Monday, 23 September 2013

Landslides kill 20 in Philippine provinces weakened by typhoon Usagi

Torrential monsoon rains have hit the north-west Philippines, triggering landslides and killing 20 people in areas already weakened by a powerful typhoon, and raising the death toll to 47 from storms across Asia.

Philippine officials said soldiers and villagers were also searching for at least seven people missing in mountainside villages hit by the landslides on Monday in the province of Zambales.

In China, where typhoon Usagi struck after passing by the Philippines, officials said the storm killed 25 people in the southern province of Guangdong, 13 of them in the city of Shanwei where it struck the coast late on Sunday.

Two people drowned when a passenger boat capsized in north-east Aurora Province in the Philippines.

Jeffrey Khonghun, mayor of Subic, Zambales, said 15 bodies were dug out in two landslide-hit villages in his town. Five people also died in landslides in two other towns in Zambales, according to army officials and police.

Rescuers used their hands, pots and shovels to dig through the muck that buried a cluster of houses, while relatives of two other missing residents waited in the rain in the village of Wawandue.

"This is the first after a long time that we were hit by this kind of deluge," Khonghun told Manila's DZBB radio network. He had to stop the interview when another body was pulled out from the mud near him.

Typhoon Usagi enhanced the torrential monsoon rains that drenched the main northern Philippine region of Luzon over the weekend. The powerful typhoon blew away late on Saturday and a new tropical storm off southern Japan was continuing to intensify the downpours in Luzon, government forecaster Samuel Duran said.

Many low-lying areas of the Philippine capital, Manila, and outlying regions were swamped on Monday, prompting authorities to close schools and offices.

In Hong Kong flight schedules were returning to normal on Monday after major disruptions caused by Usagi, which was the season's strongest storm. At its peak it forced about 250 flight cancellations in Hong Kong, before weakening to a tropical depression over the southern Chinese province of Guangdong.

Train and airline services around Guangdong had returned to normal after the storm, China's state broadcaster CCTV said.

China's national weather centre said the storm would continue to weaken as it moves north-west.

Monday 23 September 2013

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Typhoon Usagi kills 25 in south China

A powerful typhoon hit Hong Kong and the southern China coast on Monday with winds that blew cars off the road, crippling power lines and causing flooding and the deaths of at least 25 people.

Typhoon Usagi, the strongest storm to hit the Western Pacific this year, began pounding southern China late Sunday. More than 370 flights were cancelled, and financial markets closed for at least part of the morning. Shipping and train lines were also shut down before the Usagi weakened to a tropical depression over the southern China province of Guangdong on Monday.

Earlier on Sunday, China's National Meteorological Centre issued its highest alert, with more than 80,000 people moved to safety in Fujian province and authorities deploying at least 50,000 disaster-relief workers, state Xinhua news agency reported.

China said 25 deaths occurred in Guangdong, where the typhoon made landfall late Sunday near Shanwei with record sustained winds for the city of 109 miles per hour.

The victims included people hit by debris and others who had drowned. One man was killed by a falling window pane. Winds toppled trees, cranes and blew cars off roads in some areas, and brought down three major power lines in coastal Fujian, cutting off electricity to about 170,000 households, Xinhua said.

"It is the strongest typhoon I have ever encountered," Luo Hailing, a gas station attendant in Shanwei, told Xinhua. "So terrible, lucky we made preparations.”

On Saturday the storm had been a super typhoon when it passed between Taiwan and the Philippines, sparing both of them the brunt of the winds. However, Philippine officials said eight people were dead from drowning and landslides, and Taiwan authorities reported nine people hurt by falling trees.

The storm wreaked havoc on travel plans just as many passengers were returning home after an extended weekend for the Chinese mid-autumn festival.

More than 250 incoming and outgoing flights were canceled in Hong Kong, and an additional 200 were delayed, Airport Authority Hong Kong said. Intercity trains including the high-speed rail to Beijing, Shenzhen and Hong Kong were suspended until Tuesday, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Despite earlier warnings that the typhoon could pose a severe risk to Hong Kong, the city suffered only minimal damage and no fatalities, though dozens of trees were reported down. Seventeen people had sought medical treatment and eight of these were admitted to the hospital, according to the Hong Kong government's information services department.

The Hong Kong Exchange delayed the start of trading on securities and derivatives markets due to the typhoon.

Usagi lashed the east and south coasts of Taiwan on Saturday after slamming into the Philippines' northernmost islands, where it cut communication and power lines and triggered landslides.

Parts of Manila remained submerged Monday and classes were cancelled. Landslide deaths occurred in two villages in Zambales province west of Manila, Subic town mayor Jeffrey Khonghun said Monday, and two drowning deaths were reported previously.

Monday 23 September 2013

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U.S. migrants' DNA could help ID missing Guatemalans

Aracely Garrido returned to her native Guatemala last month to bury one of 13 family members who disappeared during the country's decades-long civil war and was identified years later through DNA from surviving relatives.

The 55-year-old tax preparer now living in a Los Angeles suburb is among a small group of Guatemalan immigrants in the area who have given DNA samples in hopes of finding loved ones who vanished during the fighting from 1960 to 1996. Many more soon will be able to do the same as forensic experts who run a Guatemalan lab that matches victims' remains to the living are expanding their outreach to Guatemalans abroad.

"Being able to find him was at least some relief," Garrido said of her cousin, a construction worker and political activist who she said was seized by authorities along with his teenage son.

She hopes the Forensic Anthropology Foundation will locate the remains of her other missing relatives, many of whom were targeted by the government because they were politically active.

"It is important to clarify the past, to try to find out the truth. That will at least give us a personal sort of peace," she said.

For the last two decades, the foundation has exhumed the remains of victims from mass graves. More recently, it has searched for victims of "forced disappearances" carried out by wartime governments by matching DNA from the remains of unidentified victims found in military installations and cemeteries with samples from living relatives.

More than 7,000 survivors have given DNA samples, including about 20 Guatemalans in Los Angeles when foundation members made a brief trip here last year, said Fredy Peccerelli, the organization's executive director and a Guatemalan who grew up in New York.

The move to expand efforts abroad comes as the Guatemalan conflict takes center stage in a California courtroom. The trial and its intersection with the DNA program underscore that while the conflict that killed an estimated 200,000 people has ended, the effects of the war endure for survivors.

While ex-military personnel have been convicted in recent years in Guatemala of atrocities committed during the war, one of the country's former soldiers is preparing to stand trial in the U.S. on charges of lying on his American citizenship application about his role in one of the era's most violent episodes — a massacre that killed more than 200 people in the village of Dos Erres in 1982.

One of the key witnesses for the U.S. government's case against former special forces commander Jorge Sosa is Oscar Ramirez, a Guatemalan immigrant living in Framingham, Mass., who learned two years ago — through the DNA program — that he had been seized as a toddler and raised by one of Sosa's comrades after nearly his entire family was killed in Dos Erres.

Sosa, 55, was arrested in Canada last year and extradited to the U.S. to face charges of lying on his naturalization application. His trial is scheduled to begin on Tuesday in Riverside, where he lived.

Federal prosecutors say Sosa was one of the commanders of a special patrol that descended upon Dos Erres on Dec. 7, 1982, and oversaw the killings. Men, women and children were bludgeoned with a sledgehammer, their bodies falling into a well. Sosa fired a rifle and threw a grenade into the well to kill any victims who were still alive, according to federal court filings.

While he is not being tried for war crimes, the case is expected to include testimony from former members of the Guatemalan special forces and survivors of the conflict, including Ramirez.

If convicted of making a false statement and procuring naturalization unlawfully, Sosa also could face up to 15 years in prison. Federal prosecutors also want to strip Sosa of his American citizenship, something that could pave the way for his return to Guatemala.

A spokesman for Guatemalan prosecutors says they will seek to extradite Sosa to face charges for "crimes against humanity."

While the trial will bring Guatemala's gruesome past to an American courtroom, 50 miles away in Los Angeles, Peccerelli will be continuing his work to bring closure and answers to survivors.

He hopes Ramirez, who will also speak with community members about the DNA program, can help win the trust of Guatemalans still scarred by the war. Since learning his true identity, Ramirez met family he never knew he had — including his father, who was not in Dos Erres the day of the massacre — and obtained political asylum to stay legally in the U.S., something his lawyer, Scott Greathead, said might be a possibility for other survivors.

Monday 23 September 2013

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Bodies pile up in Texas as immigrants adopt new routes over border

By the time the woman perished, she had probably slogged 25 miles through dry ranch lands in her quest to enter the United States. She was found just feet from a highway where she might have been picked up and taken to Houston with other migrants making the same journey.

A flag marked the spot where the remains of a person believed to have been an immigrant were found in Falfurrias, Tex., in May.

Not long ago, her body would have been taken to a funeral home for a cursory attempt at identification, then buried in this town an hour north of the Mexico border under a sign reading “unknown female.”

Her death, probably from hypothermia, is part of a mounting body count that has overwhelmed the sparsely populated Brooks County, providing further evidence that immigrants are shifting their migration routes away from the well-worn paths into Arizona and instead crossing into deep southern Texas. The changing patterns have put an extra burden on local governments with limited experience in such matters and even fewer financial resources.

“There are some counties that have the economic wherewithal to take on these issues, and there are other counties that just don’t have any money, so that puts them into a real bad bind,” said Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, coordinator of the Binational Migration Institute at the University of Arizona, which researches immigration issues.

But Brooks County is trying to step up to the challenge. Now, all newly recovered bodies and skeletal remains of people suspected of being immigrants will travel 90 miles to nearby Webb County for autopsies, DNA sampling and more intense efforts at identification.

It is a big step for Brooks County, which has a population of just over 7,100 and where on a recent morning the chief deputy mopped the floors of the sheriff’s office himself. He will also be making the weekly trips to deliver corpses to the medical examiner in Laredo.

The county handled 129 bodies last year, which Judge Raul Ramirez, the county’s top administrator, says blew a hole in the budget. And even though he and most other local officials see illegal immigration as a federal problem, federal money has not followed.

Last year, Brooks County trailed only Pima County, Ariz., in the number of immigrant bodies recovered, and it already has 76 this year. Nearly a million people live in Pima County, and the 171 bodies found in 2012 were consistent with annual totals dating back to 2004, according to a report by the migration institute. Brooks County, on the other hand, averaged 50 to 60 dead before last year.

Border Patrol apprehensions in the area have soared. The number of immigrants detained in Rio Grande Valley border sector in South Texas outpaced the historic leader, the Tucson sector, by more than 30,000. Those numbers are an imperfect measure of the overall flow of migrants, but most of the growth has involved Central American immigrants, who often take the more direct route to the United States through Texas.

Immigrants typically die in Brooks County trying to circumvent a Border Patrol checkpoint. They are usually dropped off with guides south of the checkpoint and forced to hike for two or three days to a pickup spot north of the checkpoint.

Dr. Corinne Stern, the Webb County medical examiner, puts her office’s identification rate on nonskeletal remains at 65 to 70 percent. But the woman from the ranch remains a Jane Doe for now. Found on Aug. 26, her body was already in an advanced stage of decomposition.

There are clues, though. She was wearing earrings and a ring on the middle finger of her left hand. She wore a Gold’s Gym T-shirt and pink Converse sneakers with pink laces. She carried several phone numbers, which have not turned up anything yet.

Tucked into one pocket of her shorts was a photograph of a boy about 5 years old. He is wearing a suit and what appears to be a graduation cap.

In the past, unidentified immigrants were crammed into the local cemetery without DNA samples being taken. The cemetery did not even have accurate records for the dead. In May, Lori Baker, a Baylor University anthropologist, led a team to Falfurrias to exhume unidentified immigrants’ graves.

Ms. Baker identified 54 marked graves but found 63 burials. In some cases, the team opened a body bag expecting to find one person and found four other bags of remains. Some of the remains carried tags indicating that they came from a neighboring county.

She plans to return for more exhumations next year, and she is encouraged by the county’s progress, noting that the short-staffed sheriff’s office is going to start taking DNA samples from family members who come looking for missing loved ones.

Three days before the woman was found on El Tule Ranch, the ranch manager, Lavoyger Durham, proudly showed off his personal contribution to addressing the problem: a 55-gallon blue plastic drum holding one-gallon water jugs. The water station is topped with a 30-foot pole and a large blue flag.

Mr. Durham, 68, said it was the first water station in Brooks County, and he has plans for several more. He would prefer for the government to erect a double-layer border fence. But in the meantime, he does not want to see people continue to die on the ranch. He estimates he has found 25 bodies on the property in the last 23 years.

“I’m trying to expose the killing fields of Brooks County,” Mr. Durham said. “If dead human beings don’t catch your attention, what the hell else is going to? We’re just trying to be human about it.”

Monday 23 August 2013

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Mexico landslides: Rescuers dig in mud and rain for dead

Fourteen hours per body.

That's how long search crews with shovels, hydraulic equipment, anything they can muster, are averaging to find the victims of a massive landslide that took half the remote coffee-growing village of La Pintada, leaving 68 people missing.

The Mexican army's emergency response and rescue team slogged in several feet of mud and incessant rain with rescue dogs, recovering a total of five bodies as of Sunday, including a man found wedged under the collapsed roof of a dirt-filled home.

Lt. Carlos Alberto Mendoza, commander of the 16-soldier team, said it's the most daunting situation he's seen in 24 years with the army.

"They are doing unbelievable work, hours and hours for just one body," he told The Associated Press. "No matter how hard the day is, they never get tired of working."

La Pintada was the scene of the single greatest tragedy in destruction wreaked by the twin storms, Manuel and Ingrid, which simultaneously pounded both of Mexico's coasts a week ago, spawning huge floods and landslides across a third of the country. The official death toll has grown to 115, the Interior Ministry said Sunday night.

"As of today, there is little hope now that we will find anyone alive," President Enrique Pena Nieto said after touring the devastation at La Pintada, adding that the landslide covered at least 40 homes.

Survivors staying at a shelter in Acapulco recounted how a tidal wave of dirt, rocks and trees exploded through the center of town, burying families in their homes and sweeping wooden houses into the bed of the swollen river that winds past the village on its way to the Pacific

The scene by Sunday was desolate, a ghost town where 50 people still awaited evacuation. One man remained to care for abandoned goats, pigs and chickens that seemed disoriented as they roamed about.

When the rains get too hard, the crew has to stop for fear of being buried themselves by another slide, Mendoza said.

"The fundamental problem continues to be the rain," said Ricardo de La Cruz, national director of Civil Protection. "It complicates the rescue work not only by putting residents at risk, but the military and support crews as well."

Monday 23 September 2013

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