Archives for August 2017

On the road

Due to unforeseen circumstances, I will be on the road for the next few days — driving up the East Coast to Boston and then straight back to North Carolina. During this period I won’t be able to update the site. Back soon. PW

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Why America still hasn’t learned the lessons of Katrina

Annie Snider reports: The most important piece of the North American continent right now may be a slice of land here, 13 miles long, 65 feet wide, much of it just six months old.

From the air, the Caminada Headland is a sparkling strip of beige and green rising up from the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s also a barricade, protecting one of the most important nodes in North America’s oil supply, a busy seaport serving more than 90 percent of deep-water oil and gas activities in the Gulf of Mexico. In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Louisiana coast, this strip served as a critical barrier between the pounding waters of the Gulf and the machinery of the port just half a mile behind—and was all but washed away in the process, becoming little more than a narrow strip of sand with waves crashing over it. Restoring it before the next major hurricane became a top priority.

“It’s pretty freaking amazing. All of this stuff was the first line of defense that was just gone,” said Garret Graves, a U.S. congressman who served for six years as the head of Louisiana’s coastal protection and restoration efforts in the wake of Katrina.

Today, Caminada Headland is a robust new island backed by thick, healthy marshes, thanks to a $216 million project launched by Graves and the state of Louisiana. But what looks like a success story from the window of a seaplane was, to Graves and nearly everyone else involved, an expensive and exhausting struggle—one that raises serious questions about America’s ability to grapple with the increasing problems caused by rising coastal waters and more destructive storms as the climate changes.

As Hurricane Harvey plows furiously across the Gulf Coast, again endangering homes and critical industries, Graves and others worry that Washington’s systems for protecting communities against weather disasters haven’t gotten better since that 2005 disaster, and in many ways may be worse. The state of Louisiana wasn’t supposed to shoulder the Caminada Headland project itself: Rebuilding the island was originally the job of the Army Corps of Engineers, the 215-year-old entity charged with building and maintaining our country’s ports, harbors, locks, dams, levees and ecosystem restoration projects. Today, the agency is the single most important agency in coastal America’s battle against rising seas, at the center of every major water-resources project in the country, either as builder or permitter. But the state of Louisiana, exasperated by federal delays and increasingly worried that the next big storm could just wipe out the port, eventually fronted the money and pumped the sand on its own. Today, despite years and millions of federal dollars poured into studying the Caminada Headland project and neighboring islands slated for restoration, the Corps has yet to push a dime toward construction.

Graves compares his experience with the Corps to that of a “battered ex-spouse”: “I feel like I’ve been lied to, cheated, kicked in the teeth over and over and over again.”

The sclerotic Army Corps of Engineers is the most visible and frustrating symptom of what many officials have come to see as the country’s backward approach to disaster policy. From the way Congress appropriates money to the specific rebuilding efforts that federal agencies encourage, national policies almost uniformly look backward, to the last storm, rather than ahead to the next. And the scale of the potential damage has caused agencies to become more risk-averse in ways that can obstruct, rather than help, local communities’ attempts to protect themselves. The Army Corps, for example, requires Louisiana to rebuild a full suite of five islands before it can reclaim any of the money it spent on the one headland—and is currently insisting it will take another half-decade simply to review an innovative wetlands restoration project the state has been working on for more than a decade and views as the linchpin of its coastal efforts. Meanwhile, new design standards inspired by Katrina have made levee projects wildly unaffordable.

As the effects of climate change play out, the risks posed by storms like Katrina and Harvey stand to get only worse. A not-yet-final draft of National Climate Assessment, produced by scientists across 13 federal agencies, predicts that global sea levels will likely rise between half a foot and 1.2 feet by 2050, and between 1 and 4 feet by the end of the century. In areas like the Northeast and the Gulf of Mexico, relative sea-level rise will happen much faster, researchers say. Coastal Louisiana is currently losing a football field’s worth of wetlands every 90 minutes, making it a harbinger for the crises that coastal communities around the country are expected to face. [Continue reading…]

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True to form, Trump keeps focus on himself while visiting hurricane-ravaged Texas

Jenna Johnson reports: As rescuers continued their exhausting and heartbreaking work in southeastern Texas on Tuesday afternoon, as the rain continued to fall and a reservoir near Houston spilled over, President Trump grabbed a microphone to address hundreds of supporters who had gathered outside a firehouse near Corpus Christi and were chanting: “USA! USA! USA!”

‘Thank you, everybody,” the president said, sporting one of the white “USA” caps that are being sold on his campaign website for $40. “I just want to say: We love you. You are special. . . . What a crowd. What a turnout.”

Yet again, Trump managed to turn attention on himself. His responses to the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey have been more focused on the power of the storm and his administration’s response than on the millions of Texans whose lives have been dramatically altered by the floodwaters.

He has talked favorably about the higher television ratings that come with hurricane coverage, predicted that he will soon be congratulating himself and used 16 exclamation points in 22 often breathless tweets about the storm. But as of late Tuesday afternoon, the president had yet to mention those killed, call on other Americans to help or directly encourage donations to relief organizations. [Continue reading…]

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Special counsel subpoenas Manafort’s former attorney and spokesman

CNN reports: Special Counsel Robert Mueller has issued subpoenas to a former lawyer for Paul Manafort and to Manafort’s current spokesman, an aggressive tactic that suggests an effort to add pressure on the former Trump campaign chairman.

The subpoenas seeking documents and testimony were sent to Melissa Laurenza, an attorney with the Akin Gump law firm who until recently represented Manafort, and to Jason Maloni, who is Manafort’s spokesman, according to people familiar with the matter.
Manafort is under investigation for possible tax and financial crimes, according to US officials briefed on the investigation. The allegations under investigation largely center on Manafort’s work for the former ruling party in Ukraine, which was ousted amid street protests over its pro-Russian policies.

It’s unclear what specific information the Mueller investigators believe Laurenza and Maloni may have. But issuing subpoenas to a lawyer of someone under investigation is unusual, in part because it raises potential attorney-client privilege issues that prosecutors tend to try to avoid. Maloni, as a public relations representative, doesn’t have the same attorney-client privilege protections. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. ad agency boosts Germany’s right-wing populist AfD

Der Spiegel reports: For several days now, many Facebook and Twitter users in Germany have been confronted with a disturbing image on their profile pages: It shows bloody tire tracks running across the screen, reminiscent of the ones left by Islamic State terrorists in several European cities. It is accompanied by the slogan: “The tracks left by the world chancellor in Europe.”

Angela Merkel as a terrorist — that’s the motif that the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has chosen to launch the internet portion of its campaign leading up to national parliamentary elections on Sept. 24. The right-wing populists plan to spend a large part of their 3-million-euro budget on similar publicity offenses. The party is planning a digital campaign that may well be more drastic and aggressive than anything German voters have ever seen.

The party’s election posters, designed by advertising professional and prize-winning scandal author Thor Kunkel, have already stood out from those of other parties. One shows the belly of a pregnant white woman with the slogan, “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves,” a reference to the party’s rejection of immigrants in the country. Yet another shows a piglet with the words: “Islam? It doesn’t fit in with our cuisine.” Finally, the one getting perhaps the most attention states, “Burkas? We prefer bikinis.”

But now the AfD, which has always been an internet-savvy party that likes to use the medium to bypass the mainstream media and communicate its messages directly to its fans, has had enough of dead-tree media. It intends to rely heavily on the web as it enters the last, intense phase of the campaign.

To assist in its efforts, the party has tapped Kunkel’s contacts to engage the services of advertising professionals in the United States with experience on the right-wing spectrum. The party is working together with the Texas-based agency Harris Media, which recently presented its plans to the AfD’s national committee. With its provocative and aggressive campaigns, the agency has already contributed to the success of a number of controversial politicians. In Britain, it worked with the anti-EU UKIP party; in Israel, it worked with the governing Likud party; and in the United States, news agency Bloomberg has dubbed company founder Vincent Harris “the man who invented the Republican internet.” [Continue reading…]

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Who blinked in China-India military standoff?

The Washington Post reports: For weeks, China’s Foreign Ministry had been vehement in its denunciations of India and insistence that New Delhi unconditionally withdraw troops that had trespassed into Chinese territory. Don’t underestimate us, China repeatedly insisted, we are prepared for military conflict if need be.

Yet on Monday, it appeared as though Beijing, not New Delhi, had blinked.

Both sides withdrew troops to end the stand-off. Crucially, military sources told Indian newspapers that China has also withdrawn the bulldozers that were constructing a road on the plateau. That road, built on land contested between Bhutan and China, had been the reason Indian troops had entered the disputed area in the first place, in defense of its ally Bhutan.

The eventual deal allowed both sides to save face — India’s Ministry of External Affairs suggested in its statement that it had stuck to its “principled position” in the discussions, which was that road-building violated ongoing terms of a current boundary dispute between Bhutan and China.

Yet some experts said it was premature to start declaring victory and China continued to be cagey in its official remarks. [Continue reading…]

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Harvey is what climate change looks like

Eric Holthaus writes: In all of U.S. history, there’s never been a storm like Hurricane Harvey. That fact is increasingly clear, even though the rains are still falling and the water levels in Houston are still rising.

But there’s an uncomfortable point that, so far, everyone is skating around: We knew this would happen, decades ago. We knew this would happen, and we didn’t care. Now is the time to say it as loudly as possible: Harvey is what climate change looks like. More specifically, Harvey is what climate change looks like in a world that has decided, over and over, that it doesn’t want to take climate change seriously.

Houston has been sprawling out into the swamp for decades, largely unplanned and unzoned. Now, all that pavement has transformed the bayous into surging torrents and shunted Harvey’s floodwaters toward homes and businesses. Individually, each of these subdivisions or strip malls might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but in aggregate, they’ve converted the metro area into a flood factory. Houston, as it was before Harvey, will never be the same again.

Harvey is the third 500-year flood to hit the Houston area in the past three years, but Harvey is in a class by itself. By the time the storm leaves the region on Wednesday, an estimated 40 to 60 inches of rain will have fallen on parts of Houston. So much rain has fallen already that the National Weather Service had to add additional colors to its maps to account for the extreme totals.

Harvey is infusing new meaning into meteorologists’ favorite superlatives: There are simply no words to describe what has happened in the past few days. In just the first three days since landfall, Harvey has already doubled Houston’s previous record for the wettest month in city history, set during the previous benchmark flood, Tropical Storm Allison in June 2001. For most of the Houston area, in a stable climate, a rainstorm like Harvey is not expected to happen more than once in a millennium.

In fact, Harvey is likely already the worst rainstorm in U.S. history. [Continue reading…]

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Extreme rainfall has led to devastating floods across Nepal, India, and Bangladesh, killing hundreds and displacing millions

BuzzFeed reports: Heavy monsoon rains of historic proportions have slammed Nepal, Bangladesh, and India for weeks, leading to what international rescue and aid organizations say is the worst flooding in decades.

Nearly 1,200 people have been killed by the flooding and landslides in the three countries so far, while millions continue to be displaced from their homes. Torrential monsoon rains have destroyed tens of thousands of houses, schools, and hospitals, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The agency estimates that almost 41 million people have been affected in three countries.

Many of the flooded areas already have high rates of malnutrition. The disaster has raised concerns of food shortages and water-borne diseases, as thousands of hectares of farms have been washed away and relief work continues to be disrupted by continuous rain. [Continue reading…]

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ExxonMobil refineries are damaged in Hurricane Harvey, releasing hazardous pollutants

The Washington Post reports: ExxonMobil acknowledged Tuesday that Hurricane Harvey damaged two of its refineries, causing the release of hazardous pollutants.

The acknowledgment, in a regulatory filing with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, follows repeated complaints on Twitter of an “unbearable” chemical smell over parts of Houston. However, it was not immediately clear what caused the smell.

ExxonMobil said in the filings that a floating roof covering a tank at the company’s Baytown oil refinery sank in heavy rains, dipping below the surface of oil or other material stored there and causing unusually high emissions, especially of volatile organic compounds, a category of regulated chemicals. [Continue reading…]

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Mattis freezes transgender policy; allows troops to continue serving, pending study

USA Today reports: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis late Tuesday announced that transgender troops will be allowed to continue serving in the military pending the results of a study by experts.

The announcement follows an order from President Trump — first announced in a tweet — declaring that transgender service members can no longer serve in the military, effectively reversing an Obama administration policy. The order also affects the Department of Homeland Security, which houses the Coast Guard.

“Once the panel reports its recommendations and following my consultation with the secretary of Homeland Security, I will provide my advice to the president concerning implementation of his policy direction,” Mattis said in the statement. “In the interim, current policy with respect to currently serving members will remain in place.”

Mattis’ move buys time for the Pentagon to determine how and if it will allow thousands of transgender troops to continue to serve, whether they will receive medical treatment, or how they will be discharged. [Continue reading…]

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Food is the single largest component in landfill in America

 

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The modern state, not ideas, brought about religious freedom

Mark Koyama writes: Religious freedom has become an emblematic value in the West. Embedded in constitutions and championed by politicians and thinkers across the political spectrum, it is to many an absolute value, something beyond question. Yet how it emerged, and why, remains widely misunderstood.

According to the conventional narrative, freedom of religion arose in the West in the wake of devastating wars fought over religion. It was catalysed by powerful arguments from thinkers such as John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, Pierre Bayle and Voltaire. These philosophers and political theorists responded to the brutality of the religious wars with support for radical notions of toleration and religious freedom. Their liberal ideals then became embedded in the political institutions of the West, following the American and French Revolutions.

In broad outline, such is the account accepted by most political philosophers and social scientists. But the evidence does not support this emphasis on the power of ideas in shaping the rise of religious freedom, and underestimates the decisive role played by institutions.

The ideas of the philosophers were indeed important. In his Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (1697), Bayle pointed out that if one religion claimed to be the only true faith, it by implication possessed the right to persecute all the others, and all other faiths possessed an equal right to make such a claim. Showing the inherent volatility, for society, of such religious-truth claims, Bayle also argued that if people turned out to be mistaken about their religion, they could hardly be guilty of sin for nonetheless trying, in their sincerity, to observe its dictates.

Locke argued that true faith could not be compelled. It followed, he claimed, that restricting the rights of religious minorities should only be done for reasons of state, that is, not for reasons of faith or salvation. Voltaire took a no less effective course, relentlessly documenting and mocking cases of religious persecution. Time and again, he made zealots and enforcers of religious dogma look ridiculous. These are compelling and consequential ideas, and worthy of continued study and reading.

But focusing on these ideas does not fully explain how religious freedom came to the West. The intellectual importance of Bayle, Locke and Voltaire does not mean that their ideas were central to religious freedom as it developed and came to be in actual political and social life. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Mayra Andrade — ‘Seu’

 

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Hurricane Harvey and public and private disaster in Houston

Jia Tolentino writes: When Houston floods, it turns into a locked circular labyrinth. The city, my home town, is laid out like a wagon wheel: downtown sits at the center, surrounded by three concentric circles, which are bisected by highways in every direction. The first loop, Interstate 610, is thirty-eight miles long, and corrals the Inner Loop neighborhoods. Another round of suburban neighborhoods surrounds the Loop, and is bounded by the eighty-eight-mile-long Beltway 8. Then, the truly sprawling suburbs (Spring, Sugar Land, the Woodlands) surround the Beltway. All told, the Greater Houston Area is gargantuan—at over ten thousand square miles, it’s bigger than New Jersey—and, with upward of six million residents, it’s far more populous and diverse than outsiders tend to guess. Houston is also, famously, largely unregulated: zoning laws are minimal, and the unceasing outward development has, with official permission, drastically inhibited drainage. The freeway system holds the city together, keeping a huge, dispersed population connected. But in a storm this lifeline becomes a trap. Houston is flat, and it sits just fifty feet above sea level; after the bayous overflow, the rain collects on the roads. When a flood hits, driving in Houston feels like a video game turned real and deadly. There are sudden impasses everywhere; ingenuity can’t save you; once the spokes of the wheel go under, there’s nowhere to go.

Houston is the fourth-largest city in America, and right now much of it is underwater. Things will get worse this week. Tropical Storm Harvey, which made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, is sluggishly lingering, and will continue to pummel the flooded city. Forecasts say that Houston may get fifty inches of rain from this storm—which is the city’s average annual rainfall. Five people have died; many more will be injured. Houston’s safety-net hospital started evacuations on Sunday. The Texas Medical Center, the largest medical complex in the world, closed its submarine doors, designed, after Tropical Storm Allison, to protect the facility from flooding. Local news crews have struggled heroically to report out the disaster; one newscaster saved a truck driver’s life on air. The National Guard saved between twenty and twenty-five nursing-home residents in Dickinson after a harrowing photo went viral. My dad, who got stuck in high water on Saturday night, is one of thousands who have been rescued by Houston police. Harris County has been calling for citizens to help conduct rescues. All over the city, the roads have turned into rivers. Much of what’s visible looks like a nightmare; what makes me even sicker is imagining all the fear that we’ll never see. [Continue reading…]

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Trump unusually silent after aides challenge him

Politico reports: President Donald Trump is not happy with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, for publicly criticizing his response to violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. But it appears there is little he is planning to do about it, according to people who have spoken to him.

The unusually direct challenges from a Cabinet secretary and senior administration official seemed to make little more than a surface ripple in the swirling melodrama of the Trump White House, even as the president fumed privately about it.

Tillerson, when asked over the weekend whether Trump represented American values with his comments, gave a succinct response: “The president speaks for himself.” When asked whether he was separating himself from the president’s comments, Tillerson noted that he gave a speech to the State Department denouncing hate.

Cohn’s comments last week, saying the president could do better, came after several days of weighing whether to leave his position, including writing draft resignation letters.

The repudiations by Tillerson and Cohn were not nearly as sharp as some other criticisms of the president, who publicly waffled for days on how to respond to neo-Nazis and white supremacists who marched in the streets of Charlottesville and clashed with opposition protesters.

Still, said Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, “In the normal course of things, a secretary of state would be fired an hour after saying such a thing on national TV.” [Continue reading…]

Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky write: In a combined 50-plus years of working for Secretaries of State of both parties, we’ve never heard the nation’s top diplomat so economically and frontally distance himself from his boss. And rarely on such a critical issue of basic American values.

Secretaries of State just don’t do this, largely because a seamless interaction with the President is critically important to the success of the nation’s top diplomat.

Former Secretary of State James Baker used to describe himself as the White House’s man at the State Department, not State’s man at the White House, for precisely this reason. The easiest way to hang a closed-for-the-season sign on the State Department — at home and abroad — is to lose the President’s confidence. Tillerson wasn’t Trump’s first choice or probably second choice for the job; and in the odd bureaucratic landscape Trump has created on foreign policy, it’s doubtful he ever had the confidence of his boss.

One can argue that Tillerson should be applauded for standing up for his principles in the Fox interview. But clearly in doing so and implicitly criticizing the President on the values issue, the Secretary of State essentially relegates himself to the margins at the same time. [Continue reading…]

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James Mattis tells the troops that their president is failing them

Fred Kaplan writes: President Trump has left us so numbed by his deceit and dishonor that it’s hard for anything said by or about him to shock us. Even so, the remarks this past weekend by two of his top Cabinet officers should sound the alarm bells louder than usual.

On Fox News on Sunday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was asked about a U.N. committee’s recent warning about racism in America, which criticized Trump’s wavering attitude toward the neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia. Tillerson replied, “I don’t think anyone doubts the American people’s values,” including those touting “equal treatment of people the world over.” But when asked whether Trump shared those values, he replied, “The president speaks for himself.”

Around the same time, a recent video emerged on Facebook of Secretary of Defense James Mattis telling a small group of American troops, “You’re a great example of our country right now.” He went on, “Our country, right now, it’s got problems that we don’t have in the military. You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump reversed regulations to protect infrastructure against flooding just days before Hurricane Harvey

Business Insider reports: Just 10 days before Hurricane Harvey descended upon Texas on Friday, wreaking havoc and widespread flooding, President Donald Trump signed an executive order revoking a set of regulations that would have made federally-funded infrastructure less vulnerable to flooding.

The Obama-era rules, which had not yet gone into effect, would have required the federal government to take into account the risk of flooding and sea-level rise as a result of climate change when constructing new infrastructure and rebuilding after disasters.

Experts are predicting Harvey — the most powerful storm to hit the US since 2004 — will cost Texas between $30 billion and $100 billion in damage. [Continue reading…]

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North Korean missile flies over Japan, escalating tensions and prompting an angry response from Tokyo

The Washington Post reports: North Korea launched a ballistic missile Tuesday morning that flew over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, the most brazen provocation of Kim Jong Un’s five-year-long rule and one that will reignite tensions between Pyongyang and the outside world.

The launch poses a further challenge, in particular, to President Trump, who has made North Korea a favorite rhetorical target.

In Japan, the prime minister was visibly agitated by North Korea’s actions. “Launching a missile and flying it over our country was a reckless act, and it represents a serious threat without precedent to Japan,” Shinzo Abe said after an emergency national security council meeting.

Japan’s upgraded missile response system swung into action, sending emergency alerts through cellphones and over loudspeakers shortly after 6 a.m. local time, warning people on the potential flight path of the threat and advising them to take cover. [Continue reading…]

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