Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sandy farewell

Monday, 29 October 2012

On Monday morning New York City is closed down. I’m staying at home as my office, like most others, has been forced shut. Without transportation it would anyway be impossible to get to Manhattan. It doesn’t look too bad outside, though. It’s grey and the rain is falling, but it all looks rather calm. The wind comes in gusts that violently shake the trees outside. Some leaves have already turned yellow and are flying off like wet rags.

By noon the situation is starting to look more serious. According to the reports, the storm has been moving faster than anticipated and therefore has arrived earlier than expected. Its power has intensified. There’s by now no doubt this’ll be the worst storm to hit New York since the 1938 hurricane. The TV shows images from Atlantic City, NJ. The famous boardwalk and the casinos are being pounded by heavy winds and the waves from the open ocean are splashing forcefully onto the shore. I remember my brother has a vacation property on the Brigantine Island not far from Atlantic City. I also remember it faces the ocean. There’s only the sandy beach and a narrow street between the building and the Atlantic. In good weather, the location is lovely.

I correspond with my colleague Chona who lives in New Jersey. She is lamenting the pictures of her beloved Jersey Shore being eaten up by the waves. The TV meteorologist explains how New York City is squeezed in between New Jersey and Long Island, which means that in an Atlantic storm situation like today, the water has only one way to go: inland towards the city via the inlets. Therefore, the storm surge forecast for New York harbour is grim.

The most threatening situation starts unfolding in mid-afternoon on the west side of Manhattan. A crane on a high-rise construction site on the 7th Avenue at 57th Street has collapsed and is hanging upside-down at the height of the 90th floor above the city. There is no way to stabilize it, so it’ll be pure luck if it stays up and doesn’t fly smashing into neighbouring buildings and onto the street.

Around 4 pm Governor Andrew Cuomo holds another press conference flanked by NYFD and other emergency personnel. A troop of National Guardsmen dressed in camouflage uniforms stands guard behind them. There is a life-threatening situation on Fire Island, a thin barrier island off Long Island. Fourteen people who refused to obey the mandatory evacuation order last night had to be rescued today. Having spent some good summer vacation time on the island, I can’t even imagine anyone wanting to face a hurricane on that thin sliver of sand in the Atlantic. In the process a rescue vehicle has been lost. Luckily there were no personnel losses. Cuomo quotes Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who accused people who refused to leave of being selfish, putting others at peril. The emergency chief tells in no uncertain terms that the window to evacuate is rapidly closing. Sandy is now expected to make landfall around 18:00, which will coincide with the peak of the tide coming in. When that happens, it won’t be possible to get out of the islands that surround New York City.

I also correspond with my other colleague Indran who lives high up in one of the high-rises on the East River waterfront in Manhattan. It is Zone A, but the building complex is very solid and the water would anyway never reach that high up, so he had chosen not to evacuate. He and his family moved here from South Africa only earlier this year. They are awed by the storm which they can observe through rattling windows from a vantage point tens of stories above sea level.

Our building is faring well, too. We stay in our warm apartment and enjoy the food we stocked up on before the storm: steaks and asparagus for lunch, followed by coffee ice cream; grilled chicken and salad for dinner. Do we normally eat this well? Nowa sleeps through much of her first hurricane. I go down to the basement, which looks dry—so far. 

Around the time of the landfall, I venture out briefly to snap these photographs. From the balcony the southwestern sky looks menacing. On the street side, the large trees are bending with the gale force winds. Luckily, the rain remains surprisingly moderate.

In early evening, the communications start to falter. The cable network on which our building depends on for the Internet, TV and telephone landline goes dark. The elevator also becomes unsafe to use. We’re cut off from information and communications. Well almost, as Yoko’s iPhone can still send and receive messages (my older model went blank). Some neighbours in the building report water leaking from their a/c vents. Apparently, water is also starting to gather in the basement.

Around 21:30, Yoko reads on the iPhone that Sandy is no longer a hurricane. The National Hurricane Centre has reclassified it because it “has continued to lose tropical characteristics”—no wonder at these latitudes. It doesn’t mean that its power is waning. Sustained winds of more than 120 km per hour remain. The wind and rain continue late into the night.

Tuesday, 30 October

We survived the storm with minor personal inconvenience. In the morning the winds are still high and there are heavy showers. At the JFK airport, top wind speeds recorded were 127 kph. Our cable service is restored and we never experienced a power outage. Not everyone was equally lucky. The storm left some 7 million people in 11 states and the District of Columbia without power. In New York, power outages are widespread and currently 1.8 million people are without power. In the New York University Langone Medical Centre even the back-up generator system failed. Some 260 patients, including four newborn babies, had to be evacuated.

ConEdison, the power utility, made a statement that this is the biggest storm-related problem in the company’s history. A representative couldn’t give a timetable for fixing the problems but suggested it may take a week to fully restore the service. It's going to be a cold and dark week for those affected. 

The initial reports by the police talk about seven Sandy-related deaths in the city, but there is no information about how these happened. The national death toll from Sandy is currently put at 16. According to news reports, more than 80 homes have burned down to the ground in a fire in Breezy Point, Queens, due to electric fires. One can imagine insurance companies studying the hurricane causes in the policies for loopholes to avoid payment to the home owners. A building in Chelsea collapsed partially because of the wind. The crane in Midtown West is still hanging there, but the situation remains dangerous and the police have evacuated buildings in the neighbourhood.

There is massive flooding around the city. The National Hurricane Centre recorded storm surges of up to 3.8 metres in Kings Point. The storm surge in southern Manhattan’s Battery at 4.3 metres, was the highest ever on record, beating that caused by Hurricane Dana in 1960. In the South Street Seaport waves with a height of 9 metres were measured. Residents on Staten Island report that they have never seen anything like this. Coney Island waterfront is still inaccessible even to eager reporters. Streets look like rivers with cars floating on them. Cars have been crushed under felled trees. One car spontaneously combusted in a fireball, possibly caused by salt water getting into its battery. A huge tanker has washed ashore on Staten Island.

Reports are coming in and are being updated as more information becomes available. The economic impact has not yet been assessed.

The system-wide shutdown of mass transit—both local and long distance trains, subways, buses, ferries—continues. Seven subway tunnels are severely flooded. One can only imagine the hordes of rats sprinting across the debris in the deluge. Apparently MTA had managed to get all subway cars on higher ground in anticipation of the storm, so the trains have been spared damage. MTA calculates it’ll take four days to pump out the water from the tunnels. The rain continues to fall.

It seems that we’ll spend some more time indoors.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Waiting for Sandy

Sunday evening, October 28th

Sandy is again a hurricane. Having already once been downgraded into a tropical storm, Sandy is back as Category 1 hurricane—and it’s heading north along the Atlantic coast. The storm system is slow-moving and massive, ranging some 1,200 km across. The eye is still far out on the Atlantic off the Carolina coast some 800 km from New York, but despite the distance, the winds are picking up even here in Brooklyn. The rain is starting to fall and the Rockaway shore is already getting soaked. The hurricane is calculated to make landfall well south of New York tomorrow night and is expected to pass the metropolitan area south-southwest from here across the garden state of New Jersey.

Although New York will likely not be hit directly, the expectation is that the city will receive its share of rain and wind. In fact, the biggest threats would appear to stem from wind and the associated storm surge. The rainfall on Monday-Tuesday is expected to be just 50-120 mm—enough to give us a good washing, but not huge in historical terms. However, by noon tomorrow, the winds are expected to blow at 80 km per hour, with gusts going up to 112 km per hour. That’s strong enough to fell trees and power lines and to throw leisure boats off the East River on the banks.

This afternoon we walked down from our house to Bedford Avenue and the main shopping area of Williamsburg to get supplies so that our daughter Nowa would be able to ride out her first hurricane in comfort. It should have been no surprise, but we were still taken aback at seeing how many others had had the same idea. There were crowds of people in all shops and at least three dozen people were queuing on the pavement outside our favourite supermarket. Two bouncers were admitting people in an orderly manner, so that inside the store things didn’t get too chaotic. After a brief wait we were able to stock up with enough of bottled water and cooking ingredients should we be unable to shop for a few days.  It is interesting to note the types of items that people buy in these kinds of situations. Apart from bottled water, the first things to go seem to include canned tuna. This I noticed 14 months ago when we were bracing for Hurricane Irene, and could reconfirm today. As we headed back home, we could feel the humidity condensing in the cool wind.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been visible in the media today assuring people of the state of preparedness. All public transportation—subway, local trains, buses, ferries—will be shutting down tonight. The area airports—JFK, La Guardia and Newark—have also instructed flights to be directed elsewhere and  Amtrak trains will be avoiding New York’s Penn Station. The bridges and tunnels connecting the five Boroughs may be closed up to avoid accidents caused by heavy winds or flooding. New York will be cut off from the world.

The decisive Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered mandatory evacuation of all vulnerable low-lying areas on the coastline by 7 pm tonight. Zone A—which includes most of the shores of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island—may be facing huge storm surges. The forecast at this time is mostly 1-2 m above normal—high in its own right—but some areas around East and Hudson Rivers—and especially Long Island Sound—may face a storm surge of up to 1.8-3.3 metres. It’s almost full moon, which worsens the effects as the tides are naturally high at this time.

While the city hurricane shelters are slowly filling up, many citizens are also planning on challenging the evacuation orders and riding out the storm. The local TV station NY1 sometime ago broadcast a report from the Rockaways where some of the 130,000 people living there were gathering for hurricane parties. A somewhat wobbly gentleman declared firmly through a nearly toothless grin that he would not leave his home of 35 years: “The captain must go down with his ship!” True to his style, Mayor Bloomberg justifies the mandatory evacuations, not because of his concern for the stubborn residents, but because their intransigence may eventually put rescue personnel at risk if they need to go out to salvage foolhardy partyers from storm hit areas. He also made a decision to shut down elevators and hot water in public housing—many tall high-rises—to prevent people from getting stuck in elevators and other mishaps if and when there are power failures.

This is not the first time New York City will experience a hurricane, although they certainly are not regular events. By definition, hurricanes are tropical storms, and New York is far from tropical, as anyone having spent a winter here would attest. However, just last year, in August 2011, the city was hit by another hurricane, Irene. It was the first since Hurricane Floyd in 1999. The one before that had been Agnes in 1972. Whether this repeat just a year later would be any indication of intensified storm activity linked with climate change is of course impossible to tell. Two events in a row don’t provide any statistically significant trend. The most destructive hurricane that New York has had to deal with in modern times took place in 1938 when the eye of a Category 3 storm passed straight through Long Island killing ten people. Damage from Irene last year stayed quite limited, although much of Lower Manhattan—the Financial District and the Battery—were severely flooded. Even then, the Far Rockaways took the brunt of the storm that damaged the piers and boardwalks there. Here in Williamsburg, the visible damage was limited to some flooded basements and a few felled trees (see the photos from the aftermath of Irene).
Sandy is different, though. It’s been termed ‘storm of a generation’ to reach this far up on the East Coast. Last week, it already killed at least 60 people and caused large-scale homelessness in the Caribbean. President Barack Obama has just signed an emergency declaration for New York State in anticipation of Sandy’s arrival.

For now, we are tucked in comfortably in our apartment in Williamsburg. We are close to East River, but just outside of Zone A by virtue of our building standing on a small knoll. It will not prevent the winds from rocking the windows here on the 4th floor or preventing flooding in the basement storage areas. But all the plants have been moved inside from the balconies. We expect to stay safe and dry, although the thick clouds hide the full moon and the wind is increasingly throwing raindrops our way..

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Soul of the Rhino: A Nepali Adventure with Kings and Elephant Drivers, Billionaires and Bureaucrats, Shamans and Scientists, and the Indian RhinocerosThe Soul of the Rhino: A Nepali Adventure with Kings and Elephant Drivers, Billionaires and Bureaucrats, Shamans and Scientists, and the Indian Rhinoceros by Hemanta Mishra
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a delightful and important book. Hemanta Mishra, the acclaimed conservationist who in 1973 established Nepal’s first national park, the Royal Chitwan National Park, tells the more than three decades long story of his—and his native country’s—efforts to protect the Indian rhinoceros. The rhino, a majestic and sacred animal in Nepal, was in the 1960s and 1970s facing extinction due to poaching and habitat destruction. As we know and as Mishra shows, conservation is only for a small part about biology and ecology. The success of conservation efforts is mostly determined by economic and political factors. At the heart of the threats to the rhino lie poverty and the growth of human population. Over the decades, Misha, a Western educated conservation biologist, became adept at navigating the rapidly shifting political landscape of Nepal, with its rampant corruption, and using the traditional culture to protect the rhino.

This is a very passionate book. Its value doesn’t rest in its literary aspects. Hemanta Mishra, with the assistance of his friend Jim Ottaway Jr, tells the story in a straightforward and largely chronological manner relying on illustrative anecdotes and retelling specific events that were significant. While the conversational and personal style is pleasant, the only gripe I have about this book is about some of the literary choices, as illustrated by the fact that a third of the 21 chapters start with a sentence describing the scene and the weather of the day or night in question (“It was a cool and typical Terai evening with a clear sky and a big bright December moon…” or “It was a sunny but pleasant morning…”). The value of the book is ample in many other respects. It includes valuable scientific and historical information about the rhino and its place in Nepal—however, this information is sprinkled throughout the book and in a couple of specific short chapters, so it doesn’t make the book heavy reading on the scientific front. It also provides a wealth of information about Nepali culture and society, which is essential for understanding the conservation trajectory. But most of all, it’s a highly personal account of Hemanta Mishra’s own journey from a well-off Kathmandu city boy to a passionate conservationist and a leading light in the national parks movement. I can attest to the genuineness of his feelings, as I had the pleasure and privilege of working together with and befriending Hemanta a decade ago when we both were employed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) in Washington, DC. Hemanta is truly committed to the welfare of wildlife and has little patience with foolish bureaucracy, although he now understands what makes it tick.

There are a number of highly emotional episodes in the book. One such is when Mishra has been charged with capturing and delivering two rhinos to Forth Worth Zoo in Texas as a present from the King of Nepal. He describes his feelings of guilt kidnapping the baby rhinos from their mothers and how he becomes attached to them over the three months he and his crew must raise them prior to shipment to the zoo. When he finally has to see the rhinos off following a ceremony at Kathmandu airport—flying first to Germany on a Lufthansa flight, then on to Texas—a teary-eyed Hemanta Mishra reflects on the workings of fate: “Fate had forced me to snatch the baby rhinos from their mothers, only to nurture and love them before finally putting them on a German aircraft for a journey of no return, across two continents to America” (p. 135).

While zoos often get a bad rap, good zoos actually play an important role in species conservation through research and captive breeding programs. Hemanta Mishra frequently recognizes the support he and the conservation movement in Nepal received from America through both agencies like USAID and the Smithsonian Institution, as well as individuals like the Texas billionaire Edward B. Bass and Ramona Bass, the chairperson of the Fort Worth Zoological Society. Early on, Hemanta also sought inspiration and good practices from Yellowstone, the world’s oldest national park.

A key segment of the book pertains to the Tarpan or traditional rhino hunt ceremony by the King of Nepal that Mishra again has to arrange. He is deeply torn by his role in organizing the killing of one rhino. He carefully chooses an old male to be sacrificed for the purposes of the ritual. The young King Birendra, highly committed to nature conservation himself (as had been his father King Mahendra), had been postponing the ritual required from all Nepali kings, but had to finally cave in to the demands from the traditionalists in his government and country. The Tarpan presents a dramatic episode in the book with genuine tension, starting with the palace intrigue around the arrangements and culminating in the hunt and the following mystical religious ceremony. In the process Hemanta comes to understand the importance of tradition in conservation and that sacrificing one rhino to the king may be very valuable in maintaining the animal’s status as sacred in the Nepali culture. He often ponders in the book about his own mind has become divided between the traditional Nepalese culture and values and those adopted from the West where he was educated as a scientist. At the end of the Tarpan, he declares: “I had found my soul in the body of a rhino” (p. 185).

In general, Hemanta Mishra gives much credit to Kings Mahendra and Birendra for their commitment to environmental protection. The reverence towards the King and the royal family in Nepal has been extremely beneficial to conservation in the country. Similarly, what Mishra realized was that he had to win the local population support for managing the national park and protecting the rhinos if the project had any chance of succeeding.

There are also many interesting and outright funny occurrences described in the book. A particularly satisfying anecdote pertains to a corrupt local politician, with private interests in illegal logging, who tried to raise the local villagers against the Royal Chitwan National Park and organized an attack against the conservation staff and their camp. When Mishra and his staff finally caught up with the man after some serious vandalism and violence, they let him taste his own medicine by first leaving the politician tied up in the forest for three hours, then dunking his head covered with a jute bag repeatedly in Rapti River, thereafter transporting him to the other side of the river and letting the man walk back to the village with his hands still tied behind his back.

Throughout the book, Mishra talks warmly about his staff, including the elephant drivers, many of whom are uneducated tribesmen from the Terai or the southern plains. He acknowledges their superior knowledge of the forest and the animals. Their humanity comes through warmly in many segments, not least those describing evenings around the campfire.

Eventually, a crowning glory and major achievement of Hemanta Mishra was the transplantation of rhinos from the Chitwan National Park to the Bardia National Park to provide them a second home. The idea had been put into his head twenty years earlier by his first chief elephant driver, Tapsi, who had proposed it in order “not to put all eggs in the same basket.” If something were to happen to the rhinos in Chitwan, at least there would be another population in Bardia where the last rhino had been shot by a “coldhearted colonial officer of the British Empire” in 1878 (p. 203).

The efforts by Mishra and his colleagues and successors were largely successful. In 1968, a rhino census (Hemanta Mishra was already then part of it) counted 90-108 animals. At the peak, around 2000, the number of rhinos had risen to about 550. On June 1, 2001, the crazed Crown Prince Dipendra shot and killed his parents, including King Birendra, and other members of the royal family. This tragic event contributed to the growing political chaos in Nepal and, consequently, to renewed bad fortunes for the rhinos.

I can imagine many Americans (and others) chuckling at the irrelevance of the topic of the book. Conservation of the rhinoceros in Nepal, a country many people here wouldn’t even have heard of, could sound as esoteric as anything. Yet, the issues raised in the book—and the lessons learned in Nepal—are very relevant indeed to environmental management and the future of our world everywhere.

The epilogue, ‘Hope or Uncertainty on a Himalayan Scale,’ outlines the situation for Nepal’s rhinos in 2008 when the book went to print. Many of the advances of the past decades had been reversed and rhinos were again poached at alarming rates. Of the 38 original rhinos moved to Bardia, only three had survived. The main reason for this sad state of affairs was the unstable situation in the country following the regicide. The insurgency by Maoist guerrillas who had terrorized the countryside and killed many of the national park guards in their fight against the government also created general conditions of lawlessness in the parks and the rest of the countryside (there have also been suspicions that the Maoists collaborated with the poachers to finance their struggle). In an additional blow, in September 2006, a helicopter accident decimated the environmental leadership in Nepal, killing three key figures—Tirtha Man Maskey, Chandra Prasad Gurung and Mingma Norbu Sherpa (Hemanta Mishra had been invited to join the trip but was unable to do so)—as well as several international supporters from WWF and partner governments (including my good acquaintance Pauli Mustonen from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland).

Hemanta Mishra ends with a cautiously optimistic note. The Maoists had entered into a truce and were sharing power in government. Some high-level poachers had been arrested and prosecuted. Much was at stake for conservation in Nepal and much depended on whether the fragile peace and stability would hold and the country would find new resolve in appreciating its natural patrimony. When I last visited Nepal in November 2011, the peace was holding but the law and order situation was still weak, especially in some areas of the Terai.

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