Saturday, September 24, 2005
The devastation of Hurricane Rita
From CNN (check back for regular updates):
Regions along the Texas-Louisiana state line appeared to be hit hardest by Hurricane Rita on Saturday, as the former Category 3 storm dropped to Category 1 status just hours after making landfall.
High winds and flooding from Rita prompted President Bush to describe Lake Charles, Louisiana, as "hit hard" and its mayor announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew. Relief troops were deployed to the storm-wracked city.
Rita's center slammed into the extreme southwest coast of Louisiana at 3:30 a.m. ET, near Sabine Pass, Texas, with winds of 120 mph.
Louisiana and Texas officials said no deaths related to the storm have been reported.
Minor-to-significant damage and power outages were reported throughout the region, from Galveston, Texas, to Lake Charles.
According to the Times, it seems that Rita "[caused] far less damage than officials had feared," but there are "new concerns that its torrential rain and storm surges would cause widespread flooding across much of the region":
Despite property destruction expected to reach into the billions of dollars, preliminary reports indicated that Hurricane Rita was far less deadly than its predecessor, Hurricane Katrina. Officials said that was partly because of the evacuation of millions of Gulf Coast residents who heeded warnings, mindful of the flooding, death and destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina only a month ago.
Meanwhile, as flooding ravages parts of Louisiana, Galveston residents are being told to wait and Houston residents are beginning to return home. In all, over 2.5 million evacuees are set to return to their homes along the Gulf Coast.
Make sure to check out the Lake Charles American Press's blog for updates from SW Louisiana, where Rita made landfall. The Galveston County Daily News also has a blog up in place of its main site.
For the latest from New Orleans and the Louisiana coast, see here. Louisiana is suffering major flooding:
Hurricane Rita flooded coastal communities from the Texas border to the mouth of the Mississippi River and rescuers used boats and helicopters to reach hundreds of residents who opted not to evacuate before the storm.
The hurricane, which struck land near the Texas-Louisiana border early Saturday morning, packed a storm surge of more than 15 feet in places, inundating small towns, sugarcane fields and marshes along the coast. Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses lost power as transformers exploded, roofs were torn off, and trees uprooted by winds topping 100 mph.
A canal lock on the intracoastal waterway in Vermilion Parish was overwhelmed, sending water pouring through and raising fears that the water would be carried farther inland.
Authorities had trouble reaching some stranded residents because of blocked roads and savage winds, but there were no immediate reports of deaths or serious injuries.
New Orleans, meanwhile, endured a second straight day of new flooding. Water poured into low-lying areas of the city and communities south of the city, where boats were being used to rescue people from homes swamped by up to six feet of water.
More to follow. I'll continue to post updates here at The Reaction, and there'll be more at The Moderate Voice throughout the weekend. But be sure to check all these links above and in previous posts for both national and local coverage.
Notes on Hurricane Rita (with a recommendation)
Also, I want to recommend Ron Franscell's blog Under the News. Ron is the managing editor of The Beaumont Enterprise, an excellent local newspaper that I linked to in my previous post (Ron has graciously added a lengthy comment). He's doing some incredible work covering Rita at his blog -- and, of course, Beaumont is front-and-center as Rita prepares to make landfall later this morning. Good luck, Ron. Our thoughts are with you, your colleagues in the media, and everyone else down there along the Gulf Coast. Stay safe.
Friday, September 23, 2005
Hurricane Rita: A local perspective
-- The Galveston County Daily News In addition, the Lake Charles American Press is running a Rita-related blog — see here.
And, of course, there's the Houston Chronicle, which in addition to its regular news coverage is running two Rita-related blogs — one by its own journalists, one by citizen journalists.
Please let me know if there are other good sources for local news in the area. Most of my posts rely heavily on major news outlets like CNN and The New York Times, but I think that some local perspective might be in order.
Hurricane Rita set to slam into Texas and Louisiana
Click here for the latest bulletin from the National Hurricane Center.
Hurricane Rita is about 9 hours away from making landfall along the coast of Texas and Louisiana. It's turned slightly to the north, away from Galveston, and now it's taking aim at Beaumont and Port Arthur, a fairly low-lying, marshy area of Texas. Beaumont, in fact (and I'm watching Anderson Cooper reporting live from there right now), is just a few feet above sea level at its highest point. Much of it, like New Orleans, is below sea level.
As CNN's tracker shows, a hurricane warning extends from the area between Corpus Christi and Galveston, through Beaumont and Port Arthur, and along the Louisiana coast to the area just south of Lafayette. As well, a tropical storm warning extends all the way to Corpus Christi in the west and to New Orleans in the east. Plus, New Orleans lies on the strong side of the storm, with the counter-clockwise rotation of the storm pounding it with rain and wind.
For the latest developments from CNN, updated regularly, click here.
The new dog flu virus
And now a deadly new canine flu has turned up in the U.S.:
A new, highly contagious and sometimes deadly canine flu is spreading in kennels and at dog tracks around the country, veterinarians said yesterday.
The virus, which scientists say mutated from an influenza strain that affects horses, has killed racing greyhounds in seven states and has been found in shelters and pet shops in many places, including the New York suburbs, though the extent of its spread is unknown...
How many dogs die from the virus is unclear, but scientists said the fatality rate is more than 1 percent and could be as high as 10 percent among puppies and older dogs...
The virus is an H3N8 flu closely related to an equine flu strain. It is not related to typical human flus or to the H5N1 avian flu that has killed about 100 people in Asia.
Experts said there were no known cases of the canine flu infecting humans.
Not good for our canine friends. Let's hope the virus can be stopped or at least contained.
The investigation of Bill Frist
A couple of days ago, I called Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) a "crook" for profiting from an ethically-dubious and perhaps illegal sale of HCA stock just before the share price tumbled following a disappointing earnings report. That is, for insider trading. Dr. Frist, of course, has denied any wrongdoing, but the truth may yet come out:
Federal prosecutors contacted Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's office about his sale of stock in HCA Inc., the hospital operating company founded by his family. The Securities and Exchange Commission began an investigation, too, and prosecutors asked HCA to turn over documents about the transaction.
Prosecutors from the Southern District of New York contacted Frist's office ''to inquire about the sale,'' spokesman Bob Stevenson said Friday. He did not say when the office was contacted, but said neither the senator nor his office had received a subpoena.
Frist's office previously confirmed the SEC was looking into the sale.
Read the article for the financial details. For here's the problem:
For years, Frist was criticized for holding HCA stock while directing legislation on Medicare reform and patient issues. He and his office have consistently deflected criticism by noting that his assets were in a blind trust and not under his active control.
But Senate ethics rules allowed him more control than most observers realized. Under the guidelines, senators can directly order the sale of any asset in the trust to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. The senator also can communicate to the trustee matters of concern, including "an interest in maximizing income or long-term capital gain."
Frist may or may not have done anything wrong and he may or may not be a "crook". His stock sale, however, looks bad, illegal or not. After all, he clearly maximized his and his family's "income or long-term capital gain," and, regardless of questionable Senate rules, his timing was perfect.
Just a little too perfect.
Hurricane Rita: 24 die in bus fire on evacuation route
Levees have already broken in New Orleans and Hurricane Rita will be making landfall somewhere along the Texas coast, likely near Port Arthur and Beaumont, in about 12 hours, but this morning's bus fire, which took the lives of 24 residents of a Houston-area nursing home, was truly horrible.
Hurricane Rita hits New Orleans: When the levees break... again
As if Katrina weren't enough, the worst-hit areas of New Orleans are once again under water, as a key levee that protects some of the lower lying areas of the city, including the Lower Ninth Ward:
The force of approaching Hurricane Rita has torn through levees still under repair for damage from Hurricane Katrina 24 days ago, sending water cascading into the hardest-hit neighborhoods of the city this morning, quickly submerging cars and flooding empty homes wrested from their foundations.
The storm ripped new breaches in at least five spots that engineers had recently repaired, inundating neighborhoods that were only now being drained of Katrina's flooding...
One break in the levee was in the lower Ninth Ward, on the east side of the canal. The storm sent the water rising so quickly that it had reached windows of houses up to three blocks east of the levee by late morning. Dozens of blocks in New Orleans's Ninth Ward were under water.
A second breach was found later in the Upper Ninth Ward, on the west side of the levee. More breaches developed later.
Officials from the Army Corps said the second breach, unlike the first, is not endangering lives or property, since most residents have evacuated and the property there is already ruined. The breaches confirmed the city's fears - that its weakened levee system, damaged by Katrina, could not protect it against a tidal surge along Lake Pontchartrain. By late morning, the lake waters were two feet above where they had been, and flood waters in New Orleans, which had been receding, were starting to rise again. St. Bernard Parish had about two more feet of water than it did days ago.
Fortunately, the low-lying areas of the Lower Ninth Ward had been mostly evacuated and 95 to 98 percent of the area had been checked for survivors and cleared, said Dave Wheeler, operations chief of FEMA's urban search and rescue team in New Orleans."It's already been destroyed," he said. "It's a good thing virtually all of New Orleans is empty. Hopefully there's a minimal chance that anyone will be stranded." Many of the houses in the area had already been declared uninhabitable and slated for demolition.
The Times-Picayune continues to provide excellent hurricane coverage. See here for the latest updates on developments in New Orleans and throughout Louisiana.
Said Major Barry Guidry, a National Guardsman on duty at the Ninth Ward levee: "Our worst fears came true."
More from CNN:
"It's spreading rapidly down to the south-southeast, so they're going to have complete flooding in that area again," Maj. Gen. Bill Caldwell told CNN. Caldwell, commander of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, said floodwater had spread across 30 to 40 city blocks by noon.
CNN photojournalist Alfredo DeLara echoed his observations. "We're talking 5 to 10 inches in the one to two minutes we were standing in this one spot," he said. "There's nothing stopping that water from just pouring in."
"The Army Corps of Engineers placed a lot of sand here with helicopters, with earthmoving equipment, and tried to shore it up. But it looks like it didn't hold," he said.
According to the National Hurricane Center, as much as 3 inches of rain could fall on New Orleans when Hurricane Rita sweeps across the Gulf Coast. The Army Corps of Engineers has said that may overwhelm the fragile levee system.
Anticipating Rita: Millions flee the Gulf Coast
Joe Gandelman has all the latest on pre-Rita preparations along the Gulf Coast over at The Moderate Voice -- click here. I've added a shorter post on the flight to the interior -- click here.
I second Joe's assessment that Michelle Malkin is doing some of the best Rita coverage in the blogosphere -- click here for the latest (or here for her main page).
Filibuster this! -- Democrats prepare for the next Supreme Court battle
Look for the battle over Sandra Day O'Connor's replacement to be far more intense, however, with Democrats opposing any nominee to the right of the center-right O'Connor -- which, aside from Gonzales, would likely be anyone Bush nominates. And that battle, it seems, will begin soon:
Republicans and Democrats warned President Bush yesterday that his next pick for the Supreme Court will face much tougher scrutiny in the Senate, as Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter lobbied the White House to delay the nomination until next year to defuse tension.
But the White House pushed ahead with plans to nominate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's successor as early as the middle of next week from a shortlist that has been expanded beyond the field of candidates examined before the nomination of John G. Roberts Jr. to be chief justice and that includes several women and minorities, according to White House and Republican officials. First lady Laura Bush and a number of Republican senators are among those lobbying the president to nominate a woman or a minority, GOP officials said.
Whatever the nominee's sex or ethnicity, a Republican in close contact with the White House said the choice would be as conservative as Roberts.
After a morning briefing with Bush and top Senate leaders, Specter (R-Pa.) said he told the president he should postpone the announcement so senators have a better idea of how Roberts would influence the Supreme Court as chief justice over the next six months. Lawmakers say they expect Roberts to be confirmed easily next week. "I believe the next nomination is going to be a great deal more contentious than the Roberts nomination," Specter told reporters. "I say that because bubbling just below the surface was a lot of frustration in the hearing that we just concluded."
But the White House rejected the idea of delaying the next selection. Instead, a top White House aide said Bush plans to announce O'Connor's replacement next week, shortly after the Senate votes on Roberts's confirmation.
And it seems that the filibuster has resurfaced, with prominent Democrats threatening to use it should they choose to block Bush's next nominee:
President Bush’s nominee to the Supreme Court to replace Sandra Day O’Connor appeared to be skating on thin ice Wednesday, even though the president hasn’t yet revealed who the nominee is.
In the war of nerves leading up to Bush's announcement of his next high court nominee, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and other Democrats were signaling Wednesday that the filibuster — extended debate in order to kill a nomination — is an option they might use.
Referring to chief justice nominee John Roberts, who looks certain to win Judiciary Committee approval on Thursday and confirmation by the full Senate next week, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn. said, "I don’t think anybody would call him an extremist, or a divisive or confrontational nominee. But if the next nominee is, I think there’d be a real possibility of a filibuster."
Lieberman said Roberts was "a mainstream nominee. But because of the focus on the balance on the court and Justice O’Connor being a mainstream conservative, if the next nominee is not a mainstream conservative, then a filibuster is definitely possible."
Lieberman was one of 14 Democratic and Republican senators who signed a May 23 accord in which they pledged to not support a filibuster of a judicial nominee unless there were "extraordinary circumstances" which made it impossible to approve the nominee.
Lieberman said Wednesday that under the terms of that accord, "we reserved the right for each of us to make the determination individually to decide that a nominee was outside of the mainstream, the circumstances were extraordinary, and therefore we would attempt to require 60 votes for confirmation."
Way to go, Joe. We need all the Joementum you've got.
Thursday, September 22, 2005
John G. Roberts 1, Senate Judiciary Committee 0
The hearings began with senatorial "self-congratulation", as Dahlia Lithwick put it at Slate, and didn't really go anywhere from there. All we got from Roberts was a declaration of judicial neutrality (a defence of law, as opposed to "law-plus"), guarantees of personal humility and modesty, innumerable refusals to answer questions about, well, everything, and the performance of a lifetime (just give him the Oscar now). Lithwick again:
John Roberts is putting on a clinic.
He completely understands that he needs only to sit very quietly, head cocked to signal listening-ness, while senator after senator offers long discursive rambling speeches. Only when he's perfectly certain that a question has been asked does he offer a reply; usually cogent and spare. Here's a man long accustomed to answering really hard questions from extremely smart people, suddenly faced with the almost-harder task of answering obvious questions from less-smart people. He finds himself standing in a batting cage with the pitching machine set way too slow.
It's increasingly clear that Senate Democrats are giving up.
That was Tuesday. And they did.
Not that they had much hope, mind you. There was no chance a Republican was going to turn on Roberts, and the Democrats are themselves divided on his candidacy. But they had to put on a show, if only to pander their own base on the left and, more importantly, to prepare for the more important battle coming up next: the nomination of O'Connor's replacement, which could shift the balance on the Court well over to the right.
The problem is, they just weren't able to penetrate Robert's armor. Not that they really tried. I mean, couldn't one of them have pushed him on, oh, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the D.C. federal court of appeals case that ultimately provided "a blank-check grant of power to the Bush administration to try suspected terrorists without basic due-process protections"? -- Roberts joined the majority on that one; given his short judicial record, shouldn't alarm bells have gone off? Apparently not. Here's what happened:
Abandoning their efforts to win votes back home or to score cheap points off a constitutional superstar, Senate Democrats this morning come clean with their real fears about John Roberts: Confesses a frustrated Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., "I don't really know what I'm going to do with respect to voting for you or voting against you... The impression that I have today is of this very cautious, very precise man." Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., frets: "I, for one, have woken up in the middle of the night thinking about it, being unsure how to vote."
Poor Chuck Schumer.
Essentially, it all came down to this: Roberts beat them. Neither insane nor ideological (nor both), Roberts didn't leave an opening for the Democrats to exploit. They were looking for one, sort of, but he presented himself as a solid, decent guy who respects precedent, worships the rule of law, and avoids activism. As I put it yesterday, he's still something of a risk, but he didn't do anything to suggest that he isn't a risk worth taking. Sure, he's a conservative, both politically and temperamentally, but what did Democrats expect? Bush wasn't about to nominate a liberal, nor even a broadly appealing moderate. If anything, Roberts is a better sort of conservative than some of the other leading candidates (McConnell, Luttig, Garza, etc.). So, in the end, Roberts isn't liberal enough and he didn't answer enough questions. He remains an enigma. And so, whether out of principle or political expediency, five Democrats on the SJC voted no.
Yes, the SJC vote today was 13-5 in favour of sending Roberts's nomination to the Senate floor for confirmation. While ranking member Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Russ Feingold and Herbert Kohl voted for him, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, Joe Biden of Delaware, Chuck Schumer of New York, Dianne Feinstein of California, and Dick Durbin of Illinois voted against him. John Kerry of Massachusetts has already voice his opposition, as have -- looking ahead to 2008 and beyond, Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.
And that's pretty much it. Democrats will line up a significant anti-Roberts vote, but there won't be a filibuster and Roberts will be confirmed as the next chief justice of the United States.
Which, as I've said before, is fine. I wouldn't have nominated him, but I wouldn't vote against his nomination. But it would have been nice if Democrats had put up more of a fight, or if they'd at least taken a swing for the fences.
In addition to The Moderate Voice, see also:
Jon who? -- The Daily Show on Capitol Hill
Apparently, though, many in Washington don't even know who he is. Or, at least, they claim not to know who he is.
The Hill has an interesting look at The Daily Show's viewership (and lack thereof) on Capitol Hill.
Politics, principle, and the Roberts nomination
Last week, Slate's Dahlia Lithwick offered daily coverage of Roberts's appearances before the SJC -- Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. The problem? "Senate Democrats have had it up to here with 'John Roberts the lawyer.' And it's hard to blame them. John Roberts the lawyer won't answer any questions." Roberts may be an excellent lawyer, and he may (repeat: may) prove to be an excellent chief justice, but it's hard to know what to think of him -- that is, it's hard to judge him as the nominee for highest judge in the land -- when he evades all the key questions tossed his way. "So, is Roberts an ideologue? Roberts says no, and most of us are inclined to believe him. If he really is Scalia-without-the-anger, he's the most accomplished liar in world history."
This is where E.J. Dionne's recent column in the Post -- "The Case for a 'No' Vote on Roberts" -- comes in: "In his testimony, Roberts was brilliant, affable, engaging and amusing. He was also evasive, calculating and, well, slick":
By the end, the baseball metaphors of the early hearing had given way to gambling analogies. Schumer one-upped Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), who had declared that senators were "rolling the dice with you, Judge." Schumer said Thursday: "This isn't just rolling the dice. It's betting the whole house."
That's right, and it's why as many senators as possible should vote no on Roberts -- by way of saying no to this charade. A majority of "no's," very unlikely to be sure, need not mean the end of his nomination. It would constitute a just demand for Roberts (and whoever Bush names next) to answer more questions in a more forthcoming way and for the administration to provide information that the public, and not just the Senate, deserves.
How many senators will have the guts to make that statement?
Well, Ted Kennedy and John Kerry of Massachusetts, for two. And also the top Democrat of them all, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who announced on Tuesday that he will vote against Roberts when his nomination comes to the Senate floor for confirmation. Who else? Well, according to reports, Barbara Boxer of California and Jon Corzine and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, for three more. But Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the SJC, announced yesterday that he will vote for Roberts. It is not yet known how the other Democrats on the SJC will vote, but at least two other Democrats have announced their support: Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Max Baucus of Montana. And moderate Republican Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island has similarly announced that he will vote for Roberts (just as he voted for John Bolton).
What does this all mean? Not much. Roberts will sail through the SJC vote and be approved by the full Senate. Perhaps the only intriguing matter, looking ahead to 2008, is how a certain senator from New York votes. And I'm not talking about Chuck Schumer.
As for me? Well, for what it's worth, The Reaction (reluctantly and with justifiable hesitation) endorses the nomination of John G. Roberts to be the next chief justice of the United States. Yes, if I had a vote, I'd vote to confirm him.
I explain myself at The Reaction here, here, and here, and at The Moderate Voice here. Go nuts.
One final note here. I think Lithwick acutely sums up what's really going on here (see "Thursday" link, above): While most conservatives are content with Roberts's view that the Supreme Court's primary role is to uphold the law, liberals hold that the Supreme Court ought to advocate "law-plus":
All [Thursday] afternoon, witnesses have been testifying back and forth about John Roberts. His supporters call him brilliant and kind and diligent and principled. His detractors mostly say he doesn't get it. Some, like Democratic Georgia Rep. John Lewis, suggest he really is an ideologue: "He was in the boiler room of the Reagan administration," stoking principles and theories to attack established civil rights law. But most of his critics don't even do that. They just talk about history a lot.
One witness says, "we cannot escape history," and another says that under a Justice Roberts, the "civil rights revolution wouldn't have happened." Back and forth the witnesses go—Roberts is great/Roberts doesn't get it—never really acknowledging that they are not disagreeing; that it's possible to be kind and smart and to believe in the rule of law and also not to get it.
Because the "it" in question has nothing to do with the rule of law. It's about something I might call "law-plus"—the idea that the rule of law, in and of itself, has not always made this country fair. Law-plus rejects Roberts' notion that law, applied neutrally, invariably leads to just results. Law-plus acknowledges that the federal courts have leveled the playing field in this country by broadly interpreting civil rights statutes to allow individual causes of action. Law-plus means federal courts have read the civil rights amendments broadly, in order to level the playing field. Law-plus means accepting a counter-majoritarian role for the courts when the other branches of government cannot or will not protect the weak.
John Roberts isn't a fan of law-plus. In fact, the unbounded nature of judicial power under law-plus is probably what drove him into the boiler room of the Reagan administration in the first place. Time and again he scolds the senators: If you want your statute to provide money damages, write it that way; if you want your legislation to implicate interstate commerce, write it that way. For Roberts, it is not the courts' responsibility to make statutes effective. It is not even the courts' responsibility to make the world fair.
Throughout these hearings, John Roberts has presented himself as utterly neutral, without once acknowledging that judicial neutrality is a moral choice with moral consequences. I, for one, am willing to take him at his word that his personal views don't matter—that he will approach cases with an open mind and no agenda. But the question for the Democrats struggling to decide how to vote is whether open-mindedness and neutrality are enough...
The problem isn't whether John Roberts can be principled and fair on a thoroughly passive court. I'm sold on that. It's whether a thoroughly passive court can ever truly be principled and fair.
I'm tempted to say no. Beyond the law, after all, lies justice, and justice, it seems to me, requires flexibility. But just how much flexibility, especially in a country founded on the rule of law?
Roberts is a risk. Not just on abortion, civil rights, police powers, and the environment, but on the more theoretical matter of fairness. His alleged neutrality worries me now as much as any ideological persuasion that may linger beneath his cold, lawyerly facade. He may vote to overturn Roe, but what if he also levels the playing field of American life to the point where existing inequalities are cemented in place for decades?
The (classical) liberal in me wants that level playing field because I think that, in the end, it will benefit all Americans. Yes, Roberts is a risk, but he's a risk I'm willing to take.
Coke is it! (for Kate Moss)
In a move with little precedent in the fashion industry, Kate Moss, one of the world's most recognizable models, was dismissed from a planned advertising campaign yesterday after executives said she had admitted to recently using cocaine.
H&M first said that it would forgive Ms. Moss, then caved in to public pressure: "If someone is going to be the face of H&M," an H&M spokesperson said, "it is important they be healthy, wholesome and sound... After the feedback from customers and other papers, we decided we should distance ourselves from any kind of drug abuse."
And you're involved with the fashion industry? Good luck.
Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Avian flu revisited: Outbreak in Indonesia
Indonesia called an outbreak of bird flu in its teeming capital an epidemic on Wednesday as health and agricultural experts from around the world converged on Jakarta to help control the virus.
Health Minister Siti Fadillah Supari said the emergence of sporadic human cases of bird flu in recent months in and around different parts of Jakarta, home to 12 million people, warranted the epidemic tag...
"This can be described as an epidemic. These (cases) will happen again as long as we cannot determine the source," Supari told reporters, but she insisted it would be wrong to label it a "frightening epidemic."
Four Indonesians are already confirmed to have died since July from the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of bird flu, which has killed a total of 64 people in four Asian countries since late 2003 and has been found in birds in Russia and Europe.
The WHO is clearly right to be warning of (and preparing for) the possibility of a pandemic, especially if a new variant emerges that can be passed between humans. This may be happening on the other side of the world, but it's a story worth monitoring.
JetBlue plane lands safely at LAX
A JetBlue airliner headed from Burbank to New York experienced problems with its front landing gear -- the wheels were turned sideways -- and circled around the L.A. area for over two hours, dumping fuel in the Pacific Ocean, before landing safely at L.A. International Airport just under an hour ago.
Not-so-lovely Rita takes aim at the Gulf Coast
With Rita projected to hit Texas by Saturday, Gov. Rick Perry urged residents along the state’s entire coast to begin evacuating. And New Orleans braced for the possibility that the storm could swamp the stricken city all over again.
Galveston, low-lying parts of Corpus Christi and Houston, and mostly emptied-out New Orleans were under mandatory evacuation orders as Rita sideswiped the Florida Keys and began drawing energy with terrifying efficiency from the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico...
Forecasters said Rita could be the most intense hurricane on record ever to hit Texas, and easily one of the most powerful ever to plow into the U.S. mainland. Category 5 is the highest on the scale, and only three Category 5 hurricanes are known to have hit the U.S. mainland — most recently, Andrew, which smashed South Florida in 1992.
Both the mainstream media and the blogosphere are doing some excellent work as Rita sweeps across the Gulf of Mexico. Here are a few recommended posts by other bloggers:
And, of course, I recommend above all my friend Joe Gandelman's exceptional posts, regularly updated, at The Moderate Voice. For the latest, see here.
Dr. Bill Frist, crook
Then he showed some common sense (stem-cell research).
Then he revealed just how unintelligent he really is (intelligent design).
And now... now he's just a crook (insider trading?).
He's Dr. Bill Frist (R-TN).
Senate Majority Leader.
Tuesday, September 20, 2005
President Bush came under withering criticism for his handling of Hurricane Katrina yesterday, with Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) charging that the storm exposed the administration's incompetence and ideological blinders and former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) asserting that even in its response, the administration backs policies that support the privileged over the working poor.
Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, said in a speech at Brown University that Michael D. Brown, who quit under fire as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's director, exemplified the administration's failures over the past five years.
Using the nickname Bush used for Brown, Kerry said, "Brownie is to Katrina what Paul Bremer is to peace in Iraq, what George Tenet is to slam-dunk intelligence, what Paul Wolfowitz is to parades paved with flowers in Baghdad, what Dick Cheney is to visionary energy policy, what Donald Rumsfeld is to basic war planning, what Tom DeLay is to ethics and what George Bush is to 'Mission Accomplished' and 'Wanted Dead or Alive.' "
Edwards, who has made poverty a signature issue, said the plight of many of those displaced by the flooding in New Orleans underscores an urgent need for the nation to attack the problem again. He offered policy initiatives aimed at ensuring that Americans who work full time do not fall below the poverty line.
The former senator -- who was tapped by Kerry to be his running mate last year and, like Kerry, is contemplating a 2008 presidential run -- said the administration has long favored wealth over work. He criticized Bush for suspending a law requiring federal contractors along the Gulf Coast to pay prevailing wages on reconstruction projects.
"I might have missed something, but I don't think the president ever talked about putting a cap on the salaries of the CEOs of Halliburton and the other companies... who are getting all these contracts," he said in a speech at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. "This president, who never met an earmark he wouldn't approve or a millionaire's tax cut he wouldn't promote, decided to slash wages for the least of us and the most vulnerable."
They're right. Just as they were last year.
(See my post on President Clinton's criticism of Bush at The Moderate Voice -- here. It got me a mention at Slate. See also the full text of Kerry's speech -- here.)
Bush's War on Porn
The FBI is joining the Bush administration's War on Porn. And it's looking for a few good agents.
Early last month, the bureau's Washington Field Office began recruiting for a new anti-obscenity squad. Attached to the job posting was a July 29 Electronic Communication from FBI headquarters to all 56 field offices, describing the initiative as "one of the top priorities" of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and, by extension, of "the Director." That would be FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.
The new squad will divert eight agents, a supervisor and assorted support staff to gather evidence against "manufacturers and purveyors" of pornography -- not the kind exploiting children, but the kind that depicts, and is marketed to, consenting adults.
"I guess this means we've won the war on terror," said one exasperated FBI agent, speaking on the condition of anonymity because poking fun at headquarters is not regarded as career-enhancing. "We must not need any more resources for espionage."
Apparently not. I guess I missed that "War on Terror is over, and we've won!" memo. How nice to see that Bush has his priorities in order, eh?
Sleep well, but hide your porn. Big Brother is out to get you.
British raid Iraqi jail
British armored vehicles backed by helicopter gunships burst through the walls of an Iraqi jail Monday in the southern city of Basra to free two British commandos detained earlier in the day by Iraqi police, witnesses and Iraqi officials said. The incident climaxed a confrontation between the two nominal allies that had sparked hours of gun battles and rioting in Basra's streets.
An Iraqi official said a half-dozen armored vehicles had smashed into the jail, the Reuters news agency reported. The provincial governor, Mohammed Walli, told news agencies that the British assault was "barbaric, savage and irresponsible."
British officials said three soldiers were hurt in the day's violence, in which at least one armored personnel carrier was destroyed by firebombs. Iraqi officials said at least two civilians were killed.
In London, authorities said the two commandos were released after negotiations. But the BBC quoted British defense officials as saying a wall was demolished when British forces went to "collect" the men.
Can anyone explain this to me? Didn't the British help liberate Iraq? Or am I missing something?
Update (9/21/05): Check out Juan Cole's must-read post at Informed Comment: "The British seem to be facing increasing risks of danger from Shiite militias in Basra. In particular, the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr, a small group in Basra though more popular in East Baghdad, is suspected of setting roadside bombs to hit British patrols. The British attack on the jail, however, may well have played into Sadr's hands, making him a heroic figure to nationalist Shiites in Basra who previously had taken little interest in his puritanical movement."
Wal-Mart is evil
Lawyers representing about 116,000 former and current Wal-Mart Stores Inc. employees in California told a jury Monday that the world's largest retailer systematically and illegally denied workers lunch breaks.
The suit in Alameda County Superior Court is among about 40 cases nationwide alleging workplace violations against Wal-Mart, and the first to go to trial. Wal-Mart, which earned $10 billion last year, settled a lawsuit in Colorado for $50 million that contains similar allegations to California's class action. The company also is accused of paying men more than women in a federal lawsuit pending in San Francisco federal court.
The workers in the class-action suit are owed more than $66 million plus interest, attorney Fred Furth told the 12 jurors and four alternates...
The case concerns a 2001 state law, which is among the nation's most worker friendly. Employees who work at least six hours must have a 30-minute, unpaid lunch break. If they do not get that, the law requires they are paid for an additional hour of pay.
The lawsuit covers former and current employees in California from 2001 to 2005.
Wal-Mart declined to give an opening statement, reserving its right to give one later. Its lawyers also declined comment.
Shop as you will. But know that this is the kind of thing you're supporting when you shop at Wal-Mart.
For more information, go to Wal-Mart Watch, an excellent watchdog group that challenges Wal-Mart on every front.
Confessions of a Tyco shareholder
I bought when the stock was up, back before the SEC began to look into all those so-called "accounting irregularities," and I bought when it was down. Why? Because I believe in the company. (I also believe in Nortel, though with far less confidence.) It's fundamentals are strong, its chart looks good, it's p/e is fairly low, its analyst recommendations are generally positive, but, above all, I think it's a good company with a bright future. And that, to me, is what is most important. Tyco makes things that people need and will continue to buy: security and fire-protection systems, medical devices, wireless devices and fiber-optic components, plastic products, pharmaceuticals, feminine hygiene products, and so much else. (This is not a recommendation to buy Tyco stock. Do your research and make your own decisions.)
But... there were those irregularities. Not to mention all that theft and fraud committed by Kozlowski et al. Which is why, as a Tyco shareholder, I see this as great news:
L. Dennis Kozlowski, the former chief executive of Tyco International who was convicted of looting the company of $150 million, was sentenced yesterday to 8 1/3 to 25 years in a New York State prison, the latest corporate figure to be handed a lengthy prison term in a corruption case.
Mark H. Swartz, his chief lieutenant, received the same sentence for his role in the thefts and fraud. The two men were convicted in June after a four-month retrial.
Judge Michael J. Obus of State Supreme Court in Manhattan also ordered Mr. Kozlowski to pay $167 million in restitution and fines. Mr. Swartz was ordered to pay $72 million in fines and restitution.
The sentencing follows a parade of other substantial terms imposed on former chief executives convicted of white-collar crimes, most notably Bernard J. Ebbers of WorldCom, who received a prison term of 25 years, and John J. Rigas of the cable operator Adelphia Communications, who was sentenced to 15 years. Those sentences -- in federal courts -- were seen as sending a message to deter huge corporate frauds in the future.
The Tyco sentencing may be the last high-profile corporate misconduct before the most prominent one of them all: the trial next year of Kenneth L. Lay and Jeffrey K. Skilling of Enron.
Handing down the sentence in a packed courtroom, Judge Obus said yesterday: "The crimes at issue here were violations of the defendants' positions of trust and their fiduciary duty on a grand scale. They caused damage to Tyco and to others, including the shareholders who are Tyco's owners and who, like the investing public, generally should be able to rely on the integrity of the management of publicly traded companies."
Exactly. Damage was done and Tyco's integrity was largely destroyed, but perhaps this is the closure we've all been looking for.
Now it's time to get Lay and Skilling.
Monday, September 19, 2005
The safest place in America
And the safest place of all: Connecticut, specifically "the area in and around Storrs, Conn., home to the University of Connecticut".
An interesting map/chart from FEMA (linked from Koerner's article):
Avian flu: The next pandemic?
Millions of people could die around the world if bird flu spreads out of control, and most countries are totally unprepared for such an event, the UN's World Health Organisation says.
"If there was a flu pandemic tomorrow we would not be ready. The clock is ticking and when the pandemic strikes it will be too late," said WHO spokeswoman Christine McNab.
Despite warnings at the United Nations by US President George W. Bush and French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin calling for international cooperation to confront the "first pandemic of the 21st century," the international community was far from prepared."
There is very good momentum, but a lot of work remains to be done," McNab said.
Of the 192 members of the UN just 40 countries had drawn up detailed plans for combatting an outbreak in humans of a mutation of the H5N1 virus which could, like the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, kill millions of people.
For the WHO it is question of when, not if, the virus crosses over to a strain affecting humans, experts said."
The question is, 'When is it going to happen?' I don't think anybody has the answer to it... We have to be on the lookout for any time, any day," the WHO specialist on the virus, Margaret Chan, said in July.
he United Nations has called on its member states to make preparations with a document entitled "Responding to the avian influenza pandemic threat: recommended strategic actions."
Health professionals say an outbreak would appear in three phases:
-- the prepandemic phase, that needs to be countered by a sophisticated warning system and information sharing so as to detect the first changes in the virus's behaviour;
-- an "emerging phase";
-- the "declared pandemic phase" when the virus rages unchecked across national borders.
"Since late 2003, the world has moved closer to a pandemic than any time since 1968... given the constantly changing nature of influenza viruses, the timing and severity of the next pandemic cannot be predicted," the WHO document says.
I have no doubt that this is a serious problem, especially in the developing world, but I wonder if this warning is in any way an exaggeration of the threat, or at least a worst-case scenario that the mainstream media will pick up and turn into yet another story of impending doom. (They like that, you know. Forgive my cynicism, but let's be honest.)
On a related note, if you'll excuse the personal digression, I'm currently reading Gregg Easterbrook's excellent book The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. Easterbrook's main point, presented in chapter after chapter of compelling statistics, is that life is getting better more or less across the board throughout the Western world. While the media focus on the bad news, and on misreadings of the good news, the statistics show that the West is getting safer and cleaner while people are living longer, healthier, more fulfilling lives.
Yet, even so, people feel worse. Easterbook offers a number of plausible explanations for this "paradox," but I wonder how much of it has to do with how the world is filtered through the media, where it's pretty much all bad news all the time. Here's how Easterbrook puts it:
News organizations adore the word "crisis" and use it as often as possible... Western life is methodically made to sound perilous or precarious by media spin, which emphasizes the negative aspects of developments while downplaying the positive... The media further create an impression of a country getting worse by obsessive focus on smaller and smaller risks. Brain damage from cell phones, extremely rare allergies, claims of all-new psychological complexes, strange turns of events that affect only tiny numbers of people -- increasingly newspaper, television, and news-magazine reports dwell on one-in-a-million risks.
All this leads to "ampified anxiety" -- and we all feel it. When I turn on the local Toronto news, for example, or read our local papers, all I hear about or read about is murder (with attention on the annual tally thus far), kidnapping (mainly children), pollution (especially the smog), and traffic congestion (bordering on gridlock). Based on media reports, Toronto is apparently a city in which people are being randomly gunned down, children are being swiped by pedophiles out from under their parents' noses, no one can breathe, and no one can get anywhere by car. Oh, and then there's the weather, which could turn ugly at any moment.
This is not to say that we shouldn't be worried about avian flu or about the genuine problems that confront us -- and crime, pollution, and, to a lesser extent, traffic congestion are, to be sure, serious problems. But the media -- and I know I'm generalizing here, but I think the generalization is fair -- would much rather engage in self-interested fear-mongering than in balanced reporting. To them, good news is bad news, and a "crisis" sells much better than no crisis.
Of course, avian flu may yet become a crisis. Maybe it is already, for all I know, and, even if it isn't, we (and especially the WHO and other health organizations) need to be prepared for the worst -- this was clearly one of the problems down in New Orleans, which wasn't at all prepared for the worst. But let's not get ahead of ourselves, and let's not drive ourselves into ever-deeper anxiety, just because the media would have it no other way, just because we can't see the good through the constant barrage of the bad.
North Korea abandons nuclear program (update)
From the Post:
China announced Monday that negotiators from six nations have reached agreement under which North Korea pledged to dismantle its nuclear arms program in return for recognition and aid from the United States and its Asian allies.
Although it included only general terms, the accord marked the first specific agreement since the six-party negotiations opened under Chinese sponsorship in August 2003. It was designed to serve as the basis for further talks on the timing of the taking down of North Korea's nuclear weapons program and the corresponding provision of economic aid and diplomatic relations and other inducements for the government of Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang...
The agreement was reached on the basis of a compromise proposal put forward by China in an effort to bridge differences between the United States and Pyongyang over a North Korean demand for a light-water nuclear reactor to produce electricity. The compromise suggested that North Korea be accorded the right in principle to peaceful nuclear energy, but only after dismantling its nuclear weapons program and rejoining the U.N. nuclear inspection regime and the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Okay, but where exactly is the agreement? As the Post specifies, the agreement only includes "general terms" -- that is, nothing specific. Furthermore, the agreement will "serve as the basis for further talks" -- when? where? etc. Problems abound: North Korea won't give up its nuclear program unless it receives aid from the U.S. What kind of aid? How much? North Korea maintains the right ("in principle") to pursue nuclear energy. How? And are we prepared to believe that Kim will abandon his other nuclear aspirations? Will Kim actually allow U.N. inspectors to monitor the dismantling of his nuclear program and, then, his development of a light-water reactor?
Or is this yet more hollow diplomacy?
See also this article at CNN, which quotes an extremely sober President Bush:
Five nations in working with North Korea have come up with a formula which we all hope works. Five nations have spoken and said it is not in the world's interests that North Korea have a nuclear weapon.
And now there's a way forward. And part of the way forward is for the North Koreans to understand that we're serious about this and that we expect there to be a verifiable process.
They have said, in principle, that they will abandon their weapons programs. And what we have said is, 'Great. That's a wonderful step forward. But now we've got to verify whether or not that happens.'
The question is, over time, will all parties adhere to the agreement?
I haven't said this much over the past 4+ years, but... he's right.
For more see:
Steve Clemons sums up it quite well at The Washington Note: "There is a great deal that could blow up what we have seen -- and there is a long, long way to go. Given North Korea's erratic behavior -- as well as that of America -- this should be taken as a clear positive step forward but not as anything near an endgame." Although, whatever we may think of Bush's handling of this problem thus far, it's North Korea's erratic behavior that is truly worrisome.
Update: Check out Fred Kaplan's take at Slate. Key passage: "Since the North Koreans have had two and a half years to reprocess their plutonium and—perhaps—convert that plutonium to nuclear weapons, the rest of the world doesn't know how many A-bombs North Korea might possess or where they are. Nor do we know the location of all their A-bomb facilities. In October 2002, U.S. intelligence detected signs of uranium-enrichment, another method of building nuclear weapons. Initially, North Korean diplomats admitted that enrichment was going on. Soon after, they denied it—and still do. So, how is any denuclearization accord going to be verifiable? Today's joint statement is the precondition for serious arms talks. Now begins the hard part."
North Korea abandons nuclear program
According to the BBC, "North Korea has agreed to give up all its nuclear activities and rejoin the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty":
At the same time, the US is said to have given an undertaking that it has no intention of attacking North Korea.
The breakthrough came during a fourth round of six-party talks in Beijing aimed at ending a three-year standoff over North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
There is no decision on whether to give North Korea a light-water reactor.
I'll be sure to follow this developing story. Stay tuned.
For more on North Korea:
A tyranny of darkness
What "nightmare scenario"?
Secrets and lies: North Korea's old nuclear ambitions
Clearly, things are looking more positive, but I think we should hold back our cheers until Kim's intentions are more fully known and until there is some legitimate indication that he's sincere. History, after all, would urge caution and skepticism.
Sunday, September 18, 2005
Democracy in Deutschland (addendum drei)
Some predictions give the CDU the same number of seats as Gerhard Schroeder's centre-left Social Democrats (SDP).
Mrs Merkel, the pre-poll favourite to become chancellor, looks unlikely to be able to form her preferred coalition and may have to join with the SPD.
But Mr Schroeder has insisted that he has enough votes to remain as chancellor.
He said he could envisage a grand coalition of the two largest parties, but only if he was its leader.
Preliminary results -- in terms of popular vote -- are as follows (from German TV station ARD):
Both sides are claiming victory. More or less. From the Deutsche Welle:
Should the early results hold into the night, it would mean the third-worst showing by the Christian Democratic Union in German postwar history. The result is a damming blow to the CDU, which waged an issues-oriented campaign focused on reforming Germany's economy to meet the challenges of globalization.
Merkel said that her party, which just out-edged the SPD by only a few percentage points, has been given the responsibility of forming a new government. What that government will look like is anyone's guess.
In terms of the SPD, the coalition question isn't any more certain. The only clear guidelines given so far were regarding who would not be considered for a coalition... [SPD Chairman] Müntefering said his party would not form a coalition with the Left Party, which was recently formed by disgruntled SPD members in response to the government's reform plans. A coalition with the FDP, on the other hand, is still not entirely out of the question -- at least from the SPD stand point.
If the SPD, Greens and FDP joined forces it would be enough to form a majority coalition. The FDP, however, has rejected building a coalition with the SPD. Speaking on German public television in a post-election debate of party leaders, Schröder also ruled out a so-called "grand coalition" of SPD and CDU/CSU under the leadership of Angela Merkel.
But for the CDU, the only real viable option currently available if they want to build the next government is to form a grand coalition with the SPD. So far, that option has not been entirely ruled out, although only about 36 percent of the CDU voters have said they would endorse such a coalition.