Monday, September 22, 2008

About those financial markets

This is what happened.
This is what the Bush gang wants to do about it.

As though the chief function of this nation is to shovel money into the insatiable maw of financiers. I don't think we would collapse if these financial houses went under. I think we should build an alternative economic model to this one that has failed so miserably and, in the process, has created the worst income inequality in U.S. history. Tell me this: what is so great about AIG et. al.that they must be saved from themselves?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Birds in her Freezer

A widow in my neighborhood--let's call her Marie--walks her miniature schnauzer twice a day. I made her acquaintance on the street when we were both walking our dogs. She is slightly bent by scoliosis, and the walking helps her. She probably knows more about this neighborhood than anyone else because she talks to people she sees on the street while walking with her dog. She knows the soap opera versions of our private lives and manages to discuss these intimacies with some discretion and taste.

Her husband, before he died, had been a first-rate yard man in addition to his job as curator at one of Houston's most important museums. Their house and lawn literally glowed with sculptured life. A particularly important chore that the husband had previously handled with great competence and sensitivity was the burying of dead birds.

Marie kept pet birds of the smaller sort, finches, lovebirds and such. Inevitably, some died. Recently, a finch died, and the chore that had been handled so competently and sensitively by her husband now fell to her. She simply was not up to the task, so she put the bird in the freezer to keep until she got up enough gumption to bury it properly. A few days later, she picked up an injured sparrow and, failing to nurse it back to health, put it in the freezer along with the finch.

Marie has been without electricity for over a week, and the birds are now decomposing in plastic bags on the porch. Her sister explained to her how dead animals release a gas that permeates plastic. That is why her freezer still reeks even after the birds' removal. Marie's 83-year-old mother had chickens in her deep freeze. The excrescence is still there, and she doesn't know what to do with it. They think she's going to have to throw out the entire freezer. It reminds me of something my wife had told me. The insurance companies, she says, now have an exclusion clause for refrigerators because, after Katrina, so many folks just duct-taped their Fridgidaires shut and put them by the street for pickup. Apparently, you can't clean the stench of rotten flesh out of a warm freezer.

Marie went to the store for baking soda to put in her freezer, and she thought that she might get some for her mother, as well. She was disappointed to find the baking soda shelf bare not only at that supermarket but also at the two others she checked. It seems that Ike's pathway, from Galveston to parts of Kentucky and Ohio, is now a sump of moldering flesh, held partially at bay with boxes of baking soda.

I discussed these things with Marie in the shared and awkward knowledge that I live in air conditioned comfort with Internet access while she hunkers in the dark trying to read by the failing light of what she describes as a Ray-O-Vac.

Update: my mother says coffee grinds are helpful with de-stinking a freezer.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Ike's Aftermath

The power went down briefly this morning but has been steady ever since. Internet access is as stable as the power allows. This morning I went to the Central Mkt. at Weslayan and Westheimer. They were well supplied. The cashier who helped me was from Ft. Worth. I remember from a conversation that I had with someone on the Thursday preceding landfall that the Central Mkt. (an H.E.B.) store, would remain open to serve the community. My cashier from Ft. Worth said that the backup generator had failed, and they had only been open since Tuesday. I definitely remember than an H.E.B. on the Southwest Frwy (I59S) was one of the first stores to offer ice. The drive, though short, was tedious without traffic signals but most drivers yielded to each other with at least a modicum of grace. In any case, if you can get to the Central Mkt., you will leave well supplied, as long as you have enough gas to get there and money to spend when you do.

North Houston and Harris County, where most of my students live, has a large population without the money or gas to get to the Central Mkt. The Houston Chronicle Online has a link to information about what supermarkets are open. I didn't test it. I understand that some McDonalds are open, and people are going there for food, air conditioning, and to charge their cellphones and laptops. FEMA PODS look pretty scarce out there, as does electric power. Everyone that I am in contact with is faring OK, and I presume prospects will improve there over time. I hope they improve rapidly.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Open thread for Hist. 1302 students

All sections of HIST 1302, both online and face-to-face, please leave the following information in the comments of this diary: your location; your condition; do you have enough food, water, ice? Do you need help?

Update: LSC closed through the week; will reopen Monday, September 22.

Reflecting on Ike--updated X2

We went into full hunker mode about 8:00 Friday night. We still had electricity but had all electronic components except the TV unplugged. I was able to watch the storm approach on TV until close to midnight when I unplugged it. I was hearing terrible news out of Galveston, and the storm had not even made landfall yet. Ike has been described as a Category 2 hurricane with a Category 4 storm surge. Everyone knows by now the devastation Ike brought to those in the path of this surge. Inland, it was a very bad thunderstorm accompanied by howling and screaming winds; the slamming of limbs into roof and walls; and the occasional sense that all might be coming undone.

In the absence of Internet access Twitter worked perfectly. At any given time, I was able to post text messages to Twitter so that friends and family could keep up with our situation. After I tired of listening the storm howl, I posted a final update, put my earplugs and eye mask in place and went to bed.

At daybreak, I looked outdoors, and saw that the rising water threatened to pour into the passenger side of my car. We were getting rain from the south side of the storm, and the water was rising fast. I managed to move the car.

By seven or so Friday morning, the worst was over. The water was high but it receded quickly.

Some limbs were down.

Trees were snapped.

A neighbor's carport collapsed.

This humble man pitched right in with the cleanup.

Neighbors helping neighbors.

A few hours later, after the water receded, we tried the toilet. It flushed--what a relief! Mayor White put out an order to boil and conserve water, so we adopted the policy of, "yellow, let it mellow; if it's brown flush it down." There were no water problems. One of three main water pumps lost power but it was quickly restored and the pressure was only down for a short time. The order to boil water, however, is still in effect.

We kept the refrigerator and freezer taped shut for the first 24 hours just in case the power was restored quickly. We were pleased that we had gas and water. We spent Saturday cleaning up and listening to the radio. Bad news trickled in from Galveston. Mayor White made public statements that FEMA had assured him that large quantities of relief supplies were staged in forward positions near Houston. White continued, "I fully expect them to honor their commitments and follow through." He sounded skeptical.

Michael Chertoff, Governor Perry, and John Cornyn gave joint press conferences conveying a rehearsed-sounding message about how seamlessly federal, state and local authorities were working together, as opposed to the Katrina fiasco. Saturday was spent assessing need and staging supplies. As the day progressed, it became clear that damage to Galveston and coastal areas was catastrophic.

By Sunday morning, it was time to empty the refrigerator. We had been hoarding ice since Thursday, and there was some left but not enough to keep perishables through the night. This was during the several hours when FEMA supplies were delayed because of the state guys --the same ones who had been yammering on about the "seamless" cooperation--reneged on their commitment to man the FEMA PODS (Points Of Distribution). According to County Judge Ed Emmet, Harris County has 12, 000 volunteers trained to man the PODS, but the state stepped in and said that they would man the PODS. Then they realized that they needed all state assets in the devastated areas. 36 hours after landfall, only one POD was established with ice, water, and MREs. Conventional wisdom seems to be that natural disaster is always followed by some chaos. In this case, it looks like much of the chaos could have been avoided if the city and county guys had been heeded.

Fortunately, a friend who had electricity called, and I was able to get some ice from her. Our neighbor across the street got some ice and a generator from his employer, Fed-Ex. They gave us half a bag of ice. We had to throw out some food but saved most of it into a cooler. Next time, I will lay in three bags of ice in a cooler. Even though most of it will probably melt, enough might last to extend the survival time of perishable foods from 24 to 48 hours. Anyway, I had a small but steady source of ice for as long as I needed. We lost little food, and were luckier than most in this regard. We found pleasant ways to pass the time outdoors.

Monday, we played the waiting game. I showed up for ice at Jane's Monday evening just in time, as luck would have it, for dinner. It felt so civilized to sit at table for a meal with electricity

Our own electricity was restored that night. A cheer went up and down the street.

HISD is closed for the week. Lonestar says we will reopen Wednesday but it looks doubtful. It looks like some of the PODs are working well while others are chaotic. Today, grocery stores are mostly either closed or empty. We have plenty of food, and have transferred perishable back into the fridge.

Update: PODs distribution has been taken over by County Judge Ed Emmet at the request of Mayor White. News reports say that the truckers carrying supplies for the PODS were supposed to get their instructions about where to go with what this morning. When this morning arrived, the state guys or the FEMA guys--whichever ones were supposed to be in charge of the planning--were just getting started. The mayor was very upset, and he and Judge Emmett seem to have intervened with President Bush to take over the PODS logistics.

Update x2
The PODS delivery got clusterf@#$%ed because they were using a computor system that treated all incoming information equally without any knowledge of the specific needs and conditions of individual areas. Furthermore, every time an elected official intervened to request expedited assistance to his own district, that request got counted twice. The result was chaos. Judge Emmett then sat down at a folding table with a clipboard and legal pad, and had all POD requests directed through him. Like I said earlier, they had prepared for this situation. My guess is, we'll find out later that this had been the official disaster plan all along but the state and FEMA guys didn't read it.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Friday Afernoon Ike Update

We are feeling the effects of Ike's outer winds, accompanied by occasional spates of rain. Final preparations are complete. Conditions should begin to deteriorate within the next few hours. I will continue posting updates as long as I can. When the power goes down, we will lose our internet gateway. After that, I will post updates via twitter (username, davidldavis). My mobile connection is working fine now so, for as long I can send text messages, I will keep the updates coming.

It now unlikely that Ike will significantly intensify or change direction. This is very bad news for areas between Galveston and Port Arthur where the effects could be catastrophic. For us, the news is mixed. It is unlikely that we will have significant flooding. The bad news is that Ike will likely subject us to hurricane-force winds for a long time. Because of Ike's great size, high winds will extend 100 miles inland before the storm makes landfall and will not diminish until the eye wall passes.

City service vehicles have been driving around looking for hazards and trying secure them. One worker knocked on the door of a house with a bag of garbage at the curb. Presumably, he asked the resident to put the garbage away. They seem to have all gone home, now.

My future neighbor has a sense of humor:

It was considerate of him to lash down the dumpster full of scrap wood.

And perhaps more important, he moved the outhouse indoors.

When Ike hits, the phone circuits will probably get jammed with calls when we have any service at all. Therefore, if you want to contact me, texting is probably best. A text message will get through when a phone call will not.

This might be my last blog update until Ike passes and power is restored, but who knows? Maybe we'll get lucky.

Ike--Friday morning update

Not much seems to have changed overnight. For one thing, the likelihood of a northern turn that would spare Houston the brunt of the storm has diminished. There is still time for that but not much. Furthermore, the projected intensity of Ike at landfall has been upgraded from 110 mph to 115 mph or a minimum Category 3 hurricane. The eye is expected to pass over downtown Houston. This is bad for downtown, especially Houston's homeless population, many of whom are children, the elderly, veterans and the mentally ill; however, it will not bring the level of destruction one generally associates with more intense hurricanes. The potential 20-foot storm surge will flood much of the coastal plain, including the petro-chemical complex that lines the Houston Ship Channel.

Here is the SLOSH (Sea, Lake and Overland Surges) model for Ike. Note the white star that denotes Houston well outside of the surge.

Below is the wind-field projected for Ike at landfall:

That would put us in the path of tropical-storm force winds of around 50 mph (the windspeeds in the model are listed in kts; conversion table here).

When the eye passes over downtown, wind speeds should look like this:

For us, wind speeds should remain at tropical force. You can see that to the East of us, on the "dirty" side, wind speeds are somewhat higher, peaking around 70 mph. While Ike could shift to the West and put us in the path of the stronger winds this type of movement is not predicted, and even then we would face only minimal hurricane-force winds.

We are forecast to receive about 12.5 inches of rainfall, which will bring some flooding to low-lying areas and add to the damage in those areas affected by the storm surge. However, it is unlikely to flood our neighborhood.

As always look for updates here and, as a last resort, on twitter (still having trouble with mobile updates but I'll get back on top of that).

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hurricane Ike, Thursday night

I just watched a half hour of television news coverage of the hurricane. It was all very frightening with the graphic depictions of potential damage and the repeated imprecations toward people in harm’s way to evacuate. Indeed, Ike’s storm surge is predicted to be heavy, and this is very bad news for anyone close to the gulf or in flood-prone areas inland. My thoughts will be with them, and it is partly for their sake—to keep the roads free for those who really do need to evacuate—that we determined to shelter in place.
The above image displays the evacuation zones, those areas that are low-lying or close enough to the gulf to be affected by the storm surge. I have whited out a small square in the southwestern corner of the 610 (inner) Loop and drawn a crude purple X at roughly the spot where my house is. As you can see, it is well away from the endangered zones. The harsh warnings and dire forecasts are not directed at us. We seem likely to encounter hurricane-force winds but not the destructive winds of a major hurricane. Therefore there is little cause for concern for the personal safety of me or my immediate family.

Hurricane Ike--updated X2

As of now, Hurricane Ike is a Category 2 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 100 mph. The pressure inside the eye is 952 mbs—up from 944 mbs, which suggests that Ike is not organizing quickly. Forecasts are that Ike will strengthen into a Category 3 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 125 mph. There is a 15 percent chance that Ike will strengthen into a Cat. 4. This, of course would be bad news but it is unlikely. Ike is a very large storm so, even in it hits North of Houston, which would spare us the “dirty side” of the storm, it will very likely impact us in terms of high winds, rain and loss of services.

We will ride this one out. We are 50 miles inland, which means that we will not experience any flooding from the surge. Rainfall is expect to range from 6 to 10 inches (feeder bands can add as much as an additional 2 inches per hour). This house didn’t flood during T.S. Allison, and it seems unlikely that Ike will flood our house. We are not in an evacuation zone. We are well supplied with the essentials. We have 14 gallons of drinking water and a 250 gallon reserve. We have lots of canned goods (and a manual opener!), dried foods, soy milk, flashlights, batteries, candles, transistor radio, first aid, etc. This is not our first hurricane, and I’m sure we will be fine, even if it does get rather uncomfortable without air conditioning.

As usual, I will send updates through email, Myspace and, as a last resort, through Twitter (twitter is posting updates from mobile phones slowly, so those updates might lag far behind real time). Ike should make landfall in the early hours of Saturday morning, but conditions will probably begin to deteriorate much earlier. I’ll try to stay in touch. If you need to reach me, you stand a far better chance of getting through with a text message than with a phone call.

for good information on the local scene check out Eric Berger's science blog at the Houston Chronicle online.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Police state? Not quite, but Dissent has been Outlawed

I have been listening to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! for years. She has been one of the few independent voices in a media landscape that has become the playground of corporate shills and an echo chamber for right-wing talking points.

Ironically, Goodman is one of the few journalist reporting on the KGB-like tactics employed by the Minneapolis police and the county Sheriff's Department under the direction of the FBI as they invaded the homes of vegan and leftist groups in Minneapolis in anticipation of the Republican National Convention. These are people who have not broken the law. Their homes were invaded by SWAT teams in full combat gear. They were forced to lie handcuffed on the floor for 45 minutes or more without being charged with a crime or told why. The purpose of these raids is transparent: they are intended to send a message to others who might be planning to exercise their First Amendment right to peaceful assembly.

Amy Goodman has been arrested at the perimeter of the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis. Watching her being handcuffed and led into a van reminded me of scenes from Beijing involving would-be protesters at the 2008 Olympics.

Who will report now on the police outrages in Minneapolis? They have silenced an independent voice. It is time now for all our voices to be heard.

New Orleans Floodwall Stuffed with Newspaper.

I kid you not. Watch the video.