As Floridians recover from Hurricane Irma, a major earthquake rocks Mexico City, and Hurricane Maria shuts Puerto Rico down.
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MEXICO CITY – Rescuers searched massive piles of rubble for any signs of life Wednesday morning – just prior to the Florida Courier’s press time Wednesday night – after dozens of buildings collapsed across central Mexico in Tuesday’s violent earthquake, which killed at least 225 people, injured at least 1,000 and caused chaos in Mexico’s capital.
Some 2,000 miles east of Mexico City, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico early Wednesday, barreling north across the center of the island with powerful winds and flooding that were expected to destroy homes and leave thousands without power.
The storm knocked out power to the entire island hours after it arrived packing 155 mph winds – just 2 mph short of Category 5 status – near the southern city of Yabucoa.
Life, death in Mexico
Firefighters, soldiers and volunteers worked through the night clearing debris and scrambling to find survivors, at times working with bare hands and donated flashlights. There were a few moments of relief when several still-breathing, dust-covered survivors were pulled from the wreckage and transported to hospitals. But many others were found dead.
At least 20 children and two adults died when a three-story school collapsed on the south side of the city. At least two children had been rescued, but up to 30 others and eight adults were still missing, said Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. He spoke late Tuesday outside Enrique Rebsamen School, surrounded by desperate parents waiting for word on their children.
Emergency crews worked through the night. Nurses set up a sidewalk clinic, while others walked around offering pastries and water. Dozens of people stood watch, their mouths covered with face masks, as volunteers atop a mountain of rubble passed debris down in buckets. Others carted rubble away from the ground in wheelbarrows.
One rescue worker brought a yellow Labrador retriever to the top of the pile to sniff out bodies. Suddenly, workers dimmed the lights, cut off the generators and called for silence.
They listened. A few minutes later, they resumed their work.
Dr. Karen Pina Fragoso said a handful of people had survived the collapse. She didn’t know how many adults remained missing in the building, but she said at least three children were unaccounted for.
Fragoso said medics could still hear the voices of many survivors trapped in the building at 3 a.m. But as daylight broke, the voices quieted.
The U.S. Geological Survey calculated the magnitude of Tuesday’s temblor at 7.1 and said the epicenter was about 80 miles southeast of Mexico City in the state of Puebla.
The quake struck 32 years to the day after another powerful earthquake that killed thousands and devastated large parts of Mexico City – a tragedy that Pena Nieto had commemorated earlier Tuesday.
Mexico sits in one of the world’s most seismically active areas, as the floor of the Pacific Ocean south of the country is sliding underneath the North American plate. Mexico City is prone to major damage in earthquakes because it was built on an old lakebed, which amplifies the shaking.
Thousands in shelters
In Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, the wind howled on Wednesday, shaking high-rise buildings as Hurricane Maria drove white sheets of rain down empty streets.
Elsewhere in the capital, some shelters were already suffering storm damage Wednesday morning. Some of the more than 500 people sheltering at Roberto Clemente Coliseum posted video on Twitter showing doors snapping open even as guards tried to hold them closed, and evacuees moving cots due to leaks in the roof.
Maria became the first Category 4 hurricane in nearly 80 years to hit the U.S. territory, home to 3.4 million people. Authorities had urged residents to leave their homes for 500 emergency shelters, and thousands of listened.
Migdalia Caratini, a lawyer who lives east of San Juan, rented a room at the Sheraton in Old San Juan to weather the storm. She worried about those living in the center of the country, where many homes are wood with metal, zinc roofs that were likely to be ripped apart by the hurricane.
The country has been struggling economically, and leaders had planned to reduce public workers’ hours, shifting money from local to federal coffers, Caratini said. She hopes those changes get suspended, at least immediately after the storm.
“They’re going to have to restructure. Puerto Rico isn’t going to be the same. It’s going to be before Maria and after Maria,” she said.
Others at the hotel had evacuated from other Caribbean islands where they had already survived Hurricane Irma earlier this month.
The Puerto Rico Convention Center in San Juan – which was still housing Hurricane Irma evacuees from other Caribbean islands – was preparing to accept thousands more after Maria.
Kate Linthicum, Andrea Castillo, and Molly Hennessy-Fiske of the Los Angeles Times / TNS contributed to this report.