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Jun. 24 2010 — 9:43 pm | 63 views | 1 recommendations | 0 comments

Bracing For Flooding At Hurricane Time In Already Soggy Florida

Sunset Over Lake Okeechobee

Image by Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.—Around the clock, from a control room on the edge of the Everglades, technicians track water levels in the canals, lakes and marshes across the southern part of Florida. On their computer screens, they can see changes hundreds of miles away and with a few key strokes they open and shut flood gates.

The flood controls in South Florida are among the most sophisticated in the world and they get a workout most summers. Summer is the wet season here, a time of downpours so dense that you can see no more than 50 or 60 yards. Summer is also the time of hurricanes and tropical storms. And those wind machines can dump a lot of rain.

This summer forecasters are predicting a busier than usual storm season with as many as 14 hurricanes. Floods and storm surge, a kind of tidal wave that hurricanes sometimes push across beaches, kill more people in hurricane season than the wind. The wind gets the headlines, the water brings out the undertakers.

No one knows where the storms will come ashore. But this could be a very bad year for South Florida. The land is soggy from more rain than usual in the months leading up to hurricane season and it would not take much to cause flooding. The biggest flood threat in the region is Lake Okeechobee, the wide, shallow bowl of water about 45 miles west of here. The water in the lake, one of the largest in the United States, is already high and experts worry that the lake’s earthen, 35-foot-high dike might not hold.

Killer-floods are not routinely heavy on the minds of the technicians in the control room of the South Florida Water Management District here. A few feet of water may rise in backyards and parking lots and push into houses and shops and offices and the ground floors of condos. It can make life miserable and expensive for the 7.5 million people packed into South Florida, and for the farmers and ranchers working the land back from the coasts. The costs can quickly get into the hundreds of millions of dollars. But deaths are rare. Trouble at Lake Okeechobee, however, could be a nightmare.

Nothing awful has happened at the lake in more than 80 years, but memories are still vivid of the flooding in two hurricanes in the 1920s. Several thousand people died. In the worst Lake Okeechobee flood, in 1928, high water covered a stretch of 75 miles of the flat, Florida landscape. Some of that land is still Everglades swamp. But much of it is now thick with houses and shopping centers.

Since the early 1980s, concerns about another disaster at Lake Okeechobee have been growing. Water has been seeping under the 143-mile- long mud, gravel and rock dike that the United States Army Corps of Engineers began building in the 1930s. A report four years ago by the South Florida Water Management District said the dike posed “a grave and imminent danger to the people and the environment of South Florida.” Portions of the dike, the report said, “bear a striking resemblance to Swiss cheese.”

The Corps of Engineers began reinforcing the southeastern wall of the dike, which is considered the most hazardous section, three years ago. But about half of the work in that 22-mile stretch remains to be done.

The water in the lake was at about 14.5 feet in early June or about two feet higher than what the Corps of Engineers and the water district consider prudent. The higher the water gets, engineers say, the higher the probability that the dike will give way and release an avalanche of water. Perhaps 60,000 people live south of Lake Okeechobee where flooding is most likely.

“It would probably kill many, many people,” said Eric Buermann, the chairman of the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District. “You could have a lot of flooding in downtown Fort Lauderdale.”

Twice in the mid-1990s, water in the lake rose to more than 18 feet. The dike did not yield. But Nanciann Regalado, a spokeswoman for the Corps of Engineers, said that at 17.5 feet “we get very, very concerned.” At 19 feet, she said, the authorities would be considering evacuation.

Trying to keep the lake from rising further, the Corps of Engineers and the water district have been flushing water from the lake into two main rivers and into huge holding ponds in the Everglades. But it rains almost every day around the lake and the rest of South Florida in June and early July and the pumps struggle to keep up. The engineers say that in the most intense rains, the kind that come with hurricanes and tropical storms, the lake can rise six times faster than the pumps can draw down the water.

“We’re concerned,” Mr. Buermann  said in an interview. “We’re taking measures to address this. But if you have the ultimate storm with wind pushing that water, the force of that water on the dike, anything could happen.”#

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Jun. 11 2010 — 3:33 pm | 36 views | 2 recommendations | 0 comments

In The War On Malaria Some Hopeful Signs, But A Long Way to Go

An Anopheles gambiae mosquito which is one of ...

Image via Wikipedia

KISUMU, Kenya—The rainy season in East Africa is also the malaria season.

Rain water collects in puddles and old tires and gutters. It also accumulates in discarded tin cans and in the folds of plastic shopping bags in garbage heaps. Malarial mosquitoes lay their eggs in the stagnant water and pretty soon you have killer mosquitoes hatching.

Around the world more than 800,000 people die every year from malaria, mostly young children. More than 90 percent of the deaths are in Africa, and Kenya is among a handful of African countries where the disease is at its worst.

The red clay flatlands and hills here in western Kenya, around Lake Victoria and the hard-scrabble city of Kisumu, lie in the worst part of a bad malaria zone – ground zero in Kenya. “There’s a very high chance of getting malaria here,” said Tom Guda, a Kenyan researcher at the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology in the nearby lake shore town of Mbita.

Western Kenya is an ideal place to study malaria and American and Kenyan researchers have been working together here for years at a joint laboratory of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Kenya Medical Research Institute. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of the main research institutes in the United States for malaria and other infectious diseases, began nearly 70 years ago as an important player in the ultimate elimination of malaria in the United States.

In the last few years malaria has caught the imagination of Hollywood entertainers, government leaders around the world, gazillionaires and ordinary people. Lots of money has been raised. The World Health Organization estimates that $1.7 billion was available for malaria in 2009, double the amount just three years earlier. The American Idol television show, alone, raised $9 million for the organization Malaria No More during a single charity broadcast, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has put more than $168 million into overcoming the disease.

This may be a time of great progress against malaria. But it is hard to be sure. The latest data compiled by the World Health Organization shows little change in recent years: 863,000 deaths and 243 million cases of malaria reported in 2008 compared with 881,000 deaths and 247 million infections two years earlier. But experts say that record-keeping on malaria is poor and that the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Much of the malaria money is going into buying and handing out mosquito nets saturated with insect repellant–at $10 each– and to spraying insecticide on the inside walls of houses. And it may be paying off.

“We know that sleeping under insect nets is effective and we know that the number of people sleeping under nets is increasing rapidly,” said Dr. Matthew Lynch, the director of the Global Program on Malaria at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore in an interview.

Richard Tren, the director of Africa Fighting Malaria, a small organization with offices in Durban, South Africa and in Washington, told me that “progress in some places is phenomenal.” But, he added, “there are a lot of other places where things are not working.”

The World Health Organization says it believes there have been big gains against malaria in some small countries, including Rwanda and Zambia and on the island of Zanzibar off East Africa. But it is urging that anti-malaria efforts be concentrated more on bigger countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria, where malaria is rampant and where the situation has either gotten worse or not changed much.

At the Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology on Lake Victoria, Mr. Guda said that malaria infections and deaths are increasing in western Kenya.

“People are getting bed nets but it is still rising,” Mr. Guda told me one sweltering afternoon at his center. One reason, he said, is that “people are not using the nets properly.”

In the one-room huts that are home to many people here, Mr. Guda said, there is one bed. “The big people sleep in the bed,” with the net, he said. “The children sleep on the floor.”

Dr. Laurence Slutsker is the chief of the malaria branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga. Dr. Slutsker, who worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laboratories in western Kenya for five years and still watches the area closely, said that after dropping sharply over the last 15 years, infections in children around here have begun to rise. Two years ago, 30 percent of those under five had malaria parasites in their blood. The latest samplings, he said, showed 40 percent were infected. Not a good sign.

The big picture on malaria around the world? “I think it’s getting better in some places,” Dr. Slutsker said in an interview. “I think it’s basically the same in other places. We talk about our success, which is good. But there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.” #



May. 31 2010 — 9:19 pm | 177 views | 2 recommendations | 3 comments

Telling It Like It Is On Killing Power Of Weakest Hurricanes

Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf of Mexico near i...

Image via Wikipedia

FORT LAUDERDALE—Summer time. Hurricanes. This year, with a very busy hurricane season coming up – according to government and university experts—the National Weather Service wants to set a few things straight.

For nearly 40 years, government forecasters have been describing hurricanes in the dispassionate, clinical terms of engineers and meteorologists.

Now the forecasters have rewritten the guidelines on hurricanes to make the impact of high winds more vivid. And they may end up scaring the daylights out of people.

The forecasters have thrown away terms like minimal, moderate and extensive damage and now starkly warn that even the most modest hurricanes can savagely dismantle mobile homes, shatter windows, rip off roofs, kill and maim. The most severe storms, the new guidelines say, are very likely to leave parts of towns and cities “uninhabitable for weeks or months.”

You already knew hurricanes were bad. But you have never heard it so clearly from weather central. Now the forecasters are saying, enough with restraint, enough with ambiguity. Let’s try telling it like it is.

“This might scare people,” said Bill Proenza, the regional director for the southern United States for the National Weather Service. But, most of all, he said, it might motivate them to put up shutters, tie down lawn furniture and show a little respect for even the lowly Category 1 hurricane which, with winds as low as 74 miles an hour, has done its share of killing and wrecking. Hurricane Katrina, for example, was a Category 1 when it sliced across Florida in 2005 and it wreaked $1 billion in damage.

This could be a terrible hurricane season. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that up to 14 hurricanes could develop during the six-six month season from June 1 to Nov. 30 and that as many as seven of them could become major storms. A big hurricane could spread the BP oil spill across a wider swath of the Gulf of Mexico. Federal Emergency Management officials say that as little as several days of heavy rain on the periphery of a hurricane could create a new disaster for the one million Haitians still living in tents after the earthquake in January.

The forecasters worry that the tens of millions of Americans living in the hurricane zone, mostly along the southern coasts, may not be taking hurricanes seriously. One reason more than 1,800 people died in Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi, storm experts say, was that many shrugged when they should have been boarding up their homes and heading for higher ground. The awful memories of Hurricane Katrina may be fading, the forecasters say, especially after last hurricane season when not a single powerful storm made landfall in the United States.

“Complacency is always a problem,” Mr. Proenza said in an interview here during a break in the annual Florida Governor’s Hurricane Conference in late May.

People who are newly arrived in the hurricane zone, those who have been on the fringes of big storms and others who have lived all their lives along the coasts, but never endured a hurricane, are the most likely to ignore storm warnings and end up in trouble, the experts say.  “They really don’t comprehend the full potential impact of a hurricane,” Mr. Proenza said.

So after nearly 40 years of referring to hurricanes in low-key generalities, the weather service has decided to try something new. “We wanted to provide a realistic portrait of what winds can do,” said Chris Landsea, the Science and Operations officer at the National Hurricane Center near Miami. Mr. Landsea led a team of experts who rewrote what used to be known as “The Saffir/Simpson Hurricane Scale.” The guidelines are published on Internet sites around the world, distributed by emergency managers and referred to by journalists in their reports. The new guidelines were issued without fanfare in March and revisions were being made well into May.

The new name for the government guide that describes the five categories of hurricanes is “The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.” Hard to see the difference? One big feature of the new guidelines is what you can’t see.

The whole project got started because complaints had been growing, both among experts and among ordinary Americans, that “The Saffir/Simpson Hurricane Scale” was misleading on storm surge, the wall of water that often slams ashore in a hurricane with the force of a bulldozer and that over the years has killed many more people than wind.

According to Saffir/Simpson, which was introduced in 1972, A Category 3 hurricane with winds of up to 130 miles an hour should create a storm surge of up to 12 feet. Katrina came ashore in Louisiana and Mississippi as a Category 3 hurricane and was pushing a wall of water nearly 30 feet high. Three years later, Hurricane Ike hit the Texas coast as a Category 2 hurricane with a 20-foot-high storm surge, more than three times greater than anticipated by Saffir/Simpson.

The forecasters’ solution was to yank the information on storm surge from Saffir/Simpson. So it is no longer a hurricane scale with guidance on both wind and storm surge. The new Saffir/Simpson deals only with wind, hence the new name, “The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.” Now, on storm surge, the forecasters are going to be creating tailor-made estimates for each hurricane as it develops, working with a wide range of variables including one of the most important, the shallowness of offshore waters. The shallower the water, the bigger the storm surge.

Forecasters have routinely warned in commentaries that Category 1 hurricanes should not be disregarded and they have been offering their own calculations on storm surge. But their remarks and calculations have been contradicted by storm descriptions in official documents.

Strictly speaking, hurricane experts say, the descriptions were not wrong. But they were not clear either. “The winds in a Category 1 hurricane are about the same as the winds in a severe thunderstorm, a little higher,’’ Bill Read, the director of the National Hurricane Center told me. So in a sense you could say, as the old Saffir/Simpson did, that the winds might cause minimal damage. “But,” Mr. Read said, “the thunderstorm winds might last for one to 15 minutes. The same winds in a Category 1 hurricane last for hours and can have a tremendous impact.” #



May. 12 2010 — 6:08 pm | 183 views | 2 recommendations | 3 comments

In An African Slum, Clean Drinking Water Gets Low Priority

Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya

Image by khym54 via Flickr

KIBERA , Kenya —The government clinic gets a shipment of water purification tablets every three or four months. In a week or two the tablets are gone. And then the people here in this rambling slum on the edge of Nairobi are on their own.

So how bad is that? This is one of those places around the world where the water can make you very sick. But, just like a lot of other places, it doesn’t always make you sick. Many people are convinced that the water is fine, or almost fine. People take the purification tablets because they are free. They don’t routinely use them, just like they don’t routinely boil their water. Most people in Kibera don’t have toilets and that adds to health problems.

The worn,  reddish clay hills of Kibera are packed with tin-roofed shanties. The stench of sewage is strong in the air . Little clouds of smoke from charcoal cooking fires and burning garbage st ing the eyes. The slum is a microcosm of horrible conditions in much of the developing world . The United Nations estimate s that more than a billion people in places like Kibera – and places that are not nearly so extreme – don’t have consistently safe drinking water piped into their homes or within easy walking distance. Perhaps 2.5 billion people don’t have toilets. This adds up to a lot of sickness and about two million deaths every year. Over the last decade or so the situation has improved only slightly and it may very well get worse as the world population relentlessly rises.

Governments in many developing countries pay very little attention to clean drinking water and toilets and I could see from conversations in Kibera that there is little or no demand for improvement from many people living withiffy-water and unspeakable sanitary conditions. They don’t see a problem with their water. Some non-governmental organizations put a lot of energy into water and sanitation. But the going is tough.

In Kibera I sat on a railroad bridge with two men in their 30s who said they work from time to time as laborers in Nairobi . They said they were never sick because of the water. Just about everyone I spoke with said the same thing. Dolith Okello has set up a sports bar with four television screens in a three-room shack that she calls the Miami Inn Café. Ms. Okello, who roots for a British soccer team and speaks colloquial English, s aid the water never made her sick either.

“We don’t boil our water and we don’t get sick,” she told me. “There are diarrhea outbreaks, but they’re not related to the water . It’s because we don’t have proper latrines and we don’t have proper garbage disposal. ”

She thought a little more about water having nothing to do with diarrhea in Kibera and added: “ That’s 75 percent no and 25 percent maybe. ”

At the hot, dusty government clinic, Joyce Omune, a registered nurse who is in charge, said most of the patients are very young children. “Number one on the list” of problems,” she said, “is diarrheal diseases.” There are five other nurses, two of them registered nurses, and no doctors. There is no electricity. The paint is peeling. Each morning about 60 children are brought in with diarrhea, Ms. Omune said. One day like that would be a crisis in the United States and Europe.

Dr. Onesmo K. Ole-MoiYoi, a Kenya n graduate of Harvard University and an expert on disease in East Africa, said the problem in Kibera w as almost certainly a result of “drinking contaminated water.” Malnutrition, he said, makes children more susceptible. In turn, frequent diarrhea contributes to malnutrition, said Dr. Linda K. Ethangatta, a former United Nations nutritionist .

Some treated municipal water lines flow into Kibera , but the pipes are corroded and sewage seeps in. Middlemen routinely intercept the water and sell it. P eople end up with just enough to get by. They don’t wash their hands often en o ugh. There is garbage and filth everywhere. Flies dip into open sewers, then dance on fish and chunks of meat sizzling in open pots.

During surges of diarrhea, Ms. Omune said , people ask for purification tablets. “But when things settle down,” she said, “they go back to their old routine of just using the water the way it is.”

Ms. Omune said several non-governmental organizations had conducted campaigns to help people understand the bad things that can happen with drinking water . But there is still a lot of work to do here and around the world. And most of it is not getting done. #



Apr. 30 2010 — 10:03 am | 234 views | 1 recommendations | 2 comments

Fish In Haiti Are Almost As Rare As Trees

Labadee underwater - Haiti

Image by Rob Inh00d via Flickr

MIAMI—As a boy in Haiti, Jean Wiener liked to poke around the coral reefs just offshore. The coral was thick and wild and splashed with bursts of orange and purple. Swarms of Yellow Tail Snappers and Nassau Groupers cruised past undulating sea fans and nibbled at rich, green sea grass. Sometimes young Mr. Wiener would catch a fish and grill it on the beach.

Now, several decades later, most of the fish are gone. “If you see anything at all,” Mr. Wiener told me the other day, “it’s almost never longer than six inches. You see little baby fish.”

Haiti has been seriously fished out. As the impoverished country’s population has risen to more than 10 million, more and more people have turned to the sea for food. It is against the law in Haiti to take under-size fish. But no one is enforcing the law and many Haitians are hungry.

Mr. Wiener grew up to be a marine biologist and one of the few specialists with an enduring interest in the coastal waters of Haiti. Now that the earthquake in January has people thinking of ways of helping Haiti, he is hoping some of them will recognize that the coastal waters could become a tremendous source of food. Tourists might also enjoy the beaches and reefs as he did as a boy.

For now, the reefs and coastal waters are as barren as most of Haiti’s land. The overworked fields of Haiti yield a tiny fraction of the produce of most other countries and in a world where overfishing is epidemic, the waters off Haiti are a model of how bad it can get.

With high unemployment, Mr. Wiener said, lots of people have become part-time fishermen. The newcomers and the experienced fishermen go at the fish relentlessly. The idea of fishing seasons is ignored and anything that gets caught stays caught. “Nothing is thrown back,” Mr. Wiener said.

To gain perspective, Mr. Wiener talked with an 80-year-old fisherman. “We used to let the sea rest during the months of January, February, March and April,” the old fisherman said. “Now there are more traps, more boats, more fishermen, more types of fishing methods. They are laying out nets all the time, everywhere.”

It’s not just pressure from hungry fishermen. The offshore waters have become a miserable place for fish. Fish thrive on healthy coral reefs. In Haiti, you don’t have that. Mr. Wiener, the founder of FoProBiM, the Fondation pour la Protection de la Biodiversite Marine of Haiti, estimates that perhaps 80 percent of the reefs along Haiti’s 1,100-mile coastline have suffered some degree of damage, some of it very heavy.

Little fish, that in the right conditions grow up to be big fish, like to nestle in sea grass beds and the tangled branches of mangroves at the edge of the shore. But maybe a third of Haiti’s sea grass has been smothered by silt that gushes off the land every time it rains because most of the country’s trees have been chopped down for firewood. Mangrove branches also make fine firewood and much of Haiti’s mangroves are also gone.

Mr. Wiener has some ideas. He is getting a little help. But he and the coasts of Haiti could use a lot more. The coasts are being included in a restoration project – mainly on land – by the United Nations Environment Program and Columbia University’s Earth Institute. The Reef Check Foundation, a marine conservation and research organization in Los Angeles, is looking for grants to finance work in Haiti’s coastal waters.

One idea is to begin creating Marine Protected Areas – places where no fishing is allowed and where reefs and grasses are cultivated. Fish get a chance to recover. As they become more abundant, some of them leave the protected areas. The coastal waters begin to recover. Reef Check has a project like this in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, and, true to script, more fish are being seen.

There is a lot more to do in Haiti. But this would be a start. “Haiti is the only country in the Caribbean without a Marine Protected Area,” said Dr. Gregor Hodgson, the founder and executive director of the Reef Check Foundation. #


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    Editor, Writer, 1H2O.org; environmental magazine on the Internet, Knight Center for International Media at the University of Miami's School of Communication; professor, endowed chair, John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Cross-Cultural Communication. The Internet magazine, 1H2O.org, covers the environment from the starting point of the worldwide water crisis. Writers, photographers invited. Former reporter, foreign correspondent, The New York Times. Contributor to NYTimes.com, coordinator and contributor, NYTimes.com hurricane blogs, collectively known as "Eye of The Storm." Author three books, including Hurricane Force: "In the Path of America's Deadliest Storms."

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