Seizing the day in Puerto Rico

Puerto Ricans (and residents of other devastated neighboring islands, as well) need everything–RIGHT NOW. There’s no question about that. Lives are at stake.

Certainly looks like a tornado hit: downed power lines in Humacao, PR — photo by Carlos Giusti/AP and CNN

But while FEMA and the Puerto Rican government are leasing power generators and shipping in enormous planes full of food, water, and medicine, I hope the people who will be rebuilding Puerto Rico keep their eyes on the future.

Loading up for Puerto Rico: an industrial size generator. They’ll need a bunch of them! Power is the most critical need.

I’m from Kansas, so when I heard a meteorologist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (who should know what he’s talking about) say of Hurricane Maria, “It was as if a 50- to 60-mile-wide tornado raged across Puerto Rico, like a buzz saw,” I could relate. We Kansans understand about tornadoes.

Hurricane Maria over Puerto Rico (see outline) — image by Joshua Stevens and NASA Earth Observatory, via Vox

One of the things I keep hearing is how antiquated the power grid and other infrastructure on the island are. This stems in large part from the crushing debt crisis that has been plaguing the island’s economy for years, a situation that’s a haunting echo of the history of not-too-far-away Haiti’s economic woes. How did that develop? I like John Oliver’s explanation (note: this video is 21 minutes long, but in my opinion worth the time to watch).

It’s a pretty massive mess, and a disaster on top of it all isn’t helping in the least. But I’m oriented toward thinking about finding opportunities for positive change, even in the worst disaster. The “tornado” comparison led me to wonder if the island could take a page from Greensburg, Kansas’ recovery playbook.

Not Puerto Rico: this is Greensburg, KS, in May, 2007 — Photo by Mike Theiss of UltimateChase.com

No, I’m not suggesting that the “green revolution” that seems to be working moderately well for a small Kansas town of 771 residents could be directly scaled up for a tropical island with a population of 3.4 million! Different climate, different terrain, much larger population–this is definitely not a “one size ought to fit all” suggestion.

All the government buildings over 4,000 sq. ft. in Greensburg today are built to LEED-Platinum standards — Photo by Fred Hunt/New York Times, via SaveOnEnergy.com

But the residents of Greensburg took a direct hit from an EF5 tornado. Those who survived emerged into a landscape of utter devastation. With pretty much nothing left standing except shattered trees and mounds of rubble, they were going to have to either rebuild brand new, or leave.

I have a sense that, on a hugely more massive scale, Puerto Rico is facing a similar scenarioGreensburg lost half its population after the tornado. Puerto Rico’s debt situation had already started that trend, and, like Hurricane Katrina before it, I imagine Puerto Rico will see some migration that becomes permanent after Maria. But the survivors who stayed in Greensburg, KS decided to build for the future.

There’s already some movement in that direction, in Puerto Rico. In the footsteps of solar panel user Eddie Ramirez, the Casa Sol B&B operator in old San Juan profiled above, there are indications that the solar industry might be interested in participating in a transformation of Puerto Rico’s power resources. Certainly if Elon Musk gets involved, some perspectives should change.

If ever a power grid was ready for a fundamental transformation, Puerto Rico’s is! –Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images, via Vox.

I hope they do install many more solar capabilities–but I also hope they don’t stop with only solar power. True resiliency lies in diversity. It seems possible that wind power (maybe not during hurricanes) and perhaps tidal power generation (after all, Puerto Rico is surrounded by ocean) also might be renewable contributions to Puerto Rico’s energy resources.

Example of a wind farm. This one’s located near the Danish city of Grenå.
An artist’s rendering of a tidal fence to harvest tidal energy, based on a design by Energy BC, of British Columbia, Canada.

Building codes should be designed with hurricanes in mind, mandating (and possibly partially subsidizing) more wind-durable homes and similar structuresas well as household and community-level preparedness planning for the next “big one.” I hope to discuss hurricane preparedness more in a future post.

IMAGES: Many thanks to CNN and Carlos Guisti of the AP, for the photo of downed power lines; to Diesel Service and Supply, for the photo of the Puerto-Rico-bound generator on the big rig; to Vox, the NASA Earth Observatory, and Joshua Stevens for the satellite photo of Hurricane Maria; to Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and YouTube for the rather long video about Puerto Rican debt; to Mike Theiss and UltimateChase.com for the photo from Greensburg in 2007; to Fred Hunt/New York Times via SaveOnEnergy.com, for the more recent photo from Greensburg; to YouTube and NBC Nightly News for the video on the power crisis in Puerto Rico; to photographer Mario Tama of Getty Images, via Vox, for the daunting image of the downed power lines in Utuado, PR; to Siemens, for the photo of the Danish wind farm; to Energy BC of British Columbia, for the artist’s rendering of the tidal fence; and to Deltec, for the diagram of the hurricane-resistant house.

Is there a way not to burn? Looking beyond individual solutions

California is still burning, as I write this. Last week’s middle-of-the-week post, inspired by the wildfires in the Western USA, was focused on ways that individual property-owners can mitigate their fire risk.

Santa Rosa, CA, Oct. 9, 2017: Photo by Gabrielle Lurie/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris via ABC News.

But individuals are not always able to control their surroundings completely enough to take all those steps. Where are your 30- and 100-foot “zones of defensibility” when you live in an apartment building like the one in the photo above, or a densely-spaced neighborhood like the one in the photo below?

With apologies, I grabbed a screen-capture because I wanted to show the contrast in what had originally been published as an interactive graphic from ABC News. To see the original, please go to the article.  Keep scrolling!

Remember, the residents of this community sought out housing they could afford, in an attractive neighborhood that had been safe for years. Here is a mind-blowing, in-depth report by ABC’s Matt Guttman. He talks about the speed with which the fires advanced. He also gives some background on the neighborhood and the people who lived there.

ABC Breaking News | Latest News Videos

With a lovely climate and access to natural beauty all around, it was a desirable place to live, work, and retire. No one expected a wildfire to come through and make it a deathtrap.

But the wildfire did come, and when it did not everyone got out in time, despite  heroic efforts by first responders. Lots of things went wrong (Murphy’s Law strikes again), including with the alert systems.

Community planning is more important than we may think, in all kinds of ways–but disaster preparedness and mitigation is definitely one of them that I hope will get more attention as our environment grows more hazardous in this age of climate change.

Some of the principles I touched on in last week’s post can be scaled up to the community: not only the idea of zones of defensibility noted above, but also concepts such as the fire danger of developments on a slope, and community building codes.

Other considerations include ensuring that fire equipment can get to burning buildings, whether permeable paving designed to mitigate runoff can stand up to the weight of fire equipment, and many more. Sometimes even seemingly offbeat solutions can work really well, too. Consider wildfire mitigation via goat-power:

Simply not developing some areas because of their increased risk (see slopes, above), or to use as “fuel breaks requires community planners with the fortitude to stand up to the determined efforts of short-sighted, quick-money interests. Their offers can seem very attractive . . . until the disaster happens. Cool heads and long-term planning are going to matter more and more.

IMAGES: Many thanks to ABC News for the still photos from Santa Rosa, and also for the moving report by Matt Guttman from there. The still photo of the wildfire threatening houses is from Anchorage, Alaska’s web page about community planning for wildfire mitigation, and the goat video is courtesy of YouTube and Denver 7 “The Denver Channel” (ABC again!). Many thanks to all!

This week it’s wildfires–is there a way not to burn?

There must be few more horrifying things than to watch a wildfire come sweeping down a canyon straight toward you and your home. Yet it’s more and more likely all over the world, thanks to global climate change.

That horror is alive and on the march in California this week, both in the wine country of the northern part, and in the Anaheim Hills near Los Angeles. Not so very long ago Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Idaho were dealing with a similar disaster.

Each time the flames go up, we see these horrifying videos, and our hearts go out to the victims. But if you live in a fire-prone area (technically, that is, if you live anywhere, since fires can burn anywhere! But especially in mountainous forests or drought-stricken plains), is there anything you can do to beat back the risks, before you have to beat back actual flames?

Even if your home has a complex roof (multiple surfaces and places where debris may accumulate), keeping burnable debris cleared off can reduce your fire vulnerability.

As it happens–although nothing is foolproof–there are several things that home- and business-owners can do, to make their property less “burnable.” The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) has published guidelines that lay out several strategies to help you fight the fires before they come.

Some strategies require thinking WAY ahead–as in, when you’re planning to build in the first placeChoosing your site is one important thing: building on hilltops or at the top of a steep slope with combustible vegetation downslope is like putting your house at the top of the chimney.

The University of California-Berkeley has created an online Builders Wildfire Mitigation Guide with lots of specific strategies builders can employ, to lessen the vulnerability of buildings to fire.

Flying embers can ignite an otherwise-fire-resistant building if they get inside unprotected vents.

Building for fire-mitigation includes things such as using less-burnable materialsdesigning to avoid collection-points for burnable debris, using vent designs that protect agains flying embers, and employing things such as intumescent coatings, that swell when exposed to fire-condition temperatures to block air flow, insulate against temperature buildup, and/or retard fire access to vulnerable areas.

Fire-rated rolling window shutters don’t have to be ugly. These also offer increased security against burglaries.

Some retrofits also are possible. Flat, tempered-glass skylights resist fire better than domed plastic-glass ones. Fire-resistant shutters can help defend windows that otherwise might blow out under high-heat conditions. Re-shingling or re-siding in more fire-resistant materials is also a smart move.

Debris and brush beside a house: recipe for fire disaster.

But sometimes all it takes are awareness and taking common-sense precautions. How many times have you seen junk or debris piled up around someone’s house, or bushes growing so close they brush the siding? Imagine a fire catching there. How quickly would the house go up?

Sadly, these gorgeous foundation plantings are within the 5-foot area of IBHS’s Zone One. The “before” picture, while less beautiful, was safer from a fire-mitigation point of view! But there are compromises that can still yield a beautiful yard.

Most wildfire safety guides recommend you think of the area around your building in “zones.” IBHS defines Zone One as the first five feet out from your building. IBHS recommends you should have fewer combustibles in that zone. Thus, be careful of too much brush or vegetation in that zone, as well as fences, decks, etc. that are made of combustible materialsMany other guides combine IBHS’s Zones One and Two into a single, 30-ft. Zone One, while still emphasizing the “defensibility” idea.

This diagram clearly shows a nice collection of really smart fire-mitigation ideas.

Especially in ecosystems that have evolved to adapt for fire, many guides recommend planting native species, which are better fire-adapted, especially within your first 30-foot perimeter. Another common-sense precaution is avoiding “fire ladders,” that is, bushes or shrubs under taller trees, that can offer more fuel for fires. Clearing brush and dry materials is not only fire-smart, but it can improve “curb appeal.” Spacing trees and bushes farther apart allows them room to grow, and keeps fire from leaping from one to another.

Burning bushes underneath can doom trees that might otherwise survive.

We can never completely fireproof our homes, and some fires can’t be stopped in time. But wouldn’t we all love to be the “oasis of green” in the charred landscape if the worst happens, and a wildfire comes through? It’s actually possible!

No, it’s not photoshopped. Thinking in terms of defensible space really does save homes and lives.

IMAGES: Many thanks to CBS News for the video about mid-October, 2017 fires in California. I also appreciate the “Fire-Safe Marin” website’s article on roof issues for the photo of the complex roof with burnable debris; Australia’s Parks and Wildlife Service for the diagram of fire behavior on a slope, and the Indiegogo page for Ember Deflector vents, for the photo of embers flying around a gable vent. I am grateful to the Trident roller shutters page, for the photo of the green shutters by the patio; to the Firedawgs brush removal page for the photo of boards and dead bushes by a house; to Houzz website for the photo of the foundation planting; and to Tractor Supply Company’s detailed graphic showing fire defensibility zones around a house. Many thanks to World Atlas for the photo of bushes burning underneath trees, to illustrate “fire laddering,” and to the Ross Valley Fire Department’s excellent article on defensible space, for the “miracle” photo of the unburned home.

We ALL live in a potential disaster zone–but we’re not helpless

Which Disaster Zone do you prefer?

That was the question my Beloved asked, not long after Hurricane Maria finished doing the job on Puerto Rico that Irma had left half-finished, and the central Mexico earthquake had leveled significant portions of the region.

His question caught his co-workers by surprise, but–if you think about it–none of us really should be surprised. So, then, what’s your answer? Where would you rather live?

You could live in a tropical paradise like Barbuda or Puerto Rico, where a hurricane can level your entire island in a few harrowing hours, or where rising sea levels threaten to swamp your home, your livelihood, and your most beloved scenic areas.

Photo of El Capitan rock slide by climber Peter Zabrock.

You could live in a mountainous region with breathtakingly gorgeous peaks, cliff faces that shear off without warning, enormous swaths of drought-parched forests that one careless cigarette butt or lightning-strike can ignite into an inferno that changes the weather and denudes stabilizing plant growth so you get buried in mudslides the next time it rains real hard. (The video that follows is from fires in 2015 but it’s representative.)

You could live in an earthquake zone, where grandfathered-in or shoddily-constructed buildings (or buildings on unstable ground) could collapse on you in seconds, and destroyed infrastructure may very well leave you with no water, no powerimpassable roadsand leaking natural gas.

For more amazing before-and-after Mexico City photos from The New York Times please click the link for the entire article.

You could live within range of a volcano that could turn your neighborhood into a “lunar landscape” of ash and death. I’m looking at you, Ring of Fire–but don’t smirk too hard, Plains States: do you know what lies beneath Yellowstone National Park?

Lava trees–actually the places where trees once stood–after a Hawaiian volcanic eruption.

You could live, as I do, in “Tornado Alley,” where extremes of weather created by our position in the middle of a large continent spawn violent storms during much of the year, and extremes of politics create danger from poorly-regulated toxic materials (think about Picher, OK, or Times Beach, MO), and many other insidious hazards (unfortunately, the NAACP’s travel advisory on Missouri seems all too reasonable, to this Missouri native). To be fair, though, none of the US is all that safe from racismgun violencepollution, and crumbling infrastructure.

An abandoned home in Times Beach, MO.

We can’t do much about some of the risks and hazards that surround us every day–but there are other things we can do, from building wisely for the kinds of environmental hazards our area faces (more on that in future posts) to speaking out and working for a cleaner, safer world where every person, no matter how troubled or disadvantaged, is seen as a being of infinite worth.

IMAGES: Many thanks to The Washington Post, for the video of Utuado, Puerto Rico’s situation after Hurricane Maria. I deeply appreciate climber Peter Zabrock’s photo (via the Associated Press) and The San Francisco Chronicle for the vision of the rockslide on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, and CBS This Morning for the video of the 2015 fires in the San Bernardino area of California. The  amazing before-and-after photos from Mexico city, published by The New York Timesare part of a larger article, featuring many more photos. Many thanks to Amusing Planet’s article, “The Lava Trees of Hawaii,” for the arresting post-eruption image of what used to be a forest. The photo of a ruin in Times Beach, MO, is from a Danish Pinterest board, “Udforsk disse idéer og meget mere!” (Explore these ideas and more).

Prepared

The Monday-morning quarterbacking has begun: even before it stops raining, people are second-guessing whether Houston and other Harvey-hit parts of Texas and the Gulf Coast were “prepared.”

Exactly how does one prepare for such an event?

It’s harder in some places than others. Houston is a sprawling metropolis of 6.5 million peoplelying no more than 125 feet above sea level, with an extensive network of bayous all through it and untold acres of impermeable pavement to concentrate the runoff. As I write this, the rain is slowing down, but Harvey is easily the wettest storm on record in the Lower 48.

Exactly 12 years ago: Hurricane Katrina flooded the I-10/I-610 interchange in northwest New Orleans and Metairie, LA. (Wikimedia/AP Photo/U.S. Coast Guard, Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Niemi)

I’m sure I can’t be the only person who’s been getting an uneasy feeling of “déjà vu all over again” (thanks, Yogi!) when listening to or reading about Harvey’s devastation. We heard the same basic stories of inadequate infrastructure, inadequate shelter facilities, stretched-thin rescue services, and unequal impacts to richer and poorer communities (I’ll give you one guess who’s getting hit worse) during and after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and Hurricane Sandy in New York/New Jersey.

A washed-out bridge, and then some: Mantoloking, NJ, October 31, 2012, after Hurricane Sandy. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

CAN a city prepare adequately? While it’s politically difficult to justify expensive improvements to infrastructure or seemingly-needless restrictions on development in floodplains when conditions are calm, it is true that many cities could and should do more. For an idea about some of the ways to prepare, here’s a checklist for municipal planners, from the EPA (grab it while they’re still allowed to mention the words “climate change”!).

Massive storms, floods, droughts, fires, and other disasters may be touted in the headlines as 100-year, 50-year, or even 1,000-year events. But seriously: How many years in a row can we have “100-year” events before it begins to dawn on even the slowest among us that things are changing?

It turns out that it actually is possible to plan, build, and prepare for even rather extreme disasters, but it takes forethought. It takes community acceptance that it’s necessary.

It takes keeping our weather satellites in place. It takes governing officials who acknowledge the realities of our situation, and can’t be subverted by special interests who’d rather take a short-sighted opportunity to make a buck, or by those who think all regulations are bad.

To any who, like Grover Norquist, want to make government small enough to drown it in a bathtub, I’d like to remind you that it’s harder to make the case for that, when your bathtub’s been washed away in the latest “100-year” flood. Of course, FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) is on this year’s budget-cutting list. So maybe you should just kiss that bathtub goodbye.

IMAGES: I first found the YouTube video of interspersed “before” and “flooded” views of the Buffalo Bayou in Houston on BoingBoing (the article compiles several more before-and-after images that are quite startling). According to streetreporter, who posted it on YouTube, “The still images are from unknown people shared by a French twitter user. I only made the dissolve to show perspective, which is transformative.”

Many thanks to Wikimedia, for the 2005 photo of the Hurricane Katrina flooding at the I-10/I-610 interchange in northwest New Orleans and Metairie, LA, an AP Photo/U.S. Coast Guard, Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Niemi. Equal thanks go to Slate and Mario Tama of Getty Images for the photo from Hurricane Sandy.

I also thank Abode Home Group’s “Restoration” page for the Fire/Flood/Storm composite image.

Memories of the 2017 NASFiC

Perhaps you’d like to see a presentation my son Tyrell Gephardt and I prepared, about our experiences at this year’s North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFiC), held anytime the Worldcon is not in North America (which it is not this year; it’s in Helsinki).

We hope you enjoy(ed) it–we certainly enjoyed our time there. We’ve also shared this presentation with KACSFFS, our local Kansas City Science Fiction and Fantasy Society, both at the July meeting last Saturday and on the KaCSFFS Blog (scroll down).

Ty and I also spent a couple of days afterward, wandering around in fascinating Old San Juan. It’s possible some of the thoughts and photos from those peregrinations may end up in future blog posts here!

IMAGES: At least half of those in the NASFiC presentation, are by Jan S. Gephardt. Most of the other photos in the presentation are by Tyrell E. Gephardt; the remaining photos (credited at the end of the NASFiC presentation), and also the Featured Image at the top of the post, are from the official website of the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino, where the NASFiC was held. Many thanks!

To automate, or not to automate? Working with kids

A Glimpse of the Future?

In recent weeks my mid-week posts have focused on the contemporary trend among all kinds of industries to increasingly use robotics or other types of automation, rather than hiring extra workers.

It’s a phenomenon that impacts all kinds of workers–in ALL socio-economic brackets, except maybe for that seemingly-impervious top 1%–and across widely-varied industries. Today, in the last of this series, I intend to address the topic that originally inspired me to look into it in the first place.

I am a retired teacher. Indeed, from its inception in 2009 through mid-2013, the title of this blog was Artdog Educator, and it focused pretty exclusively on education topics. Although both I and the blog have shifted our focus since then, I have been and always will be professionally interested in how people learn.

Thus, I was dumbfounded to read in Education Week recently that there actually are people in New York who think it’s a good idea to save money by replacing substitute teachers with e-learning. What is e-learning? In case you couldn’t figure it out, it’s training conducted via the Internet.

Now . . . educators have anything but a stellar history in the use of digital media for teaching. For a variety of understandable but lamentable reasons, it has taken heroic efforts to get educators anywhere close to up-to-speed in this area. I examined that dynamic in some detail, in a 2011 series that kicked off with the post Teaching Like it’s 1980.

Slowly and painfully, however, educators at all levels have finally–somewhat–in spite of all countervailing forces–embraced digital media. Given that, and the global movement to automate all possible jobs (whether it’s a good idea or not), some brilliant genius, sooner or later, was going to come up with this.

As with the periodic call to “run education like a business,” I can guarantee you that no one who has ever actually BEEN a substitute teacher came up with this plan. I, on the other hand, have racked up ten years’ cumulative, hard-won substitute-teaching experience. 

A little boy and his teacher observe as a Nao robot (by Aldebaran Robotics) writes an equation.

First, let’s backtrack a bit. In my research for this series I’ve run onto the idea that robots or automation could take over several different aspects of childcare or education, from babysitting through early learning, distance learning, and substitute teaching.

It’s intuitive, right? I mean, kids seem inextricably attached to their digital devices, and, after all, parents have been parking their kids in front of the “electronic babysitter” (AKA television/videos) for years.

Great idea! The Trix Cereal Rabbit as your babysitter. What could possibly go wrong?

Sure. And if you think “Nao” or the TV could actually be a good babysitter in the total absence of parents or other supervising adults, just try it. See how quickly you come up on child endangerment charges!

A robot, at the current level of development, couldn’t control the situation. The kid knows that thing isn’t a real person, and has no authority. S/he would play with it for a while, get bored, and go wandering off unsupervised to face the myriad dangers of whatever the world threw at him/her.

Digital media present the same problem in the substitute-teaching scenario. Used in conjunction with a good lesson plan and alert (adult, human, in-charge) substitute teacher, they’ve gotten many a class through many a lesson with some actual learning and student engagement taking place.

E-learning can’t replace an engaging, knowledgeable human teacher who’s firmly in charge of things.

Absent the alert, adult, human, in-charge substitute teacher, you’ve got guaranteed chaos. No matter what the grade penalties, 99% of any class will do anything BUT the busywork on the computer. Any class I ever stepped into as a substitute was extremely reluctant to conduct “business as usual.” They generally required a very firm hand and a lot of creative engagement to successfully establish a genuine learning environment. 

The intrinsic fascination with learning via the Internet has long since faded for digital natives; to them, it’s old hat. They need to believe it’s worth their time–AND more interesting than all the other things they could be doing–for any plan to “replace substitute teachers with e-learning” to actually work.

Digital natives are doing their own thing, when they’re totally wrapped up in their digital media. Doesn’t mean they’ll do lessons unsupervised.

Substitute teaching, done well, is hard work (kinda like nursing! Or developing and writing news stories! Or . . . you get the idea, I hope). It requires a dedicated professional who knows the discipline s/he is to teach, if it’s not to be a wasted “babysitting day”–and we haven’t been able to afford those, for a long time.

If the Independent Budget Office of the City of New York (or any other bright-eyed bean-counters in a similar position) think otherwise, they should try it for themselves. I dare them.

Meanwhile, if they can’t get enough qualified substitute teachers, maybe they should try offering them “combat pay.”

IMAGES: Thanks yet again to Before it’s News, for the “vision of the future” graphic. The e-learning photo is courtesy of UNITAR/UN ESCAP E-Learning. Many thanks to International Business Times, for the photo of the NAO robot in a south Australian classroom (note adult human teacher also in the picture), and to Frenzy Advertisement for the photo of the kids watching a Trix commercial on TV. Many thanks to TheSHRINKRap’s post “Engaging teachers means engaged students,” for the photo of the teacher with an engaged group of students, and to CathNews USA for the photo of the student with an iPad.