The US has seen a relatively quiet week, really. There was a small tornado in Boca Raton, Florida, and unverified reports of others in the Southeast, summer wildfires continues in the West, including 15 acres just north of Los Angeles, a few earthquakes rippled on the West Coast, from a 3.5 magnitude in San Diego, to a much bigger one near one of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska…
It’s a slow week when the staff is discussing Wyclef Jean’s presidential bid in Haiti, or the new Spike Lee documentary about life in New Orleans post-Katrina. Elsewhere in the world, it wasn’t so easy. If you want to skip that and get to the celebrity gossip bit, it’s conveniently at the end of this piece.
Fire in Moscow
Russia’s unseasonable heat wave and subsequent dry spell is seeing more than 600 fires in seven regions still raging across the world’s largest nation. Moscow companies are telling their employees to stay at home due to the terrible smog created by nearby fires, while authorities are telling people to wear a mask if they dare to brave going outdoors.
My first thought is to ask how this happened. BBC Radio’s Richard Galpin offered the best explanation. While it is true that Russia is seeing unheard of 100+ on the Fahrenheit scale and dryness in its forests that has never known, and it is also true that most of the fires are being attributed to careless summer barbecues and errant cigarette butts flung out of car windows, the real reason makes me shudder.
Russia, according to Galpin, in an effort to do the taxpayers a favor abolished its Forest Service three years ago. While Russia may have plenty of bears, none seem to be employed to teach kids and adults about forest fires. More importantly, the coordination and infrastructure required to contain and fight these fires simply no longer exists in Russia.
I get chills imagining what life would like in the US if politicians were this eager to cut infrastructure programs.
More floods in Pakistan
Southeast of Moscow, well, considerably southeast, the opposite problem remains. China, Pakistan, and now North Korea are reporting massive damage from heavy summer rains and the subsequent flooding it has caused.
Again, lack of infrastructure can really make a very bad problem a nightmare. Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (or KP as I have learned from a week of reading Pakistani news) is claiming 4.2 million people affected from flooding on the Swat, Kalpani, Panjkora, Jindi, Adezai, Naguman, Khiyali, and Sha’alam rivers. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain seems to have some very specific numbers for the damage report. The minister claims 926 people dead, 839 injured, and 60 still listed as missing.
“Over 468 villages have been affected, in which 100,194 houses are completely destroyed, while 56,799 houses are partially damaged,” he told reporters.
The minister added that 486 shops, 272 roads, 244 bridges, 182 educational institutions, 132 health centers, 87 government buildings, 561 electricity transformers, 172 electricity polls, five grid stations, 7,958 cattle and standing crops on 62,737 acres have all been destroyed.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is now publicly appealing for urgent help for what he says is now more than 15 million people in total affected by flooding in the last two weeks.
Mudslides in China
China is reporting 127 dead, and 2,000 missing from a series of mudslides that have ravaged Gansu Province, an area that contains the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. China has seen plenty of flooding of its own in the recent week, and while the rain is relenting, mudslides are occurring in areas with poor infrastructure.
UPI today reported that a thick layer of mud was keeping rescuers from using heavy equipment and that crews were forced to use shovels and bare hands to reach victims trapped under deep layers of mud and silt moved by recent flooding. State media in China reports more than 50,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes.
Late is better than never
Not to be outdone, North Korea reported last Thursday that rain from early July caused massive floods throughout its northern areas bordering China. The reclusive nation reported the rain in July but not report the flooding at that time, as is often the custom for officials there.
State news now claims that North Korea saw 36,700 acres of scarce farmland submerged, along with 5,500 homes and 350 public building destroyed outright from the flooding.
The report was otherwise rather vague, not mentioning numbers of dead, wounded or missing.
“Not a small number of industrial establishments were damaged or flooded, inflicting an adverse effect on the economic growth and the people's living, “ the report said.
As for describing the efforts of rescuers, the report was even less descriptive.
"Active efforts have been made to heal the flood damage in the affected areas," it said.
Celebrities and disaster revisited
Top billing in the US (and UK) press however, went to old familiar stories and a few celebrities:
BP oil spill: A difference of opinions
Even England’s trashiest tabloids seem keen to hold onto the oil spill story, and with a very patriotic slant. None seem more offensive than the Daily Mail, who ran stories this week downplaying the disaster and the impact on the Gulf of Mexico. The Daily Mail, known for its devotion to paparazzi photos and celebrity gossip, has found new currency in defending native BP in the Gulf spill row.
Reporter David Jones asks in one long-winded piece, “Why was one of Britain’s greatest companies so demonised? Why did America’s politicians and president so hysterically over-react?”
Jones, who seemed to be taking things personally, claimed that BP was unjustly roasted on the fire by American media, politicians, and notably President Obama, who he also chides for referring to the company as “British Petroleum.”
To his credit Jones covered the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska years ago, and also combed the entire coastline from the panhandle of Florida to the Mississippi Delta in Louisiana, where he interviewed locals and took photos of pristine beaches.
The well is plugged, he tells us, the beaches are clean, and all is well. He assures that, heck, the beaches look nicer than back home:
“Strolling along the beach for an hour, I found just one, pea-sized tar-ball which crumbled to nothing between my fingers. When, as a young boy, I played on Morecambe beach in Lancashire, worse things often washed up from the nearby ICI refinery.”
Unsurprisingly, scientists and spokespeople from the US government were not so elated, top kills, static kills, and relief wells, aside. NOAA claims that while three quarters of the oil has been collected or dispersed, some 1 million barrels of oil still lie under the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. Fisheries remain closed until the USDA can guarantee the safety of the seafood, resulting in the closing of many New Orleans eateries and the continued unemployment of many along the coast who work in the fishing trade.
Ian MacDonald, a Florida State University professor of oceanography commented that that one quarter of the oil from the BP spill was still five times the amount of oil spilled in the 1989 Exxon Valdez fiasco.
“An enormous amount of oil is now buried and we know from previous spills that this buried material can persist for decades.”
Former Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the administration’s point man in the whole disaster, said that the crowds staying away from the beaches is enough to worry about and that much more work in cleanup needed to be done before anyone can declare the Gulf safe from contamination.
"If you're sitting in Barataria Bay, it's still a disaster,” former Guard Adm. Thad Allen told CNN's State of the Union. “If the folks have not come back to the panhandle of Florida, it's still a disaster. "It's a catastrophe. It's a catastrophe for the people of the Gulf, and it requires our attention until we get the job done."
White House environmental adviser Carol Browner told NBC's "Meet the Press" that while the "first phase" of the disaster was over it is certainly "not the end by any means."
Browner said that while signs of recovery were positive, authorities had a lot of work ahead of them before anyone could say it was over.
Even more blunt was White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, who certainly did not agree with our friends from across the Atlantic. Gibbs said that without the administration pushing BP executives “at every step of the way” to step up the speed and scope of cleanup efforts, the outcome would have been undoubtedly different.
Celebrity mudslinging and self-promotion
Film-maker Spike Lee was not to be undone on the subject, who called government reports “a lie” that "abracadabra, presto chango" 75% of the oil was dissipated or removed from the ecosystem. Lee, who is promoting "If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise,” a follow up of his 2006 documentary about Hurricane Katrina.
Lee claimed that during post-production of the documentary, he was forced to rethink the project and devote his final hour of the four hour film to the BP oil spill, instead of ending his film with footage from Miami of the victory of the New Orleans Saints in the last NFL Superbowl.
Lee was asked to comment on the recent bashing of rapper Wycelf Jean’s bid of the presidency of Haiti by actor/activist Sean Penn.
Penn, who has been living on the beleaguered island since three days after the January earthquake there, told CNN’s Larry King that the rapper’s candidacy was “very suspicious.”
"What the Haitian people need now is a leader who is genuinely willing to sacrifice," he told King. “"The last thing Haiti needs, and I'm not calling Wyclef Jean an opportunist--I don't know the man, but I think it's extremely important that we pay close attention to the individuals in the United States who are enamored with him, maybe not for his political strengths, and in particular for corporate interests who are enamored with him and those that may themselves be opportunists on the backs of the Haitian people."
Jean has since found criticism from within Haiti as well, due to the rapper’s dubious credentials. Haitian law requires five years of residency on the island to run for president, while Jean has lived in New York City since his parents moved there when Jean was a small child.
The rumbling became even louder when Jean announced his official bid for the presidency…on a flight back to New York City with his family.
Lee declined to comment much on Wyclef Jean’s bid for president of Haiti, saying, “I only know Wyclef as a musician, so I can only speak of his musicianship."
"Sean Penn has put his dues, his time to speak about Haiti," he added. "He's been down there from the get-go, he was there three days after the earthquake. He's left everything here and has moved to Haiti. And he's not living in the palace, he's living in a tent, and I slept three nights there. It's not like he's living high on the hog. This is like a tent tent tent. So I respect his opinion."
And this is part where I end this column with the obligatory nod to Lee who used both New Orleans AND Haiti to promote his new film (which premieres on HBO August 23 and is likely to be watched and enjoyed by your cynical writer anyway).
Texas native Ryan Campbell writes the opinion-filled "This Week in Disaster" every Sunday, in addition to being Pameno's point man on hurricanes, tornadoes, and weather events in the Gulf Coast.