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Sunday, October 22

What in the hell are U.S. troops doing in Niger?

[squinting at a map of Africa]  Where is Niger?


Niger or the Niger ...officially the Republic of the Niger, is a landlocked country in Western Africa, named after the Niger River. 
Yes, Wikipedia, I can see it's landlocked; I want to know where it is in relation to other countries in Africa: 
Niger is bordered by Libya to the northeast, Chad to the east, Nigeria and Benin to the south, Burkina Faso and Mali to the west, and Algeria to the northwest. 
Niger covers a land area of almost 1,270,000 km2, making it the largest country in West Africa, with over 80 percent of its land area covered by the Sahara Desert. 
The country's predominantly Islamic population of about 21 million is mostly clustered in the far south and west of the country. The capital city is Niamey, located in the far-southwest corner of Niger.
Niger is a developing country, and is consistently one of the lowest-ranked in the United Nations' Human Development Index (HDI) ...
Alright; let's try to learn what a land-locked basket case that's mostly desert means to the United States of America, and [throwing a couple darts blindfolded] to Saudi Arabia and France.

Forget the Saudis, Nigeria's the big oil worry; Julian Lee, May 15, 2016, Bloomberg:
Drag your attention away from the Middle East for a moment. While policymakers have been focused on Saudi Arabia's oil market machinations, what really matters right now is happening 3,000 miles away in the Niger River delta.
The country that was, until recently, Africa's biggest crude producer is slipping back into chaos. A wave of attacks and accidents have hit infrastructure, taking Nigeria's output down to 20-year lows.
But I want to know about Niger. All right, Pundita, settle down:
[...]
The Niger Delta Avengers have certainly been busy, forcing Shell's Forcados terminal to shut in about 250,000 barrels of daily exports; and breaching an offshore Chevron facility in the 160,000 barrels per day Escravos system. In April, ENI had to declare force majeure -- letting it stop shipments without breaching contracts -- on exports of its Brass River grade after a pipeline fire. [...]
Thank you Bloomberg but that doesn't answer my questions. Back to Wikipedia:
Much of the non-desert portions of the country are threatened by periodic drought and desertification. The economy is concentrated around subsistence and some export agriculture clustered in the more fertile south, and the export of raw materials, especially uranium ore.
Uranium ore. Okay, uranium is why the trapped American forces could call in fast air support from the French military.
The Niger mining industry is the main source of national exports, of which uranium is the largest export. Niger has been a uranium exporter since the 1960s and has had substantial export earnings and rapid economic growth during the 1960s and 1970s.
The persistent uranium price slump has brought lower revenues for Niger's uranium sector, although it still provides 72% of national export proceeds. When the uranium-led boom ended in the early 1980s the economy stagnated, and new investment since then has been limited.
Niger's two uranium mines—SOMAIR's open pit mine and COMINAK's underground mine—are owned by a French-led consortium and operated by French company Areva.[37][38]
As of 2007, many licences have been sold to other companies from countries such as India, China, Canada and Australia in order to exploit new deposits.
In 2013, the government of Niger sought to increase its uranium revenue by subjecting the two mining companies to a 2006 Mining Law. The government argued that the application of the new law will balance an otherwise unfavorable partnership between the government and Areva.
The company resisted the application of the new law that it feared would jeopardize the financial health of the companies, citing declining market uranium prices and unfavorable market conditions.
In 2014, following nearly a year long negotiation with the government of Niger, Areva agreed to the application of 2006 Mining Law of Niger, which would increase the government's uranium revenues from 5 to 12%.
Now what are the Saudis up to in Niger? They must be up to something there if it's a largely Muslim country.  

Saudi Gazette; January 9, 2017: 
Saudi Arabia and Niger signed on Sunday three agreements and a Memorandum of Understanding during the visit of President Mahamadou Issoufou.
The agreements included a security cooperation pact, a draft accord for construction and equipping primary schools in all regions of Niger, a draft pact for financing the construction of Kandadji Dam.
Now let's look up the Kandadji Dam. [taptaptap tap]  Hah! I knew it was a World Bank project! I knew it!  So much for the baloney that the Bank doesn't want to keep making loans for dams. The only places that applies is in countries where the Bank has already built so many dams there's hardly room left for building bridges to nowhere and international airports that only see real use during Ramadan and the Hajj and all other times by World Bank and other development bank staff and contractors.

World Bank’s Kandadji Dam Leaves Niger Communities High and Dry; February 4, 2016; International Rivers (the article is also available in French):
In 2012, the World Bank approved a $203 million loan for Niger’s Kandadji Dam. This paved the way for a dozen-odd financiers to complete the $785 million financing package for the project, to be located on the Niger River. The future of Kandadji is in doubt, however, given problems with the resettlement process and construction delays following a dispute with the company hired to develop the project. 
And Kandadji isn’t just any project; Kandadji was presented as a way to produce 130 MW of much-needed power to the capital, Niamey, and to harness the river’s flow to expand Niger’s irrigation potential. The World Bank’s Vice President for Africa, Makhtar Diop, described the project as “a transformational development project that will deliver significantly more opportunity to communities, more food, water, and electricity, and less poverty in the poorest region of Africa."
The World Bank also took pains to plan for the human cost of the dam’s construction. Conscious of the troubled legacy of the impacts such projects have wrought on resettled communities, the World Bank took on the admittedly herculean task of overseeing the process to resettle over 38,000 people located around the river’s fertile banks.
The compensation package would include resettling these traditionally flood recession farmers into new houses, providing access to irrigation, and sharing revenues for local development projects.
The process began in 2012 to resettle a first wave of nearly 5500 people. Many were initially optimistic about the project’s promised benefits, but their enthusiasm was short-lived.
While some have seen their living conditions improve, irrigation plans for resettled communities were poorly conceived – unsurprising, as the World Bank itself has noted that irrigation schemes of this sort rarely work in Africa
All right. So the Saudis plan to blanket Niger with madrassas that are guaranteed to crank out many crazy young men. And the Saudis have directed their maid, that being the U.S. military, to provide more security to Niger so the crazy young men don't bomb a dam under construction now that Saudi money is helping finance it. Something like that. 

As to the French interests:
Niger exports enough uranium to France to generate 50 per cent of the latter’s electricity supply, writes Khadija Sharife. But ordinary Nigeriens reap little benefit from France’s control of their country’s uranium resources, with over three-fifths of the population living below the poverty line and reports of radioactive contamination of water, air and soil by multinational mining operations.
It is known as the ‘uranium highway,’ a network of major roads connecting the Niger’s primary urban mining centres such as Arlit, Agadez and Niamey
Developed in the 1970s and 1980s, the north-south highway acts as the primary vein facilitating carriage of liquidated uranium resources. 
The network itself forms part of the Trans-Sahara route, an ancient system used since time immemorial by inhabitants of the ‘Tinariwen’ – or Desert of Many, as the Sahara was known to its native sons and daughters, including the Hausa and Tuareg.
Despite the nip and tuck of territories by former colonialists, conveniently stitching together concessional nation-states ... the Trans-Sahara route continued to survive by innovatively moving around border closures. Central to this route is the landlocked Niger, the bridge between North and sub-Saharan Africa, a land bordered by seven countries. 
[...]
The above is from a report published in 2010 by the pan-African Pambazuka News but surely the basic situation described in the report has remained the same. And, as the author notes, the French government was defending its uranium interests against U.S. and Chinese competition in Niger. The competition is also probably unchanged since 2010, unless there are even more players now.

So while Niger is a basket-case economically, it's a strategically important country. Niger's landlocked location makes it a key transport hub for shipping uranium product overland, which of course would be a big attraction for smugglers, insurgents and terrorist groups. This would mean endless warfare between non-government groups trying for control of the land routes, and when they weren't fighting each other they'd be fighting the Niger government.  

Okay; all the above pretty much explains why U.S. Special Forces have been mucking around in Niger. 

[dusting her hands] Next.

********

The darknet's facilitation of the globalized illicit drug industry

"Among the ocean of censorship is an island of freedom, occupied by sins."

DARKNET DRUGONOMICS from SouthFront



Saturday, October 21

So Americans must provide gainful employment for Syrian mercenaries?

“The Southern Front is divided into cantons that answer to international parties.”

Yesterday a well-known Syria observer, an American named  Sam Heller, earnestly argued in Saving America's Syrian Ceasefire that U.S. taxpayers must continue paying salaries to Southern Front fighters. These fighters belong to factions of terrorists, so-called rebels, and criminals in southern Syria -- each faction answering to its own emir, military commander, and foreign boss.

Support for Heller's argument comes from an unnamed "Western" official he interviewed earlier this year:
In Amman, I heard estimates of Southern Front’s manpower ranging from 10,000 to 37,000. Whatever the real number, after December those fighters will need money to support themselves and their families.

“There are tens of thousands of fighters and families who are going to need gainful employment,” a Western diplomat told me. “The task is ensuring people have livelihoods -- their ability to feed and clothe their families. That needs to be addressed.”
Why December? Remember Trump's decision this summer to shut down the CIA's "covert" assistance program -- money, weapons, ammo, and training -- for terrorists and terrorist stooges as long as they promised to fight the Syrian Army.  The decision was supposed to go into effect in December. 

As to why they didn't end the program at the time they supposedly decided to do so -- nevermind asking a reasonable question; the point is that December is supposed to mark the end.

But now, without being told the actual number of people they must feed and clothe, Americans are urged to keep throwing about $1 billion a year into a black hole that even Heller called an "elaborate, Rube Goldbergian military-political project that could never work." 

All that just to continue proxy military actions that have rendered much of Syria to rubble.

If you want to feed and clothe the families of terrorists, etc.  there's a way that ensures the charity won't be abused. It's called soup kitchens and used clothing drives.  Same place you ladle the soup you hand out the donated clothing.

But the Southern Front fighters don't want to acquire food and clothing for their families; they know their wives can always scrounge that stuff from the Syrian or Turkish governments. They want cash -- cash they can spend on weapons and ammo.

I don't believe the Western official that Heller interviewed or the "international parties" mentioned in his October 20 report aren't aware of this.

So what's really happening? The same thing that's been going on in Syria in one form or another since 2011. Notice the two suits in the middle of the scene. I'd guess they're agents for  Saudi bosses.  


The photo, provided by "Syrian Media Organization," is from Heller's October 20 report. The caption: "DARA’A LOCAL COUNCILS MEET IN DARA’A PROVINCIAL COUNCIL HEADQUARTERS, JOINED BY HIGH NEGOTIATIONS COMMITTEE HEAD RIYADH [Riad] HIJAB OVER SKYPE. "

The High Negotiations Committee is a Saudi creation and completely controlled by the Saudi rulers. Heller thinks the committee has "few real future prospects" in creating order in southern Syria. I have never seen any sign that order is the Saudi goal in Syria; Saudi control of Syria is the goal and if that can't be achieved the Saudis want the country destroyed. 

Now what is the significance of Dara'a to the Saudis? To return to Heller's report:
U.S. diplomats had previously tried and failed to secure nationwide ceasefires in Syria, but this time, they focused narrowly on the southwestern provinces of Dara’a and al-Quneitra, which seemed uniquely auspicious. The United States and Jordan could exercise more effective control over rebels in the south—as opposed to Syria’s more unruly, Islamist- and jihadist-dominated north—and the south had been kept relatively quiet since 2015.
The United States has an especially compelling interest in the south, whose security and stability is of vital importance for neighboring countries and U.S. allies Israel and Jordan. Both countries also have positive relationships with Russia, making their national security a matter of shared great-power interest, and both have been keen to find a way to keep the Assad regime’s Iranian-backed militia allies away from their borders.
That last is misleading. The Saudis and their puppets in the EU and Washington were machinating in Syria years before they saw the Iranian-backed militias as problematical -- and years before Israel became concerned about the same.

As to Heller calling any ceasefire in Syria "American" -- Washington on behalf of its Gulf Arab bosses and NATO allies insinuated itself with Russian acquiescence into ceasefire discussions when it saw which way the wind was blowing in Syria. That is, the Syrian government, with help from Russia and Iranian military prowess, forced settlement talks through its battlefield successes, which the "international parties" had considered impossible to accomplish until earlier this year. 

To credit Washington for any of that is an attempt to save American face. Yet Washington will continue to serve the designs of Riyadh on Syria, and in this way continue to make as much trouble for Syrians as it can.  

********

Friday, October 20

Melania

Reuters

Please God don't let her turn out to have clay feet.

********  

Americans are not habitual liars. We just change our minds a lot.


What's true for Americans today is not necessarily true for us tomorrow. What we believed yesterday we don't necessarily believe today. Whatever agreements we make now we might have to break soon, pending changed realities.

In exactly this way successive governments of the United States of America have slowly but inexorably been driving the rest of the world's governments crazy. 

And in exactly this way peoples in other nations have learned to fear Americans in a way they don't fear even the worst tyrants.

Thus my warning to the people of India and the country's national government. Run away when Washington's leaders proclaim India to be America's newest dear friend. Run for your lives.  

********

Sunday, October 15

Running away from the Internet for a few days

As to what you could do in my absence, you could always work on your Charleston steps.


Just remember don't wear sneakers while you're dancing the Charleston, not unless you want to risk a twisted ankle. One of the secrets of that dance is smooth-soled shoes. 

Ta.

********    

I wouldn't trust Xi to pull out my chair for me, either.

Thanks but I can sit down without help


It's said Saudi King Salman is suffering from dementia. Not so much, if the look he's giving President Xi Jinping is any indication. 

Kudos to the photographer, Lintao Zhang for Getty Images, for catching the priceless moment. 

The photo is from an October 11 CNBC report, "China will 'compel' Saudi Arabia to trade oil in yuan — and that's going to affect the US dollar."

********

Death toll currently 189 from bomb blast in Somalia's capital, 200+ wounded UPDATED :9:40am EDT

UPDATE - NYT is calling this a twin bomb
At Least 189 Killed After Twin Bomb Attacks in Somalia - From The New York Times 
END UPDATE
VOA filed this report at "10:05 PM" (I'm assuming Somalia time) on October 14 and described the massive blast, which occurred on Saturday, as coming from a truck bomb that exploded near Zobe, a busy intersection in Somalia’s capital. The death toll has risen considerably since then: 

By Abdi Guled 
The Associated Press via The Washington Post
October 15 at 7:56 AM EDT

MOGADISHU, Somalia — The death toll from the most powerful bomb blast ever witnessed in Somalia’s capital rose to 189 with more than 200 injured, making it the deadliest single attack ever in the Horn of Africa nation, police and hospital sources said Sunday.

Doctors struggled to assist horrifically wounded victims, many burnt beyond recognition. Officials feared the toll would continue to climb from Saturday’s truck bomb that targeted a busy street near key ministries. Sources for the death toll spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to reporters.


Overnight, rescue workers with flashlights searched for survivors trapped under the rubble of the largely destroyed Safari Hotel, which is close to Somalia’s foreign ministry. The explosion blew off metal gates and blast walls erected outside the hotel.

Somalia’s government has blamed the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab extremist group for the attack it called a “national disaster.” However, al-Shabab, which often targets high-profile areas of the capital with bombings, had yet to comment.

“They don’t care about the lives of Somali people, mothers, fathers and children,” Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire said. “They have targeted the most populated area in Mogadishu, killing only civilians.”

Ambulance sirens still echoed across the city as bewildered families wandered in the rubble of buildings, looking for missing relatives. “In our 10 year experience as the first responder in Mogadishu, we haven’t seen anything like this,” the Aamin Ambulance service tweeted.


“The hospital is overwhelmed by both dead and wounded. We also received people whose limbs were cut away by the bomb. This is really horrendous, unlike any other time in the past,” said Dr. Mohamed Yusuf, the director of Medina hospital.

President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed declared three days of mourning and joined thousands of people who responded to a desperate plea by hospitals to donate blood for the wounded victims. “I am appealing all Somali people to come forward and donate,” he said.

Somalia’s information minister, Abdirahman Omar, said the blast was the largest the city had ever seen. “It’s a sad day. This how merciless and brutal they are, and we have to unite against them,” he said, speaking to the state-run radio station.

The United States joined the condemnation, saying “such cowardly attacks reinvigorate the commitment of the United States to assist our Somali and African Union partners to combat the scourge of terrorism.”

Grief overwhelmed many.

“There’s nothing I can say. We have lost everything,” wept Zainab Sharif, a mother of four who lost her husband. She sat outside a hospital where he was pronounced dead after hours of efforts by doctors to save him from an arterial injury.

[END REPORT]

********

The Year of Wind and Fire and Rain: Don't cuss during the community meeting

Curry County Commissioner Court Boice told residents not to use profanity during the meeting, but said he wanted answers. “It was only by the grace of God we didn’t lose Brookings,” he said. “The loss is frankly incalculable and we want our government to tell us what happened.”


June

On June 17 I was still trying to wrap my mind around the details of London's horrific June 14 Grenfell Tower fire when news came of a wind-driven wildfire in central Portugal that killed at least  60 people, many of whom died in their cars in a futile attempt to drive faster than the firestorm.

By June 18 reports were coming in about an outbreak of several wildfires in Canada's British Columbia province, blown by winds so strong the flames could leap a mile-wide river.   

In September, when 158 of the wildfires were still burning, Wikipedia summed the conflagrations:
The 2017 fire season is notable for three reasons; first, for the largest total area burnt in a fire season in recorded history; second, for the largest number of total evacuees in a fire season; and third, for the largest single fire ever in British Columbia.
July

By July 9 NPR was reporting that wind-driven wildfires in California were forcing large evacuations and that 5,000 firefighters had been mustered to fight the blazes. 

On July 10 The New York Times reported that wildfires, driven by high winds blowing in regions of bone-dry humidity and triple-digit temperatures, were raging across six western U.S. states. 

Meanwhile in Europe

On July 19 Sky News reported that huge wildfires, fueled by unusually hot, dry weather and strong winds, were burning across parts of central and southern Europe as thousands of firefighters fought blazes ranging across five countries.  

By July 26 the BBC was reporting that fast-moving wildfires were forcing the evacuation of 10,000 people in southeastern France during the height of tourist season.

Back in the USA


(Brookings, Oregon - The Statesman Journal - September) On the afternoon of July 12, four firefighters dropped from a helicopter into southwest Oregon’s Kalmiopsis Wilderness to try and snuff out a small but challenging wildfire.
The blaze was just a half-acre, but it was located on a mountain so steep that flaming logs and brush were already careening downhill to the Chetco River.
For two days, the team looked to attack the fire in deep brush, belly-crawling and bushwhacking along slopes as three helicopters dropped water on the flames, a U.S. Forest Service report said.

Eventually, they were forced to pull out.
“There were no escape routes, and the fire was dropping a shotgun pattern of spot fires down the hill,” said Monty Edwards, fire management officer for Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest during a public meeting Thursday in Brookings.
“Somebody was going to get hurt if we stayed engaged in there.”
That day in early July would mark the beginning of the Chetco Bar Fire, a blaze that remained quiet for almost a month before exploding into the nation’s most dangerous wildfire.
Chetco Bar would torch 190,000 acres, burn six houses, force 5,000 people to evacuate their homes and threaten communities from Brookings to Cave Junction.
The fire, now almost entirely contained following autumn rains, has cost $61 million.
At a tense meeting Thursday, Forest Service officials explained decisions they made in fighting the fire to a skeptical crowd.
Brookings resident Cecelia Worlton spoke of her home burning to the ground and getting no help to save it. Harry Harns said the Forest Service stood by as the fire grew and had learned nothing from past megafires in the same area.
Curry County Commissioner Court Boice told residents not to use profanity during the meeting, but said he wanted answers.
“It was only by the grace of God we didn’t lose Brookings,” he said. “The loss is frankly incalculable and we want our government to tell us what happened.”
[...]
August
On August 13 the National Hurricane Center (NHC) began monitoring a tropical wave on the western coast of Africa. Amid favorable environmental conditions, the wave was expected to merge with a broad area of low pressure to its east southwest of Cape Verde and gradually organize. Instead, the two disturbances remained separate, with the broad trough continuing westward and the tropical wave moving farther north, eventually becoming Potential Tropical Cyclone Ten.
On August 17 shower and thunderstorm activity in association with the trough began to show signs of organization, while high-resolution satellite showed an increasingly defined low-level circulation.
In response the NHC initiated advisories on a potential tropical cyclone, allowing tropical storm watches and warnings to be hoisted for portions of the Lesser AntillesAn Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunter aircraft deployed to the disturbance later that afternoon found a well-defined center and tropical storm-force winds, prompting the NHC to upgrade it to Tropical Storm Harvey at 21:00 UTC.
Thus, Wikipedia's description of the genesis of Hurricane Harvey. If later hurricanes this year did more damage in terms of their range, Harvey was the strangest storm to visit coastal America in many a year if not in all of American recorded history. 

After gathering all that power, the  hurricane decided to dawdle when it came to Houston, hugging the coast so closely it could keep one toe in the coastal waters, as one observer put it, which allowed the hurricane to keep drawing energy from the bathtub-temperature waters. 

But as the hours wore on, meteorologists noted with a mixture of awe and horror that Harvey was standing so still it was becoming self-sustaining -- literally making its own weather system

By the time Harvey meandered away from Houston, Wikipedia would report: 
Many locations in the Houston metropolitan area observed at least 30 in (76 cm) of precipitation, with a maximum of 64.58 in (164.0 cm) in Nederland. This makes Harvey the wettest tropical cyclone on record for both Texas and the United States, surpassing the previous rainfall record held by Tropical Storm Amelia
The local National Weather Service office in Houston observed all-time record daily rainfall accumulations on both August 26 and 27, measured at 14.4 in (37 cm) and 16.08 in (40.8 cm) respectively.
Back in the Atlantic Ocean

On August 30 Hurricane Irma was born, astoundingly growing within 24 hours from a tropical wave event into a Category 2 hurricane. 

September

By September 6 Irma was a Category 5 hurricane. From Wikipedia's article on the storm, "Irma caused widespread and catastrophic damage throughout its long lifetime, particularly in parts of the northeastern Caribbean and the Florida Keys." And from its article on the 2017 hurricane season, "Irma was the strongest hurricane ever recorded to form in the Atlantic Ocean outside of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea."

On September 16 a third major hurricane formed in the Atlantic:
Hurricane Maria was regarded as the worst natural disaster on record in Dominica and caused catastrophic damage and a major humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, as well as being the tenth most intense Atlantic hurricane on record. The thirteenth named storm, seventh hurricane, fourth major hurricane, and the second Category 5 hurricane of the unusually active 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, Maria caused catastrophic damage across the Northeastern Caribbean, compounding recovery efforts in the already struck areas of the Leeward Islands, which were still recovering from Hurricane Irma just two weeks prior. [Wikipedia]
On September 7 Tom Di Liberto, a writer for the government agency NOAA, described massive wildfires in the American west and used some pretty unbureaucratic language to do it:
Suomi NPP satellite image taken of the western United States on September 2, 2017 using the VIIRS instrument. The smoke from multiple fires burning across the region is visible. NOAA Climate.gov image using data provided by the NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory.
 While Texans were assessing the damage wrought by Hurricane Harvey, and the Southeast was eyeing Major Hurricane Irma, the western half of the country was suffering through record-breaking heat and skies filled with smoke from numerous wildfires burning all across the West.
In [the above] satellite image taken on September 2, numerous wildfires can be seen dotting the landscape across the Mountain West and along the West Coast. As of September 6, there were 65 ongoing fires across the United States according to the National Interagency Fire Center, all of which were located in the western United States and sending smoke into the air, reducing visibilities and blocking the sun.
In fact, a fire in the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon has spread smoke across the Pacific Northwest with some cities like Seattle and Portland even dealing with falling ash.
The Associated Press reported that the last time locals could remember ash falling from the sky was when Mount St. Helens [volcano] erupted in 1980.
In Montana, 23 fires are currently ongoing across the state and have already burned over 400,000 acres. The largest is the Rice Ridge fire which has burned over 100,000 acres and is only 2% contained.
Meanwhile, outside of Burbank, California, the La Tuna fire has become the largest on record for a wildfire within the city limits of Los Angeles. It has burned through over 7,000 acres and created scenes that look like they were taken during the filming of a disaster movie.
The smoke from these fires didn’t just stay put across the west. Instead, it hitched a ride along the jet stream—area of fast moving winds high in the atmosphere—and traveled with the winds across the United States. In this satellite image taken on September 4 [see website], smoke from western fires is visible being extended across the country, becoming intertwined with clouds as it gets stretched like a piece of saltwater taffy.
A dry, hot summer across the western United States is the reason for a fire-filled start to September.
[Graphic: U.S. Drought Monitor on August 29 showing regions of drought or abnormal dryness in the USA]
Aided by a large high pressure system, which has reduced clouds and allowed for scorching hot temperatures, the below-average rains and hot temperatures have helped provide the fuel for these wildfires. All that was needed was a spark, from either lightning or human activity. And for many places across the west, a spark was found.
[END REPORT]
October

After rain deluges in California had raised up miles of brush, then came heat waves that turned all that brush to bone-dry tinder. Then came the annual winds, called "Diablo" in the state's north and "Santa Ana" in the south. 

By early October alarms were sounding
.... the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) had begun issuing red flag warnings throughout much of northern California as conditions were expected to become extremely volatile, with winds expected to be gusting between 25 to 35 miles per hour (40 to 56 km/h) from the north to the south.
But nobody was prepared for what happened next:
By the evening of Sunday, October 8, the Diablo winds were reported gusting up to 70 miles per hour (110 km/h) within the affected areas ...
Southern California was also struck by wildfires driven by the high winds but in the north, in the state's famous wine vineyard country, a nightmare began as the gale-force winds snapped electrical power lines, showering sparks on all those miles of dry brush. 

Within moments more than a dozen wildfires broke out almost simultaneously in widely different areas. With blinding speed the outbreaks morphed into fast-moving infernos that killed every living creature and burned down virtually every structure in their path. 

Who lived and who died in the path of the firestorms could be measured in split-seconds. A couple of tourists at a hotel, on learning that a wildfire was nearing, began to pack their suitcases. They were told there was no time to pack. There was only time to run.

By Saturday October 14 The Sacramento Bee was reporting that the human death toll from the northern California fires was at 39, with more bodies expected to be found; at least 5,700 structures had burned down; and 10,000 firefighters were battling wildfires under conditions so perilous they had to plan their own escape routes if they couldn't outrun a sudden shift in wind-driven flames.

At 2:30 this morning, Eastern Time, Reuters reported:
... Fast-moving fires spread by shifting winds forced thousands more to evacuate their homes on Saturday as the death toll over the week rose to 40, with hundreds missing.
More than 10,000 firefighters supported by air tankers and helicopters battled 16 major wildfires in areas north of San Francisco that have consumed nearly 214,000 acres (86,000 hectares), or roughly 334 square miles (865 sq km) -- an area larger than New York City.
[...]
“This is truly one of the greatest tragedies that California has ever faced. The devastation is just unbelievable. It is a horror that no one could have imagined,” California Governor Jerry Brown said on a visit to a devastated city. ...
Meanwhile, back in central Portugal



The Telegraph Video, October 9:

As Portugal is battling another wave of wildfires with temperatures still high, a rare phenomenon known as a "fire devil", a kind of fire tornado, was caught on video camera Saturday evening by Portuguese broadcaster TVI. [video]

********

Saturday, October 14

"This album changed my life -- became a poet."

The remark is from one Paul Smith, commenting at YouTube on Time Out.  
The entire studio album was posted with notes by André Azevedo at YouTube on September 27, 2015. I've copied the notes below, but first an introduction to Wikipedia's fairly extensive discussion of how Time Out came to be:
The album was intended as an experiment using musical styles Brubeck discovered abroad while on a United States Department of State sponsored tour of Eurasia, such as when he observed in Turkey a group of street musicians performing a traditional Turkish folk song that was played in 9/8 time with subdivisions of 2+2+2+3, a rare meter for Western music. ... 
The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Time Out - 1959

01 - Blue Rondo A La Turk (00:00) 02 - Strange Meadow Lark (06:51) 03 - Take Five (14:16) 04 - Three To Get Ready (19:42) 05 - Kathy's Waltz (25:08) 06 - Everybody's Jumpin' (29:59) 07 - Pick Up Sticks (34:24) Dave Brubeck – piano Paul Desmond – alto saxophone Eugene Wright – bass Joe Morello – drums


Teo Macero – producer
Fred Plaut – engineer S. Neil Fujita – cover artwork Seth Rothstein – project director Russell Gloyd – reissue producer Mark Wilder – reissue remastering Cozbi Sanchez-Cabrera – reissue art direction

***
The album's version of Take Five features a Joe Morello drum solo, which the famous 1964 live performance video doesn't, even though Morello was on the drums. But band member Paul Desmond, who wrote the piece, said about Take Five's enduring popularity, "It was never supposed to be a hit. It was supposed to be a Joe Morello drum solo."
Morello suffered from partial vision from birth, and devoted himself to indoor activities. At six years old he began studying the violin. Three years later, he was a featured soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, playing Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, and again three years later.
At the age of 15, Morello met the violinist Jascha Heifetz and decided that he would never be able to equal Heifetz's "sound". Therefore, he switched to drumming, first studying with a show drummer named Joe Sefcik and then George Lawrence Stone, author of the noted drum textbook Stick Control for the Snare Drummer. Stone was so impressed with Morello's ideas that he incorporated them into his next book, Accents & Rebounds, which is dedicated to Morello. ... [Wikipedia]

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Friday, October 13

The Guardian digs into the scandal of Mexico City's numerous collapsed buildings

"Mexico City is [vulnerable] to earthquakes but the way it has developed since 1985 has made it even more so."
6,000 complaints ... then the quake: the scandal behind Mexico City's 225 dead
Before the earthquake, Mexico City residents lodged thousands of complaints about construction violations. Many of the buildings in question collapsed.

An Investigative Report by The Guardian Cities, supported by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation
Report filed by
Martha Pskowski in Mexico City and David Adler in London
October 13, 2017
The Guardian

[See the website for photographs of collapsed buildings]

Many of the buildings that collapsed in the earthquake that killed 225 people in Mexico City last month were the subject of citizen complaints about safety, a Guardian Cities investigation can reveal.

Since 2012, the residents of Mexico City have lodged nearly 6,000 complaints about construction project violations, with no public record of how many were followed up.

Many of the buildings in question subsequently collapsed in the 19 September earthquake, which was notable for the high number of new or recently remodelled buildings that suffered surprising damage.

In 2016 alone, Mexico City residents lodged 1,271 complaints about violations of zoning or land use ordinances with the Environmental and Zoning Prosecutor’s Office (Procuraduría Ambiental y del Ordenamiento Territorial, PAOT), the city watchdog for environmental and building compliance.

More than 44 buildings were destroyed in the earthquake, and another 3,000 were evacuated, but residents and advocacy organisations say the city government did not heed the vast majority of complaints.

“I have not seen a single sanction,” says Josefina MacGregor of Suma Urbana, a group of neighbourhood associations in Mexico City. “Facing pressure from citizens, the government will sometimes say that they are going to sanction the developers [for building violations]. But it’s not true.”


[...]

Many other stories document the same pattern. Across Benito Juárez and Cuauhtémoc, collapsed or damaged buildings had been the subject of citizen complaints.

Many were built after 1985, when another much more powerful earthquake shook Mexico City. After that disaster – when 100,000 buildings were seriously damaged – the city instituted strict new building codes.

The fact that the latest earthquake was roughly a tenth as powerful yet still caused significant destruction has local activists pointing the finger at what they say are shady practices, in which some developers circumvent the regulations and city authorities frequently ignore citizen complaints.

“The whole system is corrupt,” says MacGregor. “And the corruption is deadly. You have a city government that is protecting the developers, not the city.”

The city’s building compliance watchdog told the Guardian it has no authority to crack down on developers. It says it can only pass on information to the relevant municipal agency.

“We warn about risks for the population,” says Francisco Calderón Cordova, communications coordinator at PAOT. “But our recommendations aren’t legally binding, and [other government institutions] don’t always heed our advice.”

In 2016, PAOT investigated all 1,271 citizen complaints of land use and zoning violations. But PAOT’s role ends once it informs the appropriate agency: most often the Urban Development and Housing Secretariat (Seduvi), but also the Administrative Verification Institute (Invea), the Environmental Secretariat (Sedema) and others.

Although Seduvi does in rare cases punish developers or order repairs, there is no public record of how many of the 1,271 complaints were acted on. Seduvi did not respond to requests for comment.

Mexico City is prone to earthquakes, but the way it has developed since 1985 has made it even more so. Following the disaster, residents abandoned the city centre, as did most investors. The city government responded by introducing incentives for private sector development, and campaigned for infrastructure projects including airports, highways and tunnels.

By 2013, real estate in Mexico City was red hot: between 2000 and 2015 the city’s population grew by just 3%, but the housing stock grew by 20%; in the central areas of Benito Juárez, Cuauhtémoc, Miguel Hidalgo and Venustiano Carranza, it soared by 37%. House prices increased by 7% in 2016 alone.

But the breakneck pace of development eroded its earthquake preparedness. The new buildings often fail to account for the fact that the city was originally built on a lake – and the soft soil can amplify the power of an earthquake.

As developers have tried to capitalise on the housing boom, civil engineers have warned that ever-taller new developments are shifting the soil, drying it out and increasing the earthquake risk. They also say such massive new construction projects can weaken the foundations of neighbouring buildings.

In many cases, developers have been accused of simply flouting the regulations entirely.

At the Nuevo León 238 building in the Hipódromo Condesa neighbourhood, for example, developers added a helicopter landing pad to the roof. When residents complained that the building’s nine stories exceeded the zoning limit and that helipads were not permitted, regulators failed to heed their concern. 

A spokesperson for the developer, Grupo JV, insisted that zoning requirements had been complied with, and said that a legal ruling permitted the helipad’s construction, even though the company did not have a construction permit from Seduvi. The building partially collapsed in the 19 September earthquake.

One of the key reforms made after 1985 was the creation of a new official to oversee earthquake resilience – the “Director Responsible for Construction” (DRO in its Spanish acronym). Architects or engineers can become licensed as a DRO by taking an exam. 

Although meant to increase oversight, cases of crooked DROs abound. From 2012 to 2016, 51 were sanctioned for violations: one DRO was supervising a construction site where seven workers were killed in an accident; others had permitted construction on buildings that exceeded the legal floor limit; yet another supposed DRO was caught using fake credentials. 

Nonetheless, in 2016, the office of Mayor Ángel Mancera suspended the legislation that permitted city departments to sanction DROs. Critics say the move is evidence that the Mancera administration prioritises development over safety.

“We have built this city on the whim of the powerful,” says MacGregor.

[GRAPH: Construction violation complaints per year by residents of Mexico City have more than doubled since 2010]

Newness is no guarantee of a building’s safety.

In Portales, Canada Building Systems opened a “state-of-the-art” tower block at 56 Zapata just this year with a roof garden and solar panels. On 19 September, a quarter of the building came crashing down. The twisted solar panels now hang off the top of the structure, and an exterior stairwell has crumpled. Two women were killed.


Although the local government of Benito Juárez had given the green light, the DRO who signed off on the project had previously been sanctioned and his licence had expired, according to Mexican media outlets.

In Zacahuitzco, another neighbourhood in Benito Juárez, an apartment building at 90 Bretaña also collapsed. Alitzy Judith Carrillo Quintero, 19, was killed. Afterwards, neighbours said the six-storey apartment block was built on the foundation of a two-storey house without sufficient reinforcement, and that the construction company did not use the proper materials.

In both cases, the Benito Juárez government has said it will prosecute the construction companies. But no explanation has been given for why the Zapata building was approved for occupation in the first place.

The Benito Juárez authorities did not respond to a request for comment.

Several buildings in Cuauhtémoc follow a similar story. In the Tránsito neighbourhood, an 11-storey apartment building at 66 San Antonio Abad suffered major damage. Each of the 55 apartments sold for roughly 1.6m pesos, and the first residents moved in less than a year ago.

Cuauhtémoc delegation chief Ricardo Monreal told the Guardian that the building did not have an occupation permit, and that the delegation will hand over all necessary paperwork to the prosecutor’s office.

The building has been cleared for occupation, but many residents are wary of moving back in.Given that so many complaints were ignored before the earthquake, confidence in the safety inspection process is shaken

Four Mexico City residents have set up Salva Tu Casa, an online platform to connect architects and engineers to residents worried about the structural integrity of their homes. Co-founder Alex Rojas says that Salva Tu Casa already has more than 12,000 buildings registered, and called the government’s unresponsiveness frustrating. 

Seduvi has even referred residents to Salva Tu Casa directly via Twitter. “We built the platform overnight, as a group of volunteers,” Rojas said. “And it seems to have been more effective than the government systems so far.”

“They took away our right to be informed, to understand the risks, and to make our own decisions,” Acosta Olivares said. “Not only did people lose their livelihoods. We also lost a life.”

Follow Guardian Cities on Twitter and Facebook to join the discussion, and explore our archive here

[END REPORT]

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