Wednesday, September 28, 2005

A Muddy Smear

@#$@#$!!!

CNN almost fooled me today. I visited the site to check baseball scores from last night, and blazing across the top of the screen I saw the ominous headline: “DeLay Resigns”.

The sub-title stated that Congressman DeLay had resigned his leadership position after being indicted by a Grand Jury. It sounded serious, enough so that I wondered how someone as politically adroit as DeLay could have gotten into that kind of trouble. Then I looked into the details, and the odor most commonly associated with dead vermin and CBS Anchormen wafted into sense. The short version of the DeLay indictment can be summed up in four points:

* The indictment was drawn up not in Sugarland, where DeLay lives and has an office, nor in Washington D.C., where he works, but in liberal-controlled Austin, where Delay may have had a lunch once or twice, or caught a UT game.

* The person pursuing the indictment was none other than Austin DA Ronnie Earle, most famous in recent months for trying to indict Senator Kay Bailey Hitchison, which effort was no more effective than the 2004 Dean For President campaign, which may have had its hand in Mr. Earle’s more than slightly hysterical efforts to slander Congressman DeLay. Mr. Earle has previously appeared on the CBS sitcom “60 Minutes”, where he regaled the audience with Munchhausen-like credibility in his accusations of malfeasance by the Congressman. That attempt in 2004 failed to impress a Grand Jury; the accusation now leveled in Earle’s first indictment in four tries against Republicans; it is noteworthy that Earle, a likelong Democrat, has never spoken ill of a single Democrat anywhere, anytime, much less pursued an indictment against an elected Democrat.

* The indictment has no specifics of any alleged criminal act by Congressman DeLay. The allegations are so vague as to be frivolous on their face. The closest approxmation to a charge, is the claim that DeLay violated the ‘60-day window’ law in Campaign Finance laws. However, the law cited prohibits only “corporations” from making donations during the 60-day window; it in no way prohibits PACs from spending and allocating funds already received prior to that window, which is the case here.

* The action that DeLay’s Political Action Committee is alleged to have performed in violation of law, is identical to actions taken by PACs of Democrats running for office at the same time. If indeed a violation has occurred, one wonders why Mr. Earle believes that an action taken by a Republican is illegal, while the same action taken by a Democrat would be legal.

In summary then, a rabid Democrat in a solid-blue state, with no legal basis but more than the normal amount of Leftist paranoia, has mounted a smear campaign which he knows will fail any sane scrutiny. Why? Well seriously, what else do the Democrats have left? They rejected honor and serious examination of the issues, and have become a party of vicious lemmings. They hope to smear one of the most effective members of Congress, and a leading Republican from Texas in the bargain, to bolster what pallid hopes they still carry of grabbing votes from the gullible in 2006.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Monkeys and Professionals - Another Look at Media, Local Version

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You may have seen those Careerbuilder commercials, the ones where the dedicated and hardworking employee is surrounded by a pack of useless chattering monkeys? That image showed up repeatedly in my mind, as I watched the various media types try to cover Hurricane Rita, most of them badly and with little sense of the needs of their viewers. This seems to happen a lot with television, at the network level as much as the local stations. There appears to be a formula for news shows in general, and it gets even more trite in storm coverage:

[] You must show the anchors working in casual clothing, to emphasize that they are working under difficult and deprived conditions, even at the studio.

[] The people on camera must look rough and ready, yet their makeup must be perfect

[] At least one young female, preferably petite, must be seen at the coast to emphasize the danger and maximize the storm’s effect

[] When considering scenarios, the worst damage and loss of life must be emphasized repeatedly

[] Drama is vital; reporters must stand in water as deep as possible (even if that means finding an alley which does not drain well to imply a flooded major thoroughfare), and must exaggerate wind velocity

[] Footage and information must be repeated incessantly, dozens of times an hour in order to look busy and informed


Just as CBS News has become no more than a fa├žade of a real news service, most local news do not supply the real information deeds of their viewers, and this was painfully obvious during the “coverage” of hurricane Rita.

I had Thursday and Friday off before the storm hit Saturday morning, and so I spent a lot of time watching the news for information. While the stations featured endless examples of the ridiculous, like Fox 26 putting a female reporter in a poncho and hip waders to stand in an empty Galveston street in hundred-degree heat more than 40 hours before the first rain drop fell, or Wayne Dolcefino of Channel 13 (ABC) trying to convince viewers that he was working hard on the scene in Beaumont, when he would disappear for hours on end and reappear looking fresh and in new clothes, in sharp contrast to reporters who were really working the long shifts. But worse than the Potemkin newscasts, was the useful information that the stations simply never bothered to provide, like alternate routes North and West, or coordination with the Mayor’s office to help the evacuation proceed according to plan. The appearance of diligence was more important than actually helping people get vital information, it seems, and for that most of the local stations have earned my great contempt.

The trump card of the Old Media remains the fact that networks and major stations have significant broadcast facilities and resources. If the editors and majority owners of the syndicates put the same thought and diligence into the quality of information that they provide to viewers in these events that they do to their equipment, modern television could be truly amazing in its value and a tremendous asset to the city. As it is, most local stations have no more virtue than a Pamela Anderson sitcom. My grades for Channel 2 (KPRC-NBC), Channel 13 (KTRK-ABC), Channel 26 (KRIV-FOX), and Channel 39 (KHTV-WB) are F’s across the board. Right there with the screaming chimps I mentioned at the beginning of this article.

A pleasant exception, as I conclude, must be noted, for Channel 11 (KHOU-CBS). While they could not resist the obligatory marathon of repeated file footage, when the storm itself rolled in, regular updates of road conditions, shelters, police and city advisories, and store availability was maintained non-stop, updated far more often than the other stations and with far less induced drama. Greg Hurst and Lisa Foronda worked, by my estimate, about 65 hours between Friday and Sunday, taking calls and emails to answer questions and provide the most needed information. No hip-wader stunts, just solid information when it mattered. Well done, Channel 11.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Disaster Planning

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When I announced my intention to remain in Houston during Hurricane Rita, it immediately provoked a fair amount of debate. Now that the crisis is largely past, I think it would be useful to re-examine the decision.

There is an old saying; no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. And it’s not far from that to say that the real world is not kind to plans we make for emergencies. That’s part of why I am writing this article, actually - it is far easier to make a general plan and demand someone else follow it faithfully, than to make all the adjustments needed under the pressure of real time and significant consequences.

It’s always a good idea to have plans for emergencies; fire escape plans, tornado and flood response, intruder alarm and escape, and so on. But it’s just as important to have Plans B, C, and D, for what happens if something shoots the first plan to pieces. And hurricanes are a good example of a situation not agreeing to follow the plan.

Like Katrina, Rita formed up rather quickly for a storm of its size and strength. It changed course a number of times, even in the last day before landfall, making it difficult to know the conditions to expect. Some will (correctly) observe that this fact makes it important to prepare for the worst, but it also means that we have to divide our plans into things we expect to control, and things we cannot control.

Like many people who live on the Gulf Coast (though not nearly so many as I would like), I made plans to address hurricane and severe storm conditions. The things I can control in such conditions basically come down to laying in supplies, like canned food and bottled water, confirming the stability of the residence and street conditions, and planning evacuation routes for various situations. These were all in place.

A number of factors affected the decision I had to make last Wednesday. They included the following:

1. The coastal and low-lying areas were ordered to evacuate, and people living in known flood-prone areas were asked to consider evacuation. People who did not live in flood plains, as is my case, were told to exercise “common sense”. The area where I live has never flooded on record.

2. We had two cars, and had plans which allowed flexibility depending on which car (or both) we took. When my car was stolen on the night of the 13th, that reduced options severely.

2a. With only one car, we no longer had the ability to keep one car fully fueled at all times, and because of the necessary method for getting parents to and from work, and the daughter to and from school, the CRV was only half-full Wednesday evening when we had to choose our actions.

3. Because Mikki and I both had to work through Wednesday, by the time we were all back home, the major roads were crowded, the gas stations were jammed with long lines and already starting to run dry, and this reduced feasible options.

4. I knew Houston traffic from long congestion, and correctly anticipated that we would run out of gas before could reach a safe destination, and might be unable to find fuel to make the journey.

5. I have relatives in other countries, but not in Central or North Texas. As a result, evacuation would mean trying to find a hotel in another county on no notice, which would be relatively expensive and difficult.

6. Our residence does not sit in a flood plain, nor do any of the major roads which lead from it out of town.

7. The building in which I live is a thick brick structure, with surrounding brick structures. It has never been flooded, nor has it suffered significant damage from wind. Since we are 60 miles inland, and our apartment is on the second floor, we are in danger from neither the storm surge nor flooding, unless something truly unprecedented happens, but must prepare for wind under a known number of limited possibilities.

Our choices then, were reduced to trying to find fuel, risking what we already, had, and then to make a long trip to an unknown destination. Otherwise, we could choose to reinforce our residence, make use of prepared supplies, and ride out the storm. The measure was unknown risk against known risk, unknown cost and difficulty against a reasonable estimate of cost and difficulty, and the uncontrollable behavior of other drivers and non-local conditions, against controlled conditions. From that perspective, the choice to remain at home was clearly the best option, in terms of protecting family and preventing harm. The severity of the storm is actually a greater factor of danger if we evacuated, than if we stayed.

Obviously, had we been on the coast, if we lived in something like a trailer or a wood-frame house, if our neighborhood was known for periodic flooding, then bugging out would be required, but in our condition, we were as secure or more in our home as we would be in any location we could reach for more than a hundred miles. While wind was a threat to consider, it was not the only factor, and the decision I made was the one which best protected my family. In other conditions, situations, or with different options, my choices would have been different. But I made my decision without emotional imbalance, without forgetting priorities and known history.

Just something to think about when looking at a hard decision someone else has to make. Know your options, what you can control and what is byond your control, and make your decision without panic.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Houston

[H!] [O!] [U!] [S!] [T!] [O!] [N!]

As I begin this article, I will say at the outset that I am a Houstonian, and so may be prone to a certain bias in favor of my hometown. That said, I would contend that Houston has established a very good reputation by its works, earned through the character of its citizens.

I was already proud of Houston’s response to Katrina; where so many other cities were mouthing sympathy, Houston took the overwhelming majority of refugees from Katrina, and amazingly, had major shelters finding places to live and temporary work for victims before most Louisiana shelters had an accurate roster of people staying there. Houston provided more supplies, helped more people with shelter, relief, and assistance in finding family than any other city, and did it in less time and with less bureacracy than any other government entity. This led to praise for the Space City not only from other Americans, but also other countries.

This weekend, it happened again. As motorists found themselves stranded on Interstates 10, 45, and 59, residents in North Houston took it upon themselves to bring water, ice, and gasoline to them so they could continue their evacuation. My wife’s mother in Hong Kong saw such actions on the news there, and remarked to my wife about how generous and helpful Houstonians are.

I have complimented Mayor Bill White not only for his planning and cool head, but also a professional modesty which allowed people to do their jobs without undue pressure. I would note, however, the cooperation and community spirit for Houston in general, from Centerpoint getting 83% of the Greater Houston area back with power in less than a day, to City of Houston services getting traffic lights back in operation and countless signs repaired/replaced by Sunday morning, to area gas stations and grocery stores getting open by Sunday morning to not only resupply citizens in need, but also send the message of re-establishing a comforting routine. I also found a strong city-wide commitment to courtesy and order.

Last night is a good example. Around 9:40 PM, ABC News showed a helicopter shot of an HEB on Highway 6 which was pumping gas. My wife and I did a quick consult, and we decided to try to get some gas, as no one in our immediate area had been able to find a place with any to sell, and the tank was close to empty. When we got to the store however, we found a very long line of more than a hundred cars, and almost immediately after we got into line, a Sheriff came by and announced that there was no more gas to be had, and to go home.

As we were driving home, I took a smaller road home than the one we took over, and found my lane slowing then coming to a stop. There was a lane to our left, but I had a gut feeling I should stay where we were at, and sure enough, as time passed we began to inch forward, and a gas station appeared in the distance. What was interesting, was that the line stayed orderly, no one cutting in line and no one losing their temper. It took an hour in line, but we got our gas. The station stayed open to at least 11:30 PM, and served more than a hundred customers in the time I was waiting and watching. My point is, that without the need for law enforcement or anyone getting unruly a lot of people were able to get what they needed, because the store was open, staffed, stocked, and had a plan to get people what they needed. That was the story across all 600+ square miles of Houston, and that made a real difference in this event.