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History > 2013 > USA > Nature / Weather / Environment (II)




LaTisha Garcia carries her 8-year-old daughter, Jazmin Rodriguez,

near Plaza Towers Elementary School

after a massive tornado carved its way through Moore, Okla., May 20.

leaving little of the school and neighborhood.


Sue Ogrock/Associated Press

Boston Globe > Big Picture > 2013 Year in Pictures: Part 2        December 19, 2013















Gangplank to a Warm Future


July 28, 2013
The New York Times


ITHACA, N.Y. — MANY concerned about climate change, including President Obama, have embraced hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. In his recent climate speech, the president went so far as to lump gas with renewables as “clean energy.”

As a longtime oil and gas engineer who helped develop shale fracking techniques for the Energy Department, I can assure you that this gas is not “clean.” Because of leaks of methane, the main component of natural gas, the gas extracted from shale deposits is not a “bridge” to a renewable energy future — it’s a gangplank to more warming and away from clean energy investments.

Methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, though it doesn’t last nearly as long in the atmosphere. Still, over a 20-year period, one pound of it traps as much heat as at least 72 pounds of carbon dioxide. Its potency declines, but even after a century, it is at least 25 times as powerful as carbon dioxide. When burned, natural gas emits half the carbon dioxide of coal, but methane leakage eviscerates this advantage because of its heat-trapping power.

And methane is leaking, though there is significant uncertainty over the rate. But recent measurements by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at gas and oil fields in California, Colorado and Utah found leakage rates of 2.3 percent to 17 percent of annual production, in the range my colleagues at Cornell and I predicted some years ago. This is the gas that is released into the atmosphere unburned as part of the hydraulic fracturing process, and also from pipelines, compressors and processing units. Those findings raise questions about what is happening elsewhere. The Environmental Protection Agency has issued new rules to reduce these emissions, but the rules don’t take effect until 2015, and apply only to new wells.

A 2011 study from the National Center for Atmospheric Research concluded that unless leaks can be kept below 2 percent, gas lacks any climate advantage over coal. And a study released this May by Climate Central, a group of scientists and journalists studying climate change, concluded that the 50 percent climate advantage of natural gas over coal is unlikely to be achieved over the next three to four decades. Unfortunately, we don’t have that long to address climate change — the next two decades are crucial.

To its credit, the president’s plan recognizes that “curbing emissions of methane is critical.” However, the release of unburned gas in the production process is not the only problem. Gas and oil wells that lose their structural integrity also leak methane and other contaminants outside their casings and into the atmosphere and water wells. Multiple industry studies show that about 5 percent of all oil and gas wells leak immediately because of integrity issues, with increasing rates of leakage over time. With hundreds of thousands of new wells expected, this problem is neither negligible nor preventable with current technology.

Why do so many wells leak this way? Pressures under the earth, temperature changes, ground movement from the drilling of nearby wells and shrinkage crack and damage the thin layer of brittle cement that is supposed to seal the wells. And getting the cement perfect as the drilling goes horizontally into shale is extremely challenging. Once the cement is damaged, repairing it thousands of feet underground is expensive and often unsuccessful. The gas and oil industries have been trying to solve this problem for decades.

The scientific community has been waiting for better data from the E.P.A. to assess the extent of the water contamination problem. That is why it is so discouraging that, in the face of industry complaints, the E.P.A. reportedly has closed or backed away from several investigations into the problem. Perhaps a full E.P.A. study of hydraulic fracturing and drinking water, due in 2014, will be more forthcoming. In addition, drafts of an Energy Department study suggest that there are huge problems finding enough water for fracturing future wells. The president should not include this technology in his energy policy until these studies are complete.

We have renewable wind, water, solar and energy-efficiency technology options now. We can scale these quickly and affordably, creating economic growth, jobs and a truly clean energy future to address climate change. Political will is the missing ingredient. Meaningful carbon reduction is impossible so long as the fossil fuel industry is allowed so much influence over our energy policies and regulatory agencies. Policy makers need to listen to the voices of independent scientists while there is still time.


Anthony R. Ingraffea is a professor

of civil and environmental engineering

at Cornell University and the president of Physicians,

Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy,

a nonprofit group.

    Gangplank to a Warm Future, NYT, 28.7.2013,






Halliburton Pleads Guilty

to Destroying Evidence After Gulf Spill


July 25, 2013
The New York Times


HOUSTON — Halliburton has agreed to plead guilty to destruction of critical evidence after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010, the Justice Department announced on Thursday.

The oil services company said it would pay the maximum allowable fine of $200,000 and will be subject to three years of probation. It will also continue its cooperation in the government’s criminal investigation. Separately, Halliburton made a voluntary contribution of $55 million to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

The Justice Department filed one criminal charge against the company. In a statement, Halliburton said that the violation was a misdemeanor associated with the deletion of records created after the accident. Additionally, the company said, “The Department of Justice has agreed that it will not pursue further criminal prosecution of the company.”

Halliburton has suffered enormous damage to its reputation — as have BP and Transocean, the operator of the Deepwater Horizon rig — in the explosion that killed 11 workers and soiled hundreds of miles of beaches. All three companies have pleaded guilty to a criminal charge related to the spill.

The Justice Department said Halliburton had recommended to BP, the British oil company, before the drilling that the well include 21 metal centralizing collars to stabilize the cementing. BP chose to use six instead. During an internal probe after the accident, Halliburton ordered workers to destroy computer simulations that showed little difference between using six and 21 collars, the government said, after which the company continued to say that BP was neglectful to not follow its advice.

The development was not entirely unexpected after the first phase of the civil trial in New Orleans. Lawyers representing businesses and others that suffered from the spill had long accused the company of conducting undocumented cement tests and hiding the results. BP had accused Halliburton of destroying evidence of its cement testing.

But during the trial this year Thomas Roth, a senior company executive who was in charge of cementing operations when the spill occurred, acknowledged that because of the well design and other factors, “the cement placement was going to be a job that would have a low probability of success.”

Timothy Quirk, a Halliburton laboratory manager, testified that he conducted stability tests on cement samples from a similar blend that had been used in the well after the accident. Following instructions from a colleague, he said he did not prepare a laboratory work sheet. “It was unusual,” he said. He also acknowledged that he had thrown out his notes.

Later tests showed that the cement was not stable.

The failure of the cement foam seal set off a complex and ultimately deadly cascade of oil and gas up the well casing that exploded into flames to engulf the Deepwater Horizon rig. The blowout preventer, which is supposed to contain a well bore breach, also failed.

The presidential commission that investigated the accident reported that Halliburton officials knew before the explosion that the cement mixture they planned to use to seal the bottom of the well was unstable but still went ahead with the cementing.

The commission also found that at least one of three laboratory tests was given to BP, the operator of the drilling site, but it neglected to respond.

“There is no indication that Halliburton highlighted to BP the significance of the foam stability data or that BP personnel raised any questions about it,” the report said.

Legal scholars said the guilty plea would probably work against Halliburton in the civil trial in New Orleans to determine the share of damages owed to the Gulf states and businesses affected by the spill.

“This could impact how the civil litigation is resolved, potentially imposing more liability on Halliburton than we originally thought,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.

It may also work in favor of BP, which has argued that while it made serious mistakes it shares responsibility for the accident with Halliburton and Transocean.

Last November, BP agreed to pay $4.5 billion in penalties and pleaded guilty to 14 criminal charges related to the explosion.

The Justice Department also has filed criminal charges against four BP employees in connection with the accident. Transocean agreed to plead guilty this year. The company was sentenced to pay $400 million and other penalties.

In recent years, the giant energy services company has had remarkable success as a leader in the oil and gas shale drilling revolution that is making the United States less dependent on foreign energy supplies.

But in the not-to-distant past, Halliburton found itself under scrutiny over accusations that it performed shoddy, overpriced work for the United States military in Iraq, bribed Nigerian officials to win energy contracts and did business with Iran at time when it faced sanctions.

“It’s another bad day for Halliburton and a very good day for BP,” said Fadel Gheit, a senior oil analyst at Oppenheimer.

    Halliburton Pleads Guilty to Destroying Evidence After Gulf Spill, NYT, 25.7.2013,






Our Coming Food Crisis


July 21, 2013
The New York Times


TUCSON, Ariz. — THIS summer the tiny town of Furnace Creek, Calif., may once again grace the nation’s front pages. Situated in Death Valley, it last made news in 1913, when it set the record for the world’s hottest recorded temperature, at 134 degrees. With the heat wave currently blanketing the Western states, and given that the mercury there has already reached 130 degrees, the news media is awash in speculation that Furnace Creek could soon break its own mark.

Such speculation, though, misses the real concern posed by the heat wave, which covers an area larger than New England. The problem isn’t spiking temperatures, but a new reality in which long stretches of triple-digit days are common — threatening not only the lives of the millions of people who live there, but also a cornerstone of the American food supply.

People living outside the region seldom recognize its immense contribution to American agriculture: roughly 40 percent of the net farm income for the country normally comes from the 17 Western states; cattle and sheep production make up a significant part of that, as do salad greens, dry beans, onions, melons, hops, barley, wheat and citrus fruits. The current heat wave will undeniably diminish both the quality and quantity of these foods.

The most vulnerable crops are those that were already in flower and fruit when temperatures surged, from apricots and barley to wheat and zucchini. Idaho farmers have documented how their potato yields have been knocked back because their heat-stressed plants are not developing their normal number of tubers. Across much of the region, temperatures on the surface of food and forage crops hit 105 degrees, at least 10 degrees higher than the threshold for most temperate-zone crops.

What’s more, when food and forage crops, as well as livestock, have had to endure temperatures 10 to 20 degrees higher than the long-term averages, they require far more water than usual. The Western drought, which has persisted for the last few years, has already diminished both surface water and groundwater supplies and increased energy costs, because of all the water that has to be pumped in from elsewhere.

If these costs are passed on to consumers, we can again expect food prices, especially for beef and lamb, to rise, just as they did in 2012, the hottest year in American history. So extensive was last year’s drought that more than 1,500 counties — about half of all the counties in the country — were declared national drought disaster areas, and 90 percent of those were hit by heat waves as well.

The answer so far has been to help affected farmers with payouts from crop insurance plans. But while we can all sympathize with affected farmers, such assistance is merely a temporary response to a long-term problem.

Fortunately, there are dozens of time-tested strategies that our best farmers and ranchers have begun to use. The problem is that several agribusiness advocacy organizations have done their best to block any federal effort to promote them, including leaving them out of the current farm bill, or of climate change legislation at all.

One strategy would be to promote the use of locally produced compost to increase the moisture-holding capacity of fields, orchards and vineyards. In addition to locking carbon in the soil, composting buffers crop roots from heat and drought while increasing forage and food-crop yields. By simply increasing organic matter in their fields from 1 percent to 5 percent, farmers can increase water storage in the root zones from 33 pounds per cubic meter to 195 pounds.

And we have a great source of compostable waste: cities. Since much of the green waste in this country is now simply generating methane emissions from landfills, cities should be mandated to transition to green-waste sorting and composting, which could then be distributed to nearby farms.

Second, we need to reduce the bureaucratic hurdles to using small- and medium-scale rainwater harvesting and gray water (that is, waste water excluding toilet water) on private lands, rather than funneling all runoff to huge, costly and vulnerable reservoirs behind downstream dams. Both urban and rural food production can be greatly enhanced through proven techniques of harvesting rain and biologically filtering gray water for irrigation. However, many state and local laws restrict what farmers can do with such water.

Moreover, the farm bill should include funds from the Strikeforce Initiative of the Department of Agriculture to help farmers transition to forms of perennial agriculture — initially focusing on edible tree crops and perennial grass pastures — rather than providing more subsidies to biofuel production from annual crops. Perennial crops not only keep 7.5 to 9.4 times more carbon in the soil than annual crops, but their production also reduces the amount of fossil fuels needed to till the soil every year.

We also need to address the looming seed crisis. Because of recent episodes of drought, fire and floods, we are facing the largest shortfall in the availability of native grass, forage legume, tree and shrub seeds in American history. Yet current budget-cutting proposals threaten to significantly reduce the number of federal plant material centers, which promote conservation best practices.

If our rangelands, forests and farms are to recover from the devastating heat, drought and wildfires of the last three years, they need to be seeded with appropriate native forage and ground-cover species to heal from the wounds of climatic catastrophes. To that end, the farm bill should direct more money to the underfinanced seed collection and distribution programs.

Finally, the National Plant Germplasm System, the Department of Agriculture’s national reserve of crop seeds, should be charged with evaluating hundreds of thousands of seed collections for drought and heat tolerance, as well as other climatic adaptations — and given the financing to do so. Thousands of heirloom vegetables and heritage grains already in federal and state collections could be rapidly screened and then used by farmers for a fraction of what it costs a biotech firm to develop, patent and market a single “climate-friendly” crop.

Investing in climate-change adaptation will be far more cost-effective than doling out $11.6 billion in crop insurance payments, as the government did last year, for farmers hit with diminished yields or all-out crop failures.

Unfortunately, some agribusiness organizations fear that if they admit that accelerating climate change is already affecting farmers, it will shackle them with more regulations. But those organizations are hardly serving their member farmers and ranchers if they keep them at risk of further suffering from heat extremes and extended drought.

And no one can reasonably argue that the current system offers farmers any long-term protection. Last year some farmers made more from insurance payments than from selling their products, meaning we are dangerously close to subsidizing farmers for not adapting to changing climate conditions.

It’s now up to our political and business leaders to get their heads out of the hot sand and do something tangible to implement climate change policy and practices before farmers, ranchers and consumers are further affected. Climate adaptation is the game every food producer and eater must now play. A little investment coming too late will not help us adapt in time to this new reality.


Gary Paul Nabhan is a research scientist

at the Southwest Center at the University of Arizona

and the author of “Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land:

Lessons From Desert Farmers in Adapting

to Climate Uncertainty.”

    Our Coming Food Crisis, NYT, 21.7.2013,






Lost in Arizona Wildfire,

19 in an Elite Crew

That Rushed In Close


July 1, 2013
The New York Times


PRESCOTT, Ariz. — The men were mostly born and bred in this city on the mountains, surrounded by thick forest of piñon pine and chaparral brush, parched by years of drought. They were young men, mostly, 14 of them in their 20s — outdoorsmen, fathers, heroes to the local high school athletes they themselves once were.

“Just kids,” said Joe Peters, the assistant principal at Prescott High School.

Years ago, Mr. Peters taught math to some of them and coached others on the school’s football and wrestling teams. “But they were highly trained, the elite of the elite,” he said. “How could we lose that many all at once?”

Nineteen of the 20 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots perished on Sunday, fighting a fierce wilderness fire outside the old gold mining village of Yarnell, 35 miles southwest of here. It was the greatest loss of firefighters in a single disaster since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The fire grew to cover more than 8,000 acres on Monday.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots had fought wildfires already this season, in New Mexico and on the outskirts of Prescott, a blaze called Doce that forced the evacuation of several subdivisions but caused no deaths.

They were trained and often expected to be on the ground for up to 21 days without a break, charging into fire with 40 pounds of gear on their backs. Using chainsaws and pickaxes, they were given the job of getting close to big fires, to dig deep trenches and clear the ground of dried branches and leaves, to try to keep the fire from spreading.

Their food might be brought to them by helicopter. Where they go, experts said, no one else can usually get to.

“It is just too dangerous,” said Prescott’s fire chief, Dan Fraijo.

But even as the fire continued to rage and the wider community of firefighters remained stunned and in mourning at the loss of life, longtime experts on Western fires said the Yarnell Hill blazes — and the 15 other large fires that remained uncontained from New Mexico to California to Idaho on Monday — were part of the new normal in an increasingly hot and increasingly dry West.

There are 110 hotshot teams in the country: wilderness firefighters, essentially, known for their exhaustive training, punishing standards for physical fitness and ability to work under difficult conditions far from roads. Prescott has the only municipally financed hotshot team, which is part of its fire department. That is largely out of necessity. Wildfires are common here this time of the year, when the temperature soars, the wind gusts fiercely, lightning strikes often and rain seems never to arrive.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots “were hardworking, well-trained, experienced people,” Chief Fraijo said. They knew to pick escape routes and safety zones as they moved through the blazing forest, a lesson learned in the rigorous and repetitive training hotshot members undertake.

When the dead firefighters were found, several, at least, were outside their emergency shelters, which are designed to offer protection from intense heat for a short time and meant to be used only as a last resort. The authorities here were still trying to figure out why.

“We don’t know the specifics at this time as to why the events added up the way they did,” said Mary Rasmussen, spokeswoman for the Southwest Area Management Incident Team.

Austin Langham, 26, a Prescott firefighter, said he had worked alongside the hotshot team. The men teased one another about whose fire teams were faster or hardier, using the friendly rivalry to push themselves. He remembers, when he was growing up, how the high school boys would look up to the crew members who came by on career day, mesmerized.

“It makes you want to do what they do,” Mr. Langham said.

The men trained constantly, mapping out escape routes in challenging terrain and using miniature figures and piles of sand to model out how different fires could spread. Chief Fraijo said they had a designated safety zone where they were supposed to retreat to if the fire worsened around them.

For some reason, “they never made it there,” he said.

On their first distress call, the men said they were deploying the emergency shelters. It was then, Chief Fraijo said, that “we started praying.”

The sole survivor, whom the authorities had not identified on Monday, might have been jockeying equipment and away from the rest of the men when flames overcame them, fire officials said.

Speaking to reporters, Marlin Kuykendall, the mayor of Prescott, said the 19 hotshot team members who died “still had years of their lives left and work to be done.”

One of them was Kevin Woyjeck, 21, the son of a Los Angeles County fire captain who worked seasonally as a hotshot crew member here and in California. Another was Andrew Ashcraft, who lived here with his wife, Juliann, and their four children, one of them a baby.

Jesse Steed, 36, was the captain of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, which he joined in 2002, after serving in the Marine Corps and working as a Prescott firefighter. He, too, died in the fire, said his older brother, Cassidy, 38, a police officer in Washington State.

“Jesse always put his life on the line for people he knew he would never meet,” said Cassidy Steed. He was also a family man — he left a wife and two children behind — and “an adventurer” who liked to ride his mountain bike through the some of the same terrain where he would die.

The hotshot team’s supervisor, Eric Marsh, 43, was also killed. Last year, he told the Cronkite News Service, “There’s really no way to prepare anybody for running in when everyone is running out.”

Throughout the day Monday, several hundred local residents stopped in at Fire Station 7 in Prescott, where a memorial to the fallen firefighters had quickly sprouted. Dozens of bouquets of flowers, photographs and cards with messages like “Our heroes” were laid by the fence outside the parking lot, where some said the victims’ cars were still parked.

Like many others there, Wendy Tollefsen said she often saw the members of the Hot Shot squad around Prescott, where they were well known. They were proud to be members of the elite squad, she said, and often wore, off duty, their Hotshot shirts.

“They were very proud,” she said. “When I’d see them on my bike, they’d wave.” She began tearing up. “And they’re just all gone.”

Bob Hoyt, a pastor at Heights Church, said officials gathered the firefighters’ parents and spouses in the auditorium of a local middle school Sunday night to tell them their sons and husbands were gone. He accompanied Kristi Whitted there. Her husband, Clayton, a squad leader for the hotshot team, was among the dead.

Mr. Whitted had proposed to his wife during a hot-air balloon ride, said Mr. Hoyt, who officiated their wedding. He said Mr. Whitted lived to serve — “he did anything for anybody who needed it” — and loved fighting fires. He had once taken a yearlong break to minister to junior high students at the church, but could not stay away.

Fighting fires, Mr. Hoyt said, was what Mr. Whitted “was called to do.”

“It’s just what they all did,” he went on. “You fight fires. It’s very prestigious to be part of that.”


Ian Lovett contributed reporting from Prescott,

Jack Healy from Denver,

and Connor Radnovich from New York.

    Lost in Arizona Wildfire, 19 in an Elite Crew That Rushed In Close,
    NYT, 1.7.2013,






19 Firefighters Are Killed

Battling Arizona Wildfire


June 30, 2013
The New York Times


PHOENIX — Nineteen firefighters were killed battling a fast-moving wildfire menacing a small town in central Arizona, the United States Wildland Fire Aviation Service said on Sunday.

The firefighters died fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire, near the small town of Yarnell about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix, the service said in a Facebook post.

“It has been confirmed that 19 Wildland firefighters have lost their lives on the Yarnell Hill fire Arizona,” the post said. “I ask for prayers for the families and friends of these brave men and women.”

The fire has burned about 1,000 acres of chapparal and grass since Friday amid tinder-dry heat wave conditions, leading to scores of evacuations near Yarnell.

    19 Firefighters Are Killed Battling Arizona Wildfire, NYT, 30.6.2013,






Native Alaska, Under Threat


June 27, 2013
The New York Times


PARK CITY, Utah — I TRAVEL the world on the professional ski and snowboard circuit, but I grew up in a place most will never know firsthand. I was raised in Aleknagik, Alaska — an indigenous Yupik Eskimo village 400 air miles from the nearest chairlift and accessible only by boat and plane. It’s one of the most remote places in North America.

This area is gaining attention as the proposed location of the Pebble Mine, which could end up as the largest open-pit mine in North America and threaten thousands of acres of pristine watershed and the spawning grounds of the largest wild sockeye salmon run on the planet.

In recent years, an average of 37 million sockeye have returned every year to Bristol Bay, home to nearly half the sockeye in the world, supporting both commercial and subsistence fishing. Salmon are the economic backbone for Bristol Bay’s isolated bush communities. About 12,000 people work full or part time harvesting and processing the bay’s sustainable salmon.

My indigenous heritage is Yupik/Inupiat Eskimo. I was raised in an environment centered on salmon. Fishing is what every family does. It is who we are. I spent my summers on the back deck of family fishing boats working multiple fisheries. The boats and fish camps are maintained by generations of families harvesting salmon not only for income, but also for food.

I remember long days of processing hundreds of pounds of salmon, setting nets, cleaning and filleting, filling tubs of salt brine, putting fresh water in clean white buckets and hanging neat rows to dry and smoke. Enjoying the bounty over the winter, my family would affectionately praise me for my hard work and contribution to our food. When I was 8, I went into business for myself, lugging a little cooler around the boatyard, selling sodas to the fishermen, welders, port engineers and fabricators.

As a child, I had no idea what magic this life was — it was just the way we did things. It’s the way many Alaska Natives live — through self-reliance and hard work to harvest the many gifts of the land and sea.

This subsistence way of life that is thousands of years old is threatened by the plans of a British and Canadian mining partnership to dig a huge mine in the heart of our productive, healthy watershed.

People in Bristol Bay understand how vital our renewable resources are and that risking our lands, waters and fish for a short-term mega-mine like Pebble is a terrible idea. Eighty-one percent of Native shareholders in the Bristol Bay Native Corporation — composed of more than 9,000 Native Alaskans with ancestral ties to the Bristol Bay region — opposed the mine in a 2011 survey. And that’s despite the promises of jobs and continuing efforts by the Pebble Partnership, the proponent of the mine, to buy support through grants and giveaways to communities and hundreds of millions spent to develop the mine. This issue is deeply felt in the bay, and around Alaska, where, according to a 2011 survey commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council, 68 percent said no to Pebble — in a state known for its love of resource extraction.

We know from a recent assessment by the Environmental Protection Agency (the deadline for public comments on the report is Sunday) that Bristol Bay is no place for a gigantic mine. The agency found that, depending on how much of Pebble’s copper, gold and molybdenum are unearthed, as much as 90 miles of streams and up to 4,800 acres of wetlands could be destroyed. And that is the very-best-case scenario — without any disaster involving a breach of the 700-foot-tall earthen tailings dams that are supposed to hold billions of tons of toxic mine waste forever in a wet, sensitive and seismically active area.

It’s truly alarming when Pebble’s chief executive officer, John Shively, blithely says that, sure, the mine will damage some salmon habitat, but the company will just build “comparable” habitat nearby. Or when he says that salmon fishing is not the economic “answer for people who live out in southwest Alaska.” His comments show a lack of understanding of salmon life cycles, habitat and ecosystems — not to mention the people of Bristol Bay. And it should worry us all that Mr. Shively is already saying that the government or someone else may have to handle the messy aftermath of mining if “we’re not available to work on closure.”

The E.P.A. can block the mine under the Clean Water Act — something our government has done rarely and judiciously. If ever there were a case for using this power, Bristol Bay is the place, with a fishery of global scale and value, and Native communities dependent upon salmon.


Callan J. Chythlook-Sifsof

was a member of the United States snowboarding team

in the 2010 Winter Olympics

and is training for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

    Native Alaska, Under Threat, NYT, 27.6.2013,






Clean Air Act, Reinterpreted,

Would Focus on Flexibility

and State-Level Efforts


June 25, 2013
The New York Times


With no chance of Congressional support, President Obama is staking part of his legacy on a big risk: that he can substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions by stretching the intent of a law decades old and not written with climate change in mind.

His plan, unveiled Tuesday at Georgetown University in Washington, will set off legal and political battles that will last years.

But experts say that if all goes well for the president, the plan could potentially meet his stated goal of an overall emissions reduction of 17 percent by 2020, compared with the level in 2005.

“If the question is, ‘Will this solve our emissions problem?’ the answer is no,” said Michael A. Levi, an energy analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “If the question is, ‘Could this move us along the path we want to be on?’ the answer is yes, it could.”

In his speech, Mr. Obama said he would use executive powers to limit the carbon dioxide that power plants could emit. He also called for government spending to promote the development of energy alternatives, and committed to helping cities and states protect themselves from rising seas and other effects of climate change.

But formally, the main thing he did on Tuesday was order the Environmental Protection Agency to devise an emissions control plan, with the first draft due in a year. Experts say he will be lucky to get a final plan in place by the time he leaves office in early 2017.

Mr. Obama is trying to ensure continuation of a trend already under way: emissions in the United States have been falling for several years. But at the global scale, they are rising fast, and as the president acknowledged, it will take much stronger international action to turn that around and head off the worst effects of climate change.

“For the world at large, the United States is just one piece of the puzzle,” Mr. Levi said.

Already, glaciers are melting, heat waves and heavy rains are increasing, the food system is under stress and the sea is rising. The best that can be hoped for, scientists say, is to limit the damage, or slow it enough to provide society more time to adjust.

The president recognized that in his plan, calling for more steps to help the country prepare, from strengthening sea walls to hardening the electrical grid.

The heart of Mr. Obama’s plan, however, is lowering the country’s emissions using administrative remedies, an effort to sidestep a recalcitrant Congress. The success of that goal will depend on how far the administration is able to stretch the boundaries of the Clean Air Act, signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon in 1970.

The Supreme Court has already ruled that it can be used to regulate greenhouse gases, which include carbon dioxide emissions, but figuring out how to do that within the technical requirements of the law will be a major challenge.

The administration’s thinking appears to have been influenced by a proposal from an environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The group urged a creative approach, calling on the federal government to set a target level of greenhouse gases for each state, taking account of historical patterns. A state generating a lot of power from coal, then exporting it to other states, would not be unduly penalized, for instance.

As the environmental group envisions it, states would meet their goals by tweaking the overall electrical system, not just by cracking down on individual power plants. States might urge companies to produce more renewable power, for instance, but they could also retrofit homes and businesses to reduce energy waste, or encourage the use of clean-burning natural gas instead of coal.

States would presumably be allowed to use market signals, like a price on greenhouse emissions, to achieve their goals, as California and nine Northeastern states are already doing.

It is unclear how much all this might cost at the retail level. The Natural Resources Defense Council argues that even if prices go up, electric bills for many consumers could actually decline as their homes were retrofitted to use less energy.

The fossil-fuel industry and its allies in Congress are certain to argue that the president’s plan will be ruinously expensive and require the shutdown of numerous coal-burning power plants. Republican leaders immediately condemned the plan as a job-killer and framed it as an attack on coal.

The political attraction of a state-led approach is that it would move a lot of the nitty-gritty decision making out of Washington. But, for that very reason, it would entail legal risk. The Clean Air Act, written in the heyday of environmentalism, basically envisions commandments from Washington ordering utilities to clean up the air, not flexible approaches.

While carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere reached a historic level of 400 parts per million last month, emissions from the United States have been falling, partly because of the weak economy but also because of the newfound abundance of natural gas from hydraulic fracturing. Gas has displaced a lot of coal in power generation; such switching cuts greenhouse emissions nearly in half for a given amount of electricity produced.

Other factors, like tougher building codes, are contributing to the decline. And transport emissions are falling in part because of one of Mr. Obama’s policies: tough fuel-efficiency measures for new cars.

But modest reductions already achieved in the United States and other Western countries are being swamped by rising emissions from the East. So the real question is whether technologies can be developed, and then deployed worldwide, that allow for continued economic growth and rising energy use with minimal greenhouse emissions.

In his speech, Mr. Obama sought to reclaim global leadership on climate change for the United States. His plan includes ideas and money for making global progress.

Daniel P. Schrag, head of Harvard’s Center for the Environment, said the president’s plan would succeed only if it created market conditions unleashing the creative power of American capitalism, calling forth greater innovation in the energy industry.

Mr. Obama nodded to that point in his speech, noting that “countries like China and Germany are going all in” on the clean energy race. “I believe Americans build things better than anybody else,” he said. “I want America to win that race, but we can’t win it if we’re not in it.”


John M. Broder contributed reporting.

    Clean Air Act, Reinterpreted, Would Focus on Flexibility and State-Level Efforts,
    NYT, 25.6.2013,






Chasing the Storm,

but Hoping Not to Catch It


June 2, 2013
The New York Times


When Tim Samaras began chasing tornadoes more than two decades ago, he was one of a small, mostly anonymous group of scientists and thrill seekers armed with paper maps, weather radios and a sense of wonder.

Today, interest in storm chasing has surged, and a preponderance of amateurs with video cameras and a thirst for YouTube fame now jockey with seasoned professionals to see who can get the closest and most dramatic images of churning storms, causing some veterans to worry about a growing safety threat.

The risks became apparent on Sunday when relatives confirmed that Mr. Samaras, 55, along with his 24-year-old son, Paul, and his colleague, Carl Young, 45, were killed while chasing the storms that ravaged parts of Oklahoma on Friday.

They were among at least 13 people killed in the storm, which spawned several tornadoes and caused flash flooding in the region around Oklahoma City. A tornado also picked up a truck carrying several storm chasers, including a meteorologist for the Weather Channel, and tossed it into a field, causing injuries but no deaths.

The deaths come as storm chasers have reached a kind of pop-culture zenith, similar to that achieved by celebrity chefs and interior decorators on numerous reality shows. Mr. Samaras was well known for his appearances on the reality show “Storm Chasers,” on the Discovery Channel, which ended in 2011.

Many other networks use vivid footage of storms. The Weather Channel has programmed regular series like “Full Force Nature” with storm chasers providing video of severe weather.

Advancements in video and Web technology mean storm chasers are now able to provide a live play-by-play of a tornado’s destruction. But with Friday’s deaths, the first in many years, veteran chasers said, some experts question whether the push to get closer and closer to storms has dimmed perceptions of the dangers they pose.

“When a veteran storm chaser as cautious and experienced as Tim Samaras dies, I hope it is a lesson to all the storm chasers of just how potentially dangerous storm chasing is,” said Greg Forbes, a meteorologist with the Weather Channel. “There is some chance you could die.”

The circumstances surrounding the deaths were still unknown Sunday. Dr. Forbes said the tornado Mr. Samaras was tracking made a sudden left turn, perhaps catching him and his team unaware and leaving them nowhere to run. Others speculated that engine trouble or perhaps a traffic jam could have left them stuck in the tornado’s path.

Mr. Samaras’s brother Jim posted a statement on his brother’s Facebook page expressing sadness but giving no details. “They all unfortunately passed away, but doing what they loved,” the statement said.

Colleagues who worked with Mr. Samaras described him as extremely cautious and more apt than most to abandon a storm in the face of obvious danger. He was a scientist first and foremost, colleagues said, whose interests traveled far beyond the hunt.

He founded an organization called Twistex to study the births, lives and deaths of tornadoes. With probes of his own design that he would place directly in the tornado’s path, he measured wind speeds and barometric pressure at the base of the storm, where such data are hardest to get. Another probe was equipped with video cameras capable of providing detailed imagery from inside the tornado cone.

He contributed research to organizations like the American Meteorological Society and National Geographic.

“He was out there for the science and he was going to get that,” said Tony Laubach, a meteorologist and friend of Mr. Samaras. “He wanted to answer the questions people thought were impossible.”

Others said Mr. Samaras had expressed concern about the increase in amateur chasers on roads, and had occasionally called off a chase if he thought traffic would be too heavy.

Over the last decade, the number of chasers converging on the Great Plains for the start of tornado season has exploded, particularly in Oklahoma, where the first devilish wisps of a new tornado can cause traffic jams as chasers race into position.

Ginger Zee, a meteorologist and veteran storm chaser with ABC News, said the number of storm chasers had “boomed” in the last decade. “Any time you’re in Oklahoma and you have an outbreak, you have chaser convergence,” she said “And it’s gotten bigger and bigger and bigger.”

Some referred to the emergence of a “Twister” generation of chasers inspired by the 1996 movie starring Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton as swashbuckling storm chasers in a pickup truck.

Tornado tourism is also on the rise, with several tour companies offering to bring paying guests into the churning heart of dangerous storms. At least one, called Extreme Chase Tours, allows guests as young as 12.

Experts said so many eyes trained on the storm could have benefits. Most warnings are issued based on Doppler radar readings without visual confirmation and frequently cause false alarms, leading to complacency among residents, Dr. Forbes said.

“The more human verified it is, the more people are likely to take shelter,” he said.

Mr. Samaras was on the lookout on Friday. He sent out a Twitter message at 4:50 p.m. shortly before the storm hit along with a photo of ominous, thickening white clouds.

“Storms now initiating south of Watonga along triple point,” he wrote. “Dangerous day ahead for OK — stay weather savvy!”


Bill Carter contributed reporting.

    Chasing the Storm, but Hoping Not to Catch It, NYT, 2.6.2013,






For Bloomberg and Bike-Sharing Program,

the Big Moment Arrives


May 26, 2013
The New York Times


He festooned New York City with hundreds of miles of bike lanes and dispatched chairs and picnic tables to Broadway, where cars once roamed.

He helped finance plans to send the No. 7 train to the Far West Side, and carried the banner of congestion pricing, even if in vain.

But for all of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s efforts to reimagine transportation in New York, critics and supporters seem to agree on the one that is most likely to define his 12 years at the city’s controls.

And it starts on Monday.

With the introduction of a European-style bike-share system, billed by city officials as the first new wide-scale public transportation option in more than half a century, Mr. Bloomberg’s longstanding bet on cycling has reached its climactic moment.

The lofty ridership predictions presented by Mr. Bloomberg and his transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, will no longer be theoretical. Opponents’ admonitions of overstuffed streets and perilous pedaling will prove either prescient or exaggerated.

“It is the free market, if you think about it,” Mr. Bloomberg said on Friday during his weekly radio show. “If people want to use them, they’ll use them. If people don’t, they don’t.”

The program, which is to begin with 6,000 bikes stationed across parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, will face immediate scrutiny from residents, riders and elected officials whose love or hate for the endeavor seemed to intensify over the past year of delays.

The holdup, wrought first by faulty software and then by flooding to equipment stored at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during Hurricane Sandy, has given the rollout a sharper political edge. The system, which was supposed to begin last summer, will now be introduced through the peak months of an election year. And the crop of candidates — many of whom have been lukewarm toward Mr. Bloomberg’s cycling policies in the past — will be watching closely.

“If this is a fiasco — and to me, a fiasco is mostly that the bikes just don’t get used — then, yeah, it’s going to tarnish the legacy,” said Charles Komanoff, a transportation economist and longtime cycling advocate in the city. “More important, it’s going to make it easier for the next mayor to backtrack.”

But if the program is an instant success, he added, “it’ll mean that almost anybody imaginable who is mayor is going to have to stick with whatever this mayor has already done.”

For all the administration’s legwork — which included hundreds of meetings with community groups, elected officials, property owners and other stakeholders, and an online feature that received more than 10,000 suggestions for bike station locations — precise demand for bike share is near impossible to gauge.

Though bike commuting has grown on Mr. Bloomberg’s watch, the most recent city figures showed that commuter cycling remained flat in 2012 during the typical riding season of April through October. In the same period, cycling had increased by 26 percent in 2009, 13 percent in 2010 and 8 percent in 2011, according to counts conducted at commuter points like the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge and the Queensboro Bridge.

Some officials remain skeptical about the depth of citywide interest in cycling.

“The projections for bike share, I can’t say I buy,” said Councilman James Vacca, the chairman of the Council’s Transportation Committee. “But we have to accept them as a given at this point because we have nothing else to go by.”

Ms. Sadik-Khan dismissed the most recent in-season cycling figure as statistical noise amid years of consistent growth numbers. She also pointed to an increase in off-season cycling in recent months: From December through February, the Transportation Department said, commuter cycling increased by 23 percent over the previous year. And the bike share program has already sold more than 14,000 annual memberships, Ms. Sadik-Khan said.

Whatever the appetite for bike share, Ms. Sadik-Khan has long argued that cycling infrastructure must be built in advance of demand as a way to encourage riding. In this way, the bike share program could be seen as an inevitable outgrowth, a plan that required years of investments before becoming feasible.

“We didn’t just drop this bike share system in overnight,” she said. “We spent five years installing more than 350 miles of bike lanes.”

Asked about some residents’ view that the bike share system amounted to the final chapter in the city’s tussle over bike use — the playoffs after a regular season that has lasted years — Ms. Sadik-Khan wondered if any more rounds could possibly remain.

“If this is the playoffs, what’s the finals?” she said. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re there.”

While city officials have said that bike sharing is beloved in virtually every location at which it has been tried, some beginnings have been bumpy. The Vélib’ system in Paris, one of the largest programs in the world, saw a spate of rider deaths in its early years and suffered widespread theft and vandalism of equipment.

John C. Liu, the city comptroller and a Democratic candidate for mayor, has called for a helmet requirement for the program, and accused the city of underestimating its financial exposure in bike crashes. The city said that helmet requirements were found to depress ridership in other cities.

“I hope nobody gets hurt,” Mr. Liu said in an interview recently. “But this is thousands of bicycles on the streets of Manhattan, used by people who haven’t ridden bikes on the streets of Manhattan.”

Elsewhere, bike share programs have had a long history of attaching themselves to the reputations of their municipal cheerleaders. London’s rides are called “Boris bikes,” after Mayor Boris Johnson, despite the fact that Mr. Johnson was not the mastermind of the plan, but merely the man in office when the bikes were introduced.

“I hope people call them ‘Mike’s bikes’ or ‘Bloomberg’s bikes,’ ” said Howard Wolfson, a deputy mayor for Mr. Bloomberg. “It would be a powerful affirmation of the legacy for him.”

But as the program makes its debut, there remains one high-profile holdout, intrigued by the idea of bike share but unsure if it is for him: Mr. Bloomberg.

He said during his radio appearance on Friday that his last meaningful contact with a bike was in 2002, when he bought one before a possible transit strike that never materialized. So would he ride on Monday?

“I will ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh,’ ” he said. “Whether I’ll get on one, I don’t know.”

    For Bloomberg and Bike-Sharing Program, the Big Moment Arrives,
    NYT, 26.5.2013,








Our Last Hope, or a False Promise?


May 26, 2013
The New York Times


CANBERRA, Australia — THE concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere recently surpassed 400 parts per million for the first time in three million years. If you are not frightened by this fact, then you are ignoring or denying science.

Relentlessly rising greenhouse-gas emissions, and the fear that the earth might enter a climate emergency from which there would be no return, have prompted many climate scientists to conclude that we urgently need a Plan B: geoengineering.

Geoengineering — the deliberate, large-scale intervention in the climate system to counter global warming or offset some of its effects — may enable humanity to mobilize its technological power to seize control of the planet’s climate system, and regulate it in perpetuity.

But is it wise to try to play God with the climate? For all its allure, a geoengineered Plan B may lead us into an impossible morass.

While some proposals, like launching a cloud of mirrors into space to deflect some of the sun’s heat, sound like science fiction, the more serious schemes require no insurmountable technical feats. Two or three leading ones rely on technology that is readily available and could be quickly deployed.

Some approaches, like turning biomass into biochar, a charcoal whose carbon resists breakdown, and painting roofs white to increase their reflectivity and reduce air-conditioning demand, are relatively benign, but would have minimal effect on a global scale. Another prominent scheme, extracting carbon dioxide directly from the air, is harmless in itself, as long as we can find somewhere safe to bury enormous volumes of it for centuries.

But to capture from the air the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by, say, a 1,000-megawatt coal power plant, it would require air-sucking machinery about 30 feet in height and 18 miles in length, according to a study by the American Physical Society, as well as huge collection facilities and a network of equipment to transport and store the waste underground.

The idea of building a vast industrial infrastructure to offset the effects of another vast industrial infrastructure (instead of shifting to renewable energy) only highlights our unwillingness to confront the deeper causes of global warming — the power of the fossil-fuel lobby and the reluctance of wealthy consumers to make even small sacrifices.

Even so, greater anxieties arise from those geoengineering technologies designed to intervene in the functioning of the earth system as a whole. They include ocean iron fertilization and sulfate aerosol spraying, each of which now has a scientific-commercial constituency.

How confident can we be, even after research and testing, that the chosen technology will work as planned? After all, ocean fertilization — spreading iron slurry across the seas to persuade them to soak up more carbon dioxide — means changing the chemical composition and biological functioning of the oceans. In the process it will interfere with marine ecosystems and affect cloud formation in ways we barely understand.

Enveloping the earth with a layer of sulfate particles would cool the planet by regulating the amount of solar radiation reaching the earth’s surface. One group of scientists is urging its deployment over the melting Arctic now.

Plant life, already trying to adapt to a changing climate, would have to deal with reduced sunlight, the basis of photosynthesis. A solar filter made of sulfate particles may be effective at cooling the globe, but its impact on weather systems, including the Indian monsoon on which a billion people depend for their sustenance, is unclear.

Some of these uncertainties can be reduced by research. Yet if there is one lesson we have learned from ecology, it is that the more closely we look at an ecosystem the more complex it becomes. Now we are contemplating technologies that would attempt to manipulate the grandest and most complex ecosystem of them all — the planet itself. Sulfate aerosol spraying would change not just the temperature but the ozone layer, global rainfall patterns and the biosphere, too.

Spraying sulfate particles, the method most likely to be implemented, is classified as a form of “solar radiation management,” an Orwellian term that some of its advocates have sought to reframe as “climate remediation.”

Yet if the “remedy” were fully deployed to reduce the earth’s temperature, then at least 10 years of global climate observations would be needed to separate out the effects of the solar filter from other causes of climatic variability, according to some scientists.

If after five years of filtered sunlight a disaster occurred — a drought in India and Pakistan, for example, a possible effect in one of the modeling studies — we would not know whether it was caused by global warming, the solar filter or natural variability. And if India suffered from the effects of global dimming while the United States enjoyed more clement weather, it would matter a great deal which country had its hand on the global thermostat.

So who would be turning the dial on the earth’s climate? Research is concentrated in the United States, Britain and Germany, though China recently added geoengineering to its research priorities.

Some geoengineering schemes are sufficiently cheap and uncomplicated to be deployed by any midsize nation, or even a billionaire with a messiah complex.

We can imagine a situation 30 years hence in which the Chinese Communist Party’s grip on power is threatened by chaotic protests ignited by a devastating drought and famine. If the alternative to losing power were attempting a rapid cooling of the planet through a sulfate aerosol shield, how would it play out? A United States president might publicly condemn the Chinese but privately commit to not shooting down their planes, or to engage in “counter-geoengineering.”

Little wonder that military strategists are taking a close interest in geoengineering. Anxious about Western geopolitical hubris, developing nations have begun to argue for a moratorium on experiments until there is agreement on some kind of global governance system.

Engineering the climate is intuitively appealing to a powerful strand of Western technological thought that sees no ethical or other obstacle to total domination of nature. And that is why some conservative think tanks that have for years denied or downplayed the science of climate change suddenly support geoengineering, the solution to a problem they once said did not exist.

All of which points to perhaps the greatest risk of research into geoengineering — it will erode the incentive to curb emissions. Think about it: no need to take on powerful fossil-fuel companies, no need to tax gasoline or electricity, no need to change our lifestyles.

In the end, how we think about geoengineering depends on how we understand climate disruption. If our failure to cut emissions is a result of the power of corporate interests, the fetish for economic growth and the comfortable conservatism of a consumer society, then resorting to climate engineering allows us to avoid facing up to social dysfunction, at least for as long as it works.

So the battle lines are being drawn over the future of the planet. While the Pentagon “weaponeer” and geoengineering enthusiast Lowell Wood, an astrophysicist, has proclaimed, “We’ve engineered every other environment we live in — why not the planet?” a more humble climate scientist, Ronald G. Prinn of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has asked, “How can you engineer a system you don’t understand?”


Clive Hamilton, a professor of public ethics

at Charles Sturt University, is the author, most recently,

of “Earthmasters:

The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering.”

    Geoengineering: Our Last Hope, or a False Promise?, NYT, 27.5.2013,






In Moore,

a Day for Salvaging, Mourning

and Considering the Future


May 22, 2013
The New York Times


MOORE, Okla. — Two days after a huge tornado barreled through this working-class town, authorities reopened the worst-hit neighborhoods for the first time on Wednesday, giving residents a few hours to search for wedding rings, retrieve abandoned pets and pry apart a briar patch of rubble to see what had survived and what had not.

At 3 p.m. the police and military members who had been barricading the streets stepped aside to allow scores of people back into their wrecked neighborhoods. Some went in on foot, pulling their children in red wagons. Some drove pickups loaded with equipment. People carried tarps and tubs, crowbars and chain saws and anything else that could help them sift through the heaps of what had once been their houses.

Most had been home during the twister or its immediate aftermath, and knew what to expect. Others had been on vacation or out of town when the tornado struck on Monday afternoon, and had been allowed back for only enough time to grab a bottle of pills or snap a cellphone photo.

On Wednesday, they got the full picture. Brick walls lay in heaps. A sports car rested belly-up in someone’s living room. Beds and couches lay shredded like wisps of cotton. Some homes seemed to have been wiped clean off their foundations. Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven students died, looked as if it had been hit by a bomb.

“All you can say is it’s a complete disaster,” said Doug Stills, 73, a longtime Moore resident whose son’s home was flattened.

With search efforts winding down and officials saying that they did not expect to find any more bodies in the rubble, Wednesday’s homecoming marked a first step in the long and expensive process of rebuilding Moore after yet another deadly tornado. Officials said the storm had caused as much as $2 billion in damage, pummeling 12,000 homes and affecting 33,000 people.

“People are really hurting,” Janet Napolitano, the secretary of Homeland Security, said at a news conference here with local officials. “There’s a lot of recovery to do.” President Obama plans to tour the damaged areas on Sunday.

Mountains of debris litter the town. Although the water has come back, electricity is still out across much of Moore, and severed power lines snake through streets and sidewalks. Most businesses are still closed, and people who work in Moore said they were worried about how they would draw a paycheck in the months ahead.

While most of those left homeless have been staying with family and friends, or in shelters, the most determined have pitched tents amid the devastation to make sure nothing else is taken away from them.

On Wednesday, under a coppery sky, the town began to clean up. Hundreds of residents and volunteers from across the state gathered to rake the debris from cemeteries and public parks. They swept out the driveways of neighbors and total strangers, handed out free water and hot meals and began pondering whether to rebuild or move on.

As she surveyed the rubble of her home of three decades, Nadine Jones said she could never repair what had been lost. At age 83, she said, she would try to salvage what she could — a gold-framed baby photograph of herself, a stuffed panda bear — and move into an apartment.

“It is a lot of tears,” she said.

Amid the cleanup, families across the area were planning funerals and grieving for the 24 people killed in the storm.

On Wednesday, the Oklahoma medical examiner’s office identified most of the victims and said that 10 of them were children, one more than had been previously reported. The cause of death in almost every case was either blunt force trauma or asphyxia.

To residents, the number of children on the list was heartbreaking. There was Christopher Legg, 9, who loved football so much that he played on two teams — the Rough Riders and the Red Eagles. He had suffered from melanoma and Osgood-Schlatter disease, which caused a painful limp. But his family said Christopher, a third grader, faced the diseases with strength and optimism.

“He was a very outgoing kid, always willing to help out,” Brian Trumbly, a cousin, said in an interview. “He loved his parents very much.”

The family’s home was also destroyed in the storm.

Christopher was one of the seven children killed inside Plaza Towers Elementary. There was also Janae Hornsby, 9, who was described by her family’s pastor as a “beautiful little girl” who made people feel happy just to know her. There was 9-year-old Emily Conatzer, whose mother, Kristi, posted a Facebook message saying she had hoped she would wake up Wednesday to see Emily jumping around and giggling. And there was Kyle Davis, 8, who played soccer and went to monster-truck shows.

The other children killed in the storm were identified as Case Futrell, 4 months old; Sydnee Vargyas, 7 months old; Karrina Vargyas, 4; Antonia Candelaria, 9; Sydney Angle, 9 and Nicolas McCabe, 9.

On Wednesday afternoon, Athena Delgado paused as she walked past the crumbled school. Her son Xavier had been trapped inside on Monday, and six of his classmates had died. Xavier, his hands sheathed in floppy gloves to dig through the rubble of his family’s home, ran down the street, laughing. He paused for a moment to look at the school.

“He says he’s fine,” Ms. Delgado said, looking at her son, “but it’ll hit him.”


Jack Healy reported from Moore,

and Emma G. Fitzsimmons from New York.

    In Moore, a Day for Salvaging, Mourning and Considering the Future, NYT,






Obama Pledges Storm Aid;

Some in Congress Talk

of Finding Cuts to Offset It


May 21, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — President Obama vowed Tuesday to marshal the resources of the federal government to help the victims of Oklahoma’s killer tornado as lawmakers on Capitol Hill began debating the fiscal consequences of the storm in an era of austerity.

Promising to provide Oklahoma “everything that it needs right away,” Mr. Obama dispatched W. Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to coordinate recovery efforts. Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, is to follow Mr. Fugate to Oklahoma on Wednesday.

But although political leaders of both parties expressed sympathy for the victims, it took only hours for Washington to face off over the possible cost of repairing the devastation and how it would be paid. For the moment, it was a strictly hypothetical debate, since the government already has $11.6 billion available in a disaster relief fund. But it underscored the fact that even national tragedy does not always bring the capital together.

An Oklahoma senator, Tom Coburn, a Republican who is one of the most relentless budget hawks in Congress, kicked off the touchy dispute by saying that any additional disaster relief appropriated by Congress would have to be paid for by cutting other areas of the federal budget.

Some Republicans rushed to his defense, with Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin saying Mr. Coburn’s actions demonstrated “real leadership.”

But others said they were appalled. “I think we need to all act like Americans, that we’re all in it together, neighbor helping neighbor,” said Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat who is chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee. “This is not the time for budgeteering battles. This is the time to respond with compassion and competence.”

Mr. Obama scrapped his morning schedule to call Oklahoma leaders and meet with his advisers, then made a brief televised address. “For all those who’ve been affected, we recognize that you face a long road ahead,” he said. “In some cases, there will be enormous grief that has to be absorbed. But you will not travel that path alone. Your country will travel it with you fueled by our faith in the Almighty and our faith in one another. So our prayers are with the people of Oklahoma today, and we will back up those prayers with deeds for as long as it takes.”

Mr. Obama noted the sense of loss that will pervade the area for months to come. “There are empty spaces where there used to be living rooms and bedrooms and classrooms,” he said, “and in time we’re going to need to refill those spaces with love and laughter and community.”

More than 300 workers from FEMA were on the ground in Oklahoma by Tuesday evening, according to the White House. The workers included management assistance teams, three urban-search-and-rescue teams, and support teams to provide telecommunications, logistics and operational assistance. The FEMA teams were to assess the damage and assist victims in registering for aid.

For Mr. Obama, the storm once again thrust him into the role of national emergency responder and comforter, a function he has performed repeatedly in recent months after the hurricane in the Northeast, the school shooting in Connecticut, the terrorist bombing in Boston and the fertilizer plant explosion in Texas.

The disaster served to distract attention at least for a day from controversies that the White House would prefer not to talk about, particularly the handling of last year’s attack on a diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, the targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service and the seizure of phone records of journalists reporting on national security.

The president’s statement coincided with the opening of separate hearings on Capitol Hill looking at Benghazi and the I.R.S. targeting. From the White House vantage point, the tornado was a reminder of what really matters compared with what it sees as overheated partisan point-scoring. Some critics on Twitter and the Internet quickly saw cynicism on the part of a president hoping in their view to avoid accountability.

The flare-up over the cost of storm recovery illustrated the political edginess in Congress these days. Even many Republicans were not willing to go as far as Mr. Coburn, who is retiring in 2016 and has made a name for himself by often playing the role of Senate contrarian.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, declined to wade into the debate. “I think the first thing to do is finish the damage assessment, and then we’ll figure out what the way forward is,” he said Tuesday.

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said the first concern should be responding with haste, not finding savings. “A tragedy has taken place,” he said. “We need to take care of it.”

Ultimately, the question may be moot if Oklahoma does not need more aid than the emergency relief fund can provide.

A White House official said Tuesday that it did not for the moment see a need for additional appropriations by Congress, which would spare Republicans the spectacle of another divisive fight over disaster aid.

Early last winter, Republicans repeatedly tried to kill a bill to provide relief for states ravaged by Hurricane Sandy. They claimed it had been unnecessarily loaded with excess spending. Ultimately the bill passed, but only after Speaker John A. Boehner agreed to allow the legislation onto the House floor even though a majority of his Republican conference had vowed to vote against it and did.

As with any action in Congress these days, questions of further aid for the Oklahoma victims will quite likely boil down to cost. Because Congress has eliminated its traditional avenues for excess spending, disaster bills are one of the few remaining places where members can add pet projects.

Budget watchdog groups like Taxpayers for Common Sense are already promising to keep watch. “This legislation often gets stuffed with a lot of extraneous things that should be taken care of in the regular appropriations process or shouldn’t be there at all,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for the group. “These disaster bills have become Christmas trees.”

    Obama Pledges Storm Aid;
    Some in Congress Talk of Finding Cuts to Offset It, NYT, 21.5.2013,






After the Tornado, a War Zone


May 21, 2013
The new York Times


OKLAHOMA CITY — THIS morning, the day after a monster tornado ripped through Moore, Okla., there was a moment between sleep and clear waking, when it was possible to forget what had happened and what lay ahead. But then we remembered. People we love are still missing. Our children are trapped.

It was a communal event, even for those of us out of the way. The tornado, dropping out of the sky like a huge, black vacuum, was distinct enough that we could watch its progress on our TVs.

We knew it was coming. The day before came a warning: stale, still air, rain banging the pavement, sirens blaring. Smaller tornadoes removing swaths of two towns and a trailer park to the east.

In the end, the tornado tore a canyon 20 miles long and 4 miles wide through the city of Moore, on Oklahoma City’s south side, around 3 p.m., just as school was letting out. In the roaring black suck, thousands of houses were ripped off their foundations (although tons of foundation went flying too) and crashed down where they’d been — or miles to the northeast, in the next county even. Their owners’ pictures and papers, their kids’ artwork off the refrigerators, coming down in Arkansas or Kansas, or who knows where.

Mile after mile, so much is gone. Shopping malls, convenience stories, bowling alleys, hospitals and clinics, movie theaters, three schools and thousands of homes, now a war zone. In a few cases, first responders heard faint cries from under rubble, but shortly those whimperings stopped.

By Tuesday afternoon the death toll sat at only 24 — although one is too many, here where we know how to get out of the way of a tornado. Nine were children. And the medical examiner expects that number to rise as great piles of sticks and board and concrete are sifted through. Two metro-area hospitals report 120 patients treated last night, 50 of them children.

Most injuries were spinal or stomach puncture wounds: no surprise when you see sheets of plywood shot halfway through concrete walls. Every twist of metal, every board with a nail, turned to a knife, millions in all, flying at 150 miles an hour.

Everyone, here and far outside the state, is focused on the students. Those at one junior high school, with just enough warning, were evacuated to a nearby church basement. Extraordinary stories came from Briarwood Elementary. One man told of helping to dig out a crying teacher. Under her were six little girls. Another girl reported that she’d “hung onto the wall because I didn’t want to fly away.” Still another huddled under her desk. She said: “Rain and the tornado came in through the window. The desks were all piled on top of us, and the teacher was stuck. Someone had to help her.”But others, herded together in other parts of the building, were able to crawl out safely. That’s how tornadoes work.

Because of downed electric lines, mud, tons of debris and gas leaks, it was after dark before parents picked up the last four students, worried kids. Meanwhile those 5- and 6-year-olds, from two families, had told TV viewers, “I think my mom and dad are alive.”

But it’s Plaza Towers, the second elementary school, that’s got us by the throats. Last night rescuers begged everyone to be quiet — helicopters, trucks, ambulances — so they could hear even the faintest cry. They’d pulled 30 third graders and some others out, early on. Nine more were found, seven drowned in a pool of water in the basement.

But dozens more were still inside. Perhaps, we thought, they were waiting until after dark to bring the dead out. This morning we found that was not so. So much concrete and brick and beams lay on top that, illuminated by klieg lights, even big machinery had not yet been able to dig them out.

This morning, the National Guard rolled in, not just to keep people away but to aid in recovery. Less than 24 hours later, the operation at Plaza Towers was no longer considered a search and rescue, but already a recovery, because after the first survivors were removed, not one of the victims recovered had drawn a breath.

Then there are the many, still uncounted, who are physically safe but have lost everything. A reporter said she’d seen people carrying babies, and elderly folks holding children by the hands, walking north. “Like refugees,” she said. “Just walking north.”

The nearby University of Oklahoma, in Norman, has opened its campus and dorms to take in some of those displaced. Ringing the disaster area are first-aid stations and churches serving food, water and coffee — even tire companies offering to change and repair tires for responders’ vehicles. Donation centers opened at dawn on Oklahoma City’s college and high school campuses, people driving through as though in a fast-food lane, dropping off shovels and gloves, boots, masks, diapers and checks.

It will take more than a year just to clean up. Several inches of Moore’s earth are stripped away, a little closer to sea level. And as is always true after a tornado, not one bird sings.


Carolyn Wall is the author, most recently,

of the novel “Playing With Matches.”

    After the Tornado, a War Zone, NYT, 21.5.2012,






The View From an Oklahoma Basement


May 21, 2013
The New York Times


EDMOND, Okla. — IT seems I am one of the few lucky people in the Oklahoma City area to have a basement. Before the tornadoes rolled through on Sunday and Monday, I spread an old rug on the basement floor, ringed it with pillows and blankets, and deposited my 5-year-old daughter in the middle wearing a helmet, shoes and socks, long pants and long sleeves and a pair of SpongeBob shades. We brought down batteries, a radio, flashlights, a kerosene lamp and matches, bottled water, bags of almonds, dried mango, potato chips, my laptop, my phone, my Kindle. And a dozen plastic dinosaurs. My daughter is really into dinosaurs. My husband spent the two days dashing up and down the stairs, unwilling to turn off the live coverage on the big screen.

You have a certain responsibility when you have a basement around here, and I had put out the word on Facebook and via text messages that anybody who needed a place to take cover could come over. I phrased it like an invitation to a party and promised good tunes. A few friends headed over, but we got the all-clear before they arrived.

We were O.K., as it turned out. The tornadoes, which took two dozen lives and counting, passed by us without dropping down. If they had — well, they didn’t.

We moved into this house three years ago, when my daughter was 2. By the time I had weathered two tornado seasons with a baby, I was ready to buy the ugliest house in the world if only it had a basement. But until my daughter was born, I had sort of enjoyed tornado season. A lot of us do — it’s exciting, there’s an esprit de corps that takes hold. Once, when I was a stupid teenager, I stood on the roof of my house trying to get a look at one that was sucking up a nearby lake.

There’s also a sort of gallows humor of which I have been guilty. On Sunday, after the first tornado went over our house and before it dropped down and took lives in nearby Shawnee, I was giddy with relief; I thought it was over. It’s a running joke that tornado weather reveals little towns on the live coverage that none of us knew existed. Just when I think I have surely heard every idiosyncratic town name in the state, there’s another one. This time it was a town east of the city called Fallis. I couldn’t resist making a dirty joke about its homophone on Facebook, then, ashamed, deleted the post after news of fatalities came in.

Many tornadoes touch down in our state every spring, but most of them are small, and most of the time there are no deaths, just a lot of damaged property. But that seems to be changing; they seem to be getting deadlier. My father lives in Joplin, Mo., and owns a business on the busy road that incurred most of the damage from the vicious tornado in 2011. He took a picture of a pencil driven into a concrete curb. It seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime disaster, but here it is again, just two years later.

During this week’s storm, while the funnel tore into the town of Moore, I heard Mike Morgan, the chief meteorologist for our local NBC affiliate, say things I had never heard him say before. Usually, when a tornado touches down, he tells people who don’t have access to below-ground shelter to get to a safe room, an interior room or a bathtub. This time he made it clear that you would not survive above ground. That you should drive away if there was no way to get below ground. A safe room wouldn’t help. An interior room wouldn’t help. A bathtub — forget about it. And he was right.

The children at Plaza Towers Elementary School huddled in hallways against cinder-block walls that weren’t there anymore when rescuers showed up. Seven children, trapped under the rubble, drowned. A high school friend of mine had a son and a nephew in that school. They are both O.K., but she couldn’t get to them until 10 Monday night, and she was beside herself.

Everyone here is suffering from a slow-moving shock. Nobody sits; we stand in front of the television and flinch when another dose of bad news or surreal footage comes in. I have found myself unable to contemplate the deaths of those children, the wild grief of their parents. I keep asking myself: Why don’t we have basements? Good question. We are told that the hard red clay soil makes them too difficult to build, that they are too expensive. Why don’t the public buildings in Oklahoma have safe places? Why don’t the schools?

These days, the state is run by officials whose rhetoric of self-congratulatory self-reliance says, hey, you’re on your own. That’s essentially what we told those seven little children who drowned in their own school. And it’s true. They were on their own. A few miles to the north, my daughter sat in our basement and played with her dinosaurs. When we finally went upstairs, she sighed heavily as she took off her helmet, and said, “I hate it down there.”


Constance Squires,

the author of the novel “Along the Watchtower,”

teaches creative writing at the University of Central Oklahoma.

    The View From an Oklahoma Basement, NYT, 21.5.2013,






Drama as Alarm Sirens Wailed;

Time Reveals Lower Death Toll

From Tornado


May 21, 2013
The New York Times


MOORE, Okla. — At the end of the day on Monday, on the last week of the school year, students at Plaza Towers Elementary in this blue-collar suburb were zipping their backpacks. A fifth-grade class had just finished watching a movie about a boy who survives a crash-landing in the Canadian wilderness.

Then the sirens started to wail.

Claire Gossett’s teacher hurried the class into the hallway, then into a bathroom as a tornado that was more than a mile wide drew closer. Claire, 11, crammed into a stall with six other girls. They held onto each other. The sirens wailed two, three, four times.

Echo Mackey, crouched in a hallway with her son, Logan, recalled, “I heard someone say, ‘It’s about to hit us,’ and then the power went out.”

The mountain of rubble that was once Plaza Towers Elementary School has become the emotional and physical focal point of one of the most destructive tornadoes to strike Oklahoma. Although the casualty toll fluctuated wildly early on, officials said on Tuesday that at least 24 people had died, including 9 children, 7 of them at Plaza Towers.

Throughout the 500-student school, teachers and parents had shielded students and crammed into closets and anywhere else they could squeeze as the tornado bore down. Then school windows were smashed and the ceiling ripped away, showering the students with glass, wood and pieces of insulation. “I couldn’t hear anything but people screaming and crying,” Claire said. “It felt like the school was just flying.”

The tornado swirled out of a fast-developing storm that began cutting a destructive path through Moore and other sections of the southern Oklahoma City suburbs on Monday about 2:45 p.m. It plowed through 17 miles of ground over 50 minutes, damaging or destroying hundreds of homes, businesses, schools and hospitals in Moore and in Oklahoma City itself. Winds reached speeds of up to 210 miles per hour, and many structures were wiped clean to their foundations.

Severe weather has become an almost routine part of life in Oklahoma City and its suburbs, a section of Middle America where the lore of twisters and thunderstorms has long been embraced and at times even celebrated. The National Basketball Association team is called the Thunder, and there is an annual National Weather Festival, where families gather for weather balloon launchings and storm-chaser car shows. But the 1.3-mile-wide tornado that struck Plaza Towers on Monday stunned Oklahomans, in both its size and the number of victims, dozens of whom were students who were killed or injured.

At a news conference on Tuesday in the lobby of Moore City Hall, which was running on generators because of a widespread power failure, Gov. Mary Fallin said she took an aerial tour of the tornado’s path and inspected the damage by car and on foot. She said she was left speechless. “There’s just sticks and bricks, basically,” she said, adding, “It was very surreal coming upon the school because there was no school. There was just debris.”

Officials said it was still too early to say precisely how many people had been killed, but the toll appeared to be significantly less than initially feared. State officials lowered the death toll to at least 24, down from their estimate late Monday night of nearly 100 fatalities. One reason for the uncertainty was that officials believed that some bodies might have been taken to local funeral homes instead of the state medical examiner’s office, which was doing the official count. But it appeared that the 48 people who were believed to be missing on Monday night — and were feared dead — had been found. More than 200 were injured, including 70 children.

The confusion only added to the unease. As officials spoke at City Hall, heavy rain and booms of thunder could be heard, severe weather that had periodically delayed rescuers and those assessing the damage throughout the day.

President Obama, who declared a federal disaster in five Oklahoma counties, said Tuesday at the White House that the tornado had been “one of the most destructive in history,” and that he had informed aides that “Oklahoma needs to get everything it needs right away.” He said Federal Emergency Management Agency officials had been dispatched to aid in the recovery.

“For all those who’ve been affected, we recognize that you face a long road ahead,” Mr. Obama said. “In some cases, there will be enormous grief that has to be absorbed. But you will not travel that path alone.”

After surveying the wreckage in Moore, officials at the National Weather Service upgraded its assessment of the twister’s power to Category 5 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, which measures tornado strength on a scale of zero to 5, with 5 being the most destructive. It touched down at 2:45 p.m. about four and a half miles west of Newcastle, to the west of Moore, and ended at 3:35 p.m., almost five miles east of the city, weather officials said.

Moore, with a population of 55,000, is a suburban city 11 miles south of downtown Oklahoma City. It is the home of the country music star Toby Keith, as the giant letters declare on a white silo off Interstate 35. Parents and residents questioned whether Plaza Towers Elementary — a 47-year-old public school whose students range from pre-kindergartners to sixth graders — was the safest place for the children to seek shelter.

Albert Ashwood, director of the State Department of Emergency Management, said the two schools that were hard hit — Plaza Towers in Moore and Briarwood Elementary in Oklahoma City — did not have safe rooms because the appropriate state financing had not been sought. The presence of safe rooms, he said, did “not necessarily” mean that more students would have survived, but it is a “mitigating” factor. “This was a very unique tornado,” he said.

Despite being in a region prone to tornadoes — and being heavily damaged by one in 1999 — the City of Moore, according to its Web site, has no ordinance requiring storm safe rooms in public or private buildings, and the city itself lacks a community shelter. Plaza Towers had no underground shelter. A state lawmaker whose district includes Moore, Representative Mark McBride, said the deaths should force an examination of whether schools in Oklahoma should be required to have storm shelters.

Susan Pierce, the superintendent of the Moore school district, told reporters at the news conference that safety was the district’s top priority. School administrators and staff members put a crisis plan into action on Monday and monitored the weather throughout the day, she said. “With very little notice we implemented our tornado shelter procedures at every school site,” she said.

Ms. Pierce said the state requires schools to perform tornado drills, and the district has exceeded that requirement. “We’re in the process of learning as much as we can about what has happened, and we are reviewing our emergency procedures today,” she said.

Ms. Mackey, the parent who crouched in the hall as the tornado struck, said she had gone to Plaza Towers as the sky turned dark, saying she had wanted to be with her son when the storm hit. She concluded that the school was not equipped to shelter dozens of children from the raw power of an Oklahoma twister.

“There’s no question in my mind that that school was not safe enough,” she said.

Late Monday afternoon, as the skies darkened, numerous parents rushed to the school. Some decided to seek shelter with their children. Others had enough time to flee, which may have prevented more casualties.

Jennifer Doan, a Plaza Towers teacher who is eight weeks pregnant, waited anxiously in a hallway with 11 of her third-grade students who had not yet been picked up by their parents. An announcement blared over the intercom that the tornado was upon them, and Ms. Doan, 30, quickly wrapped several of her students in her arms. The walls suddenly caved in, she told her boyfriend, Nyle Rogers.

Ms. Doan was conscious, buried under piles of rubble, but she was not sure her students were safe. She thought she could make out their movement beneath the debris. “She kept telling them to hang on,” Mr. Rogers said.

In the distance she could hear their voices: “I can’t hold the rock anymore,” one said. Eventually the voices stopped.

Mr. Rogers had gone speeding toward the school when he had gotten word of the tornado. “As I got closer, I saw debris and backpacks,” he said. “And when I turned the corner, I just saw a wasteland. I didn’t know how anyone could have survived.”

But Ms. Doan did. She was lifted out of the rubble, put in the back of a pickup truck and shuttled to a nearby church and then to the hospital, where she was in stable condition on Tuesday with a fractured sternum and spine. A piece of rebar speared her left hand.

On Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Rogers said he was informed by the principal that seven of the students in the hallway had died. He had not yet told Ms. Doan.

“She’s just worried about her kids,” he said. “That’s all she’s thinking about right now.”

But the principal told him something else. Two of the students she had wrapped in her arms had survived.


Reporting was contributed by John Eligon from Moore,

Dan Frosch from Denver,

Michael Schwirtz from New York,

and Ben Fenwick from Norman, Okla.

    Drama as Alarm Sirens Wailed; Time Reveals Lower Death Toll From Tornado,
    NYT, 21.5.2013,






Vast Oklahoma Tornado Kills at Least 51


May 20, 2013
The New York Times


MOORE, Okla. — A giant tornado, a mile wide or more, killed at least 51 people, 20 of them children, as it tore across parts of Oklahoma City and its suburbs Monday afternoon, flattening homes, flinging cars through the air and crushing at least two schools.

The injured flooded into hospitals, and the authorities said many people remained trapped, even as rescue workers struggled to make their way through debris-clogged streets to the devastated suburb of Moore, where much of the damage occurred.

Amy Elliott, the spokeswoman for the Oklahoma City medical examiner, said at least 51 people had died, including the children, and officials said that toll was likely to climb. Hospitals reported at least 145 people injured, 70 of them children.

Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore was reduced to a pile of twisted metal and toppled walls. Rescue workers were able to pull several children from the rubble, but on Monday evening crews were still struggling to cut through fallen beams and clear debris amid reports that dozens of students were trapped. At Briarwood Elementary School in Oklahoma City, on the border with Moore, cars were thrown through the facade and the roof was torn off.

“Numerous neighborhoods were completely leveled,” Sgt. Gary Knight of the Oklahoma City Police Department said by telephone. “Neighborhoods just wiped clean.”

Debris and damage to roadways, along with heavy traffic, hindered emergency responders as they raced to the affected areas, Sergeant Knight said.

A spokeswoman for the mayor’s office in Moore said emergency workers were working to assess the damage.

“Please send us your prayers,” she said.

Brooke Cayot, a spokeswoman for Integris Southwest Medical Center in Oklahoma City, said 58 patients had come in by about 9 p.m. An additional 85 were being treated at Oklahoma University Medical Center in Oklahoma City.

“They’ve been coming in minute by minute,” Ms. Cayot said.

The tornado touched down at 2:56 p.m., 16 minutes after the first warning went out, and traveled for 20 miles, said Keli Pirtle, a spokeswoman for the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla. It was on the ground for 40 minutes, she said. It struck the town of Newcastle and traveled about 10 miles to Moore, a populous suburb of Oklahoma City.

Ms. Pirtle said preliminary data suggested that it was a Category 4 tornado on the Enhanced Fujita scale, which measures tornado strength on a scale of 0 to 5. A definitive assessment will not be available until Tuesday, she said.

Moore was the scene of another huge tornado, in May 1999, in which winds reached record speeds of 302 m.p.h.

Television on Monday showed destruction spread over a vast area, with blocks upon blocks of homes and businesses destroyed. Residents, some partly clothed and apparently caught by surprise, were shown picking through rubble. Several structures were on fire, and cars had been tossed around, flipped over and stacked on top of each other.

Kelcy Trowbridge, her husband and their three young children piled into their neighbor’s cellar just outside of Moore and huddled together for about five minutes, wrapped under a blanket as the tornado screamed above them, debris smashing against the cellar door.

They emerged to find their home flattened and the family car resting upside down a few houses away. Ms. Trowbridge’s husband rushed toward what was left of their home and began sifting through the debris, then stopped and told her to call the police.

He had found the body of a little girl, about 2 or 3 years old, she said.

“He knew she was already gone,” Ms. Trowbridge said. “When the police got there, he just bawled.”

She said: “My neighborhood is gone. It’s flattened. Demolished. The street is gone. The next block over, it’s in pieces.”

Sarah Johnson was forced to rush from her home in Moore to a hospital as the storm raged when her 4-year-old daughter, Shellbie, suffered an asthma attack. With hail raining down, she put a hard hat on her daughter as she raced into the emergency room and hunkered down.

“We knew it was coming — all the nurses were down on the ground, so we got down on the ground,” Ms. Johnson said, from the Journey Church in nearby Norman, where she had sought shelter.

At the hospital, she said, she shoved her daughter next to a wall and threw a mattress on top of her. After the storm passed, she said, debris and medical equipment were scattered around. She said she and her daughter were safe, but she had yet to find her husband.

The storm system continued to churn through the region on Monday afternoon, and forecasters warned that new tornadoes could form.

An earlier storm system spawned several tornadoes across Oklahoma on Sunday. Several deaths were reported.

Russell Schneider, the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, said the risk of tornadoes throughout the region remained high going into Tuesday.

Some parts of Moore emerged seemingly untouched by the tornado. Bea Carruth, who lives about 20 blocks from where the storm struck, said her home and others in her neighborhood appeared to be fine.

Ms. Carruth had ridden out the tornado as she usually does, at her son’s house nearby, the hail pounding away on the cellar where they had taken shelter. Tornadoes have long been a part of life in Moore, she said.

In 1999, the last time a storm this size struck, Ms. Carruth again was lucky and the home she lived in then was spared. She ended up buying an empty plot of land where a house destroyed by that tornado once stood. Her house now sits on that plot.

“This is just awful,” she said. “It all just breaks my heart.”


Nick Oxford reported from Moore,

and Michael Schwirtz from New York.

Leslie Metzger and Kathleen Johnson

contributed reporting from Norman, Okla.,

and Dan Frosch from Denver.

    Vast Oklahoma Tornado Kills at Least 51, NYT, 20.5.2013,






Tornadoes Level Homes in Okla.,

Killing One Person


May 19, 2013
The New York Times


SHAWNEE, Okla. — Tornadoes ravaged portions of central Oklahoma on Sunday, reducing portions of a mobile home park to rubble and killing a 79-year-old man whose body was found out in the open.

"You can see where there's absolutely nothing, then there are places where you have mobile home frames on top of each other, debris piled up," Pottawatomie County Sheriff Mike Booth said after surviving damage in the Steelman Estates Mobile Home Park. "It looks like there's been heavy equipment in there on a demolition tour.

"It's pretty bad. It's pretty much wiped out," he said.

The Shawnee tornado was one of several that touched down in the nation's midsection Sunday. Twisters, hail and high winds also struck Iowa and Kansas as part of a massive, northeastward-moving storm system that stretched from Texas to Minnesota.

Across the state, 21 people were injured, not including those who suffered bumps and bruises and chose not to visit a hospital, said Keli Cain, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management. Booth said six at Steelman Estates were hurt.

Following the twisters, local emergency officials went from home site to home site in an effort to account for everyone. Cain said that, many times in such situations, people who are not found immediately are discovered later to have left the area ahead of the storm. Booth said everyone from the trailer park had been found.

Forecasters had been warning of a general storm outbreak since Wednesday, and for Sunday's storms some residents had more than a half-hour's notice that a twister was on the way. Tornado watches and warnings were in effect through late Sunday in much of the nation's midsection.

The trailer park west of Shawnee was among the hardest-hit areas, and among the hardest to reach, as tractor-trailers that forced the closure of a section of Interstate 40 north of the site and power lines draped across roads to the south.

James Hoke lives with his wife and two children in Steelman Estates. He said the family went into their storm cellar as the storm approached. When they came out, their mobile home had vanished.

"It took a dead hit," Hoke said.

A storm spotter told the National Weather Service that the tornado left the earth "scoured" at the mobile home park — using a term used by storm chasers to describe grass being ripped out by high winds.

"It seemed like it went on forever. It was a big rumbling for a long time," said Shawn Savory, standing outside his damaged remodeling business in Shawnee. "It was close enough that you could feel like you could reach out and touch it."

Gov. Mary Fallin declared an emergency for 16 Oklahoma counties that suffered from severe storms and flooding during the weekend. The declaration lets local governments acquire goods quickly to respond to their residents' needs and puts the state in line for federal help if it becomes necessary.

Heavy rains and straight-line winds hit much of western Oklahoma on Saturday. Tornadoes were also reported Sunday at Edmond, Arcadia and near Wellston to the north and northeast of Oklahoma City. The supercell that generated the twisters weakened as it approached Tulsa, 90 miles to the northeast.

"I knew it was coming," said Randy Grau, who huddled with his wife and two young sons in their Edmond home's safe room when the tornado hit. He said he peered out his window as the weather worsened and believed he saw a flock of birds heading down the street.

"Then I realized it was swirling debris. That's when we shut the door of the safe room," said Grau, adding that they remained in the room for 10 minutes.

In Wichita, Kan., a tornado touched down near Mid-Content Airport on the city's southwest side shortly before 4 p.m., knocking out power to thousands of homes and businesses but bypassing the most populated areas of Kansas' biggest city. The Wichita tornado was an EF1 on the enhanced Fujita scale, with winds of 110 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

Sedgwick County Emergency Management Director Randy Duncan said there were no reports of fatalities or injuries in Kansas.

There were also two reports of tornadoes touching down in Iowa on Sunday night, including one near Huxley, about 20 miles north of Des Moines, and one in Grundy County, which is northeast of Des Moines, according to the Des Moines Register. There were no immediate reports of major damage or injuries.

In Oklahoma, aerial television news footage showed homes with significant damage northeast of Oklahoma City. Some outbuildings appeared to have been leveled, and some homes' roofs or walls had been knocked down.

"When I first drove into the neighborhood, I didn't see any major damage until I pulled into the front of my house," said Csaba Mathe, of Edmond, who found a part of his neighbor's fence in his swimming pool. "My reaction was: I hope insurance pays for the cleaning."

"I typically have two trash cans, and now I have five in my driveway."

The Storm Prediction Center had been warning about severe weather in the region since Wednesday, and on Friday, it zeroed in on Sunday as the day the storm system would likely pass through.

"They've been calling for this all day," Edmond resident Anita Wright said after riding out the twister in an underground shelter. She and her husband, Ed, emerged from their hiding place to find uprooted trees, downed limbs and damaged gutters in their home.

In Katie Leathers' backyard, the family's trampoline was tossed through a section of fence and a giant tree uprooted.

"I saw all the trees waving, and that's when I grabbed everyone and got into two closets," Leathers said. "All these trees just snapped."


Associated Press writers Ken Miller in Shawnee,

Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Mo.,

and Kelly P. Kissel in Little Rock, Ark.,

contributed to this report.

    Tornadoes Level Homes in Okla., Killing One Person, NYT, 19.5.2013,






Is It Time to Bag the Plastic?


May 18, 2013
The New York Times


IN my New York City apartment, the kitchen drawers, the coat closet, even the wine rack are overflowing with a type of waste that is rapidly disappearing elsewhere — the used plastic shopping bag.

Many countries and a handful of American cities have more or less done away with this supposed convenience item, by discouraging its use through plastic-bag taxes at checkout counters or outright bans. Walk down the streets of Dublin or Seattle or San Francisco and there is barely a bag in sight. Life continues.

“It didn’t take people very long to accommodate at all,” said Dick Lilly, manager for waste prevention in Seattle, where a plastic-bag ban took effect last summer. “Basically overnight those grocery and drugstore bags were gone.”

But in much of America we seem more addicted than ever. On a recent shopping trip to Target in Chicago for some dorm supplies while visiting my son, I emerged with what seemed to be more bags than socks or rolls of toilet paper (only a slight exaggeration). At my local supermarket, plastic bags are applied layer upon layer around purchases, like Russian nesting dolls.

“Plastic shopping bags are an enormous problem for New York City,” said Ron Gonen, the deputy commissioner of sanitation for recycling and waste reduction, noting that the city pays $10 million annually to send 100,000 tons of plastic bags that are tossed in the general trash to landfills in South Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. That, he points out, “is amazing to think of, because a plastic bag doesn’t weigh much at all.”

All across the country, plastic bags are the bane of recycling programs. When carelessly placed into recycling bins for general plastic — which they often are — the bags jam and damage expensive sorting machines, which cost huge amounts to repair.

“We have to get people to start carrying reusable bags,” Mr. Gonen said. “We’re going to do what we can to start moving the needle.”

“The question,” he continued, “is do we use a carrot or a stick to change behavior?”

So far New York has used carrots, to little effect. (More about that later.) Unfortunately, most experts believe it will take a stiff stick to break a habit as ingrained as this one is in the United States. (In many European countries, like France and Italy, the plastic bag thing never fully caught on.)

In my case, I know I should bring a cloth bag along for shopping trips. And I do — when I remember. But experience shows that even environmentally conscious people need prodding and incentives to change their behavior permanently.

Where they exist, bans and charges or taxes (when set high enough) have been extremely successful and often raise revenue for other environmental projects. Unfortunately, these tactics are deeply unpopular in most of the nation.

After Austin, Tex., passed a bag ban earlier this year and with Dallas considering one, State Representative Drew Springer, a Republican, introduced the Shopping Bag Freedom Act in the Legislature. That act essentially bans bag bans, protecting the right of merchants to provide bags of any material to customers.

Businesses often fight hard against plastic-bag laws. When in 2007, Seattle first tried to impose a fee of 20 cents for each plastic bag, the American Chemical Council financed a popular referendum that voted down the “bag tax,” before it even took effect, Mr. Lilly said.

It took several more years for the city to regroup and impose its current ban. Plastic shopping bags are forbidden in stores, and though paper bags may be used, each one costs the shopper 5 cents. (There are exemptions, however: restaurants managed to secure one for takeout food, for example.)

A number of states are considering some form of statewide bans or taxes. And last month, Representative James P. Moran, Democrat of Virginia, introduced a bill to create a national 5-cent tax on all disposable plastic or paper bags provided by stores to customers. Some of the revenue would be used to create a Disposable Carryout Bag Trust Fund and to maintain national parks.

Actually, the idea of a bag tax may not seem so foreign to federal lawmakers: for the past three years, Washington has had its own 5-cent tax. Although bag use there dropped sharply, many experts feel that the charge should be even higher. In Ireland, for example, the bag tax is about 30 cents per bag.

By any measure, New Yorkers are laggards on the issue. In 2008, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg tried unsuccessfully to pass a bag tax of 6 cents. More recently, New York State has preferred to attack the problem with soft diplomacy. Since 2009, large stores throughout the state providing plastic bags have been required to take them back for recycling. But there is not much enforcement, Mr. Gonen said, and the program “hasn’t put a dent” in the numbers.

While the chain pharmacies and supermarkets in my neighborhood initially put out recycling bins for the bags, they have largely disappeared. Some stores will begrudgingly take back plastic at the sales counter — though I’ve seen the bags subsequently tossed in the trash. (Though plastic bags can be recycled, they must be separated from other forms of plastic.) The Bloomberg administration is also considering partnering with supermarkets to create incentive programs with shopping points awarded to those who bring reusable bags.

Frank Convery, an economist at University College, Dublin, who has studied the effects of Ireland’s 10-year-old bag tax — the first in the world — is skeptical: “As regards the plastic bag issue, whatever is done has to be mandatory,” he said. “The New York model is designed to fail.”

Mr. Gonen said cities got a lot of complaints about plastic bags. So why wouldn’t that inspire more of them to take action? It is another paradox of environmental politics — just as when New Yorkers show strong support for a bike-sharing plan but protest when bike-sharing racks appear on their sidewalk.

In a city where dog owners are forced to pick up their pets’ waste and are precluded from smoking in parks, why is it so hard to get people to employ reusable bags for shopping


Elisabeth Rosenthal is a reporter

on the environment and health for The New York Times.

    Is It Time to Bag the Plastic?, NYT, 18.5.2013,






Heat-Trapping Gas Passes Milestone,

Raising Fears


May 10, 2013
The New York Times


The level of the most important heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide, has passed a long-feared milestone, scientists reported Friday, reaching a concentration not seen on the earth for millions of years.

Scientific instruments showed that the gas had reached an average daily level above 400 parts per million — just an odometer moment in one sense, but also a sobering reminder that decades of efforts to bring human-produced emissions under control are faltering.

The best available evidence suggests the amount of the gas in the air has not been this high for at least three million years, before humans evolved, and scientists believe the rise portends large changes in the climate and the level of the sea.

“It symbolizes that so far we have failed miserably in tackling this problem,” said Pieter P. Tans, who runs the monitoring program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that reported the new reading.

Ralph Keeling, who runs another monitoring program at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, said a continuing rise could be catastrophic. “It means we are quickly losing the possibility of keeping the climate below what people thought were possibly tolerable thresholds,” he said.

Virtually every automobile ride, every plane trip and, in most places, every flip of a light switch adds carbon dioxide to the air, and relatively little money is being spent to find and deploy alternative technologies.

China is now the largest emitter, but Americans have been consuming fossil fuels extensively for far longer, and experts say the United States is more responsible than any other nation for the high level.

The new measurement came from analyzers atop Mauna Loa, the volcano on the big island of Hawaii that has long been ground zero for monitoring the worldwide trend on carbon dioxide, or CO2. Devices there sample clean, crisp air that has blown thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean, producing a record of rising carbon dioxide levels that has been closely tracked for half a century.

Carbon dioxide above 400 parts per million was first seen in the Arctic last year, and had also spiked above that level in hourly readings at Mauna Loa.

But the average reading for an entire day surpassed that level at Mauna Loa for the first time in the 24 hours that ended at 8 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Thursday. The two monitoring programs use slightly different protocols; NOAA reported an average for the period of 400.03 parts per million, while Scripps reported 400.08.

Carbon dioxide rises and falls on a seasonal cycle, and the level will dip below 400 this summer as leaf growth in the Northern Hemisphere pulls about 10 billion tons of carbon out of the air. But experts say that will be a brief reprieve — the moment is approaching when no measurement of the ambient air anywhere on earth, in any season, will produce a reading below 400.

“It feels like the inevitable march toward disaster,” said Maureen E. Raymo, a scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a unit of Columbia University.

From studying air bubbles trapped in Antarctic ice, scientists know that going back 800,000 years, the carbon dioxide level oscillated in a tight band, from about 180 parts per million in the depths of ice ages to about 280 during the warm periods between. The evidence shows that global temperatures and CO2 levels are tightly linked.

For the entire period of human civilization, roughly 8,000 years, the carbon dioxide level was relatively stable near that upper bound. But the burning of fossil fuels has caused a 41 percent increase in the heat-trapping gas since the Industrial Revolution, a mere geological instant, and scientists say the climate is beginning to react, though they expect far larger changes in the future.

Indirect measurements suggest that the last time the carbon dioxide level was this high was at least three million years ago, during an epoch called the Pliocene. Geological research shows that the climate then was far warmer than today, the world’s ice caps were smaller, and the sea level might have been as much as 60 or 80 feet higher.

Experts fear that humanity may be precipitating a return to such conditions — except this time, billions of people are in harm’s way.

“It takes a long time to melt ice, but we’re doing it,” Dr. Keeling said. “It’s scary.”

Dr. Keeling’s father, Charles David Keeling, began carbon dioxide measurements on Mauna Loa and at other locations in the late 1950s. The elder Dr. Keeling found a level in the air then of about 315 parts per million — meaning that if a person had filled a million quart jars with air, about 315 quart jars of carbon dioxide would have been mixed in.

His analysis revealed a relentless, long-term increase superimposed on the seasonal cycle, a trend that was dubbed the Keeling Curve.

Countries have adopted an official target to limit the damage from global warming, with 450 parts per million seen as the maximum level compatible with that goal. “Unless things slow down, we’ll probably get there in well under 25 years,” Ralph Keeling said.

Yet many countries, including China and the United States, have refused to adopt binding national targets. Scientists say that unless far greater efforts are made soon, the goal of limiting the warming will become impossible without severe economic disruption.

“If you start turning the Titanic long before you hit the iceberg, you can go clear without even spilling a drink of a passenger on deck,” said Richard B. Alley, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University. “If you wait until you’re really close, spilling a lot of drinks is the best you can hope for.”

Climate-change contrarians, who have little scientific credibility but are politically influential in Washington, point out that carbon dioxide represents only a tiny fraction of the air — as of Thursday’s reading, exactly 0.04 percent. “The CO2 levels in the atmosphere are rather undramatic,” a Republican congressman from California, Dana Rohrabacher, said in a Congressional hearing several years ago.

But climate scientists reject that argument, saying it is like claiming that a tiny bit of arsenic or cobra venom cannot have much effect. Research shows that even at such low levels, carbon dioxide is potent at trapping heat near the surface of the earth.

“If you’re looking to stave off climate perturbations that I don’t believe our culture is ready to adapt to, then significant reductions in CO2 emissions have to occur right away,” said Mark Pagani, a Yale geochemist who studies climates of the past. “I feel like the time to do something was yesterday.”



This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 10, 2013

An earlier version of this article misstated

the amount of carbon dioxide in the air

as of Thursday’s reading from monitors.

It is .04 percent, not .0004 percent.

    Heat-Trapping Gas Passes Milestone, Raising Fears, NYT, 10.5.2013,






Why Federal Efforts

to Ensure Clean Tap Water

Fail to Reach Faucets Nationwide


May 10, 2013
The New York Times


MONSON, Calif. — Laura Garcia was halfway through the breakfast dishes when the spigot went dry. The small white tank beneath the sink that purified her undrinkable water had run out. Still, as annoying as that was, it was an improvement over the days before Ms. Garcia got her water filter, when she had to do her dishes using water from five-gallon containers she bought at a local store.

Ms. Garcia’s well water, like that of her neighbors, is laced with excessive nitrates, a pollutant associated with agriculture, septic systems and some soils. Five years ago, this small community of 49 homes near the southern end of the Central Valley took its place on California’s priority list of places in need of clean tap water.

Today the community is still stuck on that list, with no federal help in sight.

Monson’s situation has parallels in places around the country, large and small, seeking federal funds under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The Environmental Protection Agency distributes these funds to state agencies that are supposed to identify problems and underwrite solutions. By the E.P.A.’s calculations, no state has been as inept in distributing the money as California.

The state’s most recent priority list contained 4,925 applications. Some have been on the list for a dozen years. Some have been abandoned by the original applicants. Some are getting the federal funds quickly; others are in limbo. Of $1.5 billion in federal money sent to California and cycled through a revolving fund, $455 million lay fallow earlier this year while the priority list grew.

Monson, an unincorporated town in Tulare County, has a particular bureaucratic challenge. The community has no legal status, so it cannot apply on its own. Yet other entities, like Tulare County, which has offered to add pipelines to send clean water down the road to Monson from the town of Sultana’s water system, have only recently been empowered to apply on Monson’s behalf.

Local philanthropy, in the form of a Tulare County Rotary initiative, has tried to help, donating filters like the one under Ms. Garcia’s sink. These are welcome, Ms. Garcia said, speaking through an interpreter. But, she added, “That’s not a permanent solution.”

Since this cluster of 118 people does not qualify as a town, a water district or anything else that the California Department of Public Health recognizes as a valid applicant, another group must act on its behalf.

Monson is hardly alone. According to Jared Blumenfeld, the regional administrator of the E.P.A., nearly a quarter of all the small water systems in California are in the Central Valley. One-quarter of these dispense water that fails to meet all of the E.P.A’s health requirements.

To fix the problems, however, requires access to engineering and financial management resources beyond the reach of the needy communities, Mr. Blumenfeld said. “We require the state to be sure the people they fund have managerial, financial and administrative capacity to deal” with their water issues.

Though there is hope that Tulare County will be able to get the grant for Monson, he said, “some people, smart people, are trying to solve these problems and feeling frustrated.”

Mr. Blumenfeld himself was frustrated enough to issue a public rebuke to California last month. In a letter to Ron Chapman, the director of the state’s Public Health Department, he wrote, “Many of California’s critical drinking-water infrastructure needs remain unmet.”

He added: “California needs $39 billion in capital improvements through 2026 for water systems to continue to provide safe drinking water to the public. Given this tremendous need, it is crucial that California fully utilize” the revolving fund that is the repository for the federal aid, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in loan repayments from local water systems. The state was given 60 days to report how it was going to fix the internal accounting problems and get money out.

Does Monson’s long wait reflect a larger pattern of undistributed funds in small communities? In a written response, the spokeswoman for the California Department of Public Health, Anita Gore, replied, “Small water systems often lack the technical expertise and funding to prepare funding applications, hire consultants to get their projects ‘shovel-ready’ and to make them happen.”

She added that the state “has found that these systems require greater assistance than larger water systems, and is working to simplify its procedures and provide more technical assistance.”

More than 800 of the applicants on the state priority list represent communities of fewer than 100 people.

Maria Herrera, who works for the Community Water Center, a local nonprofit, said “the process for Monson to secure funding to solve its drinking water challenges has had many false starts and roadblocks.” She added that the difficulty in satisfying the state “has delayed Monson’s ability to get clean drinking water and forced residents to live without safe drinking water.”

At the moment, Tulare County is planning on Monson’s behalf, and has suggested alternatives, including that pipeline from Sultana.

Britt Fussel, the public works director in Tulare County, said he also hoped to use grant money not just to study different options but also to have one ready to go. “It’s easy to find money for shovel-ready projects; it’s hard to find money for planning,” he said.

This approach, too, was rejected. “I’m in the process of modifying the scope of work,” Mr. Fussel said.

The public health spokeswoman, Ms. Gore, said the state was working closely with the county to expedite things. She wrote: “Tulare County submitted an application on behalf of the unincorporated community of Monson in early 2012. We anticipate the planning project will be completed in mid-2014. Typically, construction projects run about three years to completion, but that depends on what options are identified in the planning study.”

    Why Federal Efforts to Ensure Clean Tap Water Fail to Reach Faucets Nationwide,
    NYT, 10.5.2013,




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