Thursday, September 29, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (9/29/05)


The gridlock from Hell. Watching traffic crawl at a snail's pace on Interstate highway I-45 heading north from Houston to escape Hurricane Katrina, one could hardly avoid thinking of Westchester's flawed and untested evacuation plan. Officials in Texas were quick to blame the unforgivable gridlock conditions on evacuation by panicky people who did not live in threatened low-lying areas. Haven't emergency planners in Texas heard of the "worst-case scenario"?

Westchester County's emergency planning brochure states: "In most instances, only people living in specific ERPAs (Emergency Response Planning Areas) would be told to evacuate." How self-deluding can county government be? One doesn't have to be an expert in mass psychology to know that the moment a nuclear emergency is declared, everybody within the designated 10-mile radius of Indian Point--and beyond--will be on the road. The gridlock we witnessed on the broad expressways of East Texas will be nothing compared to the chaos on Westchester's narrow spiderweb of a road network. One lesson from Katrina: Keep your automobiles' gas tanks topped off at all times.

You can forget about all escape roads leading away from Indian Point becoming single-direction roads. Westchester's evacuation plan calls for buses chartered by the county to head toward Indian Point to evacuate from local schools those children for whom there will not be space in school buses. Under the evacuation plan, some schools will allow parents to pick up their children from school before they are taken to a School Reception Center. Imagine the pandemonium this will present, hindering the ability of school buses to reach schools. And what records will be kept of such extractions under helter-skelter conditions? The immediate review of evacuation plans by the county and individual school districts should have the highest priority.

Don't ask, don't tell. "The March of the Penguins," a documentary film, has become a surprise success, already outgrossing Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" at the box office. The film records how Antarctic penguins walk--or rather waddle--to traditional breeding grounds over 70 miles of icy terrain in temperatures of 80 below. Here the females, having taken months to produce a single egg, keep it off the ice by placing it on top of their feet, while the males head back to the sea to fatten up. Upon returning, the males are entrusted with keeping the chick warm, and the females return to the sea to gorge on food they share with the hatched chicks.

According to Jonathan Miller's recent story in The New York Times, conservative groups have praised the film's depiction of the birds' triumph over a harsh climate and environment as an argument against evolutionary theory. Andrew Coffin, reviewing the film in World Magazine, a popular Christian weekly, claimed "it makes a strong case for intelligent design." The American distributors of the film denied it had any social, cultural or political content. Conservative columnist George Will also demurred, writing in the Washington Post, disclaimed any such connection, maintaining, "The penguins are made for that behavior in the first place. What made them? Adaptive evolution. They have been 'designed' for all that rigor--meaning they have been shaped by adapting to many millennia of nature's harshness."

Other conservatives hailed the film as a tribute to traditional values. Michael Medved, film critic and conservative radio host, called the film "the motion picture this summer that most passionately affirms traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child rearing." Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, told a meeting of young conservatives in Washington last month to check out the movie because it shows "penguins are the really ideal example of monogamy."

Ornithologists familiar with penguin habits had a good laugh, pointing out that the waddling birds are hardly examples of monogamy. Penguins like those shown in the film are only committed to each other for a year and then go through the same routine the next breeding season with a different partner. Surely such short-term connections is not the monogamy the conservatives are celebrating. An article in the April 1999 issue of The Auk, monthly journal of the American Ornithological Association, reported that "emperor penguins (Aptenodytes fosteri) have much lower mate fidelity than do smaller species of penguins, despite their high rates of survival."

Wait, it gets even more embarrassing for conservative moralists. It so happens that penguins are sometimes gay. Wendell and Cass, two penguins at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island were in a same-sex relationship for years. At the Central Park Zoo, two male penguins named Roy and Silo even foster-parented an egg together. "They got all excited when we gave them an egg," according to Rob Gramzay, senior keeper for polar birds. The egg came from a young, inexperienced penguin couple and was given to Roy and Silo. "And they did a really great job of taking care of the chick and feeding it." Not to put too much of an anthropomorphic spin on this, but the famous gay penguin couple later split up when Silo turned bisexual and found a female love interest.

At a zoo in Germany conditions are even more complicated: Zoo keepers at the Bremerhaven Zoo were puzzled that their Humboldt penguins, an endangered species, had failed to breed. Tests revealed three of the five pairs were all male. The zoo's solution was to import four female penguins from Sweden. In case the Bremerhaven Zoo's penguins exhibit no interest in the females, the zoo has also imported two new male penguins. "So the ladies don't miss out altogether," said Bremerhaven Zoo director, Ms. Heike Kueck.

"All hat and no cattle." President Lyndon B. Johnson's favorite expression for arriviste Texans aptly describes George W. Bush, now that the neighboring rancher who grazed his cattle on the presidential "ranch" has withdrawn them. Mr. Bush likes to portray himself as the "Cowboy President," but he hasn't always had a folksy image. In 1978, in an election campaign the President doesn't talk about much, the 32-year-old son of the future Vice President and President ran against Texas Democrat Kent R. Hance in the 19th congressional district. Bush had plenty of money, but he also had a shrewd and adept opponent. Hance depicted him as an Ivy League interloper, an overeducated elitist carpetbagger who didn't know Texas.

At a candidates forum early in the campaign, Bush blurted out enthusiastically, "Today is the first time I've ever been on a real farm." This didn't sit well with an audience of wheat and cotton farmers. And his decision to show himself jogging around a track in a TV commercial only underscored how out of touch he was with the district he hoped to represent. Hardly anybody jogged on the high plains of West Texas.

During the campaign, Hance compared candidate Bush's attendance at exclusive eastern schools (Andover, Yale and Harvard) with his own plebeian academic history (Dimmit, Texas, High School, Texas Tech and the University of Texas Law School). Native Texan easily defeated George W. Bush. Later, noting his opponent's subsequent swift rise in politics, Hance, who switched parties in 1985 after voting for the Reagan tax cuts in 1981, remarked that one lesson George W. Bush took from his defeat was "he wasn't ever going to be out-Christianed or out-good-old-boyed again."


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Thursday, September 15, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (9/15/05)


An amateur military historian reflects on the recent past. The fourth anniversary of the events of September 11th has come and gone, marked by solemn ceremonies of remembrance across the nation. Half a world away, the blood of too many American service men and women is oozing out on Iraq's dreary sands and in Afghanistan's bleak mountain fastnesses. Yet here at home we seem only dimly aware there's a war going on. Therefore, this may be an appropriate moment to review some of the crucial miscalculations of the intervening years.

1. Misreading Osama bin Laden's aims and al-Quaida's structure. Nine days after 9/11 President George W. Bush appeared before Congress and described al-Quaida's motives: "They hate our freedoms," he said, and proceeded to recite a litany of the freedoms we enjoy. Unfortunately, bin Laden had already proclaimed what he doesn't like about the United States.

He doesn't give a flying fig about our society, which he considers decadent and beyond salvation. In a 1998 bin Laden fatwah calling for a jihad against Americans, he clearly spelled out his aims: Expulsion of American and British forces from the Middle East; destruction of Israel, a nation we support; removal of elitist regimes in Arab countries; the restoration of the caliphate that once ruled from Baghdad.

Instead of treating the incidents of 9/11 as what they were, criminal acts of mass murder--no different from the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing committed by Timothy McVeigh--and enlisting the police agencies of every country in the hunt for the criminal network responsible for these crimes and similar crimes against humanity, we fell into the trap of treating the acts of 9/11 as part of an ambiguously named "war on terror."

In 2004, referring to al-Quaida, the President announced. "We've captured or killed two-thirds of their known leaders," demonstrating that he still thinks of al-Quaida as a hierarchical organization. It has never had a narrow, inflexible "corporate" structure, and its survival has never depended on those at the top. Instead, it is made up of loosely organized small groups or cells.

2. The forgotten war--Afghanistan. Punishing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan for giving sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and also capturing him there seemed like a great idea--but it was poorly executed. The original operation, was called "Infinite Justice," one of those awkward word-marriages beloved by the military. Wiser heads pointed out that this label might offend Muslims; Islam teaches that only Allah can dispense "infinite justice." The name of the operation was quickly changed to "Enduring Freedom."

After prolonged high-level bombing, American military leaders seemed strangely reluctant to incur casualties. In fact, the first American killed in combat was CIA officer Mike Spann, who was interrogating a captured Taliban fighter at Mazar-e Sharif. As a result, only the comparatively small number of 234 American troops have died in Afghanistan. Contrast this with the nearly two thousand American military deaths in Iraq.

Curiously, the liberation of Kabul and other cities was not the outcome of a long siege or by traditional violent clash of massed forces. Instead, as each encounter loomed the Taliban quietly melted away with their weapons and supplies and merged with the populations of Afghan and Pakistani villages.

Operation Anaconda (named for the giant South American reptile, a constrictor) followed, but resulted in no encirclement and capture of Osama bin Laden, secure in his cave redoubt in the Tora Bora Mountains. Because it relied largely on troops of the corrupt warlords making up the Northern Alliance. the quarry was allowed to slip away. Osama bin Laden, the criminal mastermind of 9/11 is now believed to be safe in the tribal area of northwest Pakistan.

In Afghanistan, we have done little about postwar reconstruction or creating a truly democratic state there. The warlords are back in power, and opium poppies are again the largest cash crop of the country. President Hamid Kharzai is a virtual prisoner in his own capital, Kabul.

3. Failure to form a meaningful coalition before attacking Iraq. France, Germany and other countries with large Muslim minorities declined to participate in the coalition. (In southern France mosques outnumber churches, the legacy of their 19th-century colonization of Muslim countries.) Defense secretary Rumsfeld disparaged them as "Old Europe."

The Turkish parliament, responding to popular sentiment, refused to grant coalition troops permission to strike Iraq from Turkish bases. Not well publicized, but a big blow to Administration plans nevertheless, was India's refusal in July 2003 to send troops to Iraq--a full division totaling 17,000. The country had not forgotten the huge losses suffered by Indian troops in Britain's initial disastrous World War I invasion of Iraq. With a population one-eighth Muslim, 70 percent of Indians opposed to the plan and state elections upcoming, the Delhi government of prime minister Vajpayee politely declined, leaving the Bush Administration in the lurch.

4. Preemptive invasion and regime termination in Iraq. Just as Osama bin Laden had delivered massive blows to symbolic American icons at comparatively small cost, our invasion of Iraq must have made his heart sing. His 9/11 actions had caused Christian armies to pour into Iraq and occupy an ancient Arab state, former seat of the Abbassids, the Arab dynasty that ruled from 750 to 1258 and expanded the Muslim empire.

We succeeded in giving al-Quaida a training camp in which to instruct about 20,000 Baathists of Iraq's former ruling party and about a thousand foreign jihadists in the tools and techniques of guerrilla warfare. As a bonus, we gave them 140,000 human targets.

5. Jumping the gun with "Mission Accomplished." No single event so emphasizes that the road to success in Iraq is not an easy one than the attempt to declare victory aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln 43 days after the first bombs fell in Iraq. It took many more months for the American-led coalition to acknowledge the scale of the growing insurgency and more than a year for the Coalition Provisional Authority to stop describing the insurgents as "remnants." It is no exaggeration to say that the insurgents are today stronger than they were immediately after the fall of Baghdad.

6. Inexplicable lack of postwar planning to control an insurgency. No heads have rolled for initial equipment deficiencies, such as inadequate body armor and the failure of even armored Humvees--an all-purpose vehicle first introduced in 1984--to protect troops. South Africa makes an armored troop carrier that can withstand exploding bombs euphemistically called in military parlance IEDs (for "improvised explosive devices"), but the "not-invented-here" syndrome keeps the Pentagon from purchasing these in large quantities.

In conventional warfare, victory is achieved by defeating the massed forces of the enemy in battlefield set pieces. But in fourth-generation guerrilla warfare, traditional tactics cannot defeat an elusive and widely dispersed enemy. In the Vietnam War, the American strategy was to employ "search-and-destroy" tactics--with a heavy accent on often-inflated body counts--instead of trying to win "hearts and minds." This strategy didn't work in Vietnam, and it isn't working in Iraq.

Iraq has 18 provinces, 14 of which are reasonably peaceable and only four of which--Anbar, Baghdad, Nineveh and Sala ad-Din--are not secure. We should be concentrating our efforts to improve conditions in the 14 provinces, sealing off the recalcitrant four as much as possible. The latter may be difficult to do at present troop strengths; American forces cannot even assure the security of the road from the Baghdad airport to the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad.

We must increase our awareness of the history and cultural complexity of this most ancient of countries and use this knowledge to our advantage. For example, there are about 150 tribes of varying size and influence in Iraq, and at least three-quarters of Iraqis are members of a tribe. We have yet to find our Gertrude Bell, the indefatigable woman who systematically dissected and mapped tribal compositions, loyalties and blood feuds for British Intelligence at the start of the First World War, enabling them to obtain a semblance of tribal cooperation.

Lieutenant General Sir Gerald Templer, British high commissioner and director of operations during the insurgency in Malaya in the 1950s, noted that the political and military sides of counterinsurgency must be "completely and utterly interrelated" by winning the hearts and minds of the local population and increasing the flow of intelligence from the populace. This we have not done in Iraq.

7. Destruction of Fallujah. Called by Iraqis the "city of mosques," this city of several hundred thousand was severely damaged in an all-out attack in November of 2004. More than a thousand were killed and some 200,000 were forced to flee and now live in tent camps on the outskirts of the city. Images of the destruction of the city were widely circulated on Arab TV, inciting strong feelings throughout the Muslim world. Today, U.S. Marines patrol the ruined city, but the highly touted operation has had a negligible effect on overall security in Iraq. If we wreak the same destruction on every insurgent center in Iraq, the reconstruction costs will be beyond our ability to pay.

8. Slow progress toward an Iraq constitution. Insurgency is not unusual in Iraq. From the day it was created, the country has been an improbable melding of disparate ethnic and religious groups into a rancorous state that could almost only be ruled by a ruthless despot.

As of this writing, the draft constitution does not bode well for democracy. One clause reads, "Islam is the official religion of the state"--nothing wrong with that, but it adds, "and is the basic source of all legislation." Another clause reads, " No law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam."

Will the parents of those killed in Iraq think their deaths were in a noble cause if it turns out the only role we have played there is as midwife to the birth of a repressive and unstable pro-Iranian theocracy that becomes embroiled in a protracted civil war?

9. Specious reasoning for remaining in Iraq. The President's recent speeches have all argued that we must "stay the course" and suffer additional deaths so as to honor the nearly 2,000 Americans who have already given their lives there. As General George S. Patton, Jr., could have told him, the only reason for engaging in warfare is to win.

The reasoning advanced by the President mirrors a costly mistake made by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Although LBJ was convinced that Vietnam was a lost cause, following the same reasoning he continued to pour troops into the conflict because those already dead should not be allowed to die in vain. Staying a doomed course in Vietnam yielded 58,000 military deaths.

Economists, psychologists and decision scientists call this the "sunk-cost fallacy." A good example of this fallacy can be found in casino gambling, where the odds are always in favor of the house. Picture the desperate public scold Bill Bennett sitting in his Las Vegas hotel suite futilely trying to recoup $8 million lost in slot machines. Another example is the F-22 fighter. It began development in 1986; nearly two decades later the plane is still not in service and its unit cost stands at $300 million. So far, U.S. taxpayers have invested $41 billion with little to show for it. Yet the Congress keeps appropriating funds for this Cold War artifact.

The best way to honor those who have already died in Iraq is to recognize their sacrifice and make sure that others are never needlessly put in harm's way again on the basis of faulty intelligence. Increasing the force in Iraq to achieve greater saturation of the country and changing our strategy may be the only way to put down the insurgency.

10. Overly optimistic and even contradictory projections. One casualty of the war in Iraq has been the truth. In May of 2004, General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "I think we're on the brink of success here." Six months later, on the eve of the November offensive against Fallujah, General John Abizaid, American commander in the Persian Gulf, predicted that with the fall of the city "there will be nowhere left for the insurgents to hide." Following the attack, Lieutenant General John Sattler, Marine commander in Iraq, declared, "the back of the insurgency has been broken"--yet the violence continued unabated. More recently, Vice President Dick Cheney declared that the insurgency was in "its last throes," even as top military commanders were admitting that we would have to maintain current troop levels of 138,000, or close to them, for years to come in Iraq.

11. Lack of an exit strategy. Critics of the war see Iraq as another Vietnam and have called for immediate withdrawal of coalition troops--and the Devil take the hindmost. The far-reaching consequences of a precipitous, premature pullback would be disastrous. One result would be an expanded insurgency, possibly taking on the proportions of a full-blown civil war. Neighboring Sunni Syria and Shiite Iran could easily be drawn into the conflict. The ensuing chaos in the Middle East would drive up oil prices to unimaginable levels, making gasoline prohibitive and precipitating economic collapse of Western nations.

Critics of these critics claim that revealing even a staggered timetable of departures will only embolden the insurgents. But it is not a withdrawal timetable that is needed, it is a genuine strategy of counterinsurgency warfare. Unless such a strategy is adopted, departing troops may literally have to fight their way out of Iraq.

12. Lessons for the future. To improve life here at home and to lessen tensions in the Middle East, we should do the following:

+ Reduce our dependency on fossil fuels.

+ Explore alternate sources of energy.

+ Eventually withdraw our forces from Iraq when it has become a viable country. For now, we have no choice but to follow the so-called Pottery Barn rule: "You broke it? You bought it." Having made a mess of Iraq, we cannot just skedaddle and still hold our heads high in the company of nations.

+ Encourage Israel to cooperate in the creation of a Palestinian state.

+ Support replacement of autocratic regimes in Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

If we fail to take these steps, the deaths of nearly 2,000 Americans and a dozen times that many Iraqis, plus the expenditure of more than $200 billion will indeed have been for naught.


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Thursday, September 08, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (9/08/05)


What if the buses don't come? The sight of government officials repeatedly thanking and congratulating one another last week was embarrassing. One could only agree with Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish (the equivalent of our county), who implored, "I'm sick of press conferences. For God's sake, shut up and send us somebody."

As a nation we are great at denying responsibility: "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees," President Bush assured Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America. This was a strange statement to make. Breaching of the New Orleans levees regularly figured prominently in the government's disaster scenarios. The President's statement was even too much for John Breaux, former senator and close Bush ally. "We talked about it last year," he insisted.

The dissembling was strangely reminiscent of Condoleezza Rice's protestation that no one could have known that anyone wanted to attack us by flying planes into buildings." Only a month before 9/11, she had discounted a CIA Presidential briefing titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S."

As a nation, we're also good at playing the blame game, finding scapegoats and holding post mortems that dissect and analyze tragic events. We can all look forward to a commission to delve into the question of how an event that was long predicted could have been allowed to happen. Already Department of Homeland officials, a totally unnecessary layer of bureaucracy, are pointing fingers at state and local officials. I note it here beforethe following document mysteriously disappears from the Homeland Security Department's website:

"In the event of a terrorist attack, national disaster or other large-scale emergency, the Department of Homeland Security will assume primary responsibility for ensuring that emergency response professionals are prepared for any situation. This will entail providing a coordinated, comprehensive federal response to any large-scale crisis and mounting a swift and effective recovery effort."

It goes on to promise: "The department will also prioritize the important issue of citizen preparedness. Educating America's families on how best to prepare their homes for disaster and for citizens on how to respond in a crisis will be given special attention."

Aside from color coding the level of threat and scaring the public into needlessly buying thousands of miles of duct tape, the Department of Homeland Security, a totally unn has done diddly squat in the way of educating the public about anything. Ironically, September is National Preparedness Month.

And the President's compliment to Michael Brown, hapless head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, that he had done "a heck of a job," was distressing--another example of the President's inability to admit that anything had not gone according to plan. Brown is the undersecretary of the DHS and floundering head of FEMA, who blamed the sick and poor residents of New Orleans for failing to evacuate the city on short notice.

Suddenly propelled into the spotlight, Michael Brown's biography on FEMA's web site conveniently omits his eleven-year stint as Commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association. It seems that Mr. Brown made such a mess of their horse shows and ran expenses so high the Association got rid of him.

No matter how they slice and dice it, this was a colossal failure of responsibility from the top down. The whole sorry debacle got me to thinking about the state of disaster preparedness in northwestern Westchester. Seeing images of what happened to New Orleans as a result of government neglect, I had to wonder, could I be looking at our own future?

Our fragile levees. There are two principal areas of concern in this corner of Westchester: Indian Point and the Croton Dam. Let's tackle Indian Point first, the site that perhaps poses the greatest threat. Of the 31 states with nuclear capacity, New York ranks fourth. (Illinois is first, Pennsylvania is second, and South Carolina is third.) Of New York's six reactors, the two plants at Indian Point generate 40 percent of the state's nuclear power.

We have to assume that at Indian Point what the President likes to call "the good folks" have taken the proper precautions to protect the installation from truck bombs and attack by individuals. They are not likely to lay out their security plans for all the world to see. We can all be grateful that none of the planes of 9/11 were piloted into the containment buildings there. Otherwise, I wouldn't be writing this--and you wouldn't be reading it. The Indian Point buildings were only designed to withstand a glancing blow from small aircraft.

A typical nuclear energy plant may contain at its core the equivalent of a thousand times the radioactivity released at Hiroshima by the 1945 atomic bomb called "Little Boy" we exploded there. The spent-fuel pools at nuclear plants like Indian Point, however, can contain multiples of those amounts--the equivalent of many Chernobyls.

There's another threat to Indian Point that gets less attention: earthquakes. Contrary to popular belief, parts of the East Coast are surprisingly active seismologically. The culprit at Indian Point would probably be an earthquake along the extensive fault system called the Ramapo Fault. Part of a system of faults that has been mapped from Westchester County to eastern Pennsylvania and beyond, the Ramapo Fault, at one billion years old, is one of the oldest faults. It was active during the evolution of the Appalachian Mountains, when the fault system served to delimit the Newark Basin and other basins formed by the opening of the Atlantic Ocean, 200 million years ago. It began to show new signs of life in the 1970s.

Historically, earthquakes with magnitudes as high as 5.2 have occurred in the Indian Point region, including one at Wappingers Falls, June 7, 1974, and another at Annsville, January 17, 1980. The seismicity pattern appears to be concentrated along the Ramapo Fault, although activity in faults that cross this fault indicate a complex relationship between present day stresses in the Earth's crust and preexisting geologic features.

The chief danger of an earthquake affecting Indian Point is that even minor ground movement could disrupt the cooling system, causing radioactive products to be released accidentally into the atmosphere.

For this and other reasons, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has decided to create and area within a 10-mile radius from Indian Point called the Emergency Planning Zone, or EPZ. It includes portions of four counties--Westchester, Rockland, Putnam and Orange--and requires special attention in the event of what is called an "incident." Members of the public living or working in this area are to be notified of an unusual situation at the plant by a system of 156 sirens placed at strategic locations in the critical area.

Recently, for the third time in less than a month, the siren system failed to work when tested. The basic purpose of the siren system is to alert the public to listen for instructions over certain designated TV or radio stations. Because of the demonstrated lack of a reliable siren system, Entergy, the plants' operator, has begun a search for a replacement system, perhaps one that will not rely on such primitive devices as sirens.

Four levels of nuclear "incidents" could occur in which residents would either be instructed to remain at home or to evacuate the area.

Each of the four counties has prepared an elaborate evacuation plan published in a booklet entitled Community Emergency Planning for Indian Point. Westchester households that do not have the latest edition (dated 2004-2005) should request a copy from the County's Department of Emergency Services at 1-800-942-1452.

It is not envisioned that a situation will occur requiring evacuation of the entire area within the demarcated 10-mile radius. Rather, it is anticipated that smaller zones within the larger area will require evacuation, based on what are described as "plant conditions" and wind directions. Evacuation will require that residents make their way in their own vehicles to a General Population Resource Center located south of the 10-mile critical area. Pets are not accepted at such centers (except service dogs such as seeing eye dogs); owners are expected to have made provision for their care at a boarding kennel, or with friends or relatives outside the EPZ.

For those who do not have transportation, bus stops have been designated and marked with signs. These are collection points for what disaster experts call the "low-mobility" population, the elderly or infirm who do not drive, or the poor without cars or other means of leaving the area. No indication is given of the frequency of these buses.

For residents who may be completely bedridden, blind or hearing impaired, or otherwise unable to make their way to a bus stop, Westchester County's emergency planning booklet contains a postage-paid registration card. Using the information provided, the Department of Emergency Services will make arrangements for such residents to be evacuated during an emergency.

It is not known what steps this department has taken to amplify its list of self-identified persons with special needs (for example, by cross-checking with services such as Meals On Wheels or with the Visiting Nurse Service), especially since many elderly patients may tend to overlook details.

Children in school during school hours will be relocated in school buses to various designated School Reception Centers. In some cases these will not be the same as the General Population Reception Centers to which their parents are directed. How Westchester County will dissuade such parents from heading for the centers to which their children are bussed is not known.

One anomaly in the evacuation plan results from limiting evacuation procedures to location within each county. Residents living north of Indian Point, for example, including the population of Peekskill, who must evacuate their homes or workplaces are required to head south. But heading north into Putnam County would be more desirable in theory and in practice.

The most peculiar aspect of the evacuation plan is that its feasibility has never been tested. Can you immagine a school that never conducts a fire drill performing well in an emergency?

A note about potassium iodide. In 2002, Westchester County also initiated a program to distribute potassium iodide (KI) tablets to adults and children in the EPZ. Potassium iodide is a simple chemical compound commonly added to table salt to make iodized salt. It protects the thyroid from absorbing radioactive iodine from nuclear fallout by saturating all of the iodine-binding sites in the thyroid gland and helps to protect it from cancer.

Tablets (one per individual) were made available in the municipal offices of most communities, although the village of Buchanan and the town of Cortlandt did not directly participate in the program. Potassium iodide tablets may be purchased at selected pharmacies. In a nuclear emergency, if you do not have access to potassium iodide tablets, you can swab your forearm or abdomen with 8 milliliters (slightly less than two teaspoons) of 2% iodine from your medicine chest.

To be effective potassium iodide must be taken within a matter of hours after any exposure--too short a time to order it over the Internet after an incident. I urge every reader to stockpile a potassium iodide tablet for each person in the family. Those who have already purchased a supply of tablets of this chemical should check the expiration date; fortunately it has a reasonably long shelf life of several years. Pets also require potassium iodide protection. Dosages for children and pets should be adjusted according to size and weight.

There's a discrepancy between Westchester's and Putnam's dosage information about potassium iodide. On its website, Westchester says that the KI tablet should be ingested within 6 hours of exposure; Putnam County specifies that it should be taken within 3-4 hours of exposure.

The Croton Dam. Of the approximately 77,000 dams in the United States, the Federal Government is responsible for only about five percent of those dams whose failure could result in loss of life or significant property damage. The remaining dams belong to state and local governments, utilities and corporate or private owners.

It is called the "eighth wonder of the world" by local boosters and is reputed to be the largest cut-stone structure in the world after the Great Pyramid at Gizeh in Egypt, the Croton Dam is sometimes called the Cornell Dam, after Aaron Cornell, whose land for the dam was bought by New York City's Board of Water Supply. It is now maintained and protected by the City's Department of Environmental Protection.

Measuring 297 feet high and 1,017 feet in length, the Croton Dam was begun in 1892 and completed in 1907, replacing an earlier dam that now lies beneath its surface. It was designed by Alphonse Fteley (1837-1903), a well-known hydraulic and sanitary engineer who did not live to see its completion.

A massive masonry gravity dam, it depends on its enormous weight and mass to resist the tremendous hydrostatic pressure exerted by the reservoir behind it. It is not known how this structure would react to seismic forces. However, East Coast earthquakes do not produce visible surface disruptions, unlike the famous San Andreas fault in California. Because the crust on the East Coast is cooler and more rigid, earthquakes here tend to be felt over a larger area than those on the West Coast. Conditions on the East Cost allow seismic waves to travel farther but they do it with less force.

One lurking threat to the Croton Dam may lie in the ten back-up dams that form part of the Croton Reservoir System. Should one or more of these dams fail, a large volume of water might be released, causing the Croton Dam to overflow. The power of fast-moving water can be awesome.

The elevation of the Croton Dam's spillway is 196 feet above sea level. Any large volume of water released into the Croton River Gorge would result in considerable destruction, carrying away bridges, homes, schools, churches and natural vegetation in its path in quite the same way as the smaller original Croton Dam did when it gave way in 1841.

Residences on Mt. Airy and on the southern elevation of the Croton Gorge would be spared. Upon leaving the narrow confines of the Croton River Gorge and reaching the thickly settled areas of Croton and Harmon, the wall of water would fan out but would nevertheless inundate and sweep away everything in its path like a giant bulldozer. Nordica Hill opposite the Croton Free Library and the area around Sunset Park would be tiny islands barely poking above an angry, surging sea.

Croton Manor would also disappear, as would Crotonville. The topography of Croton Point would be changed. The Metro North rail yards, at an elevation of 17 feet above sea level, would be covered with sand, gravel and the debris of human occupation forced ahead of the wall of water. Through train traffic would be impossible. Without an early warning system in place the loss of life would be tremendous.

Those of us who live in the shadow of the Croton Dam fervently hope the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency get their act together before any disaster scenarios involving the dam are played out in our corner of Westchester.


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Thursday, September 01, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (9/01/05)


Who first called it "The Big Apple"? For the record, the first appearance of this term in print was in 1909 by Edward S. Martin, a prolific poet and writer. In an introduction to an anthology titled The Wayfarer in New York, Martin wrote: "Kansas is apt to see in New York a greedy city. . . . New York is merely one of the fruits of that great tree whose roots go down in the Mississippi Valley and whose branches spread from one ocean to the other. . . . It [Kansas] inclines to think that the big apple [New York] gets a disproportionate share of the national sap."

Martin, founder in 1883 of the satirical magazine Life and its first editor, was no stuffy literary bluenose. Casting a disapproving eye on the prohibition of alcohol after the First World War, he remarked nostalgically about spiritus frumenti: "Wisely used, it makes dinner parties livelier, public dinners more tolerable, wedding guests more blithe and life in general pleasanter."

Whether Martin's bookish and metaphorical use of 'big apple' reflected its usage in vernacular speech is unknown. It next appeared in 1921 in the pages of the New York Morning Telegraph, then the preeminent newspaper reporting on sports and entertainment. On May 3, 1921, turf writer John J. Fitz Gerald, employing the parlance of followers of the "sport of kings," wrote: "J.P. Smith, with Tippety Witchet and others of the L.T. Bauer string, is scheduled to start for 'the big apple' tomorrow after a most prosperous Spring campaign at Bowie and Havre de Grace." By then, the phrase obviously had wide enough currency among racing fans to be understood by his readers.

In his Morning Telegraph column dated Feb. 18, 1924, and headed "Around the Big Apple," Fitz Gerald told this story: "The Big Apple. The dream of every lad that ever threw a leg over a thoroughbred and the goal of all horsemen. There's only one Big Apple. That's New York.

"Two dusky stable hands were leading a pair of thoroughbreds around the 'cooling rings' of adjoining stables at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans and engaging in desultory conversation. 'Where y'all goin' from here?' queried one. 'From here we're headed for the Big Apple,' proudly replied the other.

"'Well, you'd better fatten up them skinners or all you'll get from the apple is the core,' was the quick rejoinder."

John J. Fitz Gerald became the turf editor of the Morning Telegraph in 1925, at 32 the youngest in that job. The following year, he felt obliged to explain the origin of the term again. In the Morning Telegraph, Dec. 1, 1926, he told essentially the same story: "So many people have asked the writer about the derivation of his phrase 'the big apple' that he is forced to make another explanation. A number of years back, when racing a few horses at the Fair Grounds with Jake Byer, he was watching a couple of stable hands cool out a pair of 'hots' in a circle outside the stable.

"A boy from the adjoining barn called over, 'Where you shipping after the meeting?' To this one of the lads replied. 'Why, we ain't no bull-ring stable, we's goin' to 'the big apple.'

"The reply was bright and snappy. 'Boy, I don't know what you're goin' to that apple with those hides for. All you'll get is the rind.'"

By 1927, the expression was picked up and used by Walter Winchell, an unabashed borrower of words and expressions. A year later O.O. McIntyre used it in his column, "New York Day by Day." In 1935, the Big Apple night club opened in Harlem. The expression was now common among Negro musicians. By 1937 a song and a dance style called the Big Apple were briefly popular.

Born in Saratoga Springs, John J. Fitz Gerald never finished high school and joined the Morning Telegraph in 1912. He left in 1918 to buy horses, but was drafted shortly afterwards. Fitz Gerald rejoined the staff in 1919 following his discharge. In 1940, he quit the paper in 1940 to do public relations for various racetracks. John Joseph Fitz Gerald died in the seedy midtown Hotel Bryant on March 17, 1963, shortly after his 70th birthday. Ironically, it was during the crippling 114-day New York City newspaper strike. The Morning Telegraph, which was not hit by the strike, printed his obituary the next day.

In 1971, "The Big Apple" was officially promoted as a nickname for New York City by Charles Gillett, 55, president of the City's Convention and Visitors Bureau. It was intended to replace the short-lived appellation Fun City, conferred at the start of a transit strike.

On May 3, 1993, the 70th anniversary of the expression's first use in print by Fitz Gerald, a sign was added to a lamppost at the southwest corner of 54th Street and Broadway. The rain came down so heavily during the ceremony that the only person to witness the unveiling was a Fitz Gerald enthusiast named Barry Popik, a New York City parking violations judge. Popik had been the driving force in a long campaign to get the city to recognize Fitz Gerald as the first to record use of this colorful idiom by a pair of stable hands in New Orleans.


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