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History > 2009 > USA > Nature, weather, climate (II)




A vehicle travels past a wall of flames

at the Station Fire

in the Acton, California area north of Los Angeles,

August 30, 2009.


REUTERS/Gene Blevins


Boston Globe > Big Picture

Wildfires in Southern California        September 2, 2009















Winter Arrives Early,

Blanketing East in Snow


December 20, 2009
The New York Times


An enormous winter storm piled snow on New York and New England Saturday evening, after crippling the nation’s capital and the mid-Atlantic earlier in the day, causing thousands of flights to be canceled across the country, knocking out power lines and stranding motorists during the peak of the holiday shopping and travel season.

With winter officially starting on Monday, one to two feet of snow were expected to fall by Sunday morning from Virginia to New England, where blizzard warnings were posted for coastal areas.

“This is one of the bigger ones,” said Kevin Witt, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in the Baltimore-Washington forecast office in Sterling, Va.

Mr. Witt said that when the gusty snow ended late Saturday night into Sunday morning it could rank among the top 10 winter snowstorms.

By 10 p.m. Saturday, the National Weather Service reported that nearly 9 inches of snow had fallen in Breezy Point, Queens, and 3.7 inches at LaGuardia Airport. But even before the heaviest snow arrived in New York, more than 500 flights from the three area airports were canceled, and a winter storm warning was in effect until 11 a.m. Sunday.

Snow has been measured in Central Park since 1869, and only two storms have produced more than two feet of snow, the most recent in February 2006. This storm was not likely to exceed a foot and a half in Central Park, but some parts of central Long Island could see up to two feet, said Jeffrey Tongue, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service based in Upton, N.Y.

Overnight winds were expected to whip up to 40 to 45 miles an hour on Long Island, he said, creating whiteout conditions.

In Washington, a city not accustomed to snow this early and this much, the storm blanketed the capital in serenity. At least it seemed picturesque until it began falling at a rate of two inches per hour on the major city streets and the surrounding Beltway early Saturday afternoon, snarling traffic and forcing mass transit shutdowns of buses and many trains.

The mayor of Washington, Adrian M. Fenty, declared a snow emergency, following the state of emergency that Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia declared on Friday in advance of the storm. At least one driver died because of the snow in Virginia, a 68-year-old woman whose car ran off a state road near the North Carolina border, said Laura Southard, of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. A woman was also killed when her car drove off a snowy state road in Defiance, Ohio, according to the state highway patrol. By Saturday afternoon, Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, Gov. Steve Beshear of Kentucky, Gov. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mayor Michael A. Nutter of Philadelphia had also declared emergencies.

Greyhound canceled service on 294 routes through Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington, D.C., and discontinued service in and out of New York City around 8 p.m., said Maureen Richmond, a spokeswoman.

Officials in Washington said the storm was likely to produce the area’s heaviest snow since February 2003, when about 16 inches fell. Metrorail trains stopped serving all of the city’s above-ground stations at 1 p.m. on Saturday because heavy snow was already covering the electrified third rail that powers the trains. All of the city’s buses also stopped running around the same time, according to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

Traffic ground to a halt on the Beltway that encircles the city, as at least 10 tractor trailers were unable to climb a steep snow-covered hill near Marlow Heights and stalled, according to the Maryland State Highway Administration. Cars and trucks idled for an hour before plows cleared the highway.

In Virginia, hundreds of accidents, including several major ones involving tractor trailers, shut down parts of Interstate 81, said Jeff Caldwell, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Transportation. Near Lexington, Va., about 200 miles southwest of Washington, motorists were stranded in a seven-mile backup for most of the day and early evening.

“Local law enforcement officials along with the National Guard are out there, and they’re trying to reach those motorists and bring them food and water and gas, ” Mr. Caldwell said. “We are urging people to stay with their vehicles.”

Hundreds of thousands of people lost power as the storm swept eastward on Friday and Saturday, including 135,000 customers in West Virginia served by Appalachian Power, a division of American Electric Power. That company also reported 19,456 outages in Tennessee on Saturday afternoon, and its Kentucky division reported 69,400 in that state. Ms. Southard, of Virginia’s Department of Emergency Management, said at least 71,000 were without power on Saturday afternoon. In parts of western North Carolina, where the storm struck Friday evening, more than 60,000 customers were without power on Saturday.

It was still unclear how the storm would affect retail sales on the final frenzied shopping weekend before Christmas, but the snow had already forced the nation’s major airlines to issue travel waivers and redirect a large number of passengers.

The runways at all three Washington area airports were shut down by Saturday evening: Ronald Reagan National Airport closed before noon. Baltimore-Washington International Airport closed its runways at 1:40 p.m. on Saturday, said a spokesman, Jonathan Dean. And Dulles International Airport closed by early evening, said Tara Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

“The snow is accumulating too quickly on the taxiways, and we need to close to aircraft operations so we can clear snow from the airfield to be open tomorrow morning for the airlines,” Ms. Hamilton wrote in an e-mail message.


Sarah Wheaton, Raymond Hernandez

and Ian Urbina contributed reporting.

    Winter Arrives Early, Blanketing East in Snow, NYT, 20.12.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/20/us/20snow.html






China and U.S. Hit Strident Impasse

at Climate Talks


December 15, 2009
The New York Times


COPENHAGEN — China and the United States were at an impasse on Monday at the United Nations climate change conference here over how compliance with any treaty could be monitored and verified.

China, which last month for the first time publicly announced a target for reducing the rate of growth of its greenhouse gas emissions, is refusing to accept any kind of international monitoring of its emissions levels, according to negotiators and observers here. The United States is insisting that without stringent verification of China’s actions, it cannot support any deal.

The stalemate came on a day of public and private brinkmanship as the talks moved into their second and final week. Earlier Monday, a group of poor nations staged a brief walkout from the bargaining table, and a chaotic registration system left thousands of attendees freezing outside the conference hall and forced the temporary closing of the subway stop near the Bella Center, where the meetings are being held.

The slow progress of the climate negotiations could pose problems later in the week, when the heads of government begin arriving. It is not customary for so many technical, financial and emotional issues to be unsettled when national leaders sit down to negotiate an agreement. President Obama and other world leaders have said that they hope to reach some interim agreement at the Copenhagen talks, but that a binding global accord is not likely to be completed until next year.

Negotiators for the United States and China have been trading public accusations in recent days and making little progress in negotiations on the critical issue of treaty compliance.

Chinese negotiators have said little during formal negotiation sessions here, where they have been working in partnership with the developing countries. They have made clear that they do not expect money from the industrial powers to help make the shift to a more energy-efficient economy.

But they will not accept any outside monitors to ensure that they are indeed making the changes that they have promised to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and other pollutants emitted per unit of economic output.

“I think there’s no doubt that China, when it says 40 to 45 percent reduction in energy intensity, is serious about that,” said Ed Miliband, the British secretary of state for energy and climate change. “The more challenging hurdle is finding a formula for ensuring the outside world that an avoided ton of gas is in fact a ton.”

He Yafei, the Chinese vice foreign minister, said China’s laws would guarantee compliance.

“This is a matter of principle,” even if it scuttles the talks, he said in an interview with The Financial Times.

American officials said that despite nearly a year of negotiations with the Chinese, there were still fundamental problems that may not be fixed here before the meetings end. The United States says it believes that the Chinese emissions target is too low — a top American official called it “disappointing” the day it was announced. Without a stronger emissions commitment and an agreement to international monitoring by China, Congress is unlikely to approve a tough new domestic climate regime for the United States.

“If China or any other country wants to be a full partner in global climate efforts, that country must commit to transparency and review of their emissions-cutting regime,” said Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts and a co-sponsor of the climate and energy bill that passed the House in June. “Without that commitment, other governments and industries, including those in America, will be hesitant to engage with those countries when they try to partner on global warming.”

And the Chinese refusal to accept verification measures could also lead to calls for punitive tariffs on Chinese goods coming into the United States. The House bill allows for the imposition of tariffs on goods from countries that do not constrain their carbon output. A group of 10 Democratic senators wrote to Mr. Obama two weeks ago warning that the Senate would not ratify any treaty that did not protect American industry from foreign competitors who do not have to meet global warming emissions limits.

That threat could, paradoxically, help drive the Chinese to cement a deal here, an American official said. “Their No. 1 motivation is to avoid border tariffs,” the official said.

Barbara Finamore director of the China program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the top Chinese leadership was pursuing a cautious and calculated strategy as the talks near a decisive phase this week.

“They’re going to wait until the last hour of the last day and just as the other side is walking out they’ll say, ‘Hey, come back.’ Just as they do every day in every market in China,” Ms. Finamore said. “That’s why they’re the best negotiators in the world.”

As the dispute between China and the United States was playing out in private, a group of poor nations threw the talks off track for a time with a public protest. They complained that the industrial countries were doing too little to curb their own climate-altering emissions and consigning them to perpetual poverty.

Representatives of several African officials demanded that the rich countries sign a binding treaty that included a large transfer of wealth to the developing world. They brought the public sessions of the meeting to a halt at midday, but delegates began returning to the large conference hall as evening fell, and the talks resumed in desultory fashion.

John Hay, a spokesman for the United Nations body sponsoring the conference, said: “The plenary was suspended. A slew of technical meetings have not taken place. It’s an indication of how adamant the G-77 are about these issues,” he said, referring to the group of less-developed nations.

In New York on Monday, Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, warned the negotiators in Copenhagen that leaving too much for the heads of state and government to hammer out at the end of the week risked enfeebling any final deal.

“There is no time left for posturing or blaming,” he said at a news conference, before leaving for the Danish capital. “If everything is left to leaders to resolve at the last minute, we risk having a weak deal or no deal at all, and this will be a failure of potentially catastrophic consequences.”

Todd Stern, the chief American negotiator, acknowledged that Monday had been a difficult day but said that progress continued to be made.

“In any big and complicated negotiation, and this may be the biggest and most complicated ever, it never goes smoothly,” he said. “It never goes as planned. There’s always bumps. There’s always zigs and zags, people getting up and down, and that’s to be expected.”


Andrew C. Revkin and Elisabeth Rosenthal contributed reporting from Copenhagen, and Neil MacFarquhar from the United Nations.

    China and U.S. Hit Strident Impasse at Climate Talks, NYT, 15.12.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/15/science/earth/15climate.html






90 Vehicles Trapped as Calif Faces Rain, Snow, Mud


December 13, 2009
Filed at 2:32 a.m. ET
The New York Times


LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A wintry storm hit California with rain and snow Saturday and sent muslides down hills denuded by fall wildfires, forcing dozens of home evacuations and stranding some 90 vehicles on highways covered by debris.

Authorities said the mandatory evacuations of 44 houses in a Los Angeles County area scorched by a recent massive wildfire were carried out as a precaution against landslides while the rain continued.

That wildfire, known as the Station Fire, was the county's biggest ever, killing two firefighters, destroying 89 homes, and ravaging more than 250 square miles of Angeles National Forest.

The storm also sent mud and rocks sweeping down on roadways. Parts of a 12-mile stretch of the Angeles Crest Highway just north of Los Angeles were buried by mud and rock, prompting authorities to close the road while crews cleared the scene, said county fire Capt. Frank Reynoso. No injuries were reported.

Seventy of the stranded vehicles had been freed Saturday night, but another 20 would be forced to remain overnight, authorities said.

About 50 of the stranded motorists gathered at Newcomb's Ranch Restaurant off the highway.

''Everybody was just looking to get down off the mountain,'' restaurant manager Mike Noxin told the Los Angeles Times.

Several small slides were reported on the highway between La Canada Flintridge and Mount Wilson, and the road was to remain closed indefinitely, the California Highway Patrol said.

Debris flows can occur because the ground in recently burned areas has little ability to absorb rain, which instead instantly runs off, carrying ash, mud, boulders and vegetation.

Rain was expected to fall at rates up to three-quarters of an inch per hour through early Sunday.

Near the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, a family decided to evacuate a home in a neighborhood where rain threatened to bring mud and debris down the hillside. A city building inspector put a yellow tag on the house, advising residents of potential structural problems.

Flooding shut down a three-mile section of the Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach, authorities said. The stretch along Bolsa Chica State Beach was expected to remain closed until Sunday.

About 16,000 utility customers throughout Southern California were sporadically without electricity, mostly because of downed branches crashing onto power lines.

Topanga Canyon Boulevard in Los Angeles also was closed Saturday after mud and rocks slid down a hillside into lanes. Several cars had their tires flattened by sharp rocks along Topanga Canyon Boulevard. No injuries were reported.

Snow accumulations between 8 and 16 inches were expected by Sunday morning above 6,000 feet in the Southern California mountains. Winds were blowing at 25 to 35 mph.

The National Weather Service issued a winter storm watch through Sunday night for western Plumas County and the west slope of the Sierra Nevada in the northern part of the state and the mountains of Ventura and Los Angeles counties in the south.

''It looks like we'll be getting a lot of precipitation,'' said George Cline, a National Weather Service forecaster in Sacramento.

He expected the storm to bring an inch of rain to the Central Valley, with wind gusts up to 60 mph. Gusts up to 90 mph were expected on mountain ridges.

The California Department of Transportation was requiring chains for travel on all major highways over the Sierra. Chains were also required for Interstate 80 through most of Nevada.

Forecasters were warning of whiteout conditions, with snow expected to fall up to two inches an hour at the peak of the storm. They said the new snow would also bring extreme avalanche danger to the alpine backcountry.

The storm was expected to leave more than a foot of new snow at lower elevations and two feet in higher areas in the northern Sierra. Snow was falling at elevations of 6,000 feet Saturday and was expected to dip to 4,500 by Sunday morning.

Cline said most soils in the northern part of the state aren't saturated this early in the winter, minimizing the danger of mudslides even in burned areas.

''We don't anticipate anything really unusual from it yet,'' Cline said. ''We're keeping an eye on the burn scar areas. Things have been so dry, it's still soaking into the ground.''

Saturday's storm is the second in a series of warmer, wetter storms blowing in from the mid-Pacific Ocean. Another similar story is expected to move in by midweek, Cline said.


Associated Press Writers Andrew Dalton in Los Angeles, Don Thompson in Sacramento and Martin Griffith in Reno contributed to this story.

    90 Vehicles Trapped as Calif Faces Rain, Snow, Mud, NYT, 13.12.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/12/13/us/AP-US-California-Storms.html






Murder, Arson Charged in 2003 California Wildfire


October 21, 2009
Filed at 6:33 a.m. ET
The New York Times

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (AP) -- Almost six years after a wildfire destroyed nearly 1,000 homes in Southern California, prosecutors say they have enough evidence to charge a prison inmate with arson and murder in connection with the 2003 blaze.

San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos said Tuesday that a special criminal grand jury indicted Rickie Lee Fowler, a 28-year-old prison inmate, on arson and murder charges in connection to the wildfire that has been linked to five heart attack deaths.

Fowler is serving time in state prison for burglary. He was first interviewed in connection with fire in February 2004, based on a telephone tip, but there was not enough evidence to charge him, San Bernardino County Deputy District Attorney Vic Stull said.

The investigation began to gain steam in February 2008, and new evidence obtained as recently as three weeks ago allowed prosecutors to identify Fowler as a suspect, Stull said.

He faces five counts of murder, one count of aggravated arson and one count of arson of an inhabited structure. The statute of limitations on arson would have run out on Oct. 25.

The notorious Old Fire erupted in the Waterman Canyon area of the San Bernardino Mountains above the city of San Bernardino and eventually swept across 90,000 acres, or about 140 square miles.

Several witnesses reported seeing a passenger in a white van tossing burning objects into dry brush. In late 2004, authorities said they were focusing on a young man they believed may have been the arsonist and were trying to identify a second man but did not have enough evidence to make arrests.

Another man, Martin Valdez Jr., was also believed to be a suspect but he was shot and killed in Muscoy in 2006.

Stull said prosecutors were not sure who actually threw a road flare that started the blaze but are confident they have enough evidence.

Lisa McDermith, the daughter-in-law of one of the victims, James McDermith, said the retired accountant had a heart attack while driving to retrieve a trailer he planned to use to evacuate from his house.

''We're happy for this, not only for us but for all the families who lost a family member and who lost homes,'' she said. ''He caused a lot of grief to so many people. There will finally be some closure.''

In addition to McDermith, the individuals whose deaths are being prosecuted are Charles Howard Cunningham, 93; retired fire captain Chad Leo Williams, 70; Robert Norman Taylor, 54; and Ralph Eugene McWilliams, 67.

Although authorities initially linked six fatal heart attacks to the distress of the evacuations, Stull said in one of those cases the victim's widow felt that the attack was not caused by the fire.

The murder charges include the special circumstance of murder during the commission of arson, he said. Prosecutors have not determined whether they would seek the death penalty if Fowler is convicted, Stull said.

District attorney spokeswoman Susan Mickey didn't know if Fowler had a lawyer. His arraignment is expected within two weeks, after he is transferred from a prison in Lancaster.

    Murder, Arson Charged in 2003 California Wildfire, NYT, 21.10.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/10/21/us/AP-US-Wildfires-Arson-Murder.html






Nudging Recycling From Less Waste to None


October 20, 2009
The New York Times


At Yellowstone National Park, the clear soda cups and white utensils are not your typical cafe-counter garbage. Made of plant-based plastics, they dissolve magically when heated for more than a few minutes.

At Ecco, a popular restaurant in Atlanta, waiters no longer scrape food scraps into the trash bin. Uneaten morsels are dumped into five-gallon pails and taken to a compost heap out back.

And at eight of its North American plants, Honda is recycling so diligently that the factories have gotten rid of their trash Dumpsters altogether.

Across the nation, an antigarbage strategy known as “zero waste” is moving from the fringes to the mainstream, taking hold in school cafeterias, national parks, restaurants, stadiums and corporations.

The movement is simple in concept if not always in execution: Produce less waste. Shun polystyrene foam containers or any other packaging that is not biodegradable. Recycle or compost whatever you can.

Though born of idealism, the zero-waste philosophy is now propelled by sobering realities, like the growing difficulty of securing permits for new landfills and an awareness that organic decay in landfills releases methane that helps warm the earth’s atmosphere.

“Nobody wants a landfill sited anywhere near them, including in rural areas,” said Jon D. Johnston, a materials management branch chief for the Environmental Protection Agency who is helping to lead the zero-waste movement in the Southeast. “We’ve come to this realization that landfill is valuable and we can’t bury things that don’t need to be buried.”

Americans are still the undisputed champions of trash, dumping 4.6 pounds per person per day, according to the E.P.A.’s most recent figures. More than half of that ends up in landfills or is incinerated.

But places like the island resort community of Nantucket offer a glimpse of the future. Running out of landfill space and worried about the cost of shipping trash 30 miles to the mainland, it moved to a strict trash policy more than a decade ago, said Jeffrey Willett, director of public works on the island.

The town, with the blessing of residents concerned about tax increases, mandates the recycling of not only commonly reprocessed items like aluminum, glass and paper but also tires, batteries and household appliances.

Jim Lentowski, executive director of the nonprofit Nantucket Conservation Foundation and a year-round resident since 1971, said that sorting trash and delivering it to the local recycling and disposal complex had become a matter of course for most residents.

The complex also has a garagelike structure where residents can drop off books and clothing and other reusable items for others to take home.

The 100-car parking lot at the landfill is a lively meeting place for locals, Mr. Lentowski added. “Saturday morning during election season, politicians hang out there and hand out campaign buttons,” he said. “If you want to get a pulse on the community, that is a great spot to go.”

Mr. Willett said that while the amount of trash that island residents carted to the dump had remained steady, the proportion going into the landfill had plummeted to 8 percent.

By contrast, Massachusetts residents as a whole send an average of 66 percent of their trash to a landfill or incinerator. Although Mr. Willett has lectured about the Nantucket model around the country, most communities still lack the infrastructure to set a zero-waste target.

Aside from the difficulty of persuading residents and businesses to divide their trash, many towns and municipalities have been unwilling to make the significant capital investments in machines like composters that can process food and yard waste. Yet attitudes are shifting, and cities like San Francisco and Seattle are at the forefront of the changeover. Both of those cities have adopted plans for a shift to zero-waste practices and are collecting organic waste curbside in residential areas for composting.

Food waste, which the E.P.A. says accounts for about 13 percent of total trash nationally — and much more when recyclables are factored out of the total — is viewed as the next big frontier.

When apple cores, stale bread and last week’s leftovers go to landfills, they do not return the nutrients they pulled from the soil while growing. What is more, when sealed in landfills without oxygen, organic materials release methane, a potent heat-trapping gas, as they decompose. If composted, however, the food can be broken down and returned to the earth as a nonchemical fertilizer with no methane by-product.

Green Foodservice Alliance, a division of the Georgia Restaurant Association, has been adding restaurants throughout Atlanta and its suburbs to its so-called zero-waste zones. And companies are springing up to meet the growth in demand from restaurants for recycling and compost haulers.

Steve Simon, a partner in Fifth Group, a company that owns Ecco and four other restaurants in the Atlanta area, said that the hardest part of participating in the alliance’s zero-waste-zone program was not training his staff but finding reliable haulers.

“There are now two in town, and neither is a year old, so it is a very tentative situation,” Mr. Simon said.

Still, he said he had little doubt that the hauling sector would grow and that all five of the restaurants would eventually be waste-free.

Packaging is also quickly evolving as part of the zero-waste movement. Bioplastics like the forks at Yellowstone, made from plant materials like cornstarch that mimic plastic, are used to manufacture a growing number of items that are compostable.

Steve Mojo, executive director of the Biodegradable Products Institute, a nonprofit organization that certifies such products, said that the number of companies making compostable products for food service providers had doubled since 2006 and that many had moved on to items like shopping bags and food packaging.

The transition to zero waste, however, has its pitfalls.

Josephine Miller, an environmental official for the city of Santa Monica, Calif., which bans the use of polystyrene foam containers, said that some citizens had unwittingly put the plant-based alternatives into cans for recycling, where they had melted and had gummed up the works. Yellowstone and some institutions have asked manufacturers to mark some biodegradable items with a brown or green stripe.

Yet even with these clearer design cues, customers will have to be taught to think about the destination of every throwaway if the zero-waste philosophy is to prevail, environmental officials say.

“Technology exists, but a lot of education still needs to be done,” said Mr. Johnston of the E.P.A.

He expects private companies and businesses to move faster than private citizens because momentum can be driven by one person at the top.

“It will take a lot longer to get average Americans to compost,” Mr. Johnston said. “Reaching down to my household and yours is the greatest challenge.”

    Nudging Recycling From Less Waste to None, NYT, 20.10.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/20/science/earth/20trash.html






Georgians Grappling With Flood Damage


September 24, 2009
The New York Times


AUSTELL, Ga. — As floodwaters in the Atlanta area receded, residents grappled Wednesday with the damage that has left them homeless, uprooted their lives and shut down bridges and major roadways.

Thundershowers are forecast for Thursday, Friday and Saturday, but most officials believe that the worst is over.

The death toll in Georgia rose to nine people. The body of Richard Butler, 29, was found Tuesday evening in hardest-hit Douglas County. He was swept from his car and died, like the other five victims in the county, as a result of flash flooding, said Wes Tallon, the spokesman for the county’s emergency management agency.

The county, about 25 miles west of the city, was hit by 21 inches of rain from Sunday to Monday, knocking out the drinking water supply to thousands of residents and forcing others to boil their water. On Wednesday, the authorities dispensed bottled water, checked abandoned cars for bodies and swept debris from mud-caked streets. Churches and local radio stations collected food and clothes. And volunteers canoed to homes in search of waterlogged belongings.

Still, many residents felt deserted. “It’s been everyone for themself,” said Aldin Linton, an engineer who came here to Austell, in Cobb County to rescue a friend’s trailer and got stranded. “Where’s the city? There are guys directing traffic, but I’ve only seen one street cleaner.”

On Wednesday, Austell’s swollen Sweetwater Creek continued to flood into the trailer park owned by Dale Lawrence’s family. A red Pontiac, dragged by the tide, rested against a filthy office building. An unmoored barn floated by a submerged tree.

Mr. Lawrence said the family was slowly recovering. “We’re in a flood plain, so we can’t get flood insurance,” he said. “We’re cleaning everything ourselves.”

In Douglasville, Joe Reynolds returned to his organic vegetable farm to find two-thirds of the land submerged. His chickens were dry, but the lettuce, beets and cabbage from his fall harvest were deep under mucky brown water. “If our irrigation system is totally destroyed, we could be looking at $8,000 to repair it,” he said. “For us, that’s a tremendous amount of money. I didn’t think I’d go back to waiting tables part time so quickly. But it’s an option.”

I-20, a main interstate leading to Atlanta, reopened after 11 a.m. on Wednesday, while only two bridges spanning the flooded Chattahoochee River remained closed, helping the county slowly return to its operations.

Emergency management officials have toured the state by helicopter and expect to issue a preliminary damage assessment soon, said Lisa Janak, a spokeswoman for the state Emergency Management Agency. The state insurance commissioner estimated the damage at $250 million.

Gov. Sonny Perdue has declared a state of emergency in 17 counties and pleaded for federal aid to President Obama, who promised to give the request prompt attention.


Liz Robbins contributed reporting from New York.

    Georgians Grappling With Flood Damage, NYT, 24.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/24/us/24rain.html






As Galveston Recovers From Hurricane Ike, Some Residents Feel Left Behind


September 21, 2009
The New York Times


GALVESTON, Tex. — There are many signs that this seaside town has revived a year after Hurricane Ike flooded more than 17,000 homes and businesses. The big resorts are humming again, and on hot days people throng the newly restored beaches. The port is open, and the cruise ships are back. Most of the businesses on the Strand, the island’s historic strip of shops and restaurants, have reopened.

Yet the progress has been slow, and officials say it may be several years before the city fully recovers.

With the debris cleared, the main thoroughfares appear now much as they did before the storm, but on the backstreets, thousands of residents — in particular the poor and elderly who lacked insurance — are still struggling with the lingering effects of the hurricane.

About 20 percent of the 58,000 people who lived in the city before the hurricane have not returned, and one-quarter of the families whose homes were damaged by floods — about 4,000 households — are still unable to live in them.

Thousands of people are still staying with relatives or living in campers and government-provided trailers next to their ruined homes. About 3,000 are staying on the mainland in temporary apartments subsidized by the government. Many of these families are still waiting for more than $160 million in federal housing grants that have been approved but have yet to be disbursed because of bureaucratic delays in Austin, officials said.

“We have a lot of people who didn’t have insurance or who had some but not enough,” said Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas. “It’s just not fair. People are waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting.”

The housing aid that has arrived has often proved to be too little. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has distributed emergency housing assistance to 1,300 households, but many residents found that the grants, which were capped at $28,800, did not cover their damages.

The state and federal governments have yet to take steps to protect the city from a future storm, beyond financing a $46 million project to rebuild six miles of beaches and dunes. But a multibillion-dollar proposal to create a system of dikes coupled with giant, swinging gates across the mouth of Galveston Bay and San Luis Pass has begun to gather political momentum.

FEMA has distributed at least $189 million to flood victims in Galveston County for temporary housing or repairs, and the city has received $86 million in aid, mostly for removing debris. An additional $269 million in block grants from the federal Housing and Urban Development Department has been approved for infrastructure and repairs to houses but has not arrived, city officials said.

Scars from the hurricane are sprinkled through the town. Four sprawling housing projects that were flooded have been razed. (There is a debate about where to rebuild them.) The system for storm water is still clogged with sand. More than 30,000 dead trees have yet to be removed. And the buildings at the state park are still little more than concrete ruins.

Shuttered businesses dot the island, and those still open are taking in only about 65 percent to 70 percent of their former earnings, according to the Chamber of Commerce.

Still, many residents say they find reasons to be optimistic. By most accounts, the pace of recovery here has been much better than in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, a more powerful storm.

After flirting with moving the island’s hospital and medical school to the mainland, the State Legislature voted at the end of the summer to spend $667 million to rebuild it, ensuring that the town’s largest employer would stay put.

Most of the traditional tourist destinations have reopened; the beaches have been restored by the state at a cost of $12 million. The city itself has avoided widespread layoffs, even though property taxes have plummeted, by spending money from a reserve fund, officials said.

And while at least 180 businesses have shut down for good, more than 130 new ones have opened, chamber officials say. Developers have also been snapping up properties near the water at a rapid rate, pouncing on depressed prices.

“It’s a no-brainer,” said Peter Koke, a North Carolina developer who has bought a dozen houses in Galveston County since the storm. “It’s going to come back way stronger than it was.”

If anyone embodies this seaside town’s determination to rebuild after Hurricane Ike, it is Jack King, the white-haired candy maker whose downtown store was a fixture on the island for decades.

A year ago, when Mr. King arrived at his confectionery, the floodwaters had swept through the cavernous parlor and destroyed everything: the antique counters and cabinets, the hardwood floor, the soda fountains, the gleaming counter from Italy and most of the candy-making machinery, including the saltwater taffy pullers that had made the shop famous.

Though he is 72, Mr. King said he never thought once about retiring. He plundered his savings and fought with his insurance company to get the $500,000 he needed to rebuild. La King’s Confectionery reopened in late July.

“I been in the candy business all my life,” he said. “I don’t know how to do anything else.”

Kim Bachmeier and her husband, Steve Whitcher, decided to cash in their retirement funds and open a shoe store for runners, Fit to Run, near the Strand. Ms. Bachmeier said she hoped the store would not only provide them an income but would also inspire more people to take up exercise to beat their post-hurricane blues.

“After the hurricane, a lot of people found the bottom of a lot of bottles; that was their way to deal with things,” Ms. Bachmeier said. “It’s more than just a store to us; it’s the beginning of a positive change for the island.”

Not everyone shares Ms. Bachmeier’s sanguine outlook.

Every day, Brenda Roby tiptoes through the rubble of her house on an inlet to get the mail from her box, one of the few things the storm did not carry away. The storm not only wiped her two-story house off its foundation, but it destroyed a building housing her catering business, as well. She has collected her flood insurance, about $120,000, but it is not enough to rebuild, and the state-financed windstorm insurance company has denied her claim. She has lived in limbo for months in a FEMA trailer on her property.

“I’ve never been homeless or jobless in my life until after Ike,” she said. “Everybody is talking about how everybody got back on their feet, and I said, ‘O.K., I can’t do anything yet. One year later and I’m right where I was before.’ ”

Still, a grand divide exists between those like Ms. Roby who were insured against floods and those who were not. About 17,000 homes were seriously damaged, and 5,200 of the families in them did not have flood insurance. Most of the homeowners were poor or elderly, said Joe Higgs of Gulf Coast Interfaith, a group helping hurricane victims.

“The people who haven’t recovered are really the most vulnerable,” he said. “They are low income, and because of that they often did not have insurance.”

Many poor residents said the $28,800 grants they had received from FEMA were insufficient to finish repairs on their homes.

The floodwaters nearly drowned William and Dorothy Auzston in their home on the night of Sept. 13 last year. Both are retired and in poor health, living on Social Security. They had no insurance; the home that Mr. Auzston, 83, built decades ago was in a flood zone, and a policy would be prohibitively expensive.

Since the storm, the Auzstons have spent the FEMA grant to clear the rubble and buy a camper to live in. They also managed to buy blueprints and have pilings driven, on top of which they hope to rebuild their home. But they are out of money.

“You are not going to rebuild no house with any $28,000,” said Ms. Auzston, 60, a former hospital orderly who suffers from diabetes and breast cancer. “I have cried and cried and cried. It’s just not worth it anymore.”

    As Galveston Recovers From Hurricane Ike, Some Residents Feel Left Behind, NYT, 21.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/21/us/21galveston.html






Health Ills Abound as Farm Runoff Fouls Wells


September 18, 2009
The New York Times


MORRISON, Wis. — All it took was an early thaw for the drinking water here to become unsafe.

There are 41,000 dairy cows in Brown County, which includes Morrison, and they produce more than 260 million gallons of manure each year, much of which is spread on nearby grain fields. Other farmers receive fees to cover their land with slaughterhouse waste and treated sewage.

In measured amounts, that waste acts as fertilizer. But if the amounts are excessive, bacteria and chemicals can flow into the ground and contaminate residents’ tap water.

In Morrison, more than 100 wells were polluted by agricultural runoff within a few months, according to local officials. As parasites and bacteria seeped into drinking water, residents suffered from chronic diarrhea, stomach illnesses and severe ear infections.

“Sometimes it smells like a barn coming out of the faucet,” said Lisa Barnard, who lives a few towns over, and just 15 miles from the city of Green Bay.

Tests of her water showed it contained E. coli, coliform bacteria and other contaminants found in manure. Last year, her 5-year-old son developed ear infections that eventually required an operation. Her doctor told her they were most likely caused by bathing in polluted water, she said.

Yet runoff from all but the largest farms is essentially unregulated by many of the federal laws intended to prevent pollution and protect drinking water sources. The Clean Water Act of 1972 largely regulates only chemicals or contaminants that move through pipes or ditches, which means it does not typically apply to waste that is sprayed on a field and seeps into groundwater.

As a result, many of the agricultural pollutants that contaminate drinking water sources are often subject only to state or county regulations. And those laws have failed to protect some residents living nearby.

To address this problem, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has created special rules for the biggest farms, like those with at least 700 cows.

But thousands of large animal feedlots that should be regulated by those rules are effectively ignored because farmers never file paperwork, E.P.A. officials say.

And regulations passed during the administration of President George W. Bush allow many of those farms to self-certify that they will not pollute, and thereby largely escape regulation.

In a statement, the E.P.A. wrote that officials were working closely with the Agriculture Department and other federal agencies to reduce pollution and bring large farms into compliance.

Agricultural runoff is the single largest source of water pollution in the nation’s rivers and streams, according to the E.P.A. An estimated 19.5 million Americans fall ill each year from waterborne parasites, viruses or bacteria, including those stemming from human and animal waste, according to a study published last year in the scientific journal Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology.

The problem is not limited to Wisconsin. In California, up to 15 percent of wells in agricultural areas exceed a federal contaminant threshold, according to studies. Major waterways like the Chesapeake Bay have been seriously damaged by agricultural pollution, according to government reports.

In Arkansas and Maryland, residents have accused chicken farm owners of polluting drinking water. In 2005, Oklahoma’s attorney general sued 13 poultry companies, claiming they had damaged one of the state’s most important watersheds.

It is often difficult to definitively link a specific instance of disease to one particular cause, like water pollution. Even when tests show that drinking water is polluted, it can be hard to pinpoint the source of the contamination.

Despite such caveats, regulators in Brown County say they believe that manure has contaminated tap water, making residents ill.

“One cow produces as much waste as 18 people,” said Bill Hafs, a county official who has lobbied the state Legislature for stricter waste rules.

“There just isn’t enough land to absorb that much manure, but we don’t have laws to force people to stop,” he added.

In Brown County, part of one of the nation’s largest milk-producing regions, agriculture brings in $3 billion a year. But the dairies collectively also create as much as a million gallons of waste each day. Many cows are fed a high-protein diet, which creates a more liquid manure that is easier to spray on fields.

In 2006, an unusually early thaw in Brown County melted frozen fields, including some that were covered in manure. Within days, according to a county study, more than 100 wells were contaminated with coliform bacteria, E. coli, or nitrates — byproducts of manure or other fertilizers.

“Land application requirements in place at that time were not sufficiently designed or monitored to prevent the pollution of wells,” one official wrote.

Some residents did not realize that their water was contaminated until their neighbors fell ill, which prompted them to test their own water.

“We were terrified,” said Aleisha Petri, whose water was polluted for months, until her husband dumped enough bleach in the well to kill the contaminants. Neighbors spent thousands of dollars digging new wells.

At a town hall meeting, angry homeowners yelled at dairy owners, some of whom are perceived as among the most wealthy and powerful people in town.

One resident said that he had seen cow organs dumped on a neighboring field, and his dog had dug up animal carcasses and bones.

“More than 30 percent of the wells in one town alone violated basic health standards,” said Mr. Hafs, the Brown County regulator responsible for land and water conservation, in an interview. “It’s obvious we’ve got a problem.”

But dairy owners said it was unfair to blame them for the county’s water problems. They noted that state regulators, in their reports, were unable to definitively establish the source of the 2006 contamination.

One of those farmers, Dan Natzke, owns Wayside Dairy, one of the largest farms around here. Just a few decades ago, it had just 60 cows. Today, its 1,400 animals live in enormous barns and are milked by suction pumps.

In June, Mr. Natzke explained to visiting kindergarteners that his cows produced 1.5 million gallons of manure a month. The dairy owns 1,000 acres and rents another 1,800 acres to dispose of that waste and grow crops to feed the cows.

“Where does the poop go?” one boy asked. “And what happens to the cow when it gets old?”

“The waste helps grow food,” Mr. Natzke replied. “And that’s what the cow becomes, too.”

His farm abides by dozens of state laws, Mr. Natzke said.

“All of our waste management is reviewed by our agronomist and by the state’s regulators,” he added. “We follow all the rules.”

But records show that his farm was fined $56,000 last October for spreading excessive waste. Mr. Natzke declined to comment.

Many environmental advocates argue that agricultural pollution will be reduced only through stronger federal laws. Lisa P. Jackson, the E.P.A. administrator, has recently ordered an increase in enforcement of the Clean Water Act. Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, has said that clean water is a priority, and President Obama promised in campaign speeches to regulate water pollution from livestock.

But Congress has not created many new rules on the topic and, as a result, officials say their powers remain limited.

Part of the problem, according to data collected from the E.P.A. and every state, is that environmental agencies are already overtaxed. And it is unclear how to design effective laws, say regulators, including Ms. Jackson, who was confirmed to head the E.P.A. in January.

To fix the problem of agricultural runoff, “I don’t think there’s a solution in my head yet that I could say, right now, write this piece of legislation, this will get it done,” Ms. Jackson said in an interview.

She added that “the challenge now is for E.P.A. and Congress to develop solutions that represent the next step in protecting our nation’s waters and people’s health.”

A potential solution, regulators say, is to find new uses for manure. In Wisconsin, Gov. Jim Doyle has financed projects to use farm waste to generate electricity.

But environmentalists and some lawmakers say real change will occur only when Congress passes laws giving the E.P.A. broad powers to regulate farms. Tougher statutes should permit drastic steps — like shutting down farms or blocking expansion — when watersheds become threatened, they argue.

However, a powerful farm lobby has blocked previous environmental efforts on Capital Hill. Even when state legislatures have acted, they have often encountered unexpected difficulties.

After Brown County’s wells became polluted, for instance, Wisconsin created new rules prohibiting farmers in many areas from spraying manure during winter, and creating additional requirements for large dairies.

But agriculture is among the state’s most powerful industries. After intense lobbying, the farmers’ association won a provision requiring the state often to finance up to 70 percent of the cost of following the new regulations. Unless regulators pay, some farmers do not have to comply.

In a statement, Adam Collins, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said farmers can only apply waste to fields “according to a nutrient management plan, which, among other things, requires that manure runoff be minimized.”

When there is evidence that a farm has “contaminated a water source, we can and do take enforcement action,” he wrote.

“Wisconsin has a long history of continuously working to improve water quality and a strong reputation nationally for our clean water efforts,” he added. “Approximately 800,000 private drinking water wells serve rural Wisconsin residents. The vast majority of wells provide safe drinking water.”

But anger in some towns remains. At the elementary school a few miles from Mr. Natzke’s dairy, there are signs above drinking fountains warning that the water may be dangerous for infants.

“I go to church with the Natzkes,” said Joel Reetz, who spent $16,000 digging a deeper well after he learned his water was polluted. “Our kid goes to school with their kids. It puts us in a terrible position, because everyone knows each other.

“But what’s happening to this town isn’t right,” he said.

    Health Ills Abound as Farm Runoff Fouls Wells, NYT, 18.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/18/us/18dairy.html






Norman Borlaug, 95, Dies; Led Green Revolution


September 14, 2009
The New York Times


Norman E. Borlaug, the plant scientist who did more than anyone else in the 20th century to teach the world to feed itself and whose work was credited with saving hundreds of millions of lives, died Saturday night. He was 95 and lived in Dallas.

The cause was complications from cancer, said Kathleen Phillips, a spokeswoman for Texas A&M University, where Dr. Borlaug had served on the faculty since 1984.

Dr. Borlaug’s advances in plant breeding led to spectacular success in increasing food production in Latin America and Asia and brought him international acclaim. In 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

He was widely described as the father of the broad agricultural movement called the Green Revolution, though decidedly reluctant to accept the title. “A miserable term,” he said, characteristically shrugging off any air of self-importance.

Yet his work had a far-reaching impact on the lives of millions of people in developing countries. His breeding of high-yielding crop varieties helped to avert mass famines that were widely predicted in the 1960s, altering the course of history. Largely because of his work, countries that had been food deficient, like Mexico and India, became self-sufficient in producing cereal grains.

“More than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world,” the Nobel committee said in presenting him with the Peace Prize. “We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace.”

The day the award was announced, Dr. Borlaug, vigorous and slender at 56, was working in a wheat field outside Mexico City when his wife, Margaret, drove up to tell him the news. “Someone’s pulling your leg,” he replied, according to one of his biographers, Leon Hesser. Assured that it was true, he kept on working, saying he would celebrate later.

The Green Revolution eventually came under attack from environmental and social critics who said it had created more difficulties than it had solved. Dr. Borlaug responded that the real problem was not his agricultural techniques, but the runaway population growth that had made them necessary.

“If the world population continues to increase at the same rate, we will destroy the species,” he declared.

Traveling to Norway, the land of his ancestors, to receive the award, he warned the Nobel audience that the struggle against hunger had not been won. “We may be at high tide now, but ebb tide could soon set in if we become complacent and relax our efforts,” he said. Twice more in his lifetime, in the 1970s and again in 2008, those words would prove prescient as food shortages and high prices caused global unrest.

His Nobel Prize was the culmination of a storied life in agriculture that began when he was a boy growing up on a farm in Iowa, wondering why plants grew better in some places than others. His was also an unlikely career path, one that began in earnest near the end of World War II, when Dr. Borlaug walked away from a promising job at DuPont, the chemical company, to take a position in Mexico trying to help farmers improve their crops.

The job was part of an assault on hunger in Mexico that was devised in Manhattan, at the offices of the Rockefeller Foundation, with political support in Washington. But it was not a career choice calculated to lead to fame or honor.

Indeed, on first seeing the situation in Mexico for himself, Dr. Borlaug reacted with near despair. Mexican soils were depleted, the crops were ravaged by disease, yields were low and the farmers could not feed themselves, much less improve their lot by selling surplus.

“These places I’ve seen have clubbed my mind — they are so poor and depressing,” he wrote to his wife after his first extended sojourn in the country. “I don’t know what we can do to help these people, but we’ve got to do something.”

The next few years were ones of toil and privation as Dr. Borlaug and his colleagues, with scant funds or equipment, set to work improving yields in tropical crop varieties.

He spent countless hours hunched over in the blazing Mexican sun as he manipulated tiny wheat blossoms to cross different strains. To speed the work, he set up winter and summer operations in far-flung parts of Mexico, logging thousands of miles over poor roads. He battled illness, forded rivers in flood, dodged mudslides and sometimes slept in tents.

He was by then a trained scientist holding a doctoral degree in plant diseases. But as he sought to coax better performance from the wheats of Mexico, he relied on a farm boy’s instinctive feel for the plants and the soil in which they grew.

“When wheat is ripening properly, when the wind is blowing across the field, you can hear the beards of the wheat rubbing together,” he told another biographer, Lennard Bickel. “They sound like the pine needles in a forest. It is a sweet, whispering music that once you hear, you never forget.”

Norman Ernest Borlaug was born on March 25, 1914, in his grandfather’s farmhouse near the tiny settlement of Saude, in northeastern Iowa. Growing up in a stalwart community of Norwegian immigrants, he trudged across snow-covered fields to a one-room country school, coming home almost every day to the aroma of bread baking in his mother’s oven.

He was a high-spirited boy of boundless curiosity. His sister, Charlotte Culbert, recounted in an interview in 2008 in Cresco, Iowa, that he would whistle aloud as he milked the cows, and pester his parents and grandparents with questions. “He’d wonder why in some areas the grass would be so green, and then over here it wouldn’t be,” Mrs. Culbert recalled.

At the time, most farm boys dropped out of school. But Norman’s grandfather Nels Borlaug, regretting his own scant education, urged his grandson to keep going. Norman worked his way through the University of Minnesota during the Great Depression. More than once in those desperate years he encountered townspeople in Minneapolis on the verge of starvation, which sharpened his interest in the problems of food production.

He first studied forestry, but fell under the influence of a legendary expert in plant diseases, Elvin C. Stakman, who encouraged him to switch to the broader field of plant pathology. After earning a doctorate in the field, he took a job with DuPont in 1942 and worked on chemical compounds useful in the war. But Professor Stakman helped persuade him to join the Rockefeller Foundation’s Mexican hunger project in 1944.

Dr. Borlaug’s initial goal was to create varieties of wheat adapted to Mexico’s climate that could resist the greatest disease of wheat, a fungus called rust. He accomplished that within a few years by crossing Mexican wheats with rust-resistant varieties from elsewhere.

His insistence on breeding in two places, the Sonoran desert in winter and the central highlands in summer, imposed heavy burdens on him and his team, but it cut the time to accomplish his work in half. By luck, the strategy also produced wheat varieties that were insensitive to day length and thus capable of growing in many locales, a trait that would later prove of vital significance.

The Rockefeller team gradually won the agreement of Mexican farmers to adopt the new varieties, and wheat output in that country began a remarkable climb. But these developments turned out to be a mere prelude to Dr. Borlaug’s main achievements.

By the late 1940s, researchers knew they could induce huge yield gains in wheat by feeding the plants chemical fertilizer that supplied them with extra nitrogen, a shortage of which was the biggest constraint on plant growth. But the strategy had a severe limitation: beyond a certain level of fertilizer, the seed heads containing wheat grains would grow so large and heavy, the plant would fall over, ruining the crop.

In 1953, Dr. Borlaug began working with a wheat strain containing an unusual gene. It had the effect of shrinking the wheat plant, creating a stubby, compact variety. Yet crucially, the seed heads did not shrink, meaning a small plant could still produce a large amount of wheat.

Dr. Borlaug and his team transferred the gene into tropical wheats. When high fertilizer levels were applied to these new “semidwarf” plants, the results were nothing short of astonishing.

The plants would produce enormous heads of grain, yet their stiff, short bodies could support the weight without falling over. On the same amount of land, wheat output could be tripled or quadrupled. Later, the idea was applied to rice, the staple crop for nearly half the world’s population, with yields jumping several-fold compared with some traditional varieties.

This strange principle of increasing yields by shrinking plants was the central insight of the Green Revolution, and its impact was enormous.

By the early 1960s, many farmers in Mexico had embraced the full package of innovations from Dr. Borlaug’s breeding program, and wheat output in the country had soared sixfold from the levels of the early 1940s.

Urgent queries began to pour in from other poor countries, for they were caught in a bind. After World War II, the introduction of basic sanitation in many developing countries caused death rates to plunge, but birth rates were slow to follow. As a result, the global population had exploded, putting immense strain on food supplies.

On the Indian subcontinent in particular, a crisis developed. The population was growing so much faster than farm output that it was not clear how the masses could be fed. In the mid-1960s, huge grain imports were required to avert starvation.

At the invitation of the Indian and Pakistani governments, Dr. Borlaug offered his advice. He met resistance at first from senior agricultural experts steeped in tradition, but as the food situation worsened, the objections faded. Soon, India and Pakistan were ordering shiploads of Dr. Borlaug’s wheat seeds from Mexico.

One vital shipment through the Port of Los Angeles was delayed by the Watts riots of 1965 in that city, and Dr. Borlaug spent hours yelling on the phone to get it through.

Indian and Pakistani farmers took up the new varieties, receiving fertilizer and other aid from their governments. Just as in Mexico, harvests soared: the Indian wheat crop of 1968 was so bountiful that the government had to turn schools into temporary granaries.

As with the Mexican effort, the Rockefeller Foundation and other donors set up a project in the Philippines to work on rice. It led to the creation of semidwarf varieties that also caused rice yields to soar. Chinese scientists ultimately followed in the footsteps of Western researchers, using semidwarf varieties to establish food security in China and setting the stage for its rise as an industrial power. And Dr. Borlaug and his colleagues helped spread the new crop varieties to additional countries of Latin America, notably Colombia, Ecuador, Chile and Brazil.

Dr. Borlaug’s later years were partly occupied by arguments over the social and environmental consequences of the Green Revolution. Many critics on the left attacked it, saying it displaced smaller farmers, encouraged overreliance on chemicals and paved the way for greater corporate control of agriculture.

In a characteristic complaint, Vandana Shiva, an Indian critic, wrote in 1991 that “in perceiving nature’s limits as constraints on productivity that had to be removed, American experts spread ecologically destructive and unsustainable practices worldwide.”

Dr. Borlaug declared that such arguments often came from “elitists” who were rich enough not to worry about where their next meal was coming from. But over time, he acknowledged the validity of some environmental concerns, and embraced more judicious use of fertilizers and pesticides. He was frustrated throughout his life that governments did not do more to tackle what he called “the population monster” by lowering birth rates.

He remained a vigorous man into his 90s, serving for many years on the faculty of Texas A&M and continuing to do vital agricultural work. In recent years, he marshaled efforts to tackle a new variety of rust that is threatening the world’s wheat crop.

Dr. Borlaug’s wife of 69 years, the former Margaret Gibson, died in 2007. He is survived by a sister, Charlotte Borlaug Culbert; a daughter, Jeanie Borlaug Laube; a son, William Borlaug; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

Gary H. Toenniessen, director of agricultural programs for the Rockefeller Foundation, said in an interview that Dr. Borlaug’s great achievement was to prove that intensive, modern agriculture could be made to work in the fast-growing developing countries where it was needed most, even on the small farms predominating there.

By Mr. Toenniessen’s calculation, about half the world’s population goes to bed every night after consuming grain descended from one of the high-yield varieties developed by Dr. Borlaug and his colleagues of the Green Revolution.

“He knew what it was they needed to do, and he didn’t give up,” Mr. Toenniessen said. “He could just see that this was the answer.”


Gerald Jonas and Sarah Wheaton contributed reporting.

    Norman Borlaug, 95, Dies; Led Green Revolution, NYT, 14.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/14/business/energy-environment/14borlaug.html






Los Angeles Fire Was Arson, Officials Say


September 4, 2009
The New York Times


A wildfire in the foothills north of Los Angeles that has claimed the lives of two firefighters, ravaged more than 250 square miles and destroyed more than 60 homes was caused by arson, the federal Forest Service said.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has begun a homicide inquiry looking for the person or people responsible for the wildfire, which continues to burn.

The blaze, known as the Station Fire, has burned for over a week in the Angeles National Forest outside Los Angeles. After a forensic investigation, officials with the U.S. Forest Service determined on Thursday that the fire was started intentionally, and they labeled the firefighters’ deaths homicides, the Associated Press reported.

The authorities did not say where precisely the fire is believed to have begun and whether they had identified any suspects.

As of Thursday evening, the fire had consumed nearly 150,000 acres — an area more than two-fifths the size of the city of Los Angeles — and had become the largest in the county’s history. The fire has been fueled in large part by a mix of dry brush, record heat, and steep slopes that have slowed firefighters.

Still, the fire is considered particularly unusual because it has spread so quickly without the help of the ferocious Santa Ana winds, which typically drive Southern California’s wildfires. The Angeles National Forest is usually struck by about 200 fires every year, most of which are quickly controlled.

Peak fire season in Southern California begins in the fall, when the Santa Ana winds flare up. As a result fire officials have said the state could be in for a particularly long and harsh wildfire season this year.

Earlier in the day, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told reporters that crews were making progress against the flames, containing about 40 percent of the Station Fire, but he cautioned that it was still far from over. Fire officials have said it could be another two weeks before the blaze is completely contained.

Mr. Schwarzenegger toured the fire-ravaged Vogel Flats area of the Angeles National Forest and later thanked firefighters for all of their work in putting out the flames. At one point on the tour, Mr. Schwarzenegger, a former bodybuilder, picked up a 30-pound dumbbell found in rubble. “Even though we are still battling those fires, we are now trying to help get people’s lives rebuilt,” he said.

    Los Angeles Fire Was Arson, Officials Say, NYT, 4.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/04/us/04fires.html






Op-Ed Contributor

Where the Wild Things Were


September 2, 2009
The New York Times


THE May when I was 14, the coyotes bayed wildly every night. Their cry was a mournful sound, and for good reason: North Texas real estate developers had suddenly colonized the coyotes’ land; suburban sprawl was unfurling across the plains on which they had once chased rabbits among fields of wheat. Instead of their creek-bed den of bramble and bush, there was a zoned triangle of immaculate green sod, named for the displaced: Coyote Creek Park. Still, for a time, the eponymous animals would often startle us from sleep as they howled in angry consensus, like anarchists rallying in their slums to overthrow their oppressors.

A neighbor, fed up and sleep deprived, appeared one night at our front door with a lantern and a shotgun, asking my dad to hold the light while he fired. My dad — an urban Jew of Eastern European descent — knew a thing or two about displacement and assured the man that the coyotes, starved of their resources and their freedoms, would soon leave on their own. June proved my dad right; the howling finally ceased. The city, confident that the residents and Shih Tzus of Glenhollow Estates had nothing to fear, built a concrete walking path that wound along the creek.

The coyotes’ sanctuary had also been my own, their den just three turns up the creek from the fort I had constructed in the wall of a small ravine. My fort! There, I invented a silly language, stockpiled ersatz weapons, drafted a constitution, laid booby traps and rigged an intricate system of climbing ropes, all arranged around a spot I called the Inner Sanctum, a hidden space behind a boulder. And because I was homeschooled, I had tremendous freedom over what I studied and, more important, where I studied it. Nearly every day, for years, I spent hours reading and writing within the Sanctum.

Often, I secretly put my books aside and spent a stolen hour or two trekking through the fields or exploring abandoned farmhouses for rusted treasure. By the time I was 14, however, the old farmhouses had been razed to make way for a new subdivision. I had begun to check the crevices of my body for the hairy traces of manhood. My parents and I had decided that when the summer ended, it would be time for me to go to public school. After years spent either in my solitary spot near the creek or in the sole company of a middle-aged woman who interpreted my every word as evidence of my perfection, I feared that I would fit in at a normal school among normal schoolchildren about as well as those coyotes fit in the newly domesticated landscape.

In the Inner Sanctum, late one June evening, I was busy writing about the apocalypse, a topic I found perversely comforting — after all, in a nuclear-winter wonderland, I could stop worrying about going back to school — when my eye caught some motion amid the vast plain of two-by-fours and pink-foam insulation beyond the creek. A coyote! What was he still doing slinking around, when his pack had long since fled for the grasslands far beyond suburbia’s reach?

By the time the coyote had loped to the far bank of the creek and sat down, I had named him. Mohican. I ran the two blocks home to grab some of my terrier’s biscuits, and when I hurried back, Mohican was still sitting there. Careful to keep my distance, I hopscotched across a few jutting stones to his side of the creek. I called him by the name I had just given him, dangled a biscuit and he stood, pawed the earth before him, as if testing its firmness, then turned shyly away. I tossed the biscuit into the space between us. Mohican slunk closer, accepted the treat, then disappeared into the construction site.

The next morning, Mohican returned, and I was prepared, my pockets heavy with dog biscuits. Throughout that day, and the next, and the next, Mohican came back, and slowly I advanced a few contemplative steps closer to him, as if the two of us were engaged in some drawn-out interspecies game of chess. Eventually he came within an arm’s length, and even let me extend my hand to his nose so that he could sniff me.

One morning, I returned to my fort to find Mohican patiently waiting for me. I paused, held forth a biscuit and called for him to come. Not only did he come to me, he stood on his hind legs and embraced me, leaving muddy paw marks on my T-shirt. Coyotes, I knew, were private, wild things. Even to glimpse one felt lucky. To hug a coyote was too wonderful to keep to myself, and so I brought my mom down to my fort to stand at a distance and watch. “It is amazing,” my mom agreed. “But I don’t think he could be a full coyote. No way a real coyote would act like that.” Let my mom have her own opinions; to me, Mohican was pure, feral coyote.

As if I had a houseguest I felt obliged to entertain, I devised activities for the two of us, trying to teach Mohican some tricks. But all Mohican wanted to do was stand on his hind legs, press his paws to me and waltz. For me, there was no imminent school year; for him, no imminent subdivision. For two weeks, we danced.

One day, though, Mohican didn’t show up. I waited until dark, then waited again the next day, and the following week. But it was now only days until school would begin; my mother made me abandon my vigil to traverse the city’s back-to-school sales. As the shopping bags accumulated in our minivan, as I tried not to think about my immediate future, I gazed out the car window, searching, in vain, for Mohican.

When I finally pushed open the front doors to Shepton High School, I immediately understood that my untamed days were over. Before, time had been my own, to think about whatever interested me; here, time was partitioned by school bells, and all I could think about were the inscrutable, fearsome faces of all those other children.

By the end of that week, my art class had rechristened me Ol’ Frizz Head, I had failed three quizzes and a sneering girl in my gym class had punched me in the liver for acting like a know-it-all. I had already glimpsed my true curriculum for that first high-school semester: a laborious, close study of my own personal failings. Puberty began, then advanced cataclysmically. I ceded control of the Inner Sanctum to a barbarous horde of 10-year-olds. With so many other things to worry about, I stopped looking for Mohican.

Months later, I cooled the warm ache of my blooming acne on the foggy glass of the passenger-side window as my mom pulled the car up to a red light on our way to school. Suddenly, simply, there he was. Mohican? It looked like him, but he was wearing a collar and leash, 10 pounds heavier, placidly walking alongside an efficient-looking woman with a man’s haircut.

Had Mohican really been willing to abandon his feral glories — the snap and hiss of running wild through wheat, the flush of rabbit blood in his teeth — for Purina and air-conditioning? Did Mohican understand that it was either civilize or die? Or had I let myself believe that Mohican was a wild thing, when he had been only a stray dog all along? Just before the light turned green, Mohican turned to me, and our eyes met.

Could he have recognized me, through the fog of the window, myself as transformed as he? I can’t know, but at that moment, some ancient impulse seemed to seize Mohican, and his legs suddenly surged forward. His leash, however, was bound to the woman’s wrist, and she managed to hold on. She yelled at Mohican, and he sat and bowed to her apologetically.

I was saddened, even a little ashamed, to witness Mohican’s surrender. Once the creek, and our days, had been ours, to stalk whatever we craved. But now Mohican was a pet on a leash, and I was a pimply teenager in a minivan. Or maybe this was only a ruse: maybe Mohican had gained the woman’s trust so that, at some later time, he could take advantage of it. Just when that woman would come to think of him as a dog, the coyote would suddenly break free.


Stefan Merrill Block is the author of the novel “The Story of Forgetting.”

    Where the Wild Things Were, NYT, 2.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/02/opinion/02block.html






Huge Wildfire Portends Bad Calif. Fire Season


September 2, 2009
Filed at 2:24 a.m. ET
The New York Times


LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Firefighters reported progress Tuesday against a gigantic blaze on the edge of Los Angeles that might be just a preview of even greater dangers ahead. The peak Southern California fire season hasn't even started yet.

The worst fires typically flare up in the fall, when ferocious Santa Ana winds can drive fires out of wilderness areas and into suburbs. As a result, Southern California could be in for a long wildfire season.

''When you see a fire burning like this, with no Santa Ana winds, we know that with the winds, it would be so much worse, so much more intense,'' said Los Angeles County fire Capt. Mark Whaling.

The Santa Anas are so devastating when they carry fire because they sweep down from the north and reach withering speeds as they squeeze through wilderness canyons and passes and plunge into developed areas.

Even though winds have been mostly calm since the blaze began along the northern fringe of Los Angeles and its suburbs, the flames have spread over 199 square miles of forest in a week.

Citing new damage assessments, officials Tuesday raised the number of destroyed homes from 53 to 62 but said the number of homes remaining under mandatory evacuation orders was reduced by 300 to 6,000. Up to 12,000 homes were considered threatened at the height of the fire, though not all were ordered evacuated. One of the threatened houses was the home where the movie ''E.T.'' was filmed.

But it was not the only significant blaze in Southern California.

In the inland region east of Los Angeles, 2,000 homes were being threatened by a fire of more than 1.5 square miles in the San Bernardino County community of Oak Glen, and a nearby 1.3-square-mile blaze was putting 400 homes at risk in Yucaipa. More than twice as many homes had been threatened but aircraft held the fire back and it was 70 percent contained by Tuesday evening.

''There's action everywhere,'' Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said as a helicopter interrupted his comments at a news conference in San Bernardino County.

Containment of the big fire, known as the Station Fire, rose to 22 percent. U.S. Forest Service incident commander Mike Dietrich said he felt better but was not willing to say a corner had been turned.

''Right now if I were in a boxing match I'd think we're even today,'' Dietrich said.

Weather was more humid, which helps brush resist burning, but the downside was a possibility of dry lightning. Some sprinkles were reported, but no significant rain.

Officials were worried about the threat to a historic observatory and TV, radio and other antennas on Mount Wilson northeast of Los Angeles. But on Tuesday, firefighters set backfires near the facilities before a giant World War II-era seaplane-turned-air tanker made a huge water drop on flames below the peak.

The fire was still moving toward Mount Wilson, but Dietrich said he was confident that any damage would be minimized.

The Station Fire is one of hundreds of wildfires in a season that usually does not gather steam until October, when the Santa Ana winds arrive.

This year's destructive Southern California wildfires began in May, when 80 homes were destroyed and more than a dozen others were damaged in the Santa Barbara area. ''Sundowner'' winds, a localized version of a Santa Ana, whipped a brush fire into an inferno in neighborhoods on the edge of the Los Padres National Forest.

Wind has not been a problem in the current fire, but drought has. The region is in the midst of a three-year drought, and the tinder-dry forest is ripe for an explosive fire.

Residents had a range of emotions as they watched the fire -- and they knew the lack of wind was a godsend.

''I'm a little concerned but not overly worried,'' said retiree Paul Westmoreland, 77, who lives in the Seven Hills neighborhood in Tujunga. ''But if we had had high winds, this whole area would have gone.''

Some of the spectators were residents who followed orders to leave but could not resist coming back to their neighborhoods.

Jennifer Pelon, 43, came back Tuesday morning to see if her 3,000-square-foot home on a hillside was still standing. She nervously watched as flames licked a ridgeline only yards from her home.

''It's a lot of stress and anxiety, watching,'' she said. ''It's your whole life up there.''

At the huge fire command center, Glendale firefighter-paramedic Jack Hayes, 31, recounted how he manned a 2,000-gallon water truck to extinguish flames bearing down on backyards.

''We've been knocking them all down and saving some homes,'' he said.

Hayes said he had not taken a day off for a week.

''You can't sleep,'' said Hayes, who had the beginnings of a beard and bloodshot eyes. ''You're ready to go and there's always something you could be doing.''

Two firefighters -- Capt. Tedmund Hall, 47, of San Bernardino and firefighter Specialist Arnaldo ''Arnie'' Quinones, 35, of Palmdale -- were killed Sunday when their vehicle plummeted off a mountain road. Quinones' wife is expecting a child soon, and Hall had a wife and two adult children.

In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama sent their condolences to the firefighters' families. Gibbs said the White House will do whatever it can to assist state and local governments.

The cash-strapped state has spent $106.5 million of its $182 million emergency firefighting fund, and was hoping to get federal assistance to ease the burden.

The Station Fire was the biggest but not the most destructive of the wildfires currently burning in California. Northeast of Sacramento, a fire burning over a half square mile destroyed 60 structures over the weekend, many of them homes in the town of Auburn. The fire was 80 percent contained Tuesday and no longer threatened any homes.


Associated Press writers Jacob Adelman and Robert Jablon in Los Angeles and Juliet Williams in Sacramento contributed to this report.

    Huge Wildfire Portends Bad Calif. Fire Season, NYT, 2.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/09/02/us/AP-US-Wildfires.html






California Fires Confound Emergency Workers


September 1, 2009
The New York Times


LOS ANGELES — A deadly wildfire that has burned for nearly a week in the foothills north of here has destroyed dozens of homes and threatened thousands of others on Monday, frustrating firefighters with its unusually rapid and unpredictable spread.

The fire, burning in rugged terrain at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains about 20 miles north of downtown Los Angeles, has consumed more than 100,000 acres, or more than 150 square miles, about the size of the Bronx and Queens combined.

The authorities did not have a precise tally of the damage, but said at least 70 homes and probably many more, some of them vacation cabins, some single-family residences, had been destroyed, mostly in remote areas. More than 3,670 firefighters and support personnel struggled to track the blaze’s erratic spread and keep flames from encroaching on large neighborhoods and communities abutting the wilderness.

“This is a very angry fire,” said Mike Dietrich, a commander with the United States Forest Service, who added that he expected it could take two weeks to surround and extinguish it.

Though not driven by wind like many catastrophic fires here, this blaze, fueled by brush dried in record-setting heat and a 10-year drought, confounded emergency workers.

Just as the authorities cleared some residents to return and cleared brush and dug trenches to block flames advancing on neighborhoods, new evacuations were ordered in the eastern San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles as towering flames crept over ridgelines and took aim at houses below.

The fire, whose cause is unknown, claimed the lives of two Los Angeles County firefighters on Sunday after their truck overturned and fell 800 feet down a hillside as they tried to avoid a burst of fire bearing down on them. The men died from injuries suffered in the crash and from the advancing flames, the department said.

A few other people have been injured, including two people who refused orders to evacuate and sought cover from the flames in a backyard hot tub as the fire barreled through the area, the authorities said.

Some 4,000 homes were ordered evacuated, but law enforcement authorities estimated only half of the people complied, preferring to stay behind to try to help save their homes.

Frank Bagheri, 48, who reluctantly left his home near La Cañada Flintridge on Sunday morning with his family, said he saw a few neighbors stay behind hosing down their lawns and houses.

“We finally left because I stopped one of the firefighters running around our street,” Mr. Bagheri said. “I wanted to ask him whether the fire would go the other way, or if we’d be O.K. He just looked at me and said, ‘You don’t want to stay here and get trapped.’ That phrase — stay here and get trapped — did it. I changed my mind at that point to leave.”

The fire, called the Station Fire for its origin on Wednesday near a ranger station in the Angeles National Forest, sent a towering plume skyward visible from almost all of metropolitan Los Angeles, a stark herald of the fire season that peaks in late summer and fall. It spread a fog of unhealthful, brownish air across a vast swath of the region, and officials said it could take two weeks to put it out.

For some time, the authorities said they were worried that the flames would overrun Mount Wilson, which includes an observatory and transmission facilities for some FM radio and television stations. But thanks in part to rapid brush clearing, crews stationed in the area and an aerial bombardment by planes dropping water and flame retardant, the fire was kept back.

A spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Steve Whitmore, said many people had defied evacuation orders, though, to avoid a further burden on resources, officers were not making arrests. A group of people in the Gold Creek area on Monday afternoon who had refused to evacuate were trapped, and crews struggled to reach them. One of the men told radio station KNX-AM by phone that they were all right and that the fire did not appear close.

“They use resources that could be used elsewhere,” Mr. Whitmore said of people who do not heed evacuation orders. “When you are told to go, go.”


Rebecca Cathcart contributed reporting.

California Fires Confound Emergency Workers,