Saturday, September 23, 2017

Mexico City Quake Jolts Complacency Over Code Enforcement

MEXICO CITY — The devastation caused by Tuesday’s earthquake in Mexico City was far less than it might have been, and a fraction of what the city suffered in the quake of 1985.

But one main reason had to do with the nature of the earthquake itself and less with the toughened building codes adopted in the last 30 years, as many people had thought.

Although the new codes now rank among the world’s best, their enforcement is deeply flawed and uneven, according to interviews with scholars, officials and building inspectors.

Building inspections have essentially been outsourced to a network of private engineers who are hired and paid for by the developers, creating conflicts of interest that can undermine even the best standards.
Tighter building codes, better construction materials and a robust public awareness surely played a role in limiting the carnage this time around. Fewer than 300 people died and about 40 buildings collapsed, while nearly 4,000 buildings were declared severely damaged and are likely to be uninhabitable, officials have said.

But what spared this metropolitan area of 21 million was, at least in part, luck.

The 1985 earthquake was 30 times more powerful than the one on Tuesday. It toppled apartment and office towers, killing more than 10,000 people.

Tuesday’s earthquake, while centered closer to the capital, struck hardest at smaller, less populated buildings, taking fewer lives.

“They were different seismic activities, in magnitude but especially given the distance,” said Dr. Eduardo Reinoso, a researcher specializing in seismic engineering at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “Because this one was much closer, the shock waves were different. This quake affected shorter houses and buildings, while in 1985 the collapses were mostly high-rises because of the different waves.”

In a 2016 study of a random sample of 150 buildings constructed after 2004, when the new codes were adopted, Mr. Reinoso found that many failed to meet city standards. In many cases, the buildings reviewed did not even have enough necessary paperwork to conduct a full assessment.

As it often goes in Mexico, it is not the law that is problematic, but rather the implementation. Whether because of a lack of political will, the corruption that seethes through the system or the dysfunction of the bureaucracy, one of the deadliest threats that the nation faces has been left unfixed. 

Once the dust settles, officials will be confronted once more with a choice: whether to truly enforce a public safety imperative or continue with reforms that seem to exist mostly on paper.

“Some developers have their preferred inspectors and they usually hire the same person for their buildings, so that inspector is active, familiar, and always has a ton of work,” said Jorge Ortiz, an engineer and architect who is one of several hundred contract inspectors for the city. “And sometimes if you have several projects, they aren’t there as much or are not present at all phases of construction and that’s when there’s carelessness.”

According to last year’s study, of the buildings that could be fully inspected, 71 percent failed to meet a high threshold of compliance with the city standards, while 36 percent failed to meet even a lower threshold of compliance.
“It would appear that the regulator is not performing its duty,” the study concluded.

But the inspection of older buildings can also be lax, which might have been the case in the tragedy at the Enrique Rebsamen School , where 19 children and 6 adults died this past week following the collapse of one of its buildings.

City code requires that certain buildings, including schools, be inspected for safety after an earthquake. After a massive earthquake hit Mexico on Sept. 7, an inspector was dispatched to the school.

The contracted inspector signed off on the structure, deeming it safe, said Claudia Sheinbaum, the local delegate in charge of the district where the school is located.

“They came to the school to verify the building and said it was O.K.,” she said.

There are still tens of thousands of pending requests across the city for engineers to review structural damages, so the estimate of damaged buildings is likely to grow.

As in many of the recovery efforts, legions of volunteers have raised their hands to help in the building assessments.

A patchwork group of engineering groups and nongovernmental organizations have taken to the streets to assess the status of structures whose sagging frames pose dangers to neighboring buildings as well as passers-by.

Still, it could have been worse, a message that some in the civil engineering community are hoping to send to Mexico City officials to prompt changes to the conflict-ridden system of building inspections.

“We are concerned if we have a huge earthquake like the one in 1985 we may have problems in buildings,” said Sergio Alcocer the vice president of the Mexican Society of Civil Engineers and the former head of structural engineering for the government’s Center for the Prevention of Natural Disasters. “It’s a wake-up call.”

Workers remove a car from the debris of a collapsed clothes factory in the Colonia Transito, section of Mexico City on Friday. Credit Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

Mr. Alcocer said that while the system was imperfect, he was pleased with how some larger structures held up under Tuesday’s seismic shudders. But he feared that builders, who often hire the cheapest inspectors to review their buildings and may not follow code, might take the wrong lesson from the earthquake if their buildings did not fall.
“In another type of earthquake, we could have problems in buildings that fared well this time,” he said.

(Yet another earthquake, this one of 6.1 magnitude and centered in the state of Oaxaca, shook Mexico City just before 8 a.m. Saturday, and anxious residents, some in pajamas, raced into the streets. In the Oaxaca city of Juchitán, several houses damaged in the 8.1 earthquake three weeks ago, collapsed, and so did a bridge.)

No two earthquakes are the same, even two that strike in the same seismic region. The 1985 quake and the one on Tuesday occurred in the same subduction zone, an area where one of the earth’s large crustal plates is sliding under another.

The 1985 quake, at magnitude 8.1, released about 30 times more energy than Tuesday’s magnitude 7.1 quake. But it also struck twice as far from the capital – 220 miles compared with about 100.

There were other differences as well: the 1985 quake was shallower, and even the orientation of the faults — the direction the rocks moved in — was different.

All of those factors affected the toll in destroyed buildings — about 350 in 1985 and one-tenth that number on Tuesday — and in deaths. Four days after Tuesday’s quake, the death toll was still climbing, but the final tally will be nowhere near the estimated 10,000 who died in 1985.

Generally, a more powerful quake would cause more shaking and greater destruction. Being farther away would tend to reduce the impact.

But in the case of the 1985 earthquake, the larger distance from the epicenter played a critical role in which buildings were damaged and destroyed, and in the death toll as well.

After that quake, engineers noticed a pattern to the destruction. Of the hundreds of buildings that collapsed or were heavily damaged, most were six to 16 stories tall.

The reason soon became apparent. High-frequency waves of energy generated by the quake dissipated over the miles to Mexico City, leaving mostly low-frequency waves to reach the capital. It’s similar to how, when listening to far-off music, treble sounds tend to be absorbed and only bass sounds reach the ear.

During the earthquake, those lower-frequency waves rolled through the city about one second apart. That closely matches the natural resonance, or rate of vibration, of buildings about 60 to 160 feet tall.

Successive waves caused those buildings to sway more and more. The soft sediments that the city is built on, which tend to amplify movements, made the swaying even worse until the structures failed.

In the quake on Tuesday, however, “there wasn’t as much distance for that higher frequency energy to be absorbed,” said Gavin Hayes, a geophysicist with the United States Geological Survey. As more of these shorter, faster waves reached the city, smaller buildings vibrated until failure. Taller buildings were generally spared this time.

Since smaller buildings hold fewer people, that helped keep the death toll down.

But not all larger buildings were spared. In an area called Portales Sur, which sits on the fringe of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Narvarte, buildings have sprung up in recent years for young professionals looking to own their first home in the city.

The builder of a six-story condominium completed this year promised the latest in technology and design – apartments constructed of concrete and steel-draped elegance. Rainwater cisterns fed eco-friendly plumbing, while solar panels stationed by the rooftop garden powered units that sold for about $150,000.

The building collapsed on Tuesday, taking with it the lives of two people. Now, its remains sit in a pile of twisted metal and fractured concrete, testament to the often-shoddy construction and lax inspections that helped clear the way for a voracious real estate boom in the capital, according to experts and officials.

Residents are searching for legal recourse, given the failure of inspectors to detect or report the structural flaws.

They have to. Many did not have property insurance, as few people do in Mexico, and the developer has claimed the quake was unforeseeable, raising fears among the unit owners that the company may try to abdicate responsibility.

“I can’t believe something like this can happen in a new building,” said Luis Reséndiz, 35, a photographer who said he saved for five years to buy an apartment there. “This is the fruit of many years of labor, and here it is, all lost.”

Did Jared Kushner’s Data Operation Help Select Facebook Targets for the Russians?

Jared Kushner in the Cabinet Room of the White House, September 12, 2017.
By Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.
The headlines were about Facebook admitting it had sold ad space to Russian groups trying to sway the 2016 presidential campaign. But investigators shrugged: they’d known or assumed for months that Facebook, as well as Twitter and other social-media platforms, were a tool used in the Kremlin’s campaign. “The only thing that’s surprising is that more revelations like this haven’t come out sooner,” said Congressman Mike Quigley, an Illinois Democrat and a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “And I expect that more will.”
Mapping the full Russian propaganda effort is important. Yet investigators in the House, Senate, and special counsel Robert Mueller’s office are equally focused on a more explosive question: did any Americans help target the memes and fake news to crucial swing districts and wavering voter demographics? “By Americans, you mean, like, the Trump campaign?” a source close to one of the investigations said with a dark laugh. Indeed: probers are intrigued by the role of Jared Kushner, the now-president’s son-in-law, who eagerly took credit for crafting the Trump campaign’s online efforts in a rare interview right after the 2016 election. “I called somebody who works for one of the technology companies that I work with, and I had them give me a tutorial on how to use Facebook micro-targeting,” Kushner told Steven Bertoni of Forbes. “We brought in Cambridge Analytica. I called some of my friends from Silicon Valley who were some of the best digital marketers in the world. And I asked them how to scale this stuff . . . We basically had to build a $400 million operation with 1,500 people operating in 50 states, in five months to then be taken apart. We started really from scratch.”
Kushner’s chat with Forbes has provided a veritable bakery’s worth of investigatory bread crumbs to follow. Brad Parscale, who Kushner hired to run the campaign’s San Antonio-based Internet operation, has agreed to be interviewed by the House Intelligence Committee.

Video: Middle East Journeyman

Bigger questions, however, revolve around Cambridge Analytica. It is unclear how Kushner first became aware of the data-mining firm, but one of its major investors is billionaire Trump backer Robert Mercer. Mercer was also a principal patron of Breitbart News and Steve Bannon, who was a vice president of Cambridge Analytica until he joined the Trump campaign. “I think the Russians had help,” said Congresswoman Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who is a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “I’ve always wondered if Cambridge Analytica was part of that.” (Cambridge Analytica did not respond to a request for comment.)
Senator Martin Heinrich is leading the charge to update American election laws so that the origins of political ads on social media are at least as transparent as those on TV and in print. Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, is also part of the Senate Intelligence Committee that is tracing Russia’s 2016 tactics. “Paul Manafort made an awful lot of money coming up with a game plan for how Russian interests could be pushed in Western countries and Western elections,” Heinrich said, referring to a mid-2000s proposal Manafort pitched to a Russian oligarch. “Suddenly he finds himself in the middle of this campaign. If there is a person who I think is very sophisticated in this stuff, and runs in pretty dicey circles, that is the place where I would dig.”
No evidence has emerged to link Kushner, Cambridge Analytica, or Manafort to the Russian election-meddling enterprise; all have denied colluding with foreign agents. (Kushner’s representatives declined to comment for this article. Manafort’s spokesman could not be reached.) Yet analysts scoff at the notion that the Russians figured out how to target African-Americans and women in decisive precincts in Wisconsin and Michigan all by themselves. “Could they have hired a warehouse full of people in Moscow and had them read Nate Silver’s blog every morning and determine what messages to post to what demographics? Sure, theoretically that’s possible,” said Mike Carpenter, an Obama administration assistant defense secretary who specialized in Russia and Eastern Europe. “But that’s not how they do this. And it’s not surprising that it took Facebook this long to figure out the ad buys. The Russians are excellent at covering their tracks. They’ll subcontract people in Macedonia or Albania or Cyprus and pay them via the dark Web. They always use locals to craft the campaign appropriately. My only question about 2016 is who exactly was helping them here.”
Maybe no one. Or perhaps the chaotic Trump campaign unwittingly enlisted Russian-connected proxies who were eager to exploit any opening to damage Hillary Clinton’s run. It’s also plausible that Trump’s long-shot, anti-establishment bid was willing to take on assistance without asking too many questions. “Are we connecting the dots? I’m finding more dots,” said Quigley, who recently traveled to Prague and Budapest to learn more about the history of Russian influence campaigns. “I believe there was coordination, and I’m going to leave it at that for now.”

Will Mark Zuckerberg ‘Like’ This Column?

WASHINGTON — The idea of Mark Zuckerberg running for president was always sort of scary.

But now it’s really scary, given what we’ve discovered about the power of his little invention to warp democracy.

All these years, the 33-year-old founder of Facebook has been dismissive of the idea that social media and A.I. could be used for global domination — or even that they should be regulated.

Days after Donald Trump pulled out his disorienting win, Zuckerberg told a tech conference that the contention that fake news had influenced the election was “a pretty crazy idea,” showing a “profound lack of empathy” toward Trump voters.

But all the while, the company was piling up the rubles and turning a blind eye as the Kremlin’s cyber hit men weaponized anti-Hillary bots on Facebook to sway the U.S. election. Russian agents also used Facebook and Twitter trolls, less successfully, to try to upend the French election.

Finally on Thursday, speaking on Facebook Live, Zuckerberg said he would give Congress more than 3,000 ads linked to Russia. As one Facebooker posted: “Why did it take EIGHT MONTHS to get here?”

Hillary is right that this $500 billion company has a lot to answer for in allowing the baby-photo-sharing site to be turned into what, with Twitter, The Times’s Scott Shane called “engines of deception and propaganda.”

Robert Mueller’s team, as well as House and Senate investigators, are hotly pursuing the trail of Russian fake news. On Friday, the Department of Homeland Security told 21 states, including Wisconsin and Ohio, that Russian agents had tried to hack their elections systems during the campaign.

As Vanity Fair pointed out, Mueller’s focus on social media during the campaign could spell trouble for Jared Kushner, who once bragged that he had called his Silicon Valley friends to get a tutorial in Facebook microtargeting and brought in Cambridge Analytica — Robert Mercer is a big investor — to help build a $400 million operation for his father-in-law’s campaign.

Some lawmakers suspect that the Russians had help in figuring out which women and blacks to target in precincts in Wisconsin and Michigan.

ProPublica broke the news that, until it asked about it recently, Facebook had “enabled advertisers to direct their pitches to the news feeds of almost 2,300 people who expressed interest in the topics of ‘Jew hater,’ ‘How to burn jews,’ or, ‘History of “why jews ruin the world.”’”

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s C.O.O., apologized for this on Wednesday and promised to fix the ad-buying tools, noting, “We never intended or anticipated this functionality being used this way — and that is on us.”
The Times’s Kevin Roose called this Facebook’s “Frankenstein moment,” like when Mary Shelley’s scientist, Victor Frankenstein, says, “I had been the author of unalterable evils, and I lived in daily fear lest the monster whom I had created should perpetrate some new wickedness.”
Roose noted that in addition to the Russian chicanery, “In Myanmar, activists are accusing Facebook of censoring Rohingya Muslims, who are under attack from the country’s military. In Africa, the social network faces accusations that it helped human traffickers extort victims’ families by leaving up abusive videos.”

The Sandberg admission was also game, set and match for Elon Musk, who has been sounding the alarm for years about the danger of Silicon Valley’s creations and A.I. mind children getting out of control and hurting humanity. His pleas for safeguards and regulations have been mocked as “hysterical” and “pretty irresponsible” by Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg, whose project last year was building a Jarvis-style A.I. butler for his home, likes to paint himself as an optimist and Musk as a doomsday prophet. But Sandberg’s comment shows that Musk is right: The digerati at Facebook and Google are either being naïve or cynical and greedy in thinking that it’s enough just to have a vague code of conduct that says “Don’t be evil,” as Google does.

As Musk told me when he sat for a Vanity Fair piece: “It’s great when the emperor is Marcus Aurelius. It’s not so great when the emperor is Caligula.”

In July, the chief of Tesla and SpaceX told a meeting of governors that they should adopt A.I. legislation before robots start “going down the street killing people.” In August, he tweeted that A.I. going rogue represents “vastly more risk than North Korea.” And in September, he tweeted out a Gizmodo story headlined “Hackers Have Already Started to Weaponize Artificial Intelligence,” reporting that researchers proved that A.I. hackers were better than humans at getting Twitter users to click on malicious links.

Vladimir Putin has denied digital meddling in the U.S. elections. But he understands the possibilities and threat of A.I. In a recent address, the Russian president told schoolchildren, “Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.” Musk agreed on Twitter that competition for A.I. superiority would be the “most likely cause of WW3.”

On Thursday, touring the Moscow tech firm Yandex, Putin asked the company’s chief how long it would be before superintelligent robots “eat us.”

Zuckerberg scoffs at such apocalyptic talk. His project this year was visiting all 50 states, a trip designed by former Obama strategist David Plouffe, which sparked speculation that he might be the next billionaire to seek the Oval Office.

As Bloomberg Businessweek wrote in a cover story a few days ago, Zuckerberg has hired Plouffe, other senior Obama officials and Hillary’s pollster. He has said he is no longer an atheist and he changed Facebook’s charter to allow him to maintain control in the hypothetical event he runs for office.

Yep. Very scary.

Trump Blasts Warriors’ Curry. LeBron James’s Retort: ‘U Bum’


Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors interviewed during a media day in Oakland on Friday. Mr. Curry’s team, the Golden State Warriors, won the N.B.A. championship, but he said on Friday that he did not want to visit the White House. Credit Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

President Trump took aim at two of the world’s most powerful sports leagues and some of their most popular athletes, directly inserting himself into an already fiery debate about race, social justice and the role athletes play in highlighting those issues.
In urging N.F.L. owners to fire players who do not stand for the national anthem, and telling the N.B.A. champion Golden State Warriors they are not welcome at the White House, the president has driven a divide between the players, many of whom are black and opposed to the president’s views on race, and the team owners, who are almost all white and in the N.F.L. largely conservative.
Mr. Trump’s comments, made at a campaign rally on Friday and on social media on Saturday, drew a swift and unusually strong rebuke from the N.F.L., which has done more than most leagues in wrapping itself in the American flag, as well as the players’ union. Scores of football and basketball players, including LeBron James, perhaps the best known athlete in the country, took to social media to lambast the president.
“Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!” Mr. James wrote on Twitter.

Mr. Trump’s outbursts against athletes and their leagues came as he was smarting from yet another setback in his effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and as he worked to stoke enthusiasm among his core supporters in the deeply conservative state of Alabama, where he attended a campaign rally for Senator Luther Strange, who many of them regard as an establishment Republican unworthy of their backing.
The president often uses freewheeling campaign speeches and Twitter to berate and insult critics in unvarnished language. In the past week, he branded North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, as rocket man and criticized Senator John McCain of Arizona for opposing Republican attempts to dismantle the health care law.
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But Mr. Trump’s broadsides this time focused on some of the most prominent African-American athletes in the country, who have international followings and have called out the president for his lack of tolerance and divisive views on race.
On Friday night, Mr. Trump said: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these N.F.L. owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired,’ ” the president said at the rally, for Senator Luther Strange, who was appointed to the Senate this year and is facing Roy Moore in a Republican primary runoff.
He said the protests would stop if fans left games when players did not stand for the anthem. “The only thing you could do better is if you see it, even if it’s one player, leave the stadium.”
The comments, along with others about the safety of the game, triggered criticism from the league, the union and players. Some people urged more players to kneel or sit during the anthem at football stadiums on Sunday as a way to reinforce their First Amendment rights. Others urged more white players to stand with black players who have knelt or sat during the anthem.
In an unusually strong rebuke of the president on Saturday, Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the league, in which a majority of the owners are Republican, said the president failed to understand how the league and its players work together to “create a sense of unity in our country and our culture.”
“Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the N.F.L., our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities,” he said in a statement.

DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the N.F.L. Players Association, also took umbrage at the president’s remarks, and added: “The line that marks the balance between the rights of every citizen in our great country gets crossed when someone is told to just ‘shut up and play.’ ”
The president’s comments and the response to them will further inflame a fierce and often uncomfortable debate inside the N.F.L. and among fans about whether the protests disrespect the military and country or are simply an effective way to publicize issues players want to highlight.


Colin Kaepernick, center, knelt while the national anthem was played during a game in Atlanta last year. Credit John Bazemore/Associated Press

Since last season, when the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem, the protest has become a litmus test for players, many of whom say they support the protesters but continue to stand for the national anthem. Many coaches and owners have been more explicit, with some all but demanding that players stand for the anthem.
More than half a dozen owners contributed to Mr. Trump’s inauguration, and many of them donate heavily to conservative causes. Some owners, including Robert K. Kraft of the New England Patriots, consider Mr. Trump a personal friend.
Opinions have sharpened in recent months as Mr. Kaepernick, who led the 49ers to the Super Bowl several seasons ago, remains unsigned, leading to charges that the owners have blacklisted him for his political views.
Mr. Goodell, who leads a league in which about three-quarters of the players are black, has tried to find a middle ground. He has said he supports the national anthem, but also believes players have a right to voice their opinion.
The president’s comments on Friday will complicate Mr. Goodell’s efforts to try to appease all parties. While he has reached out to some players, a spokesman on Friday said that it would take time to plan a “social unity month” that some players want so the league can highlight various social issues. The league plans to celebrate military appreciation month in November.
Mr. Trump has a history of antagonizing the N.F.L., dating to the 1980s, when he and the fledgling United States Football League successfully sued it for antitrust violations. Though Mr. Trump won in court, his efforts bankrupted the U.S.F.L. His name surfaced in 2014 as a potential buyer for the Buffalo Bills.
On Friday, Mr. Trump said that the league was losing television viewers in part because it was too focused on safety, including penalizing players for making hard tackles. “They’re ruining the game,” he said.
His comments came a day after scientists announced that Aaron Hernandez, the former Patriots tight end who committed suicide in April, had a severe form of the degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head hits.
The president’s comments seemed to embolden players. Detroit Lions tight end Eric Ebron questioned why players were told not to talk about politics, yet the president could speak about sports. “Does anyone tell trump to stick to politics, like they tell us to stick to sports?” he wrote. He added “smh” for “shaking my head.”

Michael Thomas, a defensive back with the Miami Dolphins, urged fellow players not to back down. “Continue to use your voices and your platforms for racial equality and to stop injustices in our communities,” he wrote on Twitter. “This is bigger than us!!!”

By Saturday morning, the president appeared to have another league on his mind. He tweeted that the N.B.A. player Stephen Curry, a two-time M.V.P., was not welcome at the White House.

The team that wins the N.B.A. championship is customarily invited to visit. Mr. Curry’s team, the Golden State Warriors, won this year, but he said on Friday that he did not want to go.
Mr. James, the star player for the Cleveland Cavaliers, responded on Twitter by calling the president a “bum.”
Mr. Curry “already said he ain’t going,” Mr. James said. “So therefore ain’t no invite. Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!”

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When Disaster Hits and Landlines Fail, Social Media Is a Lifeline

Two people in the Mexican state of Oaxaca huddled over a cellphone in a neighborhood damaged by an 8.1-magnitude earthquake early this month. On Tuesday, another major quake shook the country. Credit Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press
Since Hurricane Maria lashed Puerto Rico this week, Carol Mitchell has not heard a word from her mother.

Ms. Mitchell, who is in Tampa, Fla., said her mother lives in Utuado, a mountainous Puerto Rican municipality where there have been reports of fatal landslides. Unable to reach the area directly — power is out across the island, and communication is severely constrained — Ms. Mitchell is using phone messaging apps like Zello and WhatsApp to reach people in San Juan, the capital.

“People in Puerto Rico are getting pictures, and then they’re sending them to us so we know what’s going on as much as we can,” she said, adding that the snippets of information she received on her phone were not enough, but were better than nothing.
“It’s the only way.”

Seeking help, from anyone

During hurricanes in the Caribbean, Texas and Florida in recent weeks, and after the earthquake that killed hundreds in Mexico on Tuesday, many people turned their smartphones into lifelines.

It happened after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas last month, when people who could not quickly reach official emergency medical workers turned to social media, often posting their addresses on Facebook and Twitter. Civilians were frequently the ones to respond.
The Rev. Mark Goring, a Catholic priest, recorded a video message to parishioners on Sept. 2 in Houston. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, he was inundated with requests for spiritual guidance. Credit Matt Sedensky/Associated Press
It happened on the Caribbean island of Dominica, which was ravaged early this week by Hurricane Maria. Residents were struggling to communicate after phone lines and power were knocked out across the island, said Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit.

“We have very limited telecommunications services; it’s by WhatsApp, mainly,” Mr. Skerrit said in an interview with ABS Television in nearby Antigua on Thursday.

It happened in Florida, where social media helped to amplify distress calls during Hurricane Irma and, later, to highlight some of the emergency workers and civilians who came to the rescue.

And it happened after the devastating earthquake in Mexico, when parents outside Enrique Rebsámen, a private school in Mexico City that collapsed, used WhatsApp to exchange desperate messages with children still trapped inside.

911 in the smartphone era

Calling 911 is still the recommended way to reach qualified emergency workers. But traditional dispatchers are well aware that new technologies are changing the landscape of disaster response.

Christopher Carver, the operations director of the National Emergency Number Association, or NENA, recalled working as a chief fire alarm dispatcher in New York City during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“People were in the very early stages of using Facebook messages and tweets,” he said. “The messages were monitored by the New York City Fire Department’s social media person. I believe she was an intern.”

It was an early sign of the ways social media could complicate traditional emergency response protocols.

“Social media is becoming a tool for the younger generation to reach out to express their need for help, and in some 911 centers they are aware of social media and will try to monitor it as best they can,” said Brian Fontes, NENA’s chief executive.

But he added that of the thousands of 911 call centers across the United States, fewer than a quarter are even equipped to receive text messages.

NENA is working on a plan called Next Generation 911, which would overhaul the system to make it more modern. But Mr. Fontes said it had been a struggle to attract the federal funding for the project, which is already underway but is expected to cost billions of dollars.

Distress signals, disrupted

In the meantime, technology companies are filling some of the gaps. Zello, one of the messaging apps used by Ms. Mitchell, was introduced in 2012 and was created to work in low-bandwidth environments. It has an interface reminiscent of old-fashioned walkie-talkies, though it can also host private chats.
A woman spoke on her cellphone as people evacuated from an office building in Mexico City after the earthquake on Tuesday. Credit Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press
As the disasters in Texas, the Caribbean and Florida unfolded, the number of new Zello users exploded. The app had about a million new registrations every day, some 20 times its normal rate, said Bill Moore, the company’s chief executive.

He pointed to work done during Hurricane Harvey, where some members of the so-called Cajun Navy, a mostly civilian collection of people with private boats, used the app to plan their rescues.

“They were highly effective,” Mr. Moore said. “It really makes you proud to be a human because you just saw such good work.”

Mr. Carver of NENA said that 911 was adjusting to new technologies. But he added that the use of messaging apps or social media in emergency situations raised new concerns about verifying people’s locations and protecting their privacy.

“The effort to modernize 911 will hopefully lead us to far greater national disaster resilience capabilities,” he said.

A call for help is only the first step

Ms. Mitchell, in Tampa, knows that messaging apps can do only so much. Photos from San Juan haven’t helped her reach her mother, and she worries that emergency workers in Puerto Rico might take too long to get to Utuado.
So she is preparing to fly to the island as soon as the airports are open and trek to Utuado herself. “If the government won’t do it, we have to do it,” she said. “We have to get our people.”

Friday, September 22, 2017

Facing Months in the Dark, Ordinary Life in Puerto Rico is ‘Beyond Reach’

Mickey Garcia, far left, tended to food with neighbors in Ingenio Toa Baja, P.R., on Friday. Credit Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times
SAN JUAN, P.R. — Two days after Hurricane Maria flattened this island of 3.5 million people, knocking out all its power and much of its water, the rebuilding of the services and structures needed for people to resume some semblance of ordinary life was looking more complicated by the day.
All or part of three towns in the northwestern part of the island — Isabela, San Sebastián and Quebradillas — were being evacuated Friday because of fears about structural damage to the nearby Guajataca Dam. Close to 70,000 people could be affected if the 90-year-old dam, which is 120-feet high and can hold about 11 billion gallons of water, collapsed, said Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló.
And with everyone from the governor of Puerto Rico to the mayor of San Juan predicting that it could take four to six months to resume electrical service, people were contemplating empty refrigerators, campfire cooking, bathing in their own sweat and perhaps wrangling for fresh water on an island accustomed to hard times but nothing like what the future may bring.
“It’s been hard to see infrastructure deteriorate in Puerto Rico, but it has been harder to meet citizens who have lost it all,” Governor Rosselló said.
The most immediate danger was from the dam, which suffered structural damage. And finding gasoline was already a big problem. Lines for ice and gas stretched for blocks. Generators needed diesel or regular gas to work, and supplies at gas stations were quickly dwindling.
“People will start going nuts pretty soon,” said Miguel A. Soto-Class, president of the Center for a New Economy, a nonpartisan research organization. “I don’t think it will be 'Mad Max,’ but people will be looking for diesel and gasoline, more than water even.”
The water supply was also becoming a problem. Even in San Juan, people need electricity to access water, and water is also critical to running some air-conditioning systems. At Centro Medico, a major hospital outside San Juan in Río Piedras, the emergency unit was treating patients but had no air-conditioning, said Dr. Johnny Rullán, a physician.
But the biggest long-term obstacle was the prospect of months without power.
Puerto Ricans are the first to say they can improvise — resolver — when a drought dries them up or a terrible storm knocks them down. But the idea of grappling long term without power hung like a pall over the island.
“This is really affecting me,” said Nina Rodriguez, a human resources manager in San Juan. “I have four children and the youngest is 6 months old. We are preparing for six months, maybe even a year without power.”
She added: “All the infrastructure has collapsed. Everything we had before the hurricane is beyond reach.”
An aerial view of a flooded neighborhood in Catano, P.R., in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Credit Ricardo Arduengo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
While few places could withstand a Category 4 hurricane without extensive damage to power grids, Puerto Rico’s government-owned power company was particularly vulnerable because of a history of neglect, mismanagement, out-of-control debt and decrepit infrastructure, experts said. A monopoly by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or Prepa, was reviled by island residents long before Hurricane Maria shut it down.
“Our plants look like the cars in Cuba,” said Eduardo Bhatia, a Puerto Rican senator. They could produce power before the hurricane, but not efficiently and not cheaply.
Even though Hurricane Irma spared Puerto Rico, brushing it lightly as it whirled west two weeks ago, almost 70 percent of the island lost power. Some residents were still waiting for electricity when Hurricane Maria hit the island.
Eugenio Toro and his wife Cristina Bernal lost power Sept. 6. As a result, they felt ill prepared for Hurricane Maria. “We couldn’t freeze things,” Mr. Toro said. “We never got the light back. We did go buy a generator but there is little gas and we can only use it a few hours a day.”
So much of the damage still needs to be assessed that it is possible the power situation may turn out to be less dire than feared. On Friday, Prepa’s chief executive, Ricardo Ramos, said on CNBC that he was hopeful that the power plants — as opposed to the power lines, pylons, substations and transformers — may be intact.
“We’ve lost probably 80 percent of the transmission and distribution infrastructure,” he said, adding that crews had completed only about a third of an island-wide survey of the damage and would have more information in two days.
He also said that important buildings on the island, including Centro Medico and a convention center now being used by emergency workers, would have their power back in two or three days.
Mr. Ramos said he shortened estimates for how long power would be out after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York arrived Friday with teams to help restore electricity. “We expect three to four months at most,” for the whole island, he said.
Getting power back to Puerto Rico will be daunting and expensive. Transformers, poles and power lines snake from coastal areas across hard-to-access mountains. In some cases, the poles have to be maneuvered in place with helicopters.
And yet it gets worse. Puerto Rico is an island, which means the tons of much-needed supplies — trucks, poles, cables, tools, spare parts, helicopters — must be shipped into Caribbean ports, making the process infinitely more cumbersome. Trained electrical workers by the hundreds will also have to be flown into Puerto Rico, where they will have to find places to stay, not an uncomplicated task.
Fallen trees and debris in Old San Juan. Credit Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times
So every relief delivery can be a major event.
Mr. Cuomo and a delegation from New York arrived Friday morning with supplies that included more than 34,000 bottles of water, 500 flashlights, 1,400 cots and blankets and, perhaps most important, 10 generators.
Mr. Soto-Class said Prepa has been plagued by bungling and more recently a debt it cannot pay, a shortage of cash, and layoffs. Some of its infrastructure dates back to the 1970s, or earlier.
“When the electric power authority had the money, they mismanaged it and didn’t invest,” he said. “Now there is less money to run the authority with. This compounds it all, one on top of the other.”
By some measures, the authority, formed during the Great Depression, is the largest public electric utility in the United States, with more than 1.5 million customers. Most of the electricity it produces is generated by burning fuel oil — a dirty, outmoded source. It is virtually the last power company producing electricity that way. Hearings in the Puerto Rican Senate revealed that the authority bought sludge and then billed Puerto Rico’s unsuspecting ratepayers as if they had bought high-grade oil.
The lack of electricity also affects the water supply in certain areas. Some towns need electricity to get their water pumped in.
For now, generators are the saving grace for the lucky few who have them to crank up their refrigerator and a few fans. Some restaurants, hotels and many hospitals have operating generators. But the vast majority of Puerto Ricans on the impoverished island cannot afford them.
For older residents, the lack of power could be dangerous.
Ermerita Rosa Perez, 83, sat on her porch in San Juan praying the rosary and worrying not just about comfort but about survival.
“Four to six months without electricity?! Oh no, no, no, no, we will die,” Ms. Rosa said. “Us old people can’t make it that long. Just today, I was looking at this flooded mess and I was thinking of mopping. I said, ‘No, I can’t. I need to rest.’ I will take a cold water bath — which I’m not supposed to do, because I have arthritis — and rest.”
She worried about her health. “I am diabetic. I have high blood pressure. It’s so hot I can’t take it,” she said. “I’m an old lady, hauling pots to my carport to cook on a gas stove? It’s too much. So I sit here on my porch, trying to catch a breeze, praying to God to bring things back to normal.”
Her son, Hilberto Caban, was less panicked. He said the authorities were probably exaggerating how long the lights would be out.
“That way if it takes three weeks or a month, we’ll all say, ‘Great! Look how hard they worked!” he said.

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