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Sinkholes in Latin America: The day that the ground opened up in Mexico’s Puebla State: ‘We looked outside and saw the earth moving’ | USA



Sitting on a mound a few meters away from a sinkhole that since last Saturday has been causing consternation among the population of Santa María Zacatepec, in Mexico’s Puebla State, Magdalena Xalamihua looks on with sadness as she witnesses several years’ work on the verge of being swallowed up by the earth. Xalamihua, her husband and their two children had only just moved into the house they had put their bodies and souls into building when they were forced to abandon it. At 6.30pm on May 29, a strange hole started to form to the side of the house, as if a monster from a science fiction movie was sucking the ground down from the Earth’s corre. Initially it measured eight meters but it continued to expand quickly until, just hours later, it had become a massive cavity from which sprung water like a Biblical miracle. “We heard something like a rumbling,” says Xalamihua. “We thought it was fireworks, but we looked outside and saw the earth moving and water coming up, like waves. We ran.” Xalamihua still remembers what happened that afternoon with horror. She looks bitterly toward her house, a brick construction that is teetering on the edge of an abyss. “Where are we going to live now?” she asks. Over her head, a huge dark cloud threatens a storm, adding another layer to the chilling scene in Zacatepec.

Local and federal authorities have been curious onlookers at the site of the phenomenon, where the National Guard have cordoned off a wide area around the sinkhole and are patrolling the perimeter to ensure nobody approaches the chasm. Dozens of people have made their way to Zacatepec, drawn in by the media interest in the event, with the press as eager as the scientific community to give answers as to just what happened in this small farming community. Until May 29, life here passed with little more on people’s minds than the coming of the rain and the sun to nurture the fields of corn and legumes.

People have come from the surrounding area to view the phenomenon.
People have come from the surrounding area to view the phenomenon.Teresa de Miguel

Xalamihua explains that on May 15 the family had been living in their house for a year and on May 16 her daughter, María Lisbeth, turned 13. The family decided to hold a double celebration with lunch and a cake. Their home was the fruit of more than a decade of hard work. Heriberto Sánchez had worked as a bricklayer’s assistant and his wife in a nearby restaurant to buy the land and build their long-awaited family home. A migrant from an indigenous region of Veracruz, Xalamihua had been excited to start a new life, in a promised land rich in fertile volcanic soil and free from the violence afflicting her native state. “Together we earned up to 3,000 pesos a month to finish the payments on the land,” says Heriberto. There were many hardships, because almost all of the money was set aside to achieve their dream. But now it has turned into a nightmare and the distressed family are now hoping the state authorities will help them in their hour of need.

At time of writing, Puebla State Governor Miguel Barbosa had not visited Zacatepec but he had admitted that the situation is a “matter of enormous risk.” Barbosa has told his constituents that he will “remain vigilant” to prevent a human tragedy from unfolding. “It’s a geological fault that must be treated with the utmost caution, technically and with all preventive measures in place,” the governor said. A team of geologists from the Meritorious Autonomous University of Puebla are working on a report as to what occurred in Zacatepec, using their years of experience studying the sulfuric eruptions of the Popocatépetl volcano that dominates these vast plains. The authorities have said that a technical report could be ready by the end of June. But the university team are not the only experts who have cast their gaze over the Zacatepec sinkhole.

Delfino Hernández is a geological engineer at the Geological Hazards Laboratory of Mexico City’s Metropolitan Autonomous University (UAM). Hernández and his team were due to arrive in Zacatepec at the weekend to look into the sinkhole after following developments closely in the media. Before examining the situation on the ground, Hernández said that the most likely explanation was a natural phenomenon, an active fault line that was waiting for a push from nature to display its power. “These faults are already present within the soil. They may have existed for 5,000 to 10,000 years before being reactivated. It just needs nature to provide the impact so that they appear on the surface. This phenomenon, as far as I can see, was going to happen sooner or later,” Hernández says. These phenomena occur, adds the geologist, because in certain areas the ground has “weaknesses,” places where the soil is in constant movement. It is not something that occurs without “warning,” he noted: geologists can keep watch on small fractures and fissures that can later lead to incidents like the Zacatepec sinkhole. “A fault is a zone of fractures along which there has been a displacement of blocks of rock in the crust. It is a discontinuity that forms due to the breaking up of large rocks in the earth. If this fault is said to be 20 meters deep, which is how it appears, it is likely that is far deeper underneath.”

What could have triggered the sinkhole in Zacatepec? “Puebla State commonly has earthquakes that occur before they reach Mexico City. We don’t know with certainty if there were after-effects from the 2017 earthquake, but taking into account the size of the fracture it could be that the soils have been weakened and it would only require humidity for them to become detached,” says Hernández, adding that the sinkhole has filled with water due to subterranean filtration. Hernández points out that in Puebla there have been no geotechnical studies or mapping of geological risks carried out, which is why the Zacatepec incident came as such a surprise. “What needs to be done is to stop looking at the sinkhole and start looking in the area surrounding it, to see if there are other fractures of a similar size or smaller ones. A study needs to be carried out immediately, cartographical mapping with aerial photographs and continuous monitoring to see if they are moving on a daily basis,” the geologist states.

Magdalena Xalamihua’s house, on the edge of the sinkhole.
Magdalena Xalamihua’s house, on the edge of the sinkhole.Teresa de Miguel

While scientific experts continue to investigate, Santa María Zacatepec has become an attraction for residents of Puebla. Local police have been forced to close the dusty side street that leads to the sinkhole to prevent a traffic jam on ground that has already proven itself to be fragile. Whole families descend on the site to witness the phenomenon first hand. Many are disappointed on arrival, because the area has been sealed off and from a distance all it is possible to make out is a large splash of black.

Nicasio Torres, 62, has lived in Zacatepec all his life. He says he has never seen anything like this before and shares the fears of his neighbors. “We worry that it will continue to get bigger,” he says after arriving at the sinkhole on an old bicycle. “What is going to happen to us? Are they going to evacuate us? We don’t have anywhere to go!” he stresses, while nearby a woman with her children offers candy to curious day-trippers. Standing next to Torres is Jorge, a portly resident of the area. He adds there is a general preoccupation among neighboring communities over the sinkhole. “Where I live people are asking what is happening over here. They’re worried. We don’t know what to do. We can only wait an see what the authorities’ report says.” The day-trippers have similar questions for the journalists covering the incident, eager to satisfy their own curiosity. What do you know? Has there been a study? Have you spoken to the experts? Are the authorities doing anything? A reporter flies a drone over the area and men, women, children and senior citizens gather around, desperate to see images of the huge sinkhole.

A local takes a selfie with the sinkhole in the background.
A local takes a selfie with the sinkhole in the background.Teresa de Miguel

Xalamihua finds so much rubber-necking distasteful. She asks that people think about her situation because she is fed up with being asked so many questions as she and her family have been the most-affected by the geological fault. She knows she has lost her house, her children’s inheritance, for good and her concern now is where they are going to live. She asks that the local mayor, the state governor and the president of Mexico do something to help. “It’s tough to take and it’s sad. Our whole life was there,” she says through red eyes. The dark cloud over her head begins to spit out fat drops of rain that form small puddles on this treacherous soil while, in the distance, the wind whips furiously across the surface water of the new lake of Zacatepec.

English version by Rob Train.

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Nadine Lott told ex-partner who later killed her not to ‘threaten’ her, court hears



Nadine Lott told her former partner not to “threaten” her two weeks before he killed her, the Central Criminal Court has heard.

The jury in the trial of Daniel Murtagh was given transcripts on Tuesday of WhatsApp messages between the accused and his ex-girlfriend in the days and weeks leading up to her death.

In them, the accused asks her if she is “seeing someone from Dublin”. In reply, Ms Lott tells him she is not seeing anyone. Mr Murtagh asks her if there was a “Dublin lad” in her “place” and she tells him to “leave it out”.

She tells him that “nothing is ever going to happen between us again, I want to make that clear.”

In another text from December 5th the accused said: “Nadine I worry about ye, not in love, just don’t slip”.

She replied: “Don’t threaten me either”.

Evidence has previously been given that Mr Murtagh told a motorist that he had “killed my wife because she was with my friend”, just hours after he assaulted her.

John Begley testified last week that he saw a car in a ditch as he was travelling over Bookies Bridge in Laragh on the morning of December 14th and then came across the accused man standing at the side of the road.

“Daniel said to me ‘you don’t know what I’ve done”. I said what did you do. He said ‘I killed my wife’. I didn’t think anything of it. He said it a second time and said he hoped she was not dead. He said ‘she was with my friend’,” said Mr Begley.

Mr Murtagh (34), of Melrose Grove, Bawnogue, Clondalkin, Dublin 22 has pleaded not guilty to murder but guilty to the manslaughter of his 30-year-old ex-partner Ms Lott at her apartment in St Mary’s Court, Arklow, Co Wicklow on December 17th, 2019.

The jury has heard that Ms Lott suffered “severe blunt force trauma” and stab injuries at the hands of her former partner “in a sustained and violent attack” in her Arklow home.

They have heard evidence that the injuries to Ms Lott were so serious that she never regained consciousness and died three days later in St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin.

An intensive care nurse at the hospital has told the jury that Ms Lott was “completely unrecognisable” and that she had never seen anybody so badly injured. A paramedic who attended to Ms Lott at her home told the jury that the call will “haunt” him for the rest of his career and was one of the most “horrendous scenes” he had ever walked into. The garda who telephoned ambulance control informed them that Ms Lott had been “beaten to a pulp”.

The trial continues before Mr Justice Michael MacGrath and a jury of seven men and five women.

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Five unwritten rules that explain life in Austria



Adjusting to life in a new country takes time – even more so when navigating unwritten rules of how to act in social and professional situations.

But learning how to live like a local in Austria will not only make it a more pleasant experience, it will also show that you fit in and respect the rules.

To help you further understand Austrian culture, here are five unwritten rules that explain life in Austria.

Always say hello – at least in the countryside

Austrians have a reputation for being direct in their communication, but politeness is also highly valued. 

A prime example is the unwritten rule of saying hello to people – even if you don’t know them.

This applies more in the countryside than in the cities but it’s worth being aware of to avoid making a social faux pas.

According to a Kurier article, failure to greet others will even have you labelled as unfriendly, arrogant or badly educated.

READ MORE: Nine things you might be surprised are actually Austrian

So, if someone is walking towards you, you walk into a bakery (for example) or you see neighbours on the street, then a greeting is expected.

It could be a simple nod of the head, but in most cases it will be “Servus”, “Griaß di” or even “Hallo”.

But don’t try it in a city like Vienna. Saying hello to strangers will just result in funny looks.

Saying hello to someone will show them that you come in peace. Photo by Tom Leishman from Pexels

Always bring food or drink to a social gathering

If invited to a barbecue or dinner party at someone’s house, always take a drink or something to contribute to the meal.

For example, if your host is cooking, offer to bring a salad or a dessert.

If they are taking care of the food then offer to bring a nice bottle of wine or a selection of beers.

If you’re going to a gathering, always bring something – especially if someone tells you it’s not necessary. Photo by Nicole Herrero on Unsplash

And if they are hosting a barbecue, always take your own meat and expect a wide selection of salads and bread that other guests will also bring and share with everyone else.

Not only is this polite, but it will stop other people from talking about you because you violated the unwritten rule.

Don’t expect polite queues at ski lift stations

While Austrian society can be polite in many ways, queueing at ski lift stations in the Alps is a different story.

In fact, it’s a free-for-all and it’s something that both tourists and international residents in Austria have experienced.

REVEALED: What do Austrians think about foreigners?

An Austrian in Tyrol, who asked to remain anonymous, summed it up when he told The Local: “Don’t be civilised and politely queue up at the ski lifts – just push in.”

So, when going skiing in Austria, leave your manners at home, be prepared for others to cut in front of you and get ready to push to the front of the queue.

For a country that loves order and predictability, Austria sure doesn’t know how to queue. Photo by Mael BALLAND on Unsplash

Lateness is not appreciated

People in Austria are generally punctual, like to be on time and expect others to do the same – just like in neighbouring countries Germany and Switzerland.

The unwritten rule applies to both work and social situations, including going out to dinner at a restaurant.

READER QUESTION: Is it legal to drink in public in Austria?

This means if you’re running late it’s polite to call the host and let them know. Likewise if you have a reservation at a restaurant.

However, there is still a limit on how much lateness can be tolerated, with 15 minutes typically the maximum delay before people become annoyed.

Always carry cash

Cash is king in Austria. 

What can I get for this many? Always carry cash in Austria. Photo by Christian Dubovan on Unsplash

It always has been and it probably always will be, with a pre-pandemic study showing that 83 per cent of Austrians preferred paying with cash.

Customers can even expect a grumpy roll of the eyes when trying to pay with cash in some places because it’s so deeply ingrained in the culture.

READ MORE: Why is cash so important to Austrians?

This attitude towards cash is perfectly reflected in the Austrian saying “Nur Bares ist Wahres” (only cash is true) and there are three reasons for this – freedom, anonymity and control. 

Austrians like to have the freedom of not relying on a bank, the anonymity to spend money on whatever they like and control over spending.

For international residents from card-favouring countries like the UK, Ireland and most of Scandinavia, the best way to deal with this is to just get used to carrying cash.

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Shocking news, Irish people may be sanest in Europe



Ireland is running low on loopers. If we don’t watch out, we could emerge from the pandemic with our reputation for wildness completely shredded. We are in danger of being exposed as the sanest people in Europe.

Vaccines go into the arm, but also into the brain. They are a kind of probe sent into the national consciousness. In Ireland’s case, the probe has discovered exciting evidence of intelligent life.

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