Sunday, 14 July 2013

Uttarakhand floods: When accounting for the missing is not such a disaster

The 15 officials at the missing persons cell, set up on June 27 in the wake of the disaster that swept through Uttarakhand, knew that their work was akin to looking for a needle in a haystack.

With just five phone lines, they were entrusted with the task of taking down complaints 24X7 of those missing in the rain-ravaged state and feeding them into the National Informatics Centre’s data bank. To ensure a watertight system, the cell, set up under the charge of Ajay Kumar Pradyot, secretary of youth affairs ministry, roped in several agencies, like the Integrated Child Development Services that has presence across the country.

It even referred to data from FIRs, Google Person Finder — an open source web application that provides a registry and message board for survivors, family, and loved ones affected by a natural disaster to post and search for information about each other’s status and whereabouts — Facebook, Twitter, television channels, the army as well as the Indo-Tibetan Police Force.

Soon enough, though, the team hit a wall. With information coming in by the hour from various sources, duplications began creeping in: the figure of those reported missing crossed 25,000 by July 5. This made it nearly impossible to cross-check names manually or even through established computing procedures.

That’s when software giant IBM lent a helping hand. It helped the cell programme a spreadsheet application that collated data under several parameters, like name, father’s name, spouse’s name, address, photograph and cellphone number. All agencies involved in the work were then asked to fill as much data as possible under each category.

“The idea was to quickly get figures from all places. The basic strategy was to come up with a list of persons actually missing, untraceable or dead so that beneficiaries could get their compensation. But with tonnes of data pouring in, this became difficult. Thankfully, IBM volunteered to help deduplicate,” says Pradyot.

IBM sent a team of six professionals to the cell from its various centres in India. To make the task easier, the cell gave each reported missing person a unique identity (eg UP/MC/0001) and then fed in all possible parameters in each.

The data compression technique has been a huge success. Together, the teams have helped narrow down the figure of missing persons to 5,000-6,000. The cell also opened a call centre and roped in the 108 (emergency) service to cross-check identities. So far, it has made over 10,000 calls.

Leaving nothing to chance, it simultaneously asked all mobile service providers to provide call data records of people who had made calls or sent SMSes from Uttarakhand from June 14 to June 21. Besides, it asked them to provide information of cellphones in Uttarakhand that were disconnected between June 16 and June 23.

“This mammoth exercise was, perhaps, the first in the world. The idea was to get numbers of phones that had died, establish identities of their subscribers and then connect with their families or friends to check if they had reached home.

That was difficult too since in Uttarakhand, the telecom service provider changes as one moves from one circle to another even in a day. We hope to finish the task by July 15,” assures Pradyot.

The Uttarakhand government has asked all states to furnish a list of people who went missing in the state during the deluge. Following this, the list of those presumed to be dead will be handed over to a special committee looking into compensation, which is expected to be over Rs300 crore.

Sunday 14 July 2013

continue reading

11 Somalis drown in smuggler's boat tragedy

Eleven Somalis drowned and another 34 are missing after a smugglers' boat headed for Yemen capsized in the Gulf of Aden earlier this week, the UN refugee agency said on Friday.

A total of 58 passengers were on board the vessel which set sail on Saturday before capsizing in rough seas near Elayo on Wednesday. Survivors told how the three smugglers crewmen forced 22 people overboard when the boat's engine failed soon after departure, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said.

"UNHCR is deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life," the agency said in a statement.

An investigation is under way, it added. "We hope that the perpetrators will be brought to justice."

The bodies of the 11 dead were recovered on beaches around Ceelaayo village, about 30 kilometres west of the Somali port town of Bossaso.

Locals found 13 survivors, including two women and a teenage boy and girl, most of whom were treated for skin burns caused by fuel inside the boat.

Last year a record 103,000 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants crossed the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea from the Horn of Africa — mainly Somalis and Ethiopians. A reported 130 drowned.

Sunday 14 July 2013

continue reading

Dead identified in Russian bus tragedy

Russian authorities say the bodies of 18 people who were killed in a horrific road accident in Moscow have been identified by their relatives.

The victims were killed, and another 20 injured, when a gravel truck collided with a commuter bus on July 13 near the village of Oznobishino close to Podolsk on the outskirts of Moscow.

Police have also opened a criminal investigation into the accident, which occurred when the gravel truck turned onto a main road and collided with the bus.

Sunday 14 July 2013

continue reading

Death toll of floods in Sichuan province rises to 43, 150 missing

Floods triggered by some of the heaviest rain in decades have cut off access to several villages in central Sichuan province since early yesterday morning, trapping hundreds of people.

More than 40 people have been killed and 150 more are missing in Sichuan as a result of the floods and landslides, Xinhua reported. The southwestern province is still reeling from a major earthquake in April. Two million residents were affected as of last night, CCTV reported. Most of the deaths occurred in a landslide in Dujiangyan , where 25 more bodies were found, taking the death toll there to 43, Xinhua reported.

Downpours were blamed for a mudslide that left 100 tourists stranded in Gansu province's Wenxian county on Friday night. Another landslide killed two in Yanan city, bringing the death toll from recent storms in Shaanxi province to 23.

In Sichuan, rain and floods cut off electricity and phone lines, reported China News Service, while roads were impassable in parts of Yaan county.

At least four bridges and 13 mining sites were severely damaged across the county. More than 400 villagers were still stranded in isolated Heping village.

Rescuers did manage to reach 170 residents trapped in Mao county's Caolu village, where they had been stuck for two days, the Sichuan Daily reported.

Sunday 14 July 2013

continue reading

Five more bodies found in Lac-Megantic, raising death toll to 33

Five more bodies were recovered in Lac-Megantic, Que. Saturday as crews continue to search the area devastated by last week’s deadly train derailment.

The official death toll in the town now stands at 33, while 17 others remain missing.

Nine of the 33 dead have been identified, and authorities are expected to release some of their names soon.

“The conditions are absolutely awful, and they’ll continue to be,” Michel Forget, an investigator with Quebec’s provincial police, told reporters during a news conference on Saturday.

Forget said search crews are required to wear specialized equipment due to the toxic fumes at the crash site. He said the recovery effort is expected to continue for weeks.

Earlier Saturday, the community honoured the victims with a moment of silence.

Under clear skies, Lac-Megantic residents held a full minute of silence as the bells of the Ste-Agnes church rang 50 times at noon. That number was intended to honour the 50 individuals whose bodies have been recovered and the missing who are, by now, presumed dead.

As the bells tolled, residents gathered on the church steps with their heads bowed in silence. Some held photos of loved ones and quietly wiped away tears.

Search crews also suspended their efforts for the moment of silence.

“All worked stopped and it was a very emotional moment for them,” Forget said.

Residents of the small community of around 6,000 said the tribute comes at a critical time.

"Think of the people who are enduring this, who are in mourning," Jean-Denis Martel said, as he sat in the church on Friday. “It's good to take a moment of silence, for those with loved ones. It's not easy. It hurts bad." It’s been one week since the devastating train derailment.

On July 6, just after 1 a.m., a Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Inc. train came barrelling into Lac-Megantic, skipped the tracks and exploded into a series of massive fire balls. The 72-car train was carrying crude oil destined for New Brunswick.

The train had been parked in the nearby town of Nantes, about 12 kilometres away. It was left unattended, with the engineer at a hotel for the night.

Throughout the week, as the death toll rose each day, residents who were still missing loved ones came to the heart-breaking realization that their missing family members were likely dead.

A candlelight vigil was held Friday night on the steps of the Lac-Megantic church, despite town officials asking residents to stay home.

With much of the town’s downtown core still considered a crime scene, Quebec provincial police said they couldn’t spare the resources to monitor a large crowd or vigil.

Still, small groups of families and friends came together to mourn and find comfort in their community. "In one way or another, we're all affected," Bianca Fillion said.

West of Lac-Megantic in Montreal, a group mounted a small shrine in front of the Notre-Dame Basilica to show their support for the town.

"Solidarity,” resident Richard Lafontaine said. "We're participating in a movement of solidarity for the region and especially the town."

Vigils were also held in communities throughout Quebec including Sherbrooke, Quebec City, Trois Rivieres and Gatineau. Winnipeg also held a vigil for Lac-Megantic.

Next week, three benefit concerts are scheduled for Montreal, Quebec City and St-Georges-de-Beauce.

The past week has also seen anger building in the town as residents struggle to understand how the disaster could have happened. Quebec provincial police have cordoned off a large part of the town’s downtown as they continue their investigation. The federal Transportation Safety Board has said its own probe into the derailment will likely take months.

"This may well be the most devastating rail accident in Canadian history," board chairwoman Wendy Tadros told a news conference recently.

Sunday 14 July 2013

continue reading