Archive for November, 2007

28
Nov
07

Wind, Fire and Water; Nature vs. Irresponsible Humans

Numerous stories have bombarded all news media recently dealing with weather.  Funny how such a huge subject is rarely featured in the news unless there is either a hidden agenda or something profound takes place in a major television market.  I am sorry to be cynical, but I have studied weather and enjoyed making amateur forecasts for years.  Weather is not something that fills the gap between news and sports for some of us.

There ARE some absolutely huge weather related situations going on and I feel it necessary to balance the hype with some sobering truths.  If “global warming” or “climate change” were taken out of all the stories floating around, and just the facts regarding the situations were presented; there would still be plenty of news to get good ratings.  But, the current trend is to somehow tie every single weird weather event into the global warming debate.  This is not fair nor can the facts sustain doing this.

Many years ago I lived in California for two years.  The first year (1976-77) there was “the worst drought in the history of the state”.  The news featured stories of dried up reservoirs and mountains with no snow.  Restaurants could only serve water if requested and all the lush green lawns were brown due to watering restrictions.  This was not last week, this was thirty years ago. 

The second year (1977-78) ended up being one of the wettest and snowiest on record.  I shall never forget driving down to California from Oregon and seeing a huge reservoir that was woefully low one year earlier filled to capacity because of all the precipitation.  One year the ski resorts were crying they were about to go out of business, and the next year they had so much snow people couldn’t drive up to ski.  The winter of 1977-78 nationwide was one of the worst winters in history.  The headlines everywhere warned of the coming “ice age”.

I do not wish to belittle the horrible tragedy that happened in San Diego and other southern California locations with the wildfires.  But, there have been Santa Ana winds for ages.  After dry winters, there have been major fires when there were intense Santa Ana winds.   Certain things are just to be expected if one chooses to live in the California “paradise”; fires, earthquakes, mudslides, droughts, floods and an occasional Santa Ana windstorm.

In 1970 the population of San Diego was 696,769 and for the county it was 1,357,854.  In just 30 years, by the year 2000; the city of San Diego’s population had doubled to 1,256,951 and the county had more than doubled to 2,813,833.  When an area undergoes this kind of rapid population growth, there are bound to be environmental problems.  Without a doubt, the biggest problem comes in moving more and more people farther and farther out into areas that had been “wilderness” previously.  When asphalt and cement replace dirt and vegetation, there is bound to be some problems come up.

In an average year, the coastal portion of San Diego receives about 10 inches of rain.  The coastal mountains to the east of the city usually receive substantially more rain in an average year.  Last year (2006-2007), San Diego received 3.85 inches of rain which was only 36% of normal.  What is worse, the mountains did not receive much more than the city. 

The additional factor causing the fire situation to be so critical was the humidity levels at or below 10%.  When there is no humidity, vegetation is dried out, winds barrel in approaching 100 miles per hour; all it takes is one smoldering cigarette butt or a careless spark from a welder and the inferno begins.  There is no stopping, or even slowing down, a fire with plenty of dry fuel and winds of hurricane velocity.

Earlier this summer fires burned out of control in Idaho and Montana for weeks.  The same scenario resulted in the same results.  The big difference was the lack of population and the corresponding lack of property damage.  The fires in southern California will end up costing hundreds of millions of dollars.  Amazingly, this is about the same amount as if a category 2 hurricane hit the area.  Seeing images of burned homes is heartbreaking, but it is no different than seeing images of homes destroyed by tornados, hurricanes or earthquakes.  A destroyed home is a disaster no matter how it happened.

People who insist upon living in areas prone to natural disasters MUST accept the responsibility of potential loss.  Anyone living next to the ocean cannot expect someone else to pay to rebuild their home after a huge storm or tsunami.  Anyone living on a fault line cannot expect someone else to pay to rebuild their destroyed home when it is finally ruined by the “big one”.  People who want to live in high risk areas need to have insurance to cover potential losses; no matter how much it costs.  It is not fair to expect the government or private charities to always rebuild after a major disaster.

Southern California is a high risk area, especially parts near what’s left of the forested mountains.  People who want to live in areas prone to fires (and later mudslides) should have to use materials in building that are fire retardant and do things to set up natural firebreaks around their homes.  Our society is not very good at taking personal responsibility for much of anything, especially where homes are built and how they are built.

The frightening part of this whole discussion lies in the potential for identical fires in the future.  Many of the areas hit hardest this week in the Malibu area were just devastated by major fires a few weeks ago.  Many areas that were burned a few weeks ago were just starting to recover from serious fires only a few years ago.  Unfortunately, these same areas will continue to face fire dangers every year after a dry winter.  It just goes with the territory, literally.

The bigger issue in all this lies in the upcoming water crisis.  That subject is far too involved to get into at this time, but I will address it soon.  I think if people understood how serious the water situation is, they would quit being so afraid of many other doomsday scenarios.   There is only so much fresh water available and when it is gone, it is gone until the next big rainstorm.  Water has been squandered more than any other natural resource, and very soon humanity will pay dearly for wasting one of the two things needed for life.  Without air and water people cannot live.  Both of these things have been polluted and squandered mercilessly. 

I sincerely hope and pray that people who know little about the weather don’t get distracted from the real issues environmentally, which are pollution and inexcusable wasting of natural resources.  Whether the climate is changing as radically as many are saying now, cannot be proven conclusively by anyone.  What can be proven is that there has been a rash of strange weather events in the past year.  Something is causing the weather to “misbehave”, and that much is for certain.  Whether the root cause is global warming, natural earth cycles or solar issues; something is causing the weather to change in a radical fashion.

Rather than make weather a political toy, people should be seeking answers on  how to preserve and steward what we have left.  This is the issue that needs to be debated and publicized, not just scaring people with wild projections which are based on computer models and speculation.  Instead of worrying about melting icecaps, why not figure out how to capture the water and store it for the future.  Instead of pointing fingers at everyone else concerning emissions and other minor things; why not be working feverishly to harness the sun’s power, desalt the oceans and figure out how to fit the billions of people on this earth into the parts of this planet capable of sustaining life.  We can help this earth if we will not turn the entire subject into just another political football.

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10
Nov
07

Katrina/Rita: Relief and Recovery Lessons Learned

In May of 2006, I made my first visit to the Gulf Coast to evaluate where and how I could help.  This was 9 months after Katrina had hit in early September 2005.  The first night, I stayed in a motel in New Orleans near downtown.  There were iron gates locking us in at sunset.  Next door was a Wendy’s hamburger place, but only the drive through was open.  These measures were due to crime, not due to hurricane damage.

Not wanting to spend any more nights in “lockdown”, I found a motel open in far southern New Orleans.  It was newly remodeled from the storm.  It was acceptable but was very expensive.  Next door was a Denny’s restaurant with no obvious damage, but it was closed.  Next to the restaurant was a service station/convenience mart; it was closed.  Across from the motel was a huge mall.  I walked around the outside of this mall both mornings I stayed at the motel.  There were no obvious signs of damage, but there was nothing open except a Sears store that had just re-opened the previous week.

The reason businesses were not open was because there was no one to work at them.  There were signs all over town begging people to apply for jobs that paid minimum wage everywhere else in the country but were paying $12 per hour and up in New Orleans.  At one convenience mart there was a huge sign attracting manager applicants.  The compensation was a very nice salary, plus rent paid plus a signing bonus.  This was quite an attractive package for a job that usually pays next to nothing. 

What few people realize is that after a major disaster, not only is the housing situation in ruins, the job situation is also.  When half of the population of a city ups and leaves, there is going to be a huge hole in the available employee base.  When a large percentage of the people who are left can’t or won’t work; a situation such as New Orleans evolves.

While in New Orleans, I tracked down an old friend who was there with a crew from his church doing repairs on a home.   I volunteered to help and my “job” was to go get various building supplies for the many projects they were doing.  Ordinarily this would be an easy job but in New Orleans, 9 months after Katrina, it was torture.  There was ONE Home Depot open and it was 30 minutes away.  Every trip there ended up taking hours because of the crowds waiting to check out.  One time it took me 90 minutes just to wait in line to pay for $30 of materials.

As I traveled around town there were pockets of heavy damage, but there were also vast areas with minimal damage.  Nowhere were there even half the people that should have been in a city that size.   I kept asking myself two haunting questions.  Where did all the people go, and why hadn’t they come back? 

I will never forget driving through huge sections of the “9th ward” and Chalmette.  These were the areas that had suffered major flood damage.  What I cannot shake from my mind was the absence of life.  Block after block of deserted gutted out houses was all that remained of neighborhoods that a year earlier were filled with people of all ages and nationalities. 

One of the most eerie sights I saw was a huge area of town that had previously been a thriving middle class suburb.  Sitting vacant were massive apartment complexes.  Each brick building just sat there without any human activity going on.  No one was working on these buildings, and no one lived in them either.  They just sat there, as eerie reminders of the power of nature.  Nearby was a vacant hospital.  Again, there was no life to be found anywhere near a facility whose very purpose was to save lives.

Down the road was a large school.  Once again, there was no one around.  Not one child was near a facility whose very reason for being built was to teach children.  There were empty businesses of every type along both sides of the main street.  There were empty insurance agencies, banks, grocery stores, drug stores and department stores.  These were all places that 9 months earlier provided employment for the thousands of people living nearby.  Now, all that remained was the skeleton of a once thriving community.  It was unnaturally still.  There were no sounds of hammers, saws or even bulldozers.  Time had passed this neighborhood by, and kept on going.  It was if someone had literally sucked the life out of the city.   

I don’t think people understand how deeply a catastrophic disaster impacts a community.  It is not just the immediate damage that causes the hardship.  It is not just damaged buildings that cause dismay; it is the endless parade of problems that arise weeks and months afterward that generate the real heartaches.  The repercussions from a major disaster are like ripples going through the water after a stone is dropped.  They seemingly keep going forever.  What good does it do to rebuild a house if there is no employment, schools, hospitals or emergency services?  A community is much more than the houses people live in.  That is the first lesson I learned in my personal “disaster training” course.

A few weeks after Katrina hit, Hurricane Rita slammed into western Louisiana south of Lake Charles.  Sitting on the coast was the small fishing town of Cameron.  The combination of 115 mph winds, innumerable tornadoes and a strong storm surge basically wiped Cameron and the surrounding parish off the map. When I went there in June of 2006, I saw again what happens when time stands still.  In the 8 months since the hurricane struck, the only things accomplished were the cleanup of debris and gutting of buildings. 

As of June of 2006 there was no relief agency working anywhere near Cameron.  Most of the major charities never went there and the Red Cross had come and gone in record time.  In between getting devoured by mosquitoes, I talked to some of the poor people living in FEMA travel trailers trying to figure out what to do.  How do you rebuild a town or a parish which has lost its entire tax base?  Where do the funds and the workers come from to ever get started with the job of “getting back to normal”?  What do you do when all the national media attention is diverted to the New Orleans quagmire?  These were the questions posed by residents trapped in the Cameron, Louisiana nightmare.

Natural disasters are equal opportunity destroyers.  They demolish huge cities and small towns; they rip apart people’s lives in wretchedly poor areas and absurdly affluent ones with no discrimination.  Fires, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, ice storms and blizzards take their toll on individuals, families, emergency personnel, governments and charities.  The cost of cleanup is staggering and the cost to rebuild is beyond most people’s comprehension.  Disasters come with a high price tag and the cost must be borne by us all; not just the government, insurance companies and the victims.

I learned a lot in my trips to Louisiana during May and June of 2006.  I learned even more as I attempted to find resources for the forgotten victims of southern Alabama and central Mississippi.  What I learned more than anything is that most people want to help after a disaster.  But, most people once they have helped quickly move on and don’t help a second time.  This is understandable, but grossly unfair to the displaced, unemployed and sick victims, as well as those trying to help in long-term recovery efforts.

As Americans, we take pride in our rapid response to disasters.  We also take pride in our compassionate giving after a disaster.  What we need to understand is that there are still many needs long after all the first responders and disaster assistance groups’ move on.  Considering what New Orleans and Cameron, Louisiana looked like 9 months after a major disaster; we must put as much thought and devote as many resources to long-term recovery as we do to short-term relief.   It takes months, and in Katrina and Rita’s cases, years, to win back what nature took away in a day.  We need to help people until the job is done; not pass out vouchers, food and clothing and then disappear in the night.

04
Nov
07

Financial Ethics; May I Rip You Off?

There was a time when honesty ruled financial matters.  Evidently that time has long since disappeared.  Not a day goes by where there is not a story decrying the obnoxious and repulsive greediness that rules the western world.  I am left with one overriding question; when is enough ever going to be enough?  At every turn the rules of sanity have been turned upside down to where what is totally absurd is considered normal and what should be the norm is looked upon as crazy. 

A bike has handlebars.  Can we all agree on that?  It does not have a steering wheel, it has handle bars.  A brand new bike has handle bars that are squarely in alignment with the bike.  If a person sits on the seat of the bike, the handle bars form a U or a V directly in front of the rider.  This is the correct (and logical) way to position handle bars on a bike.  If a person rode the bike with handle bars in this position, they would have no problems steering.

But, take that bike and turn the handle bars to one side and tighten them.  Now the U or the V of the bars is pointed to one side or the other.  If an experienced bike rider got on the bike and tried to ride, he would immediately wreck the bike.  It would not be possible to drive with handle bars turned sideways. 

But, if a person who never rode a bike before was taught how to ride using the sideways bars, guess what?  They could learn to ride and steer with no problem.  Now, put the person who learned to ride with sideways bars on a normal bike.  The result would be an immediate crash.  That person would have the same problems adjusting to what is “normal” as the previous rider would have adjusting to the abnormal.  The question then becomes; what are we going to establish as normal and what is going to be askew?  Once the norm is set up, then everyone should abide by the norm.  Everyone should have handle bars that face forward and not to the side.

In England cars are driven on the opposite side of the road than in the United States.  Is one country right and the other wrong?  Of course not, it is a matter of the established norm.  People from the United States must conform to the English norm when driving in England and vice a versa.  No one takes offence at this agreement.  In fact, St. Ambrose is credited with stating:  “When in Rome, do as the Romans”.  Whether dealing with situational conduct or driving etiquette, few wiser words have ever been spoken.

The age old conundrum in all this is; what if Rome is wrong?  Is one to still “do as the Romans” even if doing it is not ethically right?  Let us say I visit someone’s home and they have a household rule that everyone in the house must slap the person next to them every hour on the hour.  As a guest, not wanting to offend the host, am I to start slapping people on the hour?  If I refuse, I will be escorted out and miss the fellowship.  If I “do as the Romans”, I compromise my own principles and betray myself.

We live in an age where laws are made to be broken and many people deliberately strive to “push the envelope” as far as possible, to get away with as much as possible.  Is the longstanding defense of; “everyone else does it” grounds to do whatever one wants to do whenever wanted?  Is it allowable to do whatever one feels like doing regardless of the harm it may cause others?  These questions define ethics and ethical questions hold few definitive answers.

People become very defensive when ethics are brought up in the context of financial compensation.  Capitalism is a very controversial subject when ethics are brought into the equation.  Just how much profit should one person be allowed to make off a transaction with another person?  Capitalism, or free market theory, would suggest the answer is; “as much as the other person allows him to make”.  This idea sounds legitimate except that it breeds dishonesty and opens the door wide to those whose character is shady and whose “sales skills” are slick and well sharpened.

I used to sell used cars many years ago.  I hated every minute it.  The whole business is built on lying to people.  The determination of the value of a trade-in is one of the most devious tactics ever devised by anyone to “rip people off”.  So what if a blue or yellow or black book says a vehicle is worth so much in such and such condition.  It is all objective.  It is impossible to be subjective in this situation.  There are a few honest vehicle dealers, but there are far more dishonest ones lurking as vultures waiting to pounce on a gullible naïve person who doesn’t know or has forgotten how to “play the game”.

I recently had a van break down while away from home.  The van had many problems, so I decided to see if I could find a replacement vehicle instead of trying to fix the broken one again.  I succeeded in negotiating what I thought was a fair deal on a five year old Dodge pickup that had less than 100,000 miles on it.  I had told the salesperson I was willing to let the dealership make $500 if they would just be fair with me.  He came back beaming for the manager agreed to the arrangement.  After a long day I drove home thinking I had made a fair and honest deal. 

The next morning I started the truck and the “check engine light” came on.  Driving to the nearest auto shop, I found out the truck needed $1,500 of work just to get the light to go out!  I was furious and called the manager where I had purchased the vehicle.  He proceeded to yell at me over the phone saying:   “You bought the vehicle AS IS so it is your problem”.   When I threatened legal action I was cussed at and hung up on.  This was coming from the used car manager at the biggest Chevrolet dealership in all of central Missouri. 

Ethically who was right and who was wrong in this situation?  Was I wrong because I trusted a car dealer to tell me the truth?  You bet I was wrong, and I paid dearly for my stupidity.  Was the used car manager at the dealership wrong for lying to me and yelling at me and refusing to fix a problem he knew existed prior to the sale?  In his mind he was not at fault, for in his business, lying is allowable and acceptable because “everyone does it”.  In other words, it is the established norm.

I took the truck to a Dodge dealer where it was established that a “quick fix” had caused the “check engine light” to not be lit up when I first drove the truck, but came back on after a day.  In other words, the dealership knew there were problems, covered them up, stuck an “As Is” sticker on the window and placed the truck on the lot.  I don’t know if this is legal, but I do know it is NOT ethical.

I traded the truck in the next day to a “Five Star” dealership who upon hearing what had happened wanted to do things right.  They showed me the paperwork for the van I wanted.  They brought in the used vehicle broker who showed me exactly what the truck I had purchased was really worth to a dealership.  They were willing to make a deal if they could make a profit of $250 with no tricks.  I agreed and have been happy with the van ever since.  Oh, by the way, they figured the previous dealership made around $2,500 profit on the transaction I was told was a $500 deal.

When dealing with those who smile and tell you “trust me” but all the while are lying through their teeth, what can you do?  If the adage of doing what they do in Rome holds true, then I guess you should lie right back at them.  But, do two wrongs make a right?  When I first was taught how to sell cars back in 1986, I was told it was allowable to lie to the customers because they always lied to the salesperson.  How is that for a new slant on; “when in Rome…”?

Is it possible to be an honest salesperson?  Of course it is and there are plenty of them out there.  But, in our greed driven society there is no profession more prone to dishonesty than sales where deals must be negotiated, especially with “trade ins”.  Is it right to “rip someone’s head off” if they allow you too?  Is it right for me to make a huge profit at your expense if I lied to you?  These are ethical questions that need to be addressed in our selfish, “it’s all about me” culture.  Trust me; there is still a need for defining what is right and what is wrong, especially when your hard earned money is at stake.