyang’s fourth missile test launches in a week.

Japan’s NHK national television said multiple missiles were fired from North Korea on Saturday morning and were believed to have landed in the Sea of Japan though outside of Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

“What appears to be a ballistic missile was launched from North Korea,” the Japanese coast guard said in a statement issued at 6:47 am (21:47 GMT) local time on Saturday.

In a second statement issued about 15 minutes later, the coast guard said another apparent ballistic missile was launched.

NHK said the projectiles seemed to have fallen outside Japan’s exclusive economic zones, citing government sources.

The office of Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida tweeted that the latest missile launch was being analysed and instructions issued for the safety of people, aircraft and vessels.

North Korea fired short-range ballistic missiles into the sea on Wednesday and Thursday in the hours before and after a visit by US Vice President Kamala Harris to South Korea during which she emphasised the “ironclad” US commitment to the security of its Asian allies.

The latest launch also follows after the navies of South Korea, the United States and Japan staged trilateral anti-submarine exercises on Friday for the first time in five years.

Japan’s Vice Defence Minister Toshiro Ino said North Korea’s repeated missile firings are “persistently escalating provocations”.

“North Korea’s actions threaten the peace and safety not only for Japan but also the region and the international community, and are absolutely impermissible,” Ino said, calling the four launches in one week “unprecedented”.

The missiles rose to a maximum altitude of 50km (30 miles) and flew as far as 400km (250 miles) before landing in the Sea of Japan in areas outside of Japan’s exclusive economic zone, Ino said.

The missiles may have been on “irregular” trajectory, which makes tracking more difficult.

North Korea has conducted a record number of weapons tests this year and analysts see the increased pace of testing as an effort to build its ballistic weapons capacity, as well as to take advantage of a world distracted by the Ukraine conflict and other crises.

Nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches by North Korea have long been banned by the United Nations Security Council.

“Despite North Korea’s internal weaknesses and international isolation, it is rapidly modernising weapons and taking advantage of a world divided by US-China rivalry and Russia’s annexation of more Ukrainian territory,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

A South Korean legislator said on Wednesday that the North has completed preparations for a nuclear test, and a window for such a test could open between China’s party congress in October and the US mid-term elections in November.



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US judge dismisses Mexico lawsuit against gun manufacturers

MEXICO CITY — A U.S. federal judge on Friday dismissed a lawsuit brought by the Mexican government against U.S. gun manufacturers arguing their commercial practices has led to bloodshed in Mexico.

Judge F. Dennis Saylor in Boston ruled Mexico’s claims did not overcome the broad protection provided to gun manufacturers by the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act passed in 2005.

The law shields gun manufacturers from damages “resulting from the criminal or unlawful misuse” of a firearm.

Mexico’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said it would appeal the decision.

Mexico was seeking at least $10 billion in compensation, but legal experts had viewed the lawsuit as a long shot.

The Mexican government argued that the companies know their practices contribute to the trafficking of guns into Mexico and facilitate it. Mexico wants compensation for the havoc the guns have wrought on its people.

Among those sued were some of the biggest names in guns, including: Smith & Wesson Brands Inc., Barrett Firearms Manufacturing Inc., Beretta U.S.A. Corp., Colt’s Manufacturing Company LLC and Glock Inc.

Another defendant was Interstate Arms, a Boston-area wholesaler that sells guns from all but one of the named manufacturers to dealers around the U.S.

The Mexican government estimates 70% of the weapons trafficked into Mexico come from the U.S., according to the Foreign Affairs Ministry. It said that in 2019 alone, at least 17,000 homicides in Mexico were linked to trafficked weapons.

Mexico argued the U.S. protection act did not apply when an injury occurred outside the United States.

Saylor did not agree.

“Mexico is seeking to hold defendants liable for practices that occurred within the United States and only resulted in harm in Mexico,” he wrote. “This case thus represents a valid domestic application of the PLCAA, and the presumption against extraterritoriality does not apply.”

The sale of firearms is severely restricted in Mexico and controlled by the Defense Department. But thousands of guns are smuggled into Mexico by the country’s powerful drug cartels.

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Officials: North Korea fires suspected ballistic missiles

TOKYO — North Korea has fired suspected ballistic missiles, the Japanese Defense Ministry said Saturday.

Further details are still being analyzed, ministry officials said.

Japanese media reported that the missiles are believed to have landed in the Sea of Japan.

Saturday’s firing is the latest of North Korea’s escalating missile launches and a third this week following those fired Friday in the wake of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit in South Korea.

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