An avoidable tragedy

14 elderly residents of a Florida nursing home died in sweltering heat after Hurricane Irma knocked out power and air conditioning in September. Erika Navarro lost two grandparents. In this moving interview, she shares the pain of the loss and why her family are so intent on seeking justice.

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Secrets of the Deep: Blue Planet 2

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They are among the deep ocean’s most bizarre phenomena – forbidding kill-zones created over the course of millions of years where only the most foolhardy of creatures dare to venture.

Now astonishing footage shot by a crew from the BBC’s Blue Planet 2 thousands of feet deep in the Gulf of Mexico has captured the moment that an eel staged a near-suicidal dive into a brine pool, a peculiar undersea lake so lethal in its salinity that it acts as an instant pickling jar to all that touch it.

“We weren’t expecting too much when we got down there but this was a revelation . . . truly extraordinary,” said Captain Buck Taylor, a submarine pilot who spent hundreds of hours exploring some of Earth’s most eerie and hostile waters for tonight’s episode, The Deep.

The second instalment of the eight-part series, The Deep takes viewers on an epic 50-minute journey beyond the twilight zone – the middle layer of the world’s oceans – and into the midnight zone, a place of perpetual darkness, crushing pressure and merciless chill two-thirds of a mile below the surface.

It is Earth’s last frontier; the sea covers 71% of the Earth’s surface, yet less than 5% of it has been explored. “We know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the deepest parts of our seas,” says Sir David Attenborough, 91, who presents the series. “There’s life here, but not as we know it.”

Brine lakes date to the Jurassic era, formed from thick sub-surface salt deposits and dissolved methane. So intensely saline is their content – between five and eight times that of the surrounding seawater — that they cannot mingle with the ocean.

Their margins teem with life — mussels that can live for a century, shrimp and crab feeding nonchalantly. But within their briny depths is the detritus of death — embalmed corpses of those that got too close.

As the team filmed from the submersible, they were stunned to see a cut-throat eel wriggle from the shadows and plunge into the brine lake, as if being swallowed into a black hole. Seconds later, it shoots back out like a torpedo, its body twisting and turning as it goes into toxic shock, contorted by spasms so extreme that it ties itself in knots in a grotesque spectacle.

“It’s total silence, everyone just concentrating on what they’re seeing on the monitors from the sub’s camera. But when it’s over, it’s ‘Oh my God, what did I just see there?’” says Cpt Taylor, 46, speaking aboard the MV Alucia, a 56-metre (183ft) research superyacht that was Blue Planet 2’s floating expedition base.

The ship, to which this newspaper was granted exclusive access during a stopover in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is owned by American hedge fund billionaire and philanthropist Ray Dalio. It is one of only three ships in the world equipped with two submarines – Nadir and Deep Rover, state-of-the-art vessels fitted with powerful lighting and sophisticated high-definition cameras. Its mission is to pursue and promote greater understanding of the ocean through scientific research and visual storytelling.

Within 48 hours of filming the brine lake, the rubber hoses on the submersible had corroded from the salt, necessitating a total overhaul and replacement. Before filming voracious humboldt squid 800 metres (2,624ft) down in the Pacific, the crew had to bind the sub’s exterior ductwork with tape.

“That type of squid, they are so ferocious. We had to protect all the exposed cables and hoses – if they wanted to, they could rip that right off,” said Cpt Taylor.

Filmed off the coast of Chile, the squid sequence is an unprecedented expose of the ruthless aggression with which the species hunts, capturing on camera for the very first time several hundred of them chasing down bioluminescent lantern fish en masse.

At one point, a squid lunges at the sub’s camera, enveloping its lens with its tentacles loaded with powerful suckers. Another sequence shows the creatures sparring over prey, one of them ultimately turning its attentions instead to seizing a more substantial supper – a rival squid – in a surprise act of cannibalism.

“We’ve seen things that have astonished us. This was one,” said James Honeyborne, the executive producer. “This is a portrait of the deep like we’ve never seen before.”

Other sights included six-gilled sharks feasting on of flesh from a 30-tonne whale carcass – a meal that will set them up for as long as a year before they need to eat again, and “zombie worms” that tunnel into the whale’s bones by releasing acid, in order to feed on the last of the nutrients.

There is a fish – the Pacific barreleye — that has a transparent head to give itself a clear view of predators that may be lurking above, and a cockeyed squid, with one eye that squints upwards and one that peers downwards to keep a lookout. Fangtooth – the midnight zone’s most savage fish – has pressure sensors all over its body to detect movement around it.

Orla Doherty, producer on The Deep, spent more than 500 hours on six submarine dives for the episode, a highlight of which was a voyage to a 50-metre diameter mud volcano at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, where all of a sudden giant bubbles of methane the size of basketballs began erupting around her and the crew, trailing sediment behind them like a space rocket trails fire and smoke.

“It’s like being in a sci-fi movie. You’re immersed into this crazy world, like being sat on the surface of another planet – it was so dramatic, we christened it the War of the Worlds. We were sitting there with our mouths on the floor,” she recalls.

One of the key features of the submersibles is their domed cockpits made of acrylic seven inches thick — a departure from traditional portholes, lending greater visibility. “It’s like being in a giant, see-through Fabergé egg,” said Cpt Taylor. “You can be in this eight-tonne vehicle filming a crab the size of your fingernail and still see the individual hairs on its legs.”

As the sub descends, it literally shrinks under the extremities of pressure, which at 1,000 metres (3,280ft) is akin to having eight jumbo jets piled on top of it. Inside the dome, one hears the creaking and groaning of the structure. “It talks to you and reminds you you’re going deeper,” says Cpt Taylor.

Blue Planet also pulled off the first ever manned dive in Antarctica to reach 1,000m depth. On Antarctic dives, icebergs ranging from the size of a small car to the size of Hyde Park collided above them, sending shockwaves through the water. “You feel it more than you hear it. It actually shakes the sub. . . it sends this huge shudder through the vehicle,” says Cpt Taylor.

The Alucia has no home port, crisscrossing the world’s oceans on a constant mission to reveal secrets of the deep. Scientific sensors on its hull are switched on permanently so that wherever it goes, it is gathering and relaying data to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, such as sea surface temperatures and the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water.

The crew’s experience at sea through the years – Cpt Taylor, for example, spent 14 years in the British Royal Navy as a mine clearance diver before moving into research and exploration – has brought them to the stark realisation that environmental catastrophe is unfolding.

In Antarctica, warming sea temperatures are bringing some usually deep-dwelling species, such as king crabs, into shallower waters. “They’d never been seen 2,000 metres but we witnessed them shallower than 1,000 metres – that’s worrying,” says Cpt Taylor.

Elsewhere, he says, “it’s sad going down to 1,000 metres and knowing you’re the first person to ever eyeball that spot and then all of a sudden you see plastic bottles, tin cans . . . One of the saddest places was the Gulf of Mexico because we saw all the amazing things with brine pools and methane vents but we also saw the destruction from oil leaks and damage to deep sea corals.”

Vince Pieribone, head scientist of the Alucia, said: “The way the ocean’s being destroyed, it’s breathtaking and terrible . . . films like this more than anything help us bring that message to the audience. If people don’t get that soon, it really is going to be hard . . . It’s what drives us, to make this unknown visible.”

Coming 16 years after the first Blue Planet series, Blue Planet 2 aims to galvanise new generations.

Mr Pieribone said: “Knowing that out there there’s a child or a young person watching . . . that’s the next generation inspired. The number of people around the world that say to me ‘I’m now a marine biologist because of the Blue Planet’ – that puts real fire in your belly to get this right.”

Hurricane Harvey

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While residents scrambled to flee floods in Texas, Gary Saurage had no choice but to stay behind and care for the 350 alligators and crocodiles that depended on him.

“I couldn’t just get on a rescue helicopter and leave, or put them on there with me. I had to stay and fight the fight for these guys,” said Mr Saurage, owner of Gator Country rescue centre in Beaumont. “My home, my things: underwater. Everything we have: gone. But I have a responsibility to keep my animals contained. I couldn’t give up.” The 15-acre visitor attraction, which provides a home to “nuisance” reptiles that would otherwise have been destroyed after being discovered in residential and public areas, is in a low-lying area and was quickly flooded when Hurricane Harvey swept through last week. The storm devastated the fishing town of Rockport, where it made landfall as a hurricane, and inundated communities such as Beaumont, home to 118,000 people, by swelling streams, rivers and bayous with record amounts of rain.

The death toll stands at 50, including a six-month-old baby swept from its parents’ arms by floodwaters in New Waverly, north of Houston. President Trump and his wife Melania visited victims in Houston and in Lake Charles, Louisiana, on Saturday. More than 400,000 people have registered for federal aid.

Forecasters are keeping a close eye on another hurricane, Irma, that is heading westwards across the Atlantic, though it is too early to determine whether it will make landfall, or where.

“It’s been a war zone here. I’ve never seen devastation like this,” said Mr Saurage, 48, who watched in despair as the water rose to less than a foot from the top of his alligators’ pens last week. “A few more inches, they could be swimming out.”

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He and his crew gathered up non- native Nile crocodiles and the smaller creatures that could be secured such as venomous snakes and moved them to higher ground.

His two celebrity alligators — Big Al, measuring 13ft 4in, and Big Tex, at 13ft 11in the largest nuisance alligator captured alive in the US — were also at risk. Using ropes and a lot of muscle, Mr Saurage’s team wrangled them into trucks.

“We have a 35ft travel trailer that we use to take animals to shows and it has a lock-in section, so I put Big Tex in that part. I put him in through a big door at the back and locked it,” said Mr Saurage. “But there’s another door in front that leads into the living compartment. I guess he got tired of being in there so he bust off all the bolts, broke the door off its hinges, and went right on through.”

The 900lb alligator was found on a bed, in a nook 6ft above the floor of the motorhome. “He threw everything off the bed and made himself at home,” said Mr Saurage. “I didn’t argue.”

Surrounded by water, Mr Saurage and his team have been keeping an eye on the rest of the alligators around the clock. “It’s so tiring. Every night we patrol — two boats going round the entire park looking for anything that’s got out. Alligator eyes are reflective at night, so we see them real easy,” he said.

He estimates that up to six million alligator eggs may have been destroyed across Texas and Louisiana; a loss that will affect the population for years to come.

His property was cut off to all but boat access, but local residents have pushed through the floodwaters to bring spoilt meat from their waterlogged refrigerators to feed the reptiles. Mr Saurage said: “Pork chops, rib-eye steaks, lamb cutlets — those alligators are sure eating good.”

Hurricane Harvey

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Mounds of soaking debris lined streets across Houston yesterday as flood victims returned to clear their devastated homes. They face the imminent threat of infectious disease as they begin a recovery expected to take years.

The heat has returned to Houston and with it the mosquitoes. Health officials worry about the contaminants to which people have been exposed in the water, from household cleaners and petrochemicals to lead and arsenic from waste disposal sites. Flooded sewers have given rise to fears of cholera and typhoid.

A murky tide mark runs around the homes a week after Storm Harvey made landfall then swept across Texas and Louisiana to drop more than 20 trillion gallons of rain.

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“Our hearts are heavy for the people who didn’t make it,” Michael Farrias, 51, said. “For all of us who did, we’ve got to show we’re bigger than that storm.”

He had gutted his home in Dickinson, southeast Houston. A skip was full of dripping plasterboard — he had ripped out all the internal walls. Wet plaster had run across the drive and in it were the footprints of the 30 or so friends who had helped. “We have our lives, we have our loved ones. The rest — it’s just stuff,” he said. Mr Farrias, a builder, will move in with his girlfriend, postponing restoration of his house to help others.

President Trump is due in Texas for his second visit today and has declared a national day of prayer tomorrow for the victims. He has asked Congress for an initial $7.85 billion of federal aid for recovery efforts. The White House also warned Congress that failure to raise the debt ceiling, which is expected to be reached by the end of September, may prevent further requests for disaster relief funds.

The high school in Dickinson has turned into an emergency resource centre, stacked with bedding, toiletries, cleaning supplies, food and water. The gymnasium is a medical centre and in the assembly hall rows of tables were heaped with donated clothing. “All day long they’ve been coming through — they want mops, buckets, bleach to clean their houses,” said Tresa Mark, who works as a programme co-ordinator at the school. Outside, other volunteers were handing out bottled water and MREs — “meals ready to eat”, usually used by the military — to a queue that stretched down the road.

timsat3Megan Turner teaches children with special needs. “Almost half the kids in my class lost everything,” she said. “It’s powerful to see so many people helping people. I’m just so proud.”

Neighbourhoods were submerged, in places up to the rooftops, but with the water receding large areas now look normal. But inside homes and businesses black mould has started to creep in. “With all the moisture in the air, this is only going to grow,” said Eve Beasley, 59, of Katy, west Houston. Her grand-daughter, who lives with her, has cystic fibrosis and cannot risk being in a contaminated environment. “I’ve been here since 1979 in Houston and I’m looking for the door out. I’m done.”

timsat4Thousands of homes are still under water. In Beaumont, 90 miles east of Houston, firefighters were smashing their way into attics to check for survivors. Last night a large fire broke out at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby after floodwater damaged its generators, disabling the refrigeration needed to keep the chemicals cool.

So far 40 people are known to have died. The mortuary for Harris County, which includes metropolitan Houston, was full yesterday and awaiting delivery of a refrigerated lorry.

Seven and eight-figure donations poured in from corporations. JJ Watt, a player for the Houston Texans American football team, launched an appeal on Sunday to raise $200,000; by last night, it had reached $14 million.

Hurricane Harvey

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Two US navy warships were on their way to Texas last night to bolster relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which may prove to be America’s most expensive natural disaster.

Estimates of the cost range from $75 billion to $190 billion. Hurricane Katrina, by comparison, cost the country $100 billion in 2005.

timfri2Joel Myers, president of Accuweather, was in no doubt Harvey would top that figure. “This is the costliest and worst natural disaster in American history,” he said. “The disaster is just beginning in certain areas. Parts of Houston, the United States’s fourth-largest city, will be uninhabitable for weeks and possibly months due to water damage, mould, disease-ridden water and all that will follow this thousand-year flood.”

The death toll had reached 38 last night, with officers still paying door-to-door visits in areas where floods had receded to check for more victims.

USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship, and USS Oak Hill, a dock landing ship, left Virginia yesterday loaded with humanitarian aid and carrying members of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

Hurricane Harvey came ashore in Rockport, Texas, last Friday and has veered on and offshore, making two further landfalls along the Texas coast and dropping record amounts of rain — devastating Houston and the surrounding area with floods.

Even as some residents in the city returned to their saturated homes to begin the clean-up yesterday, others were being evacuated and rescued.

In Beaumont, 90 miles to the east, US coast guard helicopters were ferrying trapped residents to safety and hospitals that had been inundated were evacuating their patients. The population of 118,000 was left with no access to running water after pumps designed to protect the freshwater system failed.

“Every historical weather record has been broken. Harvey has brought more than anyone could have anticipated at local, state and national level,” said Becky Ames, the mayor of Beaumont.

Tornado warnings were issued in Mississippi and Tennessee as the storm headed northeast — but not before leaving 400 roads across Texas inundated and unfit to be driven on, 205 of them in Houston.

With 12 oil refineries offline, the US Energy Department authorised the first emergency release of crude oil reserves since 2012 to try to maintain petrol supplies. Queues formed at filling stations as far away as Dallas, 200 miles north of Houston, as consumers panicked over potential shortages and prices at the pumps rose.

timfri3In a further blow the 5,500-mile Colonial Pipeline, which channels 100 million gallons of fuel a day to the nation’s east coast, was shut off. Half of the 26 refineries that supply the pipeline have suspended production and others are working at reduced capacity.

In Crosby, Texas, containers of volatile peroxides exploded at the Arkema chemical compound, forcing the evacuation of some local residents. Fifteen sheriff’s deputies were treated in hospital after inhaling fumes, but later released. Arkema said that the chemicals were a noxious irritant that could affect eyes, skin and lungs. “The plume is incredibly dangerous,” said Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema). More than 30,000 people left homeless by the storm have been housed in emergency shelters. Fema said it planned to start moving them into hotels.

The agency has already received 325,000 applications for financial aid and had by yesterday paid out $57 million to 45,000 people to cover immediate home repairs, accommodation and uninsured expenses. As many as one in four homes in Harris county, which found itself at the heart of the disaster, was uninsured.

Weather forecasters have predicted up to 40cm (15in) more rain for the region over the weekend. There is also concern over a rapidly intensifying hurricane, Irma, currently about 2,000 miles away across the Atlantic but moving east. It could have a huge impact on the Caribbean next week. Computer models predict that it will then turn northwest, possibly striking the southeastern US the following weekend.

• Mr Trump will personally give $1 million towards disaster relief, the White House said. It did not specify whether the money would come from Mr Trump or his foundation. The president and his wife, Melania, plan to visit Houston and Lake Charles, Louisiana, tomorrow.

Hurricane Harvey

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Thousands of people who survived the worst of Hurricane Harvey in Texas are now fleeing for their lives after the authorities opened sluice gates to relieve the city of Houston.

Willis Breaux and his wife, Susan, had intended to wait out the storm in their home in Beech Creek. Then the Army Corps of Engineers released the floodgates on a rapidly swelling Lake Conroe, north of Houston.

“We went to bed and things were fine. At 2am I woke up — my neighbour’s calling me. There’s water all around and then I hear they’ve released the gates,” he said.

texthu3“The water was right up to the door and rushing. We were good till they released that dam. Now here we are in the middle of a tidal wave.”

The decision to open the sluice gates, intended to save Houston from further flooding, sent 73,201 cubic feet of water a second crashing into the San Jacinto river, into creeks and streams around Mr Breaux’s community near Porter, east of Houston. He grabbed the keys to his service truck and loaded up his wife and neighbours.

“My neighbours were freaking out because they had a baby. I thought we couldn’t go wrong in that big old truck — but we did. There it is, over there,” he said, and pointed down the flooded road, where the water was perhaps 7ft deep. His truck was mostly submerged.

texthu2“The truck gives out and the water’s immediately coming in, so we get out and now we’re in water up to here,” he recalled, placing his hand on his neck.

Holding the baby above water they waded to a petrol station a short distance away to reach rescue boats. “Dark, cold, absolutely terrifying,” Mrs Breaux said. “The current was so strong, you could feel it around you. Those rescue boats really had to gun it out of there.”

The San Jacinto river, normally about 25 metres wide at that point, stretched 300 metres at its worst.

A displaced shed bobbed by and fish darted in the currents. Whirlpools gurgled around the tops of trees.

A disorientated survivor tried to walk into the water. Two volunteers waded in after him, holding a rope between them, and gently steered him back. A Blackhawk helicopter lifted off half a mile away, carrying another survivor to safety.

“There’s people out there still on roofs. It’s desperate,” Bryan Skero, a police officer standing watch at the edge of the floodwater, said. Two or three miles away, he said, rescuers had been finding bodies. “They’ll just label them and leave them for now. Deal with the dead later,” he shrugged.

William Grover, 56, watched the water come up a foot in less than three hours in his home. “My furniture had started floating around, he said.

One of his neighbours, a distraught woman wrapped in a towel and shivering, talked non-stop about needing to go back to rescue her dogs, her cats and her birds. “There was 2ft of water in the house. My cats were on the roof, the dogs — I’m hoping they’ll climb up on the bar stools. The birds — I just put two nails on the wall as high as I could and hung their cages before I left.”

She spent more than 36 hours on her roof with the cats and 16 other people, including an eight-month-old baby and her 13-year-old diabetic grand-daughter. Two neighbours stretched out a poncho to keep the driving rain off the baby as they awaited rescue. “I didn’t sleep. I was scared of how high the water was going to come,” she said. “I haven’t slept for three days.”

Harvey’s death toll stood at 24 and rising yesterday as the tropical storm finally left the Houston area, but it created more emergencies to the east.

“We are still in life-saving, life-sustaining mode,” Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said. Floodwaters are still rising, boosted by the deluge released by the dams.

America’s largest oil refinery, in Port Arthur, 90 miles east of Houston, shut down. Twelve refineries have gone offline, accounting for 23 per cent of the nation’s capacity.

“The whole city is under water right now,” Derrick Freeman, the mayor of Port Arthur, said. A mother trying to get her child to safety in Beaumont, southeast Texas, was swept away.

When police pulled her lifeless body from the water, her three-year-old daughter was still clinging to her. “It’s a true testament to a mother’s will to save her child in any circumstances,” Haley Morrow, of Beaumont police, said.

More than 18,000 people have been rescued across Texas and Louisiana. At least 32,000 are being housed in 230 emergency shelters.

The rainfall recorded in Texas exceeded the amount of water that gushes over Niagara Falls in 15 days. The rain had stopped over Houston yesterday but floodwaters in some areas were not expected to peak for two days — and more rain is expected next week.

The sun came out over Houston on Tuesday evening for the first time in five days and yesterday sections of Houston city were drying out. Roads were clearing, businesses were opening and the city’s two main airports resumed limited service.

Art Acavedo, Houston police chief, said: “After the clouds pass the sun will shine. There’s still hope.”