Puerto Rico marks 1 year since Maria

Photo by the Associated Press

Clapping and raising their hands to the sky, hundreds of people clad in white gathered at an 18th-century fort in the Puerto Rican capital on Thursday to remember the thousands who died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria as the U.S. territory struggles to recover one year after the Category 4 storm hit.

Religious leaders and government officials recalled how Puerto Rico was ravaged by the storm that killed an estimated 2,975 people and caused more than an estimated $100 billion in damage.

Tens of thousands remain without adequate shelter or reliable electrical power, a sad fact that Gov. Ricardo Rossello noted on Thursday.

“After that catastrophic experience, we acknowledge how complex and difficult it is to prepare for a hurricane of that magnitude and fury,” Rossello said. “The best tribute we can give these people, these brothers that we’ve lost, is to build a better Puerto Rico for their sons, their grandsons and their families.”

While the U.S. government has invested billions of dollars to help clean up and repair the U.S. territory, much work remains. Major power outages are still being reported, tens of thousands of insurance claims are still pending and nearly 60,000 homes still have temporary roofs unable to withstand a Category 1 hurricane.

“I think it’s inexplicable,” Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International’s secretary general, told the Associated Press during a visit to the island Thursday. “There’s no justifiable reason I can see for this gross level of negligence.”

Across the island, people marked the one-year anniversary with gatherings large and small, solemn and anger-tinged—and at times, even hopeful.

In the coastal fishing and farming village of Yabucoa, the strains of one of Puerto Ric’’s most beloved songs filled the air at 6:15 a.m., the exact moment the storm made landfall there one year ago.

Tarps still covered many homes that have yet to be rebuilt in the town of 37,000, even as the nostalgic strains of “Amanecer Borincano”—”Puerto Rican Daw” — resonated at the spot where Maria first unleashed its fury.

“I am the light of the morning that illuminates new paths,” a choir sang as dozens of local officials and residents gathered there. “I am the son of palm trees, of fields and rivers.”

In San Juan, the crowd of worshipers gathered at the 230-year-old San Cristobal fort sang and prayed along with pastors and musicians on stage, with music echoing through the fort’s heavy walls as the sun slowly sank into the sea behind them.

Pastor Elder Gonzalez said he and other volunteers who flew to Puerto Rico after the hurricane to help were shocked at what he saw from up high.

“To see the island of enchantment was a deep and painful experience,” he said. “No one on the plane said a word.”

Government officials argue that many changes have been made to better prepare Puerto Rico for future storms, but they acknowledge that significant obstacles remain.

Jose Ortiz, director of Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority, told reporters that 20 percent of repairs made to the power grid need to be redone. He said crews didn’t have access to the best materials at the time or were forced to rely on temporary fixes, such as using trees as makeshift power polls after Maria destroyed up to 75 percent of transmission lines.

In addition, municipal officials have complained that reconstruction efforts are too slow. Ariel Soto, assistant to the mayor of the mountain town of Morovis, said that 220 families there remain without a proper roof.

“W’’re still waiting for help,” he said. “This hit us hard.”

In San Juan, among those still living under a blue tarp during the peak of hurricane season was Sixta Gladys Pena, a 72-year-old community leader.

“You worry, because you think it’s going to fly off like it did before,” she said. “We’ve lost an entire year and nothing has been resolved. You feel powerless.”

On Thursday, Ben Carson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, announced in San Juan that $1.5 billion was being released to Puerto Rico as part of the overall $20 billion pledged for rebuilding, the largest in the agency’s history.

Officials said the priority is to help people still living under tarps, as well as those in low- and middle-income housing. The money will be used to repair and rebuild homes, relocate people and help them obtain property titles if needed.

“The path forward is challenging and will be measured not in months, but really in years,” Carson said.

In recent weeks, Puerto Ricans have become increasingly angry and frustrated as President Donald Trump touted what he said was a “fantastic” response to Hurricane Maria, calling it an “unsung success” as he denied the official death toll without presenting any evidence.

On Thursday, Trump issued a one-sentence statement on the one-year anniversary of Maria. “We stand with Puerto Rico, and we are helping them to rebuild stronger and better than ever before,” it said.

Nivia Rodriguez, a 60-year-old retiree whose uncle died a week after Maria, is among those disgruntled by Trump’s comments, as well as by videos of rescue crews responding to Hurricane Florence in North Carolina.

“They saved five dogs that were drowning,” she said of the rescue effort after Florence hit, adding that she feels Puerto Rico didn’t get the same treatment. “That hits you.”

Like many, Rodriguez hoped that after Thursday, she would no longer be bombarded by photos and videos that make her feel like she’s reliving Hurricane Maria.

“It’s too much,” she said.

But others felt that Maria’s tragic legacy still needs to be acknowledged, even long after the anniversary has passed. Among them was a group of artists unveiling an exhibition called simply, “6:15 A.M.”

Artist Omar Banuchi, who organized the exhibit, said he was reluctant at first, in part because he didn’t know how to approach the subject. “It’s something that affected all of us and keeps affecting us,” he said.

He said the exhibition walks a fine line, with some paintings showing beautiful landscapes alongside trailers set up by Puerto Rico’s forensics institute as part of the effort to try to identify the bodies of those who perished in the storm. There also will be live music that will incorporate sounds of the hurricane hitting the island.

“The point is for people to have a good time,” Banuchi said. “But there will be certain uncomfortable moments,” he continued. “Maria is still a difficult topic.”

From the Associated Press.

Kavanaugh’s accuser may testify ‘under right terms’

Photo by the Associated Press

Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, who has alleged sexual assault, may testify against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, her attorney said Thursday, but not without conditions set.

The preference would be for Ford to testify next Thursday, and she doesn’t want Kavanaugh in the same room, her attorney told Judiciary Committee staff in a 30-minute call that also touched on security concerns and other issues, according to a Senate aide who wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Ford is willing to tell her story to the Judiciary Committee, whose senators will vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation—but only if agreement can be reached on “terms that are fair and which ensure her safety,” the attorney said in an email earlier Thursday. In the call, she said Ford needs time to secure her family, prepare her testimony and travel to Washington. No decisions were reached, the aide said.

The discussion revived the possibility that the panel would hold an electrifying campaign-season hearing at which both Ford and President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee could give their versions of what did or didn’t happen at a party in the 1980s. Kavanaugh, now a judge on the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, has repeatedly denied her allegation.

Two of Kavanaugh’s former girlfriends also denied the allegation. They said the allegation doesn’t match up with his character.

Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has scheduled a hearing for Monday morning, and he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have indicated it would be Ford’s only chance to make her case. Republicans are anxious to move ahead to a vote by the committee, where they hold an 11-10 majority, and then by the full Senate, which they control, 51-49.

Taylor Foy, spokesman for Republicans on the panel, said after the call that Grassley “will consult with his colleagues on the committee. He remains committed to providing a fair forum for both Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh.”

How Apple’s Safari browser will try to thwart data tracking

Photo by the Associated Press

New privacy features in Apple’s Safari browser seek to make it tougher for companies such as Facebook to track you.

Companies have long used cookies to remember your past visits. This can be helpful for saving sign-in details and preferences. But now they’re also being used to profile you in order to fine-tune advertising to your tastes and interests.

Cookie use goes beyond visiting a particular website. As other sites embed Facebook “ike” and “share” buttons, for instance, Facebook’s servers are being pinged and can access your stored cookies. That means Facebook now knows you frequent celebrity gossip sites or read news with a certain political bent. Ads can be tailored to that.

Here’s how Safari is getting tougher in dealing with that.

NO MORE GRACE PERIOD

Safari used to wait 24 hours from your last visit to a service before blocking that service’s cookies on third-party sites. That effectively exempted Facebook, Google and other services that people visited daily. Now, Safari will either block the cookie automatically or prompt you for permission.

Apple says Safari will still be able to remember sign-in details and other preferences, though some websites have had to adjust their coding.

THWARTING FINGERPRINTING

Browsers typically reveal seemingly innocuous information about your device, such as the operating system used and fonts installed. Websites use this to make minor adjustments in formatting so that pages display properly.

Browsers have historically made a lot of information available, largely because it seemed harmless. Now it’s clear that all this data, taken together, can be used to uniquely identify you. Safari will now hide many of those specifics so that you will look no different from the rest.

It’s like a system that digitally blurs someone’s image, said Lance Cottrell, creator of the privacy service Anonymizer. “You can tell it’s a person and not a dog, but you can’t recognize a person’s face,” he said.

For instance, Safari will reveal only the fonts that ship with the machine, not any custom fonts installed.

MASKING WEB ADDRESSES

When visiting a website, the browser usually sends the web address for the page you were just on. This address can be quite detailed and reveal the specific product you were exploring at an e-commerce site, for instance.

Now, Safari will just pass on the main domain name for that site. So it would be just “Amazon.com” rather than the specific product page at Amazon.

CLOSING A LOOPHOLE

Some ad companies have sought to bypass restrictions on third-party cookies—that is, identifiers left by advertisers—by using a trick that routed them through a series of websites. That could make a third-party cookie look like it belonged to a site you’re visiting. Safari will now try to catch that.

The changes come Tuesday as part of the iOS 12 update for iPhones and iPads and a week later in the Mojave update for Mac computers.

Many of the safeguards will be limited to cookies that Apple deems to be trackers. That’s being done to reduce the likelihood of inadvertently blocking legitimate third-party cookies.

From the Associated Press.

New York City to add ‘X’ designation to birth certificates soon

In a move by the leftists and liberals—saying “I can identify as whatever I want because this is a free country”—and their over-inclusive supporters, men and women born in New York City who don’t identify as a male or female will soon have the option of changing their birth certificates to “X”.

The legislation was passed Wednesday by the New York City Council.

The bill adopted by a 41-6 vote will also allow parents to choose the “X” designation for their newborns, and it will permit adults to change their already-established gender on their birth certificates without an affidavit from a doctor or mental health professional.

“Today is a historic day for New York in its role as a worldwide champion for inclusivity and equality,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a Democrat. “New Yorkers will no longer need a doctor’s note to change their gender on their birth certificates, and will no longer be treated as if their identity was a medical issue,” he continued.

Johnson further said it’s important “to show our constituents that we see them, we have their backs and we respect them for who they are,” though the issue is one should be evaluated for identifying as something they’re not instead of handing them a participation trophy and “hugs and kisses”.

Some states including California, Oregon and Montana allow individuals to change the gender on their birth certificates without a note from a doctor, but it is unclear how many jurisdictions allow parents to select a “non-binary option” for their newborns. The option could be used by parents of intersex children (an actual, acceptable instance) or by parents who want their child to be able to choose a gender at a later date, other than what was already established from the beginning.

Democrat Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign the bill, which will go into effect on January 1, 2019.

Officials work to pinpoint cause of ‘Armageddon’-like blasts

Photo by the Associated Press

Investigators worked Friday to pinpoint the cause of a series of dramatic natural gas explosions that killed a teenager who had just gotten his driver’s license and was sitting in his car, injured at least 25 others and left dozens of homes in smoldering ruins.

Authorities said an estimated 8,000 people were displaced at the height of Thursday’s post-explosion chaos in three towns north of Boston that were rocked by the disaster. Most were still waiting, shaken and exhausted, to be allowed to return to their homes.

The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team to help investigate, saying pipelines are within its jurisdiction.

The rapid-fire series of gas explosions that one official described as “Armageddon” ignited fires in 60 to 80 homes in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, forcing entire neighborhoods to evacuate as crews scrambled to fight the flames and shut off the gas and electricity.

Gas and electricity remained shut off Friday in most of the area, and entire neighborhoods were eerily deserted.

Authorities said Leonel Rondon, 18, of Lawrence, died after a chimney toppled by an exploding house crashed into his car. He was rushed to a Boston hospital and pronounced dead there Thursday evening.

Rondon, a musician who went by the name DJ Blaze, had just gotten his driver’s license, grieving friends and relatives told The Boston Globe. “It’s crazy how this happened,” said a friend, Cassandra Carrion.

The state Registry of Motor Vehicles said Rondon had been issued his driver’s license earlier Thursday.

Massachusetts State Police urged all residents with homes serviced by Columbia Gas in the three communities to evacuate, snarling traffic and causing widespread confusion as residents and local officials struggled to understand what was happening. Some 400 people spent the night in shelters, and school was canceled Friday as families waited to return to their homes.

Gov. Charlie Baker said state and local authorities were investigating but that it could take days or weeks before they turn up answers, acknowledging the “massive inconvenience” for those displaced by the explosions. He said hundreds of gas technicians were going house-to-house to ensure each was safe.

Columbia Gas was sued in 2014 after a strip club was destroyed in a natural gas explosion two years earlier.

The November 2012 explosion in Springfield, Massachusetts, was caused when a Columbia employee accidentally punctured a gas line while probing for a leak. The blast leveled the Scores Gentleman’s Club, injuring about 20 people and damaging dozens of other buildings. The club owner and the gas company eventually settled the case.

John Fluegge said he came home Thursday to find a note on the door of his apartment building saying everyone had to leave. A police officer directed him to North Andover’s high school, where he slept on a cot.

Fuegge, 58, called the situation “confusing more than frightening.”

“You don’t know if your house is going to go up or your apartment,” he said. “It happened all of a sudden, no one knew how it started and everything.” His apartment was not damaged but he has still not been allowed to return because there is no power.

The three communities house more than 146,000 residents about 26 miles (40 kilometers) north of Boston, near the New Hampshire border. Lawrence, the largest of them, is a majority Latino city with a population of about 80,000.

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera reassured immigrants who might not be living in his city legally that they had nothing to fear.

“Do not be afraid. Stay in the light. We will support you and your family,” Rivera said at a news conference Friday, speaking in English and Spanish. “Lawrence is one community.”

Authorities said all of the fires had been extinguished overnight and the situation was stabilizing.

Hours earlier, Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield described a starkly different situation.

“It looked like Armageddon, it really did,” he told reporters. “There were billows of smoke coming from Lawrence behind me. I could see pillars of smoke in front of me from the town of Andover.”

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency blamed the fires on gas lines that had become over-pressurized but said investigators were still examining what happened.

From the Associated Press.

San Francisco ‘Early Days’ statue that some deemed racist is removed

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

A 19th century statue near San Francisco’s City Hall that some deemed racist and demeaning to indigenous people has been removed Friday and put into storage.

A group of Native Americans chanted, beating drums and burning sage as a crane was operated to take the statue down depicting a Native American at the feet of a Spanish cowboy and a Catholic missionary. This statue was part of a group depicting the founding of the State of California.

Several American organizations and activists for opposing the removal denounced the move stating that history cannot be erased or torn down because of a people group’s offense at being taught Old World values and gaining a sense of more civilized living. Others have denounced the removal speaking about the seemingly-more civilized Spanish reactions to Native Americans, contrasted with the British.

Native American activists throughout the United States have attempted to remove the statue for decades. Efforts were renewed last year after clashes broke out against the U.S. over Confederate monuments.

Hurricane Florence pounds the Carolinas

Photo by NASA

Hurricane Florence lumbered ashore in North Carolina with howling 90 mph winds and terrifying storm surge early Friday, splintering buildings and trapping hundreds of people in high water as it settled in for what could be a long and extraordinarily destructive drenching.

More than 60 people had to be pulled from a collapsing cinderblock motel at the height of the storm. Hundreds more had to be rescued elsewhere from rising waters. Others could only wait and hope someone would come for them.

“WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU,” the city of New Bern tweeted around 2 a.m. “You may need to move up to the second story, or to your attic, but WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU.”

As the giant, 400-mile-wide hurricane pounded away, it unloaded heavy rain, flattened trees, chewed up roads and knocked out power to more than 600,000 homes and businesses.

There were no immediate reports of any deaths.

By early afternoon, Florence’s winds had weakened to 75 mph, just barely a hurricane, but the storm itself had slowed to a crawl as it traced the North Carolina-South Carolina shoreline, punishing coastal communities for hours on end. The town of Oriental had gotten more than 18 inches of rain just a few hours into the deluge, while Surf City had 14 inches and it was still coming down.

“Hurricane Florence is powerful, slow and relentless,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said. “It’s an uninvited brute who doesn’t want to leave.”

Cooper said the hurricane was “wreaking havoc” on the coast and could wipe out entire communities as it makes its “violent grind across our state for days.” He said parts of the state had seen storm surges—the bulge of seawater pushed ashore by the hurricane—as high as 10 feet.

Florence made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane at 7:15 a.m. at Wrightsville Beach, a few miles east of Wilmington and not far from the South Carolina line, coming ashore along a mostly boarded-up, emptied-out stretch of coastline.

It was expected to begin pushing its way westward across South Carolina later in the day, in a drenching that could go on all weekend.

Its storm surge and the prospect of 1 to 3½ feet of rain were considered a bigger threat than its winds, which had dropped off from an alarming 140 mph—Category 4—earlier in the week. Forecasters said catastrophic freshwater flooding is expected well inland in the Carolinas over the next few days.

Preparing for the worst, about 9,700 National Guard troops and civilians were deployed with high-water vehicles, helicopters and boats that could be used to pluck people from the floodwaters.

For people living inland in the Carolinas, the moment of maximum peril from flash flooding could arrive days later, because it takes time for rainwater to drain into rivers and for those streams to crest.

Authorities warned, too, of the threat of mudslides and the risk of environmental havoc from floodwaters washing over industrial waste sites and hog farms.

Florence was seen as a major test for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was heavily criticized as slow and unprepared last year for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where the storm was blamed for nearly 3,000 deaths in the desperate aftermath.

The National Hurricane Center said Florence will eventually make a right hook to the northeast over the southern Appalachians, moving into the mid-Atlantic states and New England as a tropical depression by the middle of next week.

Meteorologist Ryan Maue of weathermodels.com said Florence could dump a staggering 18 trillion gallons of rain over a week on North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Maryland. That’s enough to fill the Chesapeake Bay or cover the entire state of Texas with nearly 4 inches (10 centimeters) of water, he calculated.

North Carolina alone is forecast to get 9.6 trillion gallons, enough to cover the Tar Heel state to a depth of about 10 inches (25 centimeters).

On Friday, coastal streets in the Carolinas flowed with frothy ocean water, and pieces of torn-apart buildings flew through the air. The few cars out on a main street in Wilmington had to swerve to avoid fallen trees, metal debris and power lines. Traffic lights out of order because of power failures swayed in the gusty wind. Roof shingles were peeled off a hotel.

Hurricane-force winds extended 70 miles (110 kilometers) from the center, and tropical storm-force winds reached out 195 miles (315 kilometers). The Wilmington airport had a wind gust clocked at 105 mph (169 kph), the highest since Hurricane Helene in 1958, the weather service said.

Airlines canceled more than 2,100 flights through Sunday.

In Jacksonville, North Carolina, next to Camp Lejeune, firefighters and police fought wind and rain as they went door-to-door to pull people out of the Triangle Motor Inn after the structure began to crumble and the roof started to collapse.

Farther up the coast, in New Bern—population 29,000—flooding on the Neuse River trapped people. Mayor Dana Outlaw told The Charlotte Observer about 200 had been rescued by 5 a.m. Residents reached out for help through the night by phone and social media.

Tom Balance, owner of a seafood restaurant in New Bern, had decided against evacuating his home and was soon alarmed to see waves coming off the Neuse and the water getting higher and higher. Six sheriff’s officers came to his house to rescue him Friday morning, but he didn’t need to leave since the water was dropping by then.

Still, he said: “I feel like the dumbest human being who ever walked the face of the earth.”

Sheets of rain splattered against windows of a hotel before daybreak in Wilmington, where Sandie Orsa of Wilmington sat in a lobby lit by emergency lights after the electricity went out.

“Very eerie, the wind howling, the rain blowing sideways, debris flying,” said Orsa, who lives nearby and feared splintering trees would pummel her house.

More than 12,000 people were in shelters in North Carolina and 400 in Virginia, where the forecast was less dire. Officials said some 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to evacuate, but it was unclear how many did.

More than 3,000 inmates at North Carolina prisons and juvenile detention centers were moved out of the storm’s path.

From the Associated Press.