The Latest: Pentagon boosts troop numbers in Puerto Rico

In this photo taken Aug 1, 2017, President Donald Trump speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington.  (Alex Brandon, File/AP)

The Latest on Hurricane Maria (all times local):

7 p.m.

The Pentagon is greatly increasing the active-duty military forces being sent in to help relief efforts in Puerto Rico, growing from about 2,500 now to possibly double that number in the next several days.

John Cornelio, spokesman at U.S. Northern Command, says an Army brigadier general will take over the military response. It will include additional medical facilities, satellite communications equipment and a civil affairs unit from Fort Bragg, N.C., that will be used to help communicate with the residents on the island. The unit will use loudspeakers, trucks, leaflets and text messaging to get needed information to the public.

The hospital ship USNS Comfort is expected to leave Baltimore by Saturday, and it will take three to five days to reach Puerto Rico.

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6:40 p.m.

The federal government will pick up 100 percent of the costs for debris removal and other emergency protective measures in the U.S. Virgin Islands in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

The White House made the announcement Tuesday, saying it will pick up all the costs for six months after the hurricane’s impact.

U.S. states and territories typically cover 25 percent of the costs, with the federal government paying the remaining 75 percent.

Previously, Trump had pledged to cover 90 percent of costs for debris removal in the Virgin Islands, and 100 percent of protective measures for 30 days, then 90 percent after that.

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5:50 p.m.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida says “it will take a much more aggressive federal reaction” to help hurricane victims in Puerto Rico because its government has been so strained by two storms and a fiscal crisis.

Rubio has met with Vice President Mike Pence at the White House and with fellow senators after visiting the island Monday. He says he’s encouraged by their desire to help.

Still, Rubio says he fears that conditions on the island could grow desperate in the coming days.

He says barges bringing in supplies and equipment take days to arrive, and once they get to the island, it’s difficult to distribute the items.

Rubio says “the situation grows graver” every day for parts of the island without power.

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4:30 p.m.

The Trump administration is sending additional resources to Puerto Rico to step up the federal response to Hurricane Maria, including a flotilla of ships and thousands more military personnel.

Speaking Tuesday outside the White House, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long says the devastation wrought by the storm presents unique logistical challenges for the federal response. He says demolished airports and seaports have made it difficult to get aid and personnel to the stricken island.

Long says 16 Navy and Coast Guard ships are now in the waters around Puerto Rico, with another 10 ships on the way. They include the USS Comfort, a Navy hospital ship. Planes and ships are also bringing in a military force to help distribute aid.

3:40 p.m.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has been able to reach most of her family in Puerto Rico, after several days of trying.

Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg says Sotomayor’s relatives are doing OK as the U.S. territory struggles to recover from Hurricane Maria.

Sotomayor shared her concerns last week because she couldn’t contact about half her relatives after Maria walloped the island.

Sotomayor’s parents moved to New York from Puerto Rico before she was born.

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2:40 p.m.

The federal government will pick up 100 percent of the costs of for debris removal and other emergency assistance provided to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

President Donald Trump made the change Tuesday as part of an amendment to his earlier disaster declaration authorizing federal aid in response to the Category 4 storm. U.S. states and territories typically cover 25 percent of the costs, with the federal government paying the remaining 75 percent.

Puerto Rican officials and sympathetic members of Congress had called on Trump to relieve the island’s cash-strapped government of the cost-sharing requirement.

Trump’s declaration covers costs for removing downed trees, utility poles and other debris, as well as spending for emergency protective measures taken to save lives, protect public health and ensure public safety.

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2:30 p.m.

President Donald Trump says he was not preoccupied with his fight with the NFL over the weekend at the expense of storm-ravaged Puerto Rico.

Trump was asked Tuesday about criticism that he was paying too much attention to the fight over football players kneeling during the national anthem. He says he has “plenty of time” on his hands, adding that all he does is work. Speaking out against the protests, he said, amounts to “respect for our country” and is part of his job.

Trump has come under criticism that his administration responded too slowly to the growing humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Maria knocked out power to virtually the entire island. He said he is visiting Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands on Tuesday.

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2:10 p.m.

President Donald Trump is sending “America’s hearts and prayers” to people in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and says he’ll visit both places next week.

Trump said Tuesday that a “massive” effort to help people recover from Hurricane Maria is underway. He added that includes the military, though he did not give specifics.

Trump spoke in the White House Rose Garden after he received criticism from some U.S. lawmakers that the administration’s response to Hurricane Maria has fallen short of its efforts in Texas and Florida after storms there.

Maria roared ashore Sept. 20 and knocked out nearly all power in Puerto Rico, leaving its 3.4 million residents short of food, water and supplies.

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1:25 p.m.

It’s getting easier to leave Puerto Rico, where more than 3.4 million U.S. citizens still lack adequate food, water and fuel five days after Maria pounded the island as a Category 4 hurricane.

The Federal Aviation Administration says the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in San Juan is handling nearly 100 arrivals and departures daily, including military and relief operations as well as more than a dozen commercial passenger flights per day.

The agency is taking reservations for arrival and departure slots to manage space at the airport and safely separate aircraft in the air.

Maria destroyed or disabled a number of essential radar, navigation and communication systems, so the FAA has been bringing in replacements by air and sea, and technicians are working now to get them working.

The FAA says a long-range radar in the Turks and Caicos returned to service on Monday, giving air traffic controllers a much better picture of planes and helicopters in the region. Meanwhile, technicians are using chain saws to cut a path through a rain forest to reach a mountaintop where a second long-range radar site remains offline.

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12:50 p.m.

A group of 10 Democratic senators has requested that Congress immediately take up legislation to help the residents of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The lawmakers say a supplemental spending bill is needed right away because of the devastation brought by Hurricanes Maria and Irma.

They say the two U.S. territories need financial help to rebuild homes, provide temporary housing and repair vital infrastructure. Without it, they say the challenging road to recovery will only be prolonged.

The lawmakers are making the request as part of a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

They say, “as members of Congress, we have an obligation to ensure all citizens of the United States affected by natural disasters have sufficient resources to recover.”

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12:45 p.m.

The Federal Highway Administration is helping Puerto Rico with damage assessments so that emergency relief money can help restore roads throughout the island.

The TS Kennedy, a former commercial freighter used by the Maritime Administration for training, is currently sailing from Texas to the Virgin Islands to support hurricane recovery efforts in the U.S. Virgin Island and Puerto Rico.

The Federal Transit Administration is working with FEMA on improving ferry service between Puerto Rico islands. As of Monday, limited ferry service was available during daylight hours to transport emergency supplies to Vieques and Culebra.

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11:55 a.m.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello says he’s spoken “as recently as last night” to President Donald Trump about the crisis Hurricane Maria caused on the island. He says he’s “confident the president understands the magnitude of the situation.”

Speaking to reporters Tuesday at a Puma gas facility in San Juan, Rossello

said “the president has offered a waiver on matching funds” for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which means the cash-strapped island won’t have to contribute to the initial costs of this federal help.

Rossello said he’d be speaking with Trump later today to discuss “a long-term recovery package for Puerto Rico to be presented to Congress,” apparently next week.

He also said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has offered to send a National Guard unit to aid in security

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11:40 a.m.

Congressional Democrats say President Donald Trump is not acknowledging the gravity of the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-NY, says she is concerned that Trump’s continued tweets about NFL players show he doesn’t grasp the severity of the crisis.

She warned Trump that, “If you don’t take this crisis seriously this is going to be your Katrina,” referring to criticism of President George W. Bush following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Velazquez also said she was “offended and insulted” by Trump’s tweet that Puerto Rico’s public debt contributed to the crisis.

Rep. Joe Crowley, D-NY, called it “absolutely ridiculous” for Trump to mention debt “when people are suffering and dying. Here’s a president who’s used bankruptcy throughout his entire career.”

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10:58 a.m.

President Donald Trump says he’ll visit hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico next Tuesday.

Trump announced the visit after the administration came under criticism for its response to the damage on the island that is home to more than 3 million U.S. citizens. The island has been coping with shortages of food, drinking water, electricity and various forms of communication after Hurricane Maria struck earlier this month.

Trump said Tuesday is the earliest he can visit without disrupting recovery operations.

He says he may also visit the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Trump says Puerto Rico is important to him. He says Puerto Ricans are “great people and we need to help them.”

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10:25 a.m.

The top Republican leaders in Congress are promising help for devastated Puerto Rico, with Speaker Paul Ryan calling it a “humanitarian crisis.”

Both Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that they are working with the Trump administration and awaiting word on what resources and disaster relief will be needed.

Hurricane Maria has left millions of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico without food, water and housing. Ryan told reporters: “They need our help and they are going to get our help.”

Ryan said the $15 billion Congress passed early this month for hurricanes Harvey and Irma also applied to Puerto Rico.

McConnell said recovery efforts will not be easy.

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8:50 a.m.

President Donald Trump is thanking the major of San Juan for what he says are her “kind words” on the U.S. federal response to helping storm-ravaged Puerto Rico. But it wasn’t immediately clear what Trump was talking about.

Trump tweeted Tuesday: “Thank you to Carmen Yulin Cruz, the Mayor of San Juan, for your kind words on FEMA etc. We are working hard. Much food and water there/on way.”

It was Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló who had conducted a news conference Monday alongside FEMA where Rossello urgently called for more emergency assistance but also expressed gratitude for the help so far.

It was Cruz who criticized Trump for tweeting about Puerto Rico’s financial struggles during the humanitarian crisis, saying “you don’t put debt above people.”

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5 a.m.

The U.S. has ramped up its response to the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, even as President Donald Trump brought up the island’s struggles before Hurricane Maria struck. He tweeted about “billions of dollars” in debt to “Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with.”

The Trump administration has tried to blunt criticism that its response to Hurricane Maria has fallen short of its efforts in Texas and Florida after the recent hurricanes there.

Five days after the Category 4 storm slammed into Puerto Rico, many of the more than 3.4 million U.S. citizens in the territory were still without adequate food, water and fuel. Officials said electrical power may not be fully restored for more than a month.




Mexico still tallying the economic cost of big earthquake

MEXICO CITY — Mexican government officials are still tallying up the economic losses of the magnitude 7.1 earthquake that caused widespread damage in the capital, but for the manager of a downtown restaurant it is already all too clear.

Sitting in the entrance of his Guapa Papa restaurant Monday surrounded in caution tape, Antonio Luna said: “This is a bust. It’s already closed due to structural damage to the building.”

He had to let go the three dozen employees at the 1950s-themed restaurant and is just trying to salvage whatever furniture and equipment wasn’t damaged.

Workers shovel papers and debris off the top of the rubble of a building that collapsed in last week’s 7.1 magnitude earthquake, at the corner of Gabriel Mancera and Escocia streets in the Del Valle neighborhood of Mexico City, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

“In the end the company let everyone go because it couldn’t continue having expenses,” Luna said.

Moody’s Investors Service said in a report Monday that the Sept. 19 earthquake that has killed at least 326 people in the capital and nearby states “has the potential to be one of Mexico’s costliest natural catastrophes.”

Alfredo Coutino, Latin America director for Moody’s Analytics, said they were still collecting data on losses, but a preliminary estimate was that the earthquake could knock between 0.1 percent and 0.3 percent off Mexico’s gross domestic product in the third and fourth quarters.

For the full year, the impact on gross domestic product should be about 0.1 percent. “The impact on the year’s growth will be small, particularly considering that the reconstruction work will compensate for some of the total loss in activity during the fourth quarter,” Coutino said.

Money is expected to pour into the economy as Mexico City and the federal government tap their disaster funds. As of June, the city’s disaster fund stood at 9.4 billion pesos (more than $500 million), making it slightly larger than the national fund, according to a Moody’s Investors Services report.

Of course, the national fund also has to deal with recovery from the even stronger Sept. 7 quake that has been blamed for nearly 100 deaths, mostly in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas.

There will be months of work ahead from demolition to repairs and reconstruction.

Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera said that 360 “red level” buildings would either have to be demolished or receive major structural reinforcement. An additional 1,136 are reparable, and 8,030 buildings inspected so far were found to be habitable.

At least 38 buildings, including apartments and office buildings, collapsed during the earthquake.

Mexico’s education ministry also has 1.8 million pesos to spend on school repairs. In Mexico City alone, only 676 of the city’s 9,000 schools had been inspected and cleared to resume classes, Education Secretary Aurelio Nuno said Monday.

AIR Worldwide, a Boston-based catastrophe modeling consultant, provided a wide range for industry-insured losses, but noted they would be only a small part of the total economic losses. It put the insured losses at between 13 billion pesos ($725 million) and 36.7 billion pesos ($2 billion).

A graceful traffic roundabout encircled by restaurants, cafes and shops is now a sprawling expanse of medical tents, piles of food and other relief supplies, and stacks of building materials. While relief work went on outside Monday, men were busily wrapping furniture in foam and plastic inside the Antiguo Arte Europeo store.

Stone panels on the building’s facade appeared cracked or were altogether missing. Saleswoman Luisa Zuniga said the owners were waiting for civil defense inspectors to certify there was no structural damage to the building before reopening to the public.

Meanwhile, they were moving furniture that could still be sold to their other branches.

“Then we’ll see how long it takes to fix everything,” she said. “It is important to get back to work.”

Edgar Novoa, a fitness trainer, went back to his job Monday after working as a volunteer following the earthquake. Around midday, he stopped his bicycle at a cleared foundation where a building of several stories had stood near his home.

He knelt and prayed while others left flowers and candles at the site.




New earthquake, magnitude 6.1, shakes jittery Mexico

Soldiers stand guard next to a search and rescue operation at a building felled by a 7.1-magnitude earthquake in San Gregorio Atlapulco, Mexico, Friday, Sept. 22, 2017. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

MEXICO CITY — A strong new earthquake shook Mexico on Saturday, causing new alarm in a country reeling from two still-more-powerful quakes this month that have killed nearly 400 people.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the new, magnitude 6.1 temblor was centered about 11 miles (18 kilometers) south-southeast of Matias Romero in the state of Oaxaca, which was the region most battered by a magnitude 8.1 quake on Sept. 7.

It swayed buildings and set off a seismic alarm in the capital, promping civil defense officials to temporarily suspend rescue operations in the rubble of buildings downed by Thursday’s magnitude 7.1 quake in central Mexico.

That quake dimmed activity in the stylish Condesa neighborhood, where young revelers typically spill out from dimly lit bars and restaurants on a Friday night. But the first weekend since a 7.1 magnitude earthquake toppled buildings just blocks away began on a somber note.

Instead of crowds gathered with beers, small handfuls of rescue workers still dressed in reflective vests took breaks from digging through rubble. Entire restaurants with white linen tables were empty. Metal gates shuttered others.

Search and rescue teams in Mexico City on Friday continued to look for people buried in the rubble from collapsed buildings after Tuesday’s magnitude 7.1 earthquake. (Sept. 22)
“It feels lifeless,” said Mariana Aguilar, 27, a hostess at a bar and restaurant who stood waiting for guests yet to arrive. “I walk through these streets every day and you never imagine something like this would happen.”

The upscale Mexico City neighborhood was one of the hardest hit by the quake that killed at least 295 people, with more than a half-dozen collapsed buildings in the immediate vicinity. The few Condesa residents who ventured out Friday night said they were anxious for relief from an anguishing week.

“The city is still quite tense,” said Israel Escamilla, an engineer, as he sipped a plastic cup filled with Coke at an empty bar. “But as good Mexicans we have to keep lending support however we can.”

As rescue operations stretched into Day 5, residents throughout the city held out hope that dozens still missing might be found alive. More than half the dead —157 — perished in the capital, while another 73 died in the state of Morelos, 45 in Puebla, 13 in Mexico State, six in Guerrero and one in Oaxaca.

Along a 60-foot stretch of a bike lane in Mexico City’s downtown, families huddled under tarps and donated blankets Friday, awaiting word of loved ones trapped in the four-story-high pile of rubble behind them.

“There are moments when you feel like you’re breaking down,” said Patricia Fernandez Romero, who was waiting for word on the fate of her 27-year-old son. “And there are moments when you’re a little calmer. … They are all moments that you wouldn’t wish on anyone.”

Along the bike lane, where families slept in tents, accepting food and coffee from strangers, people have organized to present a united front to authorities, who they pressed ceaselessly for information.

They were told that water and food had been passed along to at least some of those trapped inside. On Friday morning, after hours of inactivity blamed on rain, rescuers were readying to re-enter the site, joined by teams from Japan and Israel. Fernandez said officials told them they knew where people were trapped on the fourth floor.

It’s the moments between those bits of information that torment the families.

“It’s that you get to a point when you’re so tense, when they don’t come out to give us information,” she said. “It’s so infuriating.”

Jose Gutierrez, a civil engineer attached to the rescue who has a relative trapped in the wreckage, gathered other families of the missing to let them know what was going on.

“My family is in there. I want them to get out,” Gutierrez said, his voice breaking. “So … we go onward.”

A roller coaster of emotions played out on Friday for Roberta Villegas Miguel, who was awaiting word of her 37-year-old son, Paulino Estrada Villegas, an accountant who worked on the fourth floor and is married with two young daughters.

Wrapped in a fuzzy turquoise blanket against the morning chill she said that her daughter-in-law was contacted by a friend who said she had received a call from a cell number that belonged to her son, but there was no conversation. Her daughter-in-law ran to authorities with the information, but hours later returned to say that it was her husband’s old cell number. At first they held out hope that he had given his old phone’s SIM card to a co-worker who was using it to call out of the building. But eventually authorities traced the call to Queretaro state, extinguishing that glimmer of hope.

The arrival of rain late Thursday and the resulting work suspension drove Villegas’ optimism down. But Friday morning the arrival of the Japanese rescuers buoyed her once again.

“We want to be hopeful,” Villegas said. “We don’t want to lose faith.”

Meanwhile, the time was nearing for bulldozers to be brought in to clear rubble and replace the delicate work of rescuers, though officials went to great pains to say it was still a rescue operation.

National Civil Defense chief Luis Felipe Puente acknowledged that backhoes and bulldozers were starting to clear away some wrecked buildings where no life has been detected or where teetering piles of rubble threatened to collapse on neighboring structures.

“It is false that we are demolishing structures where there could be survivors,” Puente said. “The rescue operations will continue, and they won’t stop.”

The long week’s torment weighing heavy on rescuers and residents alike, several of those gathered Friday night in Condesa said memories of the quake and worries for neighbors and victims were hard to escape.

Dionicio Pelaez, 57, the owner of a bike shop who has been helping collect donations, played pool with a dozen other men at a mostly empty restaurant. He said many of his neighbors lost their apartments.

“We came to distract ourselves a bit,” he said, his voice shaking. “This place is always full Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Now it’s empty.”




Mexico shocked by news: Girl trapped in rubble didn’t exist

MEXICO CITY — Hour after excruciating hour, Mexicans were transfixed by dramatic efforts to reach a young girl thought buried in the rubble of a school destroyed by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake. She reportedly wiggled her fingers, told rescuers her name and said there were others trapped near her. Rescue workers called for tubes, pipes and other tools to reach her.

News media, officials and volunteer rescuers all repeated the story of “Frida Sofia” with a sense of urgency that made it a national drama, drawing attention away from other rescue efforts across the quake-stricken city and leaving people in Mexico and abroad glued to their television sets.

But she never existed, Mexican navy officials now say.

“We want to emphasize that we have no knowledge about the report that emerged with the name of a girl,” navy Assistant Secretary Angel Enrique Sarmiento said Thursday. “We never had any knowledge about that report, and we do not believe — we are sure — it was not a reality.”

Sarmiento said a camera lowered into the rubble of the Enrique Rebsamen school showed blood tracks where an injured person apparently dragged himself or herself, and the only person still listed as missing was a school employee. But it was just blood tracks — no fingers wiggling, no voice, no name. Several dead people have been removed from the rubble, and it could have been their fingers rescuers thought they saw move.

Mexico’s navy says there are no missing children at a collapsed school where rescuers have been hunting for a girl believed to be trapped following the earthquake. It says a school worker may still be alive and trapped in the rubble. (Sept. 21)
Sarmiento later apologized for being so categorical, saying that if a person is still trapped it could be a child or an adult.

“The information existing at this moment doesn’t allow us to say if it is an adult or a child,” Sarmiento said. “As long as there is the slightest possibility of someone alive, we will continue searching with the same energy.”

Twitter users quickly brought out the “Fake News” tag and complained that the widespread coverage had distracted attention from real rescue efforts where victims have been pulled victims from the rubble — something that hasn’t happened at the school in at least a day.

Viewers across the country hung on the round-the-clock coverage of the drama Wednesday from the only network that was permitted to enter. The military, which ran the rescue operation, spoke directly only to the network’s reporters inside the site.

The Associated Press and others reported about the search for the girl, based on interviews with rescue workers leaving the scene who believed it was true. The workers had been toiling through the night, and the chance of rescuing the girl appeared to give them hope and purpose despite their exhaustion.

Reports about the trapped girl led to the donations of cranes, support beams and power tools at the school site — pleas for help quickly met based on the urgency of rescuing children. It was unclear if that affected other rescue operations going on simultaneously at a half dozen other sites across the city.

Despite all the technology brought to bear at the school, including thermal imaging devices, sensors, scanners and remote cameras, the mistake may have come down to a few over-enthusiastic rescuers who, one-by one, crawled into the bottom of shafts tunneled into the rubble looking for any signs of life.

“I don’t think there was bad faith involved,” security analyst Alejandro Hope said. “You want to believe there are children still alive down there.”

Rescuers interviewed by the AP late Wednesday at a barricade that blocked most journalists from reaching the site believed the story of the girl implicitly. Operating on little sleep and relying on donated food and tools, rescuers were emotionally wedded to the story, and the adrenaline it provided may have been the only thing keeping them going.

Rescue worker Raul Rodrigo Hernandez Ayala came out from the site Wednesday night and said that “the girl is alive, she has vital signs,” and that five more children had been located alive. “There is a basement where they found children.”

Despite the setback — and the diminishing hopes that anyone was left under the rubble — rescuers appeared unwilling to question the effort.

“It was a confusion,” said Alfredo Padilla, a volunteer rescuer at the school. “The important thing is there are signs of life and we are working on that.”

In retrospect, the story of “Frida Sofia,” had some suspicious points from the start.

Officials couldn’t locate any relatives of the missing girl, and no girl with that name attended the school. Rescuers said they were still separated from her by yards of rubble, but could somehow still hear her.

It could have political repercussions: Education Secretary Aurelio Nuno, often mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, had repeated the story about the girl.

Hope noted “something similar happened in 1985,” referring to the magnitude 8.0 quake that killed 9,500 people.

Media quickly reported that a 9-year-old boy had been located in the rubble days after the Sept. 19 quake 32 years ago. Rescuers mobilized in a huge effort to find the boy, but he apparently never existed.

“That generated anger against those who had spread the story,” Hope said.




Mexicans dig through collapsed buildings as quake kills scores

Soldiers remove debris from a partly collapsed municipal building felled by a massive earthquake in Juchitan, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Friday, Sept. 8, 2017. (Luis Alberto Cruz/AP)

People fill Paseo de la Reforma after evacuating from their offices after an earthquake in Mexico City, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Anita Baca)

MEXICO CITY – Rescuers found a surviving child on Wednesday in the ruins of a school that collapsed in Mexico’s magnitude 7.1 earthquake, one of many efforts across the city to try to save people trapped in debris under schools, homes and businesses toppled by the quake that killed at least 223 people.

Helmeted workers labored throughout the day, sometimes calling for silence to listen for any voices from the wreckage as they tried to reach the girl at the Enrique Rebsamen school in southern Mexico City. AP journalists at the scene saw three rescuers entering the rubble.

Rescuers spotted the girl and shouted to her to move her hand if she could hear them, and she did, according to Foro TV. A search dog was then sent into the wreckage to confirm she was alive.

Tuesday’s quake struck on the 32nd anniversary of the 1985 earthquake that killed thousands. Just hours before it hit, people around Mexico had held earthquake drills to mark the date.

One of the most desperate rescue efforts was at the primary and secondary school, where a wing of the three-story building collapsed into a massive pancake of concrete slabs. Journalists saw rescuers pull at least two small bodies from the rubble, covered in sheets.

Volunteer rescue worker Dr. Pedro Serrano managed to crawl into the crevices of the tottering pile of rubble at the school. He made it into a classroom, but found everyone inside dead.

“We saw some chairs and wooden tables. The next thing we saw was a leg, and then we started to move rubble and we found a girl and two adults – a woman and a man,” he said. All were dead.

“We can hear small noises, but we don’t know if they’re coming from … the walls above, or someone below calling for help,” he said.

Neighborhood volunteers, police and firefighters used trained dogs and their bare hands to search through the school’s ruins. The crowd of anxious parents outside the gates shared reports that two families had received WhatsApp messages from girls trapped inside, but that could not be confirmed.

Rescuers brought in wooden beams to shore up the fallen concrete slabs so they wouldn’t collapse further and crush whatever air spaces remained.

The federal Education Department reported late Tuesday that 25 bodies had been recovered from the school’s wreckage, all but four of them children. It was not clear whether those deaths were included in the overall death toll of 225 reported by the federal civil defense agency. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto had earlier reported 22 bodies found at the school and said 30 children and eight adults were reported missing.

In a video message released late Tuesday, Pena Nieto urged people to be calm and said authorities were working to restore power and other services to the 40 percent of Mexico City and 60 percent of nearby Morelos state that lost electricity. But, he said, “the priority at this moment is to keep rescuing people who are still trapped and to give medical attention to the injured people.”

“Every minute counts to save lives,” the president tweeted.

People across central Mexico already had rallied to help their neighbors as dozens of buildings tumbled into mounds of broken concrete. Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera said buildings fell at 44 sites in the capital alone as high-rises across the city swayed and twisted and hundreds of thousands of panicked people ran into the streets.

The huge volunteer effort included people from all walks of life in Mexico City, where social classes seldom mix. Doctors, dentists and lawyers stood alongside construction workers and street sweepers, handing buckets of debris or chunks of concrete hand-to-hand down the line.

Even Mexico City’s normally raucous motorcycle clubs swung into action, using motorcades to open lanes for emergency vehicles on avenues crammed with cars largely immobilized by street closures and malfunctioning stoplights.

Economist Alfredo Coutino, Latin America director for Moody’s Analytics warned Wednesday of economic disruption to several central states and the capital in particular.

“Though it is too early for authorities to have an estimate of the damage as rescue work continues, it is certain that economic activity … will continue to be disrupted for some time,” Coutino wrote.

The official Twitter feed of civil defense agency head Luis Felipe Puente said there were 94 dead in Mexico City and 71 in Morelos state, which is just south of the capital. It said 43 others were killed in Puebla state, where the quake was centered. Twelve deaths were listed in the State of Mexico, which borders Mexico City on three sides, four in Guerrero state and one in Oaxaca.

At the site of a collapsed apartment building in Mexico City, rescuers stood atop a three-story pile of rubble, forming a human chain that passed pieces of rubble across four city blocks to a site where they were dumped.

Throughout the day on Tuesday, rescuers pulled dust-covered people, some barely conscious, some seriously injured, from about three dozen collapsed buildings. At one site, shopping carts commandeered from a nearby supermarket were used to carry water to the rescue site and take rubble away.

As night fell, huge flood lights lit up the recovery sites, but workers and volunteers begged for headlamps.

Where a six-story office building collapsed in Mexico City, sisters Cristina and Victoria Lopez Torres formed part of a human chain passing bottled water.

“I think it’s human nature that drives everyone to come and help others,” Cristina Lopez said.

“We are young. We didn’t live through ’85. But we know that it’s important to come out into the streets to help,” said her sister, Victoria.

Ricardo Ibarra, 48, did live through the 1985 quake and said there hadn’t been anything like it since.

Wearing a bright orange vest and carrying a backpack with a sleeping bag strapped to it, he said he and his friends just wanted to help.

“People are very sensitive because today was the 32nd anniversary of a tragedy,” he said.

Buildings also collapsed in Morelos state, including the town hall and local church in Jojutla near the quake’s epicenter. A dozen people died in Jojutla.

The town’s Instituto Morelos secondary school partly collapsed, but school director Adelina Anzures said the earthquake drill held in the morning came in handy.

“I told them that it was not a game, that we should be prepared,” Anzures said of the drill. When the quake came, she said, children and teachers rapidly filed out and nobody was hurt.

Many people spent Tuesday night on the streets next to homes that were severely damaged or flattened outright, wrapped in blankets on mattresses dragged outside. In the morning they walked past shattered buildings and picked through what was left.

At a wake in Jojutla on Wednesday for Daniel Novoa, a toddler killed when his home collapsed, family members bent over a white child-size coffin surrounded by a crucifix and images of Mexico’s patron, the Virgin of Guadalupe. Alongside was a larger open coffin for the child’s aunt, Marta Cruz.

In Atzala in Puebla state, villagers mourned 11 family members who died inside a church when it crumbled during a baptism for a 2-year-old girl. People at the wake said the only ones to survive were the baby’s father, the priest and the priest’s assistant.




Police arrest CEO of world’s largest meatpacker

Joesley Batista, former chairman of JBS meatpacking giant, center, arrives at the airport during his transfer to a federal police jail after he turned himself in to authorities, in Brasilia, Brazil, Monday, Sept. 11, 2017.  (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

SAO PAULO — Brazilian police on Wednesday arrested the CEO of the world’s largest meatpacker for allegedly using their own plea bargains to gain an advantage in financial markets.

Wesley Batista was taken into custody in Sao Paulo. Batista and his brother Joesley, the former chairman of JBS, have both entered agreements with prosecutors in which they testified that JBS paid bribes to scores of politicians, including President Michel Temer. Temer denies wrongdoing.

The Batistas have been at the center of Brazil’s near-operatic corruption investigation in recent weeks — a drama outlined by the plea-bargain singing of many witnesses. The sprawling probe has uncovered a scheme in which several companies paid millions of dollars in bribes to politicians.

The investigation, the largest in Brazil’s history, has implicated several former presidents. Ex-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, for instance, has already been convicted of corruption in one case and was set to testify in another on Wednesday.

Executives from JBS have provided evidence for some of the most serious allegations, including claims that Temer arranged to receive millions in payouts in exchange for helping the meatpacker. But in recent days, prosecutors have questioned whether Joesley Bastista and other executives may have withheld some information, violating their plea deals.

Wednesday’s accusations focused on the company’s activity in the weeks before their plea deals became public.

Police investigator Victor Hugo Rodrigues Alves said the Batistas knew that the plea bargains would affect stock prices and cause the Brazilian real to weaken against the U.S. dollar and used that to their advantage.

Between late April and mid-May, while negotiating their plea bargains, they made large purchases of dollars on the futures markets, Rodrigues Alves said. During that period, their holding company also sold hundreds of millions of dollars in JBS shares.

“The victims are not just JBS shareholders,” said Rodrigues Alves. “In a large context, the country is a victim, as the crimes shook the confidence of the market.”

Over the course of around 10 days in May, as word began leaking out that the brothers were considering plea bargains that included damning accusations, JBS shares plummeted, losing nearly half of their value.

Pierpaolo Cruz Bottini, a lawyer for the Batista brothers, told G1 news portal that the arrest was “unjust, absurd and regrettable.” He said his clients had cooperated with authorities at every step and suggested they were being targeted by some within the government for having reached plea bargains.

A warrant for Joesley Batista’s arrest was also issued, but the executive has been in custody since Sunday following the questions about his plea testimony.




Deadly quake, hurricane a one-two punch for Mexico; 63 die

Soldiers remove debris from a partly collapsed municipal building felled by a massive earthquake in Juchitan, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Friday, Sept. 8, 2017.  (AP Photo/Luis Alberto Cruz)

JUCHITAN, Mexico — One of the most powerful earthquakes ever to hit Mexico was followed by a Gulf coast hurricane, dealing a one-two punch to the country that killed at least 63 people as workers scrambled Saturday to respond to the twin national emergencies.

The 8.1 quake off the southern Pacific coast just before midnight Thursday toppled hundreds of buildings in several states. Hardest-hit was Juchitan, Oaxaca, where 36 people died and a third of the city’s homes collapsed or were uninhabitable, President Enrique Pena Nieto said late Friday in an interview with the Televisa news network.

In downtown Juchitan, the remains of brick walls and clay tile roofs cluttered streets as families dragged mattresses onto sidewalks to spend a second anxious night sleeping outdoors. Some were newly homeless, while others feared further aftershocks could topple their cracked adobe dwellings.

“We are all collapsed, our homes and our people,” said Rosa Elba Ortiz Santiago, 43, who sat with her teenage son and more than a dozen neighbors on an assortment of chairs. “We are used to earthquakes, but not of this magnitude.”

Even as she spoke, across the country, Hurricane Katia was roaring onshore north of Tecolutla in Veracruz state, pelting the region with intense rains and maximum sustained winds of 75 mph (120) kph.

One of the most powerful earthquakes ever to strike Mexico has hit off its southern Pacific coast, killing at least 32 people, toppling houses, government offices and businesses while sending panicked people into the streets. (Sept. 8)
Veracruz Gov. Miguel Angel Yunes said two people died in a mudslide related to the storm, and he said some rivers had risen to near flood stage, but there were no reports of major damage.

Veracruz and neighboring Puebla states evacuated more than 4,000 people ahead of the storm’s arrival.

The Hurricane Center said Katia could still bring 3 to 6 inches (7.5 to 15 centimeters) of additional rain 25 to 37 centimeters) to a region with a history of deadly mudslides and flooding.

Pena Nieto announced Friday that the earthquake killed 45 people in Oaxaca state, 12 in Chiapas and 4 in Tabasco, and he declared three days of national mourning. The toll included 36 dead in Juchitan, located on the narrow waist of Oaxaca known as the Isthmus, where a hospital and about half the city hall also collapsed into rubble.

Next to Ortiz, 47-year-old Jose Alberto Martinez said he and family members have long been accustomed to earthquakes. So when the ground started moving, at first they simply waited a bit for it to stop — until objects began falling and they bolted for the street.

“We felt like the house was coming down on top of us,” Martinez said, accompanied by his wife, son and mother-in-law.

Now, he didn’t feel safe going back inside until the home is inspected. Right next door, an older building had crumbled into a pile of rough timbers, brick and stucco, while little remained of a white church on the corner.

Rescuers searched for survivors Friday with sniffer dogs and used heavy machinery at the main square to pull rubble away from city hall, where a missing police officer was believed to be inside.

The city’s civil defense coordinator, Jose Antonio Marin Lopez, said similar searches had been going on all over the area.

Teams found bodies in the rubble, but the highlight was pulling four people, including two children, alive from the completely collapsed Hotel Del Rio where one woman died.

“The priority continues to be the people,” Marin said.

Pena Nieto said authorities were working to re-establish supplies of water and food and provide medical attention to those who need it. He vowed the government would help rebuild.

“The power of this earthquake was devastating, but we are certain that the power of unity, the power of solidarity and the power of shared responsibility will be greater,” Pena Nieto said.

Power was cut at least briefly to more than 1.8 million people, and authorities closed schools in at least 11 states to check them for safety.

The Interior Department reported that 428 homes were destroyed and 1,700 were damaged just in Chiapas, the state closest to the epicenter.

“Homes made of clay tiles and wood collapsed,” said Nataniel Hernandez, a human rights worker living in Tonala, Chiapas, who worried that inclement weather threatened to bring more structures down.

“Right now it is raining very hard in Tonala, and with the rains it gets much more complicated because the homes were left very weak, with cracks,” Hernandez said by phone.

The earthquake also jolted the Mexican capital, more than 650 miles (1,000 kilometers) away, which largely lies atop a former lakebed whose soil amplifies seismic waves. Memories are still fresh for many of a catastrophic quake that killed thousands and devastated large parts of the city in 1985.

Mexico City escaped major damage, though part of a bridge on a highway being built to a new international airport collapsed due to the earthquake, local media reported.

The quake’s power was equal to Mexico’s strongest in the past century, and it was slightly stronger than the 1985 quake, the U.S. Geological Survey said. However its impact was blunted somewhat by the fact that it struck some 100 miles offshore.

The epicenter was in a seismic hotspot in the Pacific where one tectonic plate dives under another. Such subduction zones are responsible for some of the biggest quakes in history, including the 2011 Fukushima disaster and the 2004 Sumatra quake that spawned a deadly tsunami.

In the Gulf coast state of Veracruz, tourists abandoned coastal hotels as winds and rains picked up ahead of Hurricane Katia’s landfall and workers set up emergency shelters.

“The arrival of (hashtag)Katia may be particularly dangerous for slopes affected by the earthquake. Avoid these areas,” Pena Nieto tweeted.

A general view of Mexico City after an earthquake, in the early morning hours of Friday, Sept. 8, 2017.  (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)




Culebra expected to have cellphone service restored Friday 

SAN JUAN – Communications service in the island-municipality of Culebra could be partially restored Friday as brigades from several companies and the Electric Power Authority (Prepa) worked with the only telecommunications tower there, which was affected by Hurricane Irma on Wednesday night.

Sandra Torres, the president of the Telecommunications Regulatory Board (JRT by its Spanish initials), also told Caribbean Business  that at least 19 percent of Liberty Cablevision customers have had their services reestablished.

Telecommunications Regulatory Board President Sandra Torres

“Finally, Claro Puerto Rico managed to board trucks, equipment, networks [sic] and a generator [on the ferry] to power telecommunication services in Culebra. [It is expected that] this afternoon, at 6 p.m., we could have the hospital and a great part of Culebra [with telephone access], and Banco Popular will also be able to do ATM transactions,” Torres said.

The official explained that Culebra was left completely unreachable because its only communications tower suffered damages caused by Hurricane Irma’s winds. The island-municipality suffered the harshest winds of the weather phenomenon that is on its way to Florida.

Puerto Rico requests disaster declaration for island-municipalities

This led Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to request disaster declarations of the federal government for Vieques and Culebra.

“Culebra was left completely without communication. Yesterday [Thursday] we tried to send a generator and [telecom company] personnel via ferry and helicopter. It wasn’t until today [Friday] during the day that we could send vehicles from Claro and Neptune…to power Culebra’s tower and be able to provide service,” Torres said.

Signal problem will continue until electric service repaired

The JRT president stressed that, although there were 781 telecommunications towers damaged Thursday, that number was reduced to 431 Friday after the work done by several brigades.

She explained that it is difficult to determine the number of people with signal problems on their cellphones because the connection could vary depending on the location.

However, she said the problems will continue as long as the 431 towers that are failing have no power, which is the main problem identified. Even though towers have batteries and generators to operate if power service fails, they are often robbed, so some don’t have their generators.

865,000 Puerto Rico power authority customers still without service after Irma

Liberty’s services slowly restored

Meanwhile, Torres said 19 percent of Liberty’s customers recovered their services Friday. This represents 7,850 internet subscribers, 48,407 cable subscribers and 39,835 voice subscribers. The official did not have the current number of customers without service, although it could be estimated at more than half a million for all three services.

Torres explained that brigades of Liberty workers as well as other cable and internet companies are sent out daily with Prepa’s brigades to determine what affected the service and to restore it. She said more detail about what factors caused the service  interruptions should be available next week.

Although Torres estimated that all Liberty customers lost service after Hurricane Irma, the company clarified Thursday that 10 percent was connected.




Winds, fire, floods and quakes

WASHINGTON – With four big hurricanes, a powerful earthquake and wildfires, it seems that nature recently has just gone nuts.

Some of these disasters, like Friday’s earthquake in Mexico, are natural. Others may end up having a mix of natural and man-made ingredients after scientists examine them. We also always tend to look for patterns and order in chaos, even when they aren’t there, psychologists say.

“Nature’s gone crazy,” mused Jeff Masters, meteorology director at the private service Weather Underground. “Welcome to the future. Extreme weather like this is going to be occurring simultaneously more often because of global warming.”

A look at a rough few weeks in North America:

HURRICANE QUARTET

Hurricane Harvey hadn’t even fizzled and Houston hadn’t even dried out from record flooding before Hurricane Irma formed and also grew into a powerful Category 4 storm. Right behind Irma, Jose has powered up to a Category 4 storm. It is highly unusual, but not unprecedented to have back-to-back storms of that strength, Masters said. And then there is Hurricane Katia, just a shade under major hurricane status, due to hit Mexico’s Gulf coast.

The last couple of years were quiet for Atlantic hurricanes, which makes this year seem even worse, said Colorado State University meteorology professor Phil Klotzbach, a hurricane expert. He said calculations that measure strength and duration show the three current Atlantic storms set a one-day record for energy on Friday. In just three days, Irma, Jose and Katia have produced as much as energy as about half a normal six-month hurricane season.

EARTHQUAKE

As Mexico was bracing for Katia off the Gulf coast, one of the strongest earthquakes in the country’s history hit late Thursday off its Pacific coast, near the Guatemala border. The magnitude 8.1 earthquake was felt for more than 650 miles (1,000 kilometers). The quake shook at a depth of 43 miles (69 kilometers) and a quake hitting at that depth with that strength is unusual, according to Cornell University geophysics professor Geoff Abers. It was one of the five largest for that deep in the past 40 years, he said.

WILDFIRES

On Friday, 82 wildfires were burning in the United States involving nearly 1.5 million acres in nine states in the West. So far this year, more than 8 million acres have burned, only behind 2015 and 2012. One fire at the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in Oregon has burned more than 175,000 acres and is only 5 percent contained as of Friday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Drought and a heat wave contributed. On Sept. 1, in normally temperate San Francisco, the temperature hit 106 degrees and at least six deaths were reported from the heat wave.

WHAT’S GOING ON HERE?

Sometimes there’s a pattern in chaos. Sometimes there isn’t. Looking for patterns gives us a sense of control, even if we don’t really have it, said Scott Lilienfeld, a psychology professor at Emory University in Atlanta. “The human mind is a pattern-seeking organ,'” he said. “That’s how our minds work.”

It can take weeks or months for scientists to determine whether an extreme weather event was worsened by man-made climate change. But scientists have long predicted that the strongest hurricanes will get stronger and wetter, fueled by warmer ocean water. And some say the recent global increase in powerful hurricanes fits perfectly with global warming.

While warming may play a small role, so does Twitter and Facebook in making things appear worse, said Klotzbach.

“It just feels like, you know, it’s the apocalyptic end times,” he said. “But a lot of this stuff is getting attention because of social media.”




US sanctions to pile misery on moribund Venezuelan economy

By Joshua Goodman

CARACAS, Venezuela — A small army of red-shirted workers mop the linoleum floors as their supervisors, sitting under a giant portrait of Hugo Chavez, look on. By the meltdown standards of Venezuela’s economy, the shelves around the workers at the state-run Bicentenario supermarket in eastern Caracas are brimming with staples like rice and pasta.

What’s missing are the shoppers: They’ve been scared off by prices that double every few weeks while wages in the crisis-wracked nation remain stagnant.

“I don’t even look at my paycheck anymore because it just gets me depressed,” said Norma Pena, a bank teller who earns a little more than Venezuela’s minimum wage of around just $15 a month. She left the store with a single bag of black beans.

In this Aug. 23, 2017 photo, people wait outside a supermarket for subsidized products to arrive in Caracas, Venezuela. (Ariana Cubillos/AP)

While President Nicolás Maduro celebrates having calmed Venezuela’s streets after months of deadly protests, the country’s imploding economy poses an ever more severe threat. And the misery is likely to get even worse due to financial sanctions imposed by the Trump administration in efforts to isolate Maduro for taking the country down an increasingly authoritarian path.

Even before the sanctions were announced, most Venezuelans were struggling like never before. Since 2014, the year after Maduro took office, the economy has shrunk 35 percent — more than the U.S. did during the Great Depression.

A bevy of foreign airlines have pulled out of the country this year, oil production is at the lowest level in more than two decades and the government had to add three zeros to its bills as the value of its currency — the “strong bolivar” — plummeted.

But while daylong bread lines have eased, the newest scourge is galloping inflation, as the government tries to combat shortages by quietly loosening once-rigid price and currency controls.

In recent months authorities have started allowing companies to import everything from canned food to new cars and letting them pass the dollar prices on to consumers at the black market exchange rate, where the greenback is worth 1,685 times more bolivars than it as at the strongest of three official exchange rates. In the past, merchants risked having goods seized, or their businesses shut down, if bolivar prices reflected the world market prices.

The result of the de-facto dollarization has been a devil’s bargain: Shelves are fuller than Venezuela has seen for months, but with prices that are out of reach for the vast majority of poor Venezuelans. Inflation, which has been running in the triple digits for more than two years, hit a record last month and has risen to 650 percent over the past 12 months, according to an estimate by New York-based Torino Capital.

Venezuelans have made a grim joke of the process. The government once boasted of guaranteeing a “precio justo” — or “just price” — for goods. Buyers report there is now more on offer but only at a “precio susto” — a “scary price.”

That’s not to say shortages have gone away. The Bicentenario supermarket hasn’t seen any fish or meat in about a year, partly because the freezer section’s cooling system broke and no spare parts can be found. Most shelves contain a single variety of any given product, much of it imported from China. Private supermarkets aren’t much better stocked.

Pena says she scrapes by selling items — telephones, clothes, once even a washing machine — left behind by better-off clients who have abandoned Venezuela. If she and her husband didn’t already own their home, they wouldn’t have enough to feed their two daughters, she said. Even so, she’s lost 6 kilograms (13 pounds) as a result of what’s come to be known as the “Maduro diet.” In the past year, 74 percent of the population has lost weight because of food scarcity, according to a recent study by three of Caracas’ largest universities.

At the normally bustling outdoor Chacao market, poultry vendor Juan Dulcey said his middle-class clientele fell by half over the past month because he has had to double prices to make up for skyrocketing costs. A kilogram of boneless breasts costs around 27,300 bolivars per kilogram — about 10 percent of the current monthly minimum wage.

“We used to have a lot of fun joking with customers, but now everyone seems very sad,” Dulcey said.

The government accuses U.S. President Donald Trump and the opposition, which has backed the sanctions, of trying to oust Maduro through an “economic war.” Former Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez, leader of the pro-government constitutional assembly whose creation triggered the U.S. action, said Sunday that the “financial blockade” means Venezuela won’t be able to pay for essential imports like food and medicine.

The Trump administration denies it is seeking to punish ordinary Venezuelans. The sanctions, enacted by executive order last week, prohibit American banks from providing new money to the government or state-run oil company PDVSA. They also bar PDVSA’s U.S. subsidiary, Citgo, from sending dividends back to Venezuela. But they don’t affect financing for most commercial trade, including the shipment of crude oil, of which the U.S. is the OPEC nation’s biggest buyer.

Still, by depriving Maduro of badly needed hard currency, the sanctions make it more likely that Venezuela will stop payment on its debt, or reduce what few goods it still imports at the official rates. The government and PDVSA have around $4 billion in debt coming due before the end of the year but only $9.7 billion in foreign currency reserves, the vast majority in the form of gold ingots that are hard to exchange quickly for cash.

Worse, if Maduro doesn’t yield to Trump’s demand to disband the constitutional assembly and call elections, even tougher sanctions are likely to follow. To cope, Maduro says he will look to increase commercial ties with China and Russia, although it’s not clear how generous its allies will be, given Venezuela’s growing reputation as an international outlaw in the mold of Cuba, Syria and North Korea.

“This could really reduce them to a barter economy and throw Venezuela back to the stone ages,” said Russ Dallen, a managing partner at investment bank Caracas Capital Markets. “It’s both fascinating and terrifying to watch.”