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Parents Didn’t Want Fracking Near Their School. So the Oil Company Chose a Poorer School, Instead.

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Income inequality hurts people badly, as does racism: “The first school was 77-percent white. The second is 87-percent students of color.” Megan Jula reports in Mother Jones:

In one of the most fracked counties in the country, a fight is underway between environmental justice advocates and the Colorado commission that oversees oil and gas development. Four environmental and civil rights groups are suing the commission for allowing a company to build 24 oil and gas wells by a public school in a low-income area—after the same company tossed its original plans to build near a charter school serving mostly white, middle-class families.

Back in 2013, the company Mineral Resources was granted a permit to drill a few hundred feet from Frontier Academy, a majority white charter school in Greeley, Colorado. But after parents and neighborhood residents strongly resisted, the project was delayed. The following year, the Denver-based energy company Extraction Oil and Gas acquired Mineral Resources and abandoned the plans to frack near Frontier Academy. The site, Extraction explained in an internal analysis, was “not preferable” for oil and gas development because of its proximity to the school and its playground.

Instead, Extraction began scouting other locations in Greeley, a small city about 50 miles northeast of Denver. In May 2016, Extraction Oil and Gas filed a new application. This time, Extraction selected a site even closer to another school: Bella Romero Academy. The student population at Bella Romero is more than 87 percent Latino or Hispanic, African American, or other people of color. More than 90 percent of students at Bella Romero qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. (At Frontier, 77 percent of students are white, and about 20 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.)

“When they were looking for another site away from Frontier, where does it wind up? In the Hispanic community, by the Hispanic school,” says Eric Huber, an attorney with the Sierra Club’s Environmental Law Program, one of the groups behind the lawsuit. “We think that decision was made, unfortunately, because that particular community doesn’t have the resources to fight it.”

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, is the process of creating small cracks in underground rock formations using sand, water, and chemicals pumped at high pressure. The resulting fractures allow oil or natural gas to flow into a well. Fracking is a fiercely debated issue, with proponents claiming it is a valuable method for extracting resources needed for energy production, and opponents raising environmental and health concerns. More than 17 million American now live within one mile of oil and gas wells. Weld County, where Greeley sits, is one of the most fracked counties in the US, with more than 23,000 active oil and gas wells.

Despite community opposition to the project voiced in public meetings and written comments, in March 2017 the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) granted Extraction a permit for the site near Bella Romero’s fourth- through eighth-grade campus.

Shortly after, the Sierra Club, the Colorado NAACP, and environmental groups Weld Air and Water and Wall of Women filed a lawsuit against the COGCC. The suit claims the commission’s approval of the site was unlawful; the commission did not adequately address concerns about health impacts that had been raised in public comments, and failed to ensure the site was far enough away from inhabited buildings, the suit alleges. (COGCC regulations require oil and gas production facilities to be “as far as possible” from homes, schools, and other occupied buildings.)

“We have one of the largest developments proposed in Colorado within 1,000 feet of fields where middle school children play,” says Tim Estep, a clinical fellow with the University of Denver’s Environmental Law Clinic and a lawyer for the plaintiffs. “It’s not that our clients are opposed to oil and gas everywhere. In this case, it’s being done so wrong, and to a community that has already been marginalized in so many ways.” While there is no legal claim of environmental injustice, “that’s really the underlying problem in this particular case,” Estep explains.

The site meets state regulations, which mandate that fracking operations be at least 500 feet away from homes and 1,000 feet away from schools. But not by much: The 24 wells will be built only 509 feet away from a home and 1,360 feet from Bella Romero. And, according to the lawsuit, Bella Romero’s playground and athletic fields sit in between the school and the proposed wells, meaning students will be playing less than 1,000 feet away from oil and gas facilities. (Extraction contended that the site is 1,250 feet from the nearest playground.)  . . .

Continue reading.

This seems to me very corrupt and third-worldish, but that’s the direction the US has been going for a while now.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 April 2018 at 9:34 am

Denial by a different name

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Kate Aronoff reports in the Intercept:

IT CAN FEEL GOOD to make fun of climate deniers. So let’s take a little romp with one: Wolfgang Müller.

Here he is in a Dusseldorf hotel conference room, 100 people gathered to take a group photo before him. He’s distributing stemware and pouring champagne, at the 11th annual International Conference on Climate and Energy, a convening this past November of some of Europe’s pre-eminent denialist minds.

Given that this is Europe, it’s not a huge crowd. Müller and company fit the stereotype: cranks poking holes in scientific consensus, railing against the pointy-headed academics — often, though not in his case, with generous industry funding. This particular gathering is co-hosted by the European Institute for Climate and Energy, known as its German abbreviation EIKE; the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an American outfit; and a handful of smaller groups of self-identified climate skeptics.

It’s not hard to see why EIKE sits on the margins. In one presentation, a historical building preservationist argued that medieval building practices — castles with 2-foot-thick stone walls — were better suited to insulate heat than Germany’s apparently tyrannical energy efficiency standards, in a talk that included an extended, only half-joking anecdote involving sex and boar skins. A session on renewables pleads sympathy for wildlife; literature handed out by the presenter features a picture of a dead bird at the foot of a wind turbine. The sole caption, in German, asks: “Bird shredder?”

Billed as a “Contra-COP23,” it takes place about an hour’s train ride from COP23, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 23rd annual Conference of Parties talks in Bonn, where the world is vowing to redouble its efforts to combat climate change in spite of the spurning of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Back in Dusseldorf, it’s cause for celebration. For the camera, they toast: “To Donald Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement!”

It is the patent impotence of Müller and his cohort that allows us to laugh at him. In the realm of international policymaking at the UNFCCC talks, he is far more than an hour from the main conversation, where climate change is universally acknowledged to exist, to be manmade, and to present one of humanity’s most pressing challenges — a fact that even right-wing heads of state rarely dispute.

Viewed close-up, the two sides and their competing conferences couldn’t look any less alike. Yet panning back and taking a longer and broader view — the one that actually matters to the health of the climate — the daylight between them shrinks.

Müller, at least, is honest about this denialism — even if he prefers the term “skeptic.”

Müller’s own scientific rationale may make no sense, but his conclusion is easy on the conscience: Relax, everything will be OK. Another version of that message is being marketed across COP23. As climate scientists call for a dramatic transformation of the world’s economy, a different set of deniers is starting to coalesce around something easier — plans to seemingly tackle climate change that may well still portend planetary catastrophe, even according to conservative climate projections. Unlike Müller, they’re at the center of the climate policymaking debate in Bonn. Like its predecessor events, exhibition halls at COP23 were dotted with stalls sponsored by fossil fuel companies proselytizing carbon capture and storage technology; international investment banks eager to discuss the central role of private finance in driving the new green revolution; industry-backed think tanks exploring the necessity of spraying particulates into the air to block out the sun. The solutions coming out of high-level talks don’t inspire much more confidence.

They peddle in a set of easy fixes: a market signal here, an industrial-grade aerosol there, and the crisis will be an artifact of history, with corporate shareholders better off for it.

If you believe that, then I have a clean coal plant to sell you.

AMERICA MAY WELL be the only country in the world where climate deniers making claims similar to Müller enjoy access to the reins of power. Given its status as the world’s largest economy and its second-largest polluter, that’s not something to be taken lightly; former EPA administrators estimate that the damage wrought by agency head Scott Pruitt in his first year could take three decades to repair. A few dozen miles from the EIKE confab, though — at a sprawling U.N. campus along the Rhine — was a preview for the kinds of climate politics that will dominate the 21st century once Trump and Pruitt are out of office. Unfortunately for the rest of us, they’re only marginally more in touch with scientific reality than our German revelers.

The relevant question isn’t whether the Earth is heating up, but what we intend to do about it. That’s a radically different conversation about climate change than the one that’s been had in America to this point. Here, decades of propaganda from the fossil fuel industry and the denialist think tanks they support have forced the debate to orbit around whether there’s a problem at all, prying open the Overton window to accommodate conspiracy theorists and Nobel Prize winners alike. That the two co-habitated for years on the same cable news panels put the climate debate on deniers’ terms, taking any discussion of reasonable, large-scale solutions — stringent regulation, massive public investment, an economy planned around reducing emissions — virtually off the table. In its place has come a parade of utopian techno-fixes and market-based solutions, dreamed up by the likes of Milton Friedman and now embraced by left and right alike. The same disinformation campaigners that created a debate over the reality of climate change have hedged their bets and staked a claim to solving a problem that they had tried to convince the world didn’t exist.

In late March, Royal Dutch Shell — Europe’s biggest oil company — released a pathway to meeting the low-bar commitment laid out in the Paris Agreement to cap warming at 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels; the actual text calls to cap it at “well below” 2 degrees Celsius. Still, the company’s decarbonization plan — to reach net-zero emissions by 2070 — is hugely ambitious. As Vox’s David Roberts notes,  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 April 2018 at 10:40 am

The ecological cost of humanity: Since 2016, Half of All Coral in the Great Barrier Reef Has Died

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Robinson Meyer writes in the Atlantic:

Once upon a time, there was a city so dazzling and kaleidoscopic, so braided and water-rimmed, that it was often compared to a single living body. It clustered around a glimmering emerald spine, which astronauts could glimpse from orbit. It hid warm nooks and crannies, each a nursery for new life. It opened into radiant, iris-colored avenues, which tourists crossed oceans to see. The city was, the experts declared, the planet’s largest living structure.

Then, all at once, a kind of invisible wildfire overran the city. It consumed its avenues and neighborhoods, swallowed its canyons and branches. It expelled an uncountable number of dwellers from their homes. It was merciless: Even those who escaped the initial ravishment perished in the famine that followed.

Many people had loved the city, but none of them could protect it. No firefighters, no chemicals, no intervention of any kind could stop the destruction. As the heat plundered the city of its wealth, the experts could only respond with careful, mournful observation.

All of this recently happened, more or less, off the east coast of Australia. The Great Barrier Reef—which, at 1,400 miles long, is the longest and largest coral reef in the world—was blanketed by dangerously hot water in the summer of 2016. This heat strangled and starved the corals, causing what has been called “an unprecedented bleaching event.”

Though that bleaching event was reported at the time, scientists are just starting to understand how catastrophically transformative it was. A new paper, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, serves as a kind of autopsy report for the debacle.

After inspecting every one of its reefs, and surveying them on an almost species-by-species basis, the paper reports that vast swaths of the Great Barrier Reef were permanently transformed in the summer of 2016. The reef’s northern third, previously its most pristine section, lost more than half of its corals. Two of its most recognizable creatures—the amber-colored staghorn corals, and the flat, fanlike tabular corals—suffered the worst casualties.

But damage was widespread out across the entire ecosystem.

“On average, across the Great Barrier Reef, one in three corals died in nine months,” said Terry Hughes, an author of the paper and the director of the ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, the Australian government’s federal research program devoted to corals.

“You could say [the ecosystem] has collapsed. You could say it has degraded. I wouldn’t say that’s wrong,” Hughes said. “A more neutral way of putting it is that it has transformed into a completely new system that looks differently, and behaves differently, and functions differently, than how it was three years ago.”

“It’s a confirmation of our worst fears,” said John Bruno, a marine biologist at the University of North Carolina who was not involved in the study.

Yet it was not the end of troubles for the Great Barrier Reef. In the summer months of 2017, warm waters again struck the reef and triggered another bleaching event. This time, the heat hit the reef’s middle third. Hughes and his team have not published a peer-reviewed paper on that event, but he shared early survey results with me.

Combined, he said, the back-to-back bleaching events killed one in every two corals in the Great Barrier Reef. It is a fact almost beyond comprehension: In the summer of 2015, more than 2 billion corals lived in the Great Barrier Reef. Half of them are now dead.

What caused the devastation? Hughes was clear: human-caused global warming. The accumulation of heat-trapping pollution in the atmosphere has raised the world’s average temperature, making the oceans hotter and less hospitable to fragile tropical corals.

“People often ask me, ‘Will we have a Great Barrier Reef in 50 years, or 100 years?’ And my answer is, yes, I certainly hope so—but it’s completely contingent on the near-future trajectory of greenhouse-gas emissions,” Hughes said.

The Paris Agreement on climate change aims to prevent the world’s average temperature from rising by 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). “One degree of that warming has already occurred since industrialization,” Hughes said. “That 1 degree has obviously made things uncomfortable for reefs—most reefs have bleached three or four times since 1998.”

“But the global-average target includes both land and sea, the poles and the tropics,” he continued. “The sea is warming at a slower rate than the land, and the tropics are warming more slowly than higher latitudes near the poles. So far, we’ve seen less than 1 degree of warming in the ocean—about 0.7 degrees Celsius. If we go to 2 degrees, we’ll see another 0.55 degrees on average in the tropics. I think that’s possibly doable in terms of still having functional coral reefs, but as we’ve already seen, the mix of species will be very different than it was just two years ago.”

It is about as hopeful a note as you can get out of him. And there’s one glaring problem: The world is currently not on track to meet the Paris Agreement goals. And the United States announced it would leave the treaty last year.


The new paper also advances its own idea of what the future of the Great Barrier Reef will look like. In short, it is highly unlikely that the Great Barrier Reef—the northern reef, especially—will resemble its old self in the lifetime of any living person. . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 April 2018 at 2:28 pm

The Paris Climate Accords Are Looking More and More Like Fantasy

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David Wallace-Wells reports in New York:

Remember Paris? It was not even two years ago that the celebrated climate accords were signed — defining two degrees of global warming as a must-meet target and rallying all the world’s nations to meet it — and the returns are already dispiritingly grim.

This week, the International Energy Agency announced that carbon emissions grew 1.7 percent in 2017, after an ambiguous couple of years optimists hoped represented a leveling off, or peak; instead, we’re climbing again. Even before the new spike, not a single major industrial nation was on track to fulfill the commitments it made in the Paris treaty. To keep the planet under two degrees of warming — a level that was, not all that long ago, defined as the threshold of climate catastrophe — all signatory nations have to match or better those commitments. There are 195 signatories, of which only the following are considered even “in range” of their Paris targets: Morocco, Gambia, Bhutan, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, India, and the Philippines. This puts Donald Trump’s commitment to withdraw from the treaty in a useful perspective; in fact, his spite may ultimately prove perversely productive, since the evacuation of American leadership on climate seems to have mobilized China, eager to claim the mantle and far more consequential to the future of the planet because of its size and relative poverty, to adopt a much more aggressive posture toward climate. Of course those renewed Chinese commitments are, at this point, just rhetorical, too.

But this winter has brought even worse news than the abject failure of Paris compliance, in the form of a raft of distressing papers about what beyond compliance is required to stay below two degrees. Were each of those 195 countries to suddenly shape up, dramatically cutting back on fossil fuels to bring emissions in line with targets, that would still be not nearly enough to hit even Paris’s quite scary target. We don’t just need to draw down fossil fuels to stay below two degrees; doing so also requires “negative emissions” — extracting carbon from the atmosphere, essentially buying back some amount of existing fossil-fuel pollution through a combination of technological and agricultural tools. As Chelsea Harvey, among others, has pointed out, in 2014, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — now somewhat outdated, but still more or less the gold-standard single source for big-picture perspective — presented more than 100 modeled scenarios that would keep global temperatures below two degrees of warming. Nearly all of them relied on negative emissions. These tools come in two forms: technologies that would suck carbon out of the air (called CCS, for carbon capture and storage) and new approaches to forestry and agriculture that would do the same, in a slightly more old-fashioned way (bioenergy carbon capture and storage, or BECCS).

According to these recent papers, both are something close to fantasy: at best, uneconomical and entirely untested at scale, and, at worst, wholly inadequate to the job being asked of them. A new report of the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council found that negative-emissions technologies have “limited realistic potential” to even slow the increase in concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere — let alone meaningfully reduce that concentration. A letter in Nature Climate Change described the forestry and agricultural technologies, as imagined, “difficult to reconcile with planetary boundaries” — that is, it would impose such devastating costs in terms of forest cover, biodiversity, agriculture, and fresh water that doing so “might undermine the stability and resilience of the earth system,” lead author Vera Heck writes.

To keep us on track for Paris, BECCS “would require plantations covering two to three times the size of India — a third of the planet’s arable land,” Jason Hickell has calculated — and more than double that which is presently used to produce all the world’s agriculture. “Not only would this make it impossible to feed the world’s population, it would also be an ecological disaster.” Staying within those boundaries, and sparing the planet from those self-inflicted disasters, would mean deploying BECCS at such a small scale it could only offset, at best, one percent of annual emissions. Which means, all told, that the pathway to two degrees is getting so slim you can hardly see it; at present, it depends on emissions commitments literally no nation is keeping and technologies no one has seen work, and which many scientists now believe cannot possibly work. This is not good.

How not good? Another new paper sketches in horrifying detail what this failure would mean, though its findings are smuggled in under cover of rhetorical optimism. In the new issue of Nature Climate Change, a team lead by Drew Shindell tried to quantify the suffering that would be avoided if the planet were kept below 1.5 degrees of warming, rather than two degrees — in other words, how much additional suffering would result from that additional half-degree of warming. Their answer: 150 million more people would die from air pollution alone in a two-degree-warmer world than in a 1.5-degree-warmer one.

Numbers that large can be hard to grasp, but 150 million is the equivalent of 25 Holocausts. It is five times the size of the death toll of the Great Leap Forward — the largest non-military death toll humanity has ever produced. It is three times the greatest death toll of any kind: World War II. The paper’s math is speculative, of course, and there will surely be those who take issue with its methodology. But it also looks at deaths solely from air pollution — not from heat waves, drought, agricultural failure, pandemic disease, hurricanes and extreme weather, climate conflict, and more. And the paper reaches that figure, 150 million, only for a world that is two degrees warmer, when everything we are seeing now tells us that two degrees, always an optimistic target, is becoming more and more of a long shot.

That is all to say, it is a virtual certainty that we will inflict, thanks to climate change, the equivalent of 25 Holocausts on the world. Or . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 March 2018 at 9:38 am

How a conservative think tank is trying to tackle climate change

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At least some conservatives are paying attention to the fact and implications of climate change, but unfortunately not those in Congress or in the Trump administration—that is, not the conservatives who could take effect government action. James Hohman writes in the Washington Post’s Daily 202 column:

While President Trump is systematically rolling back his predecessor’s efforts to combat climate change, the conservative Hoover Institution is trying to address the reality of rising temperatures, higher sea levels and more extreme weather.

The center-right think tank, which is affiliated with Stanford University and home to GOP grandees like Condoleezza Rice, is pursuing a host of initiatives that treat climate change as a pressing national security challenge and a market failure that requires government intervention.

It’s a striking contrast to Washington, where the Paris accord has been abandoned, skeptics of established science hold some of the most important jobs in government and congressional Republicans long ago eschewed promises to seriously confront environmental disruption.

But here, the spirit of innovation that defines Silicon Valley trumps the ideological rigidity that reigns in the capital.

George Shultz, who served as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, embraces the idea of a carbon tax. He says this would free up private firms to find the most efficient ways to cut emissions. The 97-year-old chairs an energy policy task force at Hoover that, among other solutions, advocates for expanding nuclear power. “Let’s take out an insurance policy to protect against the risk of climate change,” Shultz said.

Gary Roughead, the former chief of naval operations, studies the consequences of global warming in the Arctic. This is causing polar ice caps to melt and, for all intents and purposes, opening a new ocean. That means trade routes will soon exist that are now blocked by ice. The retired admiral, one of only two people to ever command both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets, believes the U.S. must prepare for and capitalize on this. That will require checking Russia’s expansionary push in the northern sea lanes.

James Mattis, who spent almost four years at Hoover between retiring from the Marines and leaving to becoming secretary of defense, has also described climate change as a national security threat, citing the rising sea levels and desertification. Lake Chad, for example, has shrunk by about 90 percent since 1990, causing the instability that fueled the rise of the Boko Haram terrorist group.

Hoover has even hired an alumna of Barack Obama’s White House to focus on climate change. Alice Hill was a special assistant to the president and the senior director for resilience policy on the National Security Council. Before that, she served as a judge and led a climate change task force at the Department of Homeland Security.

“This is a global problem, and it’s really a problem that needs attention from the highest levels of government,” Hill said during a day-long Hoover media roundtable on Monday. “It’s difficult to solve it with 50 states and all the municipalities trying to pull and row in one direction without somebody as a captain of the ship. … It’s here, and we need to address it.”

Goldman Sachs fortified its headquarters after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. When Superstorm Sandy hit New York in 2012, the investment bank’s lights stayed on while the buildings around it went dark. But many of the firm’s employees couldn’t get to work because the public infrastructure was in shambles. Hill cites this as a parable to explain why a whole-of-government response is needed to fight climate change. “You can’t live on an island,” she said.

Half of Americans live in coastal counties. Cities with crucial naval installations, like Norfolk, are especially at risk. She praised Congress for including language in this year’s defense reauthorization bill that requires the Pentagon to identify the 10 military installations which are most vulnerable to climate change and outline what can be done to shore them up.

As far as most experts are concerned, the underlying facts are not up for debate. Scientists agree that Hurricane Harvey was more damaging than it would have been in the past because of climate change. California has just suffered its worst drought ever and some of the worst wildfires ever. Almost every year brings more natural disasters that cause in excess of $1 billion in damage than the year before. Consider this graphic of such events from just last year:

To be sure, Hoover is not monolithic. There are several fellows whose views hew much closer to standard-fare GOP orthodoxy. Some have dismissed “climate change hysteria” and challenged the accuracy of modeling that forecasts the extent of future increases in sea level.

Naturally for a think tank where Milton Friedman spent three decades as a research fellow, the focus is on market solutions more than government mandates. Terry Anderson, a father of “free market environmentalism,” thinks it was good to pull out of the Paris accord and believes the world has plenty of time to adjust to long-term shifts in the climate. But he also supports overhauling government subsidy programs, such as crop and flood insurance, that incentivize bad decision-making and help obscure the effects of climate change. “We need to find ways to make sure we can be resilient,” he said. “We need to find ways to get people out of harm’s way.”

Hill, who worked on Obama’s NSC, said Congress needs to stop bailing out places with no building codes. She lamented that people in Houston are rebuilding houses in places that will inevitably flood again, and they’re only able to do it because of taxpayer-funded flood insurance and disaster relief appropriated by congressional Republicans who opposed help for New York and New Jersey after Sandy. “That’s not a long-term sustainable approach for the federal government,” she said, advocating for some national building standards and enforcement. “We need to take steps to prepare ourselves, to mitigate the risk as much as possible in advance.” . . .

Continue reading.

The remainder of the column goes on to discuss other issues currently active.

In reading the above, I cannot help but think that the GOP is a danger to the country.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 March 2018 at 11:08 am

Houston-Area Officials Approved a Plan for Handling a Natural Disaster — Then Ignored It

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Government can do a lot of good if it attracts competent people, but if is filled with incompetents, the ball will be dropped. Jessica Huseman and Decca Muldowney report in ProPublica:

Seven months before Hurricane Harvey inundated the Houston area with a trillion gallons of water and led to widespread criticism of the Red Cross, Harris County adopted a disaster-preparation plan that’s key assumption was that the Red Cross would be slow to act. “In a major disaster where there is widespread damage, the local resources of the Red Cross may be overwhelmed and not available immediately,” stated the plan. “It may be upwards of 7 days before the Red Cross can assume a primary care and shelter role.”

The 17-page document, entitled the “Mass Shelter Plan,” was unanimously approved by the county’s governing body on Jan. 31, 2017. ProPublica obtained the plan, which until now has not been public, as part of a public records request.

The Mass Shelter Plan described the Red Cross as the county’s “lead partner” but was unequivocal in assigning responsibility should a calamity occur: “In the event of an emergency that requires evacuation of all or any part of the Harris County population, Harris County is ultimately responsible for the coordination of the evacuation, shelter and mass care of displaced local residents.”

The goal, according to a county spokesperson, was to provide shelter for up to 10,000 displaced residents. (Harris County’s population is 4.5 million; roughly half of those people live in Houston.) The plan proposed that county employees be trained as shelter volunteers, outlined specific roles for shelter staff and indicated the county would identify and survey buildings that could be used for emergency housing beyond those already identified by the American Red Cross.

“The main idea behind the plan is to have county personnel staff and manage the shelters up to 7 days until ARC volunteers can transition operations,” county emergency management planner David Alamia wrote in a December 2016 email obtained by ProPublica.

But in the seven months between the plan’s passage and the landfall of Harvey, the county took few steps to implement its strategy. Indeed, when dire flooding forced thousands of people from their homes, 3,036 emails obtained in a public records request suggest, officials didn’t even seem aware that a plan existed.

“Harris County had the forethought to identify — and rightfully so — that the Red Cross might not be able to be there for upwards of seven days depending on storm severity, and then they didn’t follow through on their plans,” said Meghan McPherson, an adjunct professor of emergency management at Tulane University, who reviewed the plan at ProPublica’s request. “It doesn’t seem they made a connection between what they promised the public and what they did.”


Hurricane Harvey, which struck in late August last year, generated a heroic response. The tales of citizens taking care of each other and volunteers improvising were legion. By contrast, the Red Cross came in for lacerating criticism. Local media chronicled myriad problems. Cities within Harris County emailed the county’s emergency management office asking for Red Cross help and the county acknowledged it couldn’t send it. “I hate to say this, but the Red Cross is completely out of resources,” county official Kristina Clark told the fire marshal in Humble, Texas. She advised him to open his own shelter, and get the word out that evacuees would need to bring “THEIR OWN food, sleeping bags, clothes, medication, etc.” One Houston councilman grew so exasperated that he confronted the Red Cross’ CEO in a parking lot and called the Red Cross, during a council meeting, the “most inept, unorganized organization I’ve ever experienced.”

For its part, Harris County’s emergency management department clearly scrambled to open shelters on short notice, emails show. Indeed, employees seemed taken aback that their department would have a role. “As far as coordinating mass care, GOODNESS we had to do that too,” wrote Stevee Franks, a recovery specialist in the county’s office of homeland security and emergency management, in a Sept. 10 email to a peer in a nearby county. “Shelter after shelter and Red Cross was absolutely no help.” As she put it, “we had to open shelters ourselves which was stupid stressful.” (We have left the spelling and punctuation in emails as is. Franks did not respond to a request for comment.)

Franks’ email did not mention that the county had passed a plan to avoid this exact scenario — nor did any of the emails examined by ProPublica.

Similarly, Steve Radack, a Harris County commissioner for nearly three decades, seemed unaware of the existence of the plan — which he voted for — when asked about it in an interview with ProPublica. “I cannot speak to that,” he said.

Like many, Radack praised the efforts of volunteers in the aftermath of Harvey. But as stirring as those efforts were, the Mass Shelter Plan envisioned a more centrally organized approach that emphasized training. “Harris County employees will have the opportunity to be trained in Shelter Operations,” it stated.

The plan cited more than a dozen roles that could be filled by shelter staff, and noted that the Red Cross recommended six staff members per 100 shelterees. But in the months between the plan’s passage and the landfall of Harvey, the county hosted only one training, for about 40 volunteers, in May 2017.

Paul Suckow, a senior planner with the Harris County Community Services Department, was among those trained. He said the group was taught the basics of shelter operations: what needed to be set up before the public arrived, how to assemble and clean the cots the Red Cross would provide and what to do with other supplies. All of the scenarios they role-played, Suckow said, assumed that a shelter run by the Red Cross would already be set up and waiting. Opening and managing a shelter, he said, “would be a higher level of training than we received.”

Harris County emergency management spokesman Francisco Sanchez said only one training session was held because that was all the county and the Red Cross — which offered the training — had time to organize. A second training was scheduled for Aug. 30. It was canceled, Sanchez said, because of Harvey.

Sanchez said the Mass Care Plan came about as a result of “candid conversations” with the Red Cross about its sheltering capacity during flooding events after previous missteps in the county. “There is a tendency,” he said, “for American Red Cross process or flow to become very challenged, quite frankly overwhelmed, in flooding events.” But plans are made to be changed in emergencies, Sanchez said, and that’s what happened after Harvey hit. “A plan is flexible,” he said. “It’s scalable. We can apply it and we can adapt it — and we can throw the rules out the window to serve the residents of Harris County.”

Other county officials mostly sidestepped questions about the lack of preparation and defended their efforts. . .

Continue reading.

There’s lots more. Later in the article:

Among our requests for documents, ProPublica asked for a list of shelters that the county had identified and surveyed in advance, as the Mass Shelter Plan called for. That request yielded an unexpected response.

Harris County did not provide any emails showing such preparation, but did — seemingly unintentionally — send internal emails in which county officials discussed ProPublica’s request with each other. An email dated Nov. 1, 2017, sent by Brian Murray, the office of emergency management’s planning supervisor, indicated that the shelter surveys envisioned by the county plan “do not, and never did, exist.”

Rosio Torres-Segura, a media specialist for emergency management, then emailed her supervisor, asking, “Do you want to reply to the reporter or do you want me to tell her these documents do not exist. She’s going to ask why?”

That supervisor, Francisco Sanchez, then told ProPublica the reason they did not exist was because the county had decided to leave the task to the Red Cross. “The end result of the plan and how it was implemented included extensive dialogue offline where we came to an understanding with the American Red Cross that they had unique expertise in selecting and inspecting pre-identified sites,” he said. “As hurricane season approached, it made sense to rely on the work of the American Red Cross and their existing inspections so we could be prepared to act more swiftly in the event of a storm that threatened our community.”

The Red Cross offered a different recollection. The organization “was always under the impression that the county might take steps to identify additional shelters beyond those listed” in the Red Cross system, said spokeswoman Elizabeth Penninman. “That kind of flexibility is critical in large and complex disasters like the response to Hurricane Harvey.”

Speaking more broadly, Penninman disputed the premise of Harris County’s plan. A seven-day response, she wrote in a statement, is “not the Red Cross standard, nor does it reflect the actual performance of the Red Cross and its partners. The Red Cross national standard is to respond immediately, maintain sufficient local resources to handle 48 hours of emergency sheltering activity, and resource for planned peak shelter populations within the continental United States within 96 hours.” Penninman asserted that within 48 hours of the arrival of Harvey, “the Red Cross had 6 shelters open in Harris County with a population of 3,649.” And by 96 hours in, she said, the Red Cross was operating 43 shelters serving 14,154 people.

Asked about the county’s failure to identify shelters in advance, Sanchez pointed to a space that was used successfully — the NRG Convention Center, which ended up housing 7,400 people — but only at the last minute. According to Sanchez, “Many of the relationships necessary to make that happen were a direct result of writing the mass shelter plan.”

But Rene Solis, who leads disaster relief efforts for BakerRiply, said he was unaware of the Mass Shelter Plan. BakerRipley, a nonprofit that focuses on community development, ran the emergency operations at the NRG Center.

The decision to allow BakerRipley to manage the NRG Center was made only the day before the shelter opened, Solis said. “There was no expectation or plan for us to [manage] the NRG Center,” Solis said. “It came about because of urgent need.”

Asked to identify any ways in which the county adhered to the Mass Shelter Plan, Sanchez said the county “worked to secure a cache of cots and other supplies” to supplement the Red Cross’ resources; updated the county’s mapping system to reflect the location of existing Red Cross shelters; and “worked extensively to strengthen partnerships with school districts and nonprofits that might support shelter operations.”

Here, too, some of Sanchez’s assertions didn’t square with the memories of others, in this case the Houston Independent School District. “No one from the county asked HISD for anything,” said school district spokesperson Lorena Cozzari, “nor did HISD ask the county for anything during the storm.”

Notwithstanding the steadfast defense of county efforts by its executives, some staffers seemed to recognize, in emails they sent in the weeks after Harvey, that the planning didn’t go as well as hoped.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 February 2018 at 2:47 pm

Cape Town asks for disaster zone status to stave off drought

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Climate change is starting to bite hard. Aislinn Laing reports in the Times:

Cape Town has pleaded with the South African government to declare a national disaster as it faces the prospect of becoming the first modern city in the world to run out of water.

Draconian restrictions will be imposed this week to try to eke out dwindling water supplies, but unless the four million people living in and around the city drastically cut their usage the taps will be turned off on April 12, known locally as Day Zero.

Most residents will have to collect water for washing, cooking and drinking from one of 200 communal collection points to be installed around the city and guarded by soldiers in case the shortages lead to violence.

The region has experienced three years of drought; conditions so dry that they can be expected only once every 300 years. That, and a failure by national and local governments to maintain the city’s infrastructure and curb water usage, is being blamed.

From Thursday, when summer temperatures are forecast to hit 28C, residents will be asked to use only 50 litres a day per person, down from 87 litres. Those who fail to adhere to the measures will have restricters placed on their taps. An eight-minute shower typically uses more than 60 litres.

Helen Zille, the provincial governor, has written to President Zuma warning of an “imminent crisis” and urging him to declare a disaster, which would allow extra funding and police, military and medical specialists to be deployed. She said that thousands of jobs had already been lost in the agricultural sector and that the vital tourism sector was also at risk as visitors cancelled their summer holiday trips.

Residents, fearing the worst, have been urged not to stockpile water from their taps but usage appears to have risen anyway as the restrictions loom.  . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 January 2018 at 10:45 am

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