Thursday, April 20, 2006
Alaska feeling effects of warming earth
CNN Producer Steve Turnham and I traveled to Alaska recently to report a series of stories on the how global warming is affecting America's northernmost state.
One perspective we tried to capture in our pieces is that of the natives whose families have been in the state for generations. They, perhaps better than anyone else, know how the changing climate is affecting Alaska's glaciers, wildlife and age-old traditions. But getting to them wasn't easy.
Fairbanks, Alaska, whose population of around 30,000 people is big enough to make it the second largest city in the state, was our launching pad. From there, we wanted to go to Barrow, the northernmost point in the United States, about 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle, to talk to some locals.
We took an Alaska Airlines flight toward Barrow, accompanied by a bunch of scientists and students who were going there for a climate change meeting. The pilot circled Barrow for roughly 30 minutes before determining it was not safe to land due to something called "ice fog," which I had never heard of before that day. We got impressive aerial shots of the area from the plane, but we couldn't get on the ground to talk to anyone.
Back in Fairbanks, we rented a car and drove three hours into the mountains of central Alaska to a town called Minto. On the way, on a deserted snowy road, we happened upon a woman with two small children, whose pickup truck had broken down in the middle of nowhere. One of the things you realize in the Alaska wilds is that it's such rough country you're very much obliged to help anyone who is stranded. The woman's name was Janet, and she just happened to have a son living in Minto, the town we were driving toward.
So we packed Janet and the kids into our vehicle and off we went to Minto. When we got there, we dropped Janet and the kids off at her son's house and went in search of the town's leaders. We talked to the chief and some of the village elders about the changes they've seen in the weather.
There is a certain uniformity to the stories the villagers tell. All say it is warmer than it used to be. Also, many of them say they used to be able to forecast the weather to a degree, but now they say it's very unpredictable.
The next day we wanted to try again to get to Barrow. But realizing we might end up circling in the sky again (and burning up the budget for this trip), we decided to send Doug Schantz, our cameraman, on his own to see what, if anything, he could get. He actually got on the ground, shot beautiful footage of the sea ice and the town, and did some solid interviews to boot.
The native elders he interviewed talked about the changes they have seen in the area since they were children -- things like more sunburns and insects, and having to go farther out to hunt for bowhead whales, a major source of food for the Inupiat tribe.
Earlier on this trip, we took a helicopter ride to the Grewingk Glacier in sketchy weather. When we put down on the glacier it started snowing, and there were small avalanches of snow falling out of the mountains that surround the ice field.
Scientists say the glaciers in the area are shrinking dramatically. The question is whether the retreat of the glaciers is directly related to carbon emissions or natural heating in the atmosphere.
It's important to note that while there is still a lively debate over whether global warming is the result of burning fossil fuels or regular oscillations in the atmosphere, most scientists agree that the climate is indeed warming. And as we saw in Alaska, the warming of the earth's atmosphere already is having a significant impact.
Racing against the clock in New Orleans
There are few certainties in New Orleans. But one thing everyone here is sure of is that June first will usher in a new hurricane season. And if the experts are correct, the Gulf of Mexico is warmer than usual and could foster another very active hurricane season.
So imagine the pressure on the Army Corps of Engineers, the entity charged with rebuilding the damaged levee system that protects the city from flood waters. At the same time, the Corps is building new floodgates designed to keep Lake Pontchartrain from pouring into the city during a harsh storm.
The Corps is adamant it will finish its critical work by June 1st. But we talked to a scientist and an engineer who are just as adamant that despite a "valiant" effort the Corps will not have its job completed by the deadline. They say there is just too much to do in too short a time.
Yesterday, I toured a massive construction site at the 17th Street Canal with Col. Lewis Setliff, the man in charge of making sure the Corps meets its deadlines.
Setliff can look you right in the eye and say, "We will be ready by June 1st." He knows the world is watching, and that if New Orleans floods again, many people believe it would become a lost city, never coming anywhere near full recovery.
Setliff points out more that than 90 percent of the workers on the project are local guys who have their livelihood at stake in getting the job done.
He also says that even though the most critical work will be completed by the start of the hurricane season that does not mean construction will end. He says upgrades to levees and canals will continue.
It may seem like a huge contradiction, but Setliff says it isn't: "I think the proof will be in the pudding....At some point our work will get tested by Mother Nature."
Here's hoping that test comes later rather than sooner. The last thing anyone here needs is to find out the hard way that the rebuilt levee system would have been better if only workers had gotten just a little more time.
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
Government service can lead to big bucks
My father used to watch political campaigns and say, "You should never trust a man who will spend millions of dollars to get a job that pays only a fraction of that."
The problem is, in Washington these days a lot of political offices are paying much, much more than taxpayers would ever know about.
Conventional wisdom says if you work a few years at a high enough level of the public sector, you can clean up in the private world. Press Secretary Scott McClellan earned about $160,000 a year in the White House, but political analysts say in the outside world he could pull in five or ten times as much.
How? Two words: Information and access.
There is a long line of folks -- industry leaders, lobbyists, consulting firms, professional associations -- who will pay big money for accurate knowledge of plans being considered at the highest levels of government and connections to the top government players. Recent insiders have both.
And there is money to be had beyond that too: Book deals, speaking fees, political punditry. Want Jimmy Carter's national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, to speak at your next convention? The fee listed by his agent is $25,000 to $40,000.
None of this is illegal. But many taxpayers I've talked to believe it is a sign of just how cozy government has become with big business, and they fear that in such a clubby world of "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours," what's best for taxpayers may be sliding further and further down the list of priorities.
Realistic concern or sour grapes about the spoils of political war?
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
No politics in combat
I felt something of a fool asking the Marines with whom we had just spent 45 minutes darting around the war-torn streets of Ramadi what they thought about the calls for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to resign.
Most looked at me blankly, sweat still pouring down their boyish faces, unaware of the politics behind the battle they fight everyday.
In this part of Iraq, where ankle-deep stagnant water and sewage fills the streets and nearly every building bears witness to the ongoing fight, all their time is focused on the mission, and just getting themselves and their fellow Marines home alive.
This fact of their existence in Iraq was emphasized less than two hours later, when the local governor's compound came under a complex attack, a regular occurrence in this part of the city. Mortars, RPGs, car bombs, bullets flying -- this is reality for these boys.
There were hectic efforts to figure out where the incoming fire was impacting and if there were any casualties. Marines were running up to the roof to re-supply those manning weapons, firing rockets, tank rounds, and finally, celebrating when the fight was over and there were no casualties.
As they had said to me earlier -- there are no politics on the ground here, just combat.
Monday, April 17, 2006
Quake's terror reverberates still
I spent Friday and Saturday in San Francisco, reporting a story about the 100th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake and fire that almost wiped this city off the map. It's a frightening, haunting chapter in American history, and it really hits home now because of the parallels to Hurricane Katrina and what happened in New Orleans.
As historian Philip Fradkin wrote last year, "Both cities had been forewarned of disaster...Both cities and their populations ignored the warnings and were, as a result, woefully unprepared. They were, in other words, ripe for major catastrophes."
For this story, we looked at disastrous mistakes made by San Francisco leaders that almost destroyed the city after the 1906 quake, such as Mayor Eugene Schmitz's order to thousands of police and federal troops authorizing them to "KILL any and all persons found engaged in looting" and the city's decision to fight the spreading fire with dynamite, which for three days succeeded only in starting more fires.
The city initially said 478 people had died. But historians now believe 3,000 to 5,000 died in the earthquake and the fires that followed.
The story that haunts me most is what happened to the city's visionary and talented fire chief, Dennis Sullivan. Jolted awake by the quake, he had the presence of mind to wrap his wife in a mattress. But falling debris from a nearby building crashed through his roof, hurling Sullivan and his wife four stories downward into a sea of wreckage. Badly burned, he fell into a coma and died four days later.
As author James Dalessandro told us, "The one man who could have made a difference was lost." Sullivan's wife, though, survived -- the mattress saved her life.
The other story that sticks with me is the heroism of a Navy lieutenant, a man named Frederick Freeman. Acting without orders and without supervision, he took it upon himself to muster his men and fight the fire at the water's edge. It is now believed he saved the city's waterfront.
Had the waterfront been lost, the death toll would have skyrocketed because it was the main avenue of evacuation and the main route for incoming supplies. In a city ruled by panic, chaos, lawlessness and drunkenness, Freeman inspired his men to work for 70 straight hours.
"He was not a man who would wait for instructions before taking action in an emergency," wrote one of the midshipmen under Freeman's command. "He was a born leader of men, a skipper whose men would go to Hell and back for him. I can hear him now, 'Come on men, sock it to 'em!' and they did."
I can't imagine the terror in San Francisco a hundred years ago. That earthquake lasted 40 or 50 seconds. The fires burned for three days. But it must have felt like an eternity.
Best-selling author's link to serial killer
Hope you all had a great weekend. I wanted to let you know in advance about a special edition of "360°" that is going to air tomorrow night.
Sebastian Junger, the author of "The Perfect Storm," has written a new book called "A Death in Belmont." It's a chilling and controversial reexamination of the Boston Strangler murders of the early 1960s, as well as a killing not attributed to the Strangler, a murder that happened about a mile away from Sebastian Junger's childhood home.
What makes this book so interesting is that before he confessed to being the infamous Boston Strangler, Albert DeSalvo was Al the handyman, a carpenter working at the home of a woman named Ellen Junger. Ellen is Sebastian Junger's mother, and in "A Death in Belmont," she recalls this encounter with the serial killer she knew only as her handyman.
"I went to the basement door and looked down at him and he was looking up at me with this frightening expression in his eyes, kind of intense and burning. It wasn't anger. It was more as if he was trying to mesmerize me, to compel me to come downstairs. It was like he was seeing right though me. I've never had anybody look at me like that. I was terrified."
Ellen Junger was lucky. Thirteen other women were not. But it's that other murder, the one the one the Strangler did not confess to, that has haunted Sebastian Junger all these years. This murder had all the markings of another Strangler killing, but an African-American cleaning man named Roy Smith was found guilty of the crime.
The case against Roy Smith is strong, but there are some intriguing questions that Sebastian Junger has spent several years trying to answer. Was Smith truly guilty or did DeSalvo get away with one more murder? Some have criticized Junger's new book, questioning his research and some of his conclusions. This Tuesday night, in a 2-hour special, we'll take a closer look at "A Death in Belmont," and let you be the judge.