Monday, August 29, 2011

Monday-Morning Quarterbacking the Hurricane Hype: Some Perspective From Another Recent Storm

As predicted here, the Monday morning hurricane-hype quarterbacking theme today is cover our butts.

The hurricane was clearly fizzling even as it arrived in North Carolina, an indication that maybe it was time to greatly ratchet down the drama farther north along I-95. But still, we're being told, the storm caused flooding. It was a killer storm, resulting in 19 deaths. Obviously, the here-comes-hell hype -- on a scale unprecedented to me in 40 years as a working journalist -- was justified.

As I said, the main justification being put forth -- "better safe than sorry" -- could also be carried to an absurd conclusion and used to to justify not crossing a street.

Consider: Just four months ago, in April, tornadoes and storms in the South killed 58 people in a single day in Alabama.

To compare and contrast, here is a link.


Sunday, August 28, 2011

N.Y. Airports Resuming Flights Monday

Kennedy and Newark airports will resume flight arrivals at 6 a.m. Monday and departures at noon Monday, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey just announced.

AirTrain JFK will resume service at 4 a.m. and AirTrain EWR at 6 a.m.

La Guardia departures resume at 7 a.m..

Airlines moved most of their planes out of the area and are getting them back into New York. Obviously, delays, cancellations and confusion will continue.

Port Authority: "Given the complexities of resuming flights, travelers are urged to contact their airlines before coming to the airport to learn about potential delays and cancellations."

And good luck with that.


NYC Air Travel, Mass Transit Not Moving Till Tomorrow at Earliest

The New York airports remain closed, and Port Authority officials said that they probably wouldn't be reopened till Monday night at the earliest.

New York's subways, buses and the region's commuter trains also are not operating today and likely won't struggle back to full operation till tomorrow afternoon at the earliest.

Airlines are being besieged with customer calls, most of which are going unanswered.

In the "No-shit, Sherlock" statement of the day, the AP has a story that says: "The quicker airlines get back in the air, the less the inconvenience on travelers whose flights were scrubbed by the storm. ..."

Meanwhile, United-Continental sent out an announcement this afternoon saying it hopes to be flying to and from the three major New York airports "no earlier" than noon Monday -- with flight resumptions depending on "access."

I'd say that's optimistic, but here's the United-Continental announcement:

"United Airlines and Continental Airlines are assessing the impact of
Hurricane Irene at its New York airports and support facilities, including its hub at Newark Liberty International Airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport and LaGuardia Airport.

New York airports remain closed and United and Continental suspended all flights to these airports through Sunday. The airlines anticipate resuming service to these New York airports starting Monday no earlier than noon EDT, with the time depending on facility conditions and access.

The airlines are also working with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, as well city and county emergency management officials to assess critical infrastructure. Once this assessment is complete, United and Continental will update employees, customers and other stakeholders regarding the status of its operations.
United and Continental also suspended flights to several other airports along the East Coast, including White Plains, N.Y., Boston, Mass., Hartford, Conn., Providence, R.I., Portland, Maine, Manchester, N.H., and Albany, N.Y., through Sunday."


National Media, NY and NJ Officials Brace as Category Five S***storm Is About to Furiously Lash Their Hurricane Hype

["Thar she blows, men!"]


It rained hard in the New York City area overnight, slicking the streets of the great locked-down metropolis and causing flooding in flood-prone sections (including home-basements in suburbs like Montclair, N.J., where the local Keystone Kops had declared martial law.)

My God, it's breathtaking: All those ruined summer-weekend plans, not to mention continuing travel mayhem caused by the cancellation of over 10,000 flights. All of those misled citizens, doing as they were asked to do, trusting that they were not being hyped by excitable officials terrified at being blamed if things went wrong. All of that staggering loss to the economy caused by locking down one of the most vital cities in the world.

The Hurricane That Ate New York was a flop, a big rainy tropical storm that opened in the Big Apple early this morning and closed faster than a seven-dollar road-show. Oh, the officials and the media won't give up easily on this one. They'll be stressing the deaths elsewhere on the East Coast (news flash: all major storms typically cause deaths), the power outages, and the damage (flooding, etc., and of course that damn rickety pier in Nags Head, N.C. that had a railing blow off, video of which was repeated incessantly by the ridiculous Weather Channel) till the cows come home. Or, I should say, till the subways start running again.

The quote of today (so far) comes via a sensible reporter for NPR talking to the sensible owner of the Ducktown Tavern in Atlantic City, which remains open for business despite the astonishing evacuation order covering half of the New Jersey coast: "It's a bullshit storm."

[Here's Howard Kurtz today in the Daily Beast. "But the tsunami of hype on this story was relentless, a Category 5 performance that was driven in large measure by ratings. Every producer knew that to abandon the coverage even briefly—say, to cover the continued fighting in Libya—was to risk driving viewers elsewhere. Websites, too, were running dramatic headlines even as it became apparent that the storm wasn’t as powerful as advertised.


Yes, there has been sporadic flooding, as there will be with major rainstorms. There are major power outages.

But there has not been a killer hurricane "howling" its "rage" as it "marched" up the East Coast, "lashing" all in its path.

As the backlash to the days-long hysteria-fest gathers force, those responsible for this hysteria will die hard. Rather than admitting they grossly overreacted, they will join forces in mutual reassurance -- in tune with a media amen-chorus -- that their decisions were eminently prudent. They are already dug in, insisting that flooding damage, see, is significant -- which it would also have been in a big tropical storm that wasn't hyped to hell.

The official cover-their-ass justification for all this will be: "Better safe than sorry." That maxim, of course, could be used to justify any folly taken in the face of any perceived danger, and taken to its absurd conclusion could be the argument for not crossing a street.

For those Americans not living on the I-95 corridor, watching this spectacle has been baffling. What the hell was that all about, people elsewhere are asking.

Meanwhile, the defiant official justification will not hold, not once public opinion gets its voice, especially in New York. As they warn in the Navy: Stand by for heavy rolls.

Pretty soon, some very tough questions are going to have to be answered about why this hurricane was hyped so intensely, even long after it became clear that it had degenerated into little more than a big rainstorm before making landfall in North Carolina. Where were the officials getting their information before making these decisions? Why did the media remain totally invested in the "hurricane-from-hell-could-drive-a-wall-of-seawater-between-Gotham-skyscrapers" narrative, long after it should have been clear that this monster was just a big, windy, annoying rainstorm that has caused some inland flooding?

Three governmental officials were largely responsible for triggering the media hype, though this in no way excuses the recklessness of the media and the use of consistently alarming and violent weather-panic language in breathlessly exaggerating the potential of the storm, and the relatively minor effects even as those effects were manifest.

Those officials shall be henceforth known as "Cyclone Mike" Bloomberg, the authoritarian billionaire mayor of New York; "Hurricane Andrew" Cuomo, the dour, secretive governor of New York; and "Thar She Blows" Christie, the snotty, blustery governor of New Jersey who denounced as "dumb" the one New York television reporter who stood out by questioning the hurricane hysteria.


Saturday, August 27, 2011

Travel Grinds to Halt in NYC

[Top map shows NJ barrier islands; bottom map via shows national airports status at 10 a.m. EDT today. Red dot means, forget about it, you're going nowhere today.]

In the New York area, travel ground to a halt today. Not just air travel, but subways and buses and trains. Even major roads are clogged with traffic from evacuated areas along the coast and inland.

At the same time, questions are being asked about the extent to which "Irene hype" has created all of this astonishing evacuation and other commotion, given the hurricane's weakening wind-strength after it affected North Carolina this morning, downgraded to Category 1. So far, the storm has created the kind of disruptions any large storm would create, including power outages in North Carolina and Virginia and local flooding in areas prone to flooding.

Basically, what we seem to have is confusion exacerbated by the media hurricane-hysterics knee-jerk focus on wind and calamity. I was just looking, for example, at some over-emoting TV reporter standing on a beach in North Carolina hyping the hurricane while, evidently unknown to him, some surfers bobbed merrily in the moderate waves behind his back. Back in the studio, the director quickly killed the shot, suggesting to me that hype was driving the agenda.

Right now we seem to be witnessing a monster rainstorm riding on what has become a weakened Category 1 hurricane. As I have been saying all week, the problems are not going to be caused so much by wind (see this article in today's Wall Street Journal on hurricane wind-scale categorization), as by water.

That's probably going to be true tonight and tomorrow, though late reports tonight are that the rain is lessening as the storm moves north.

Still, when you combine even less-than-hurricane-force winds with tremendous amounts of water and aim it all at vulnerable sections of the coast, you have real potential for disaster. However, I have to say I read with alarm online in the Times late this afternoon that New York City had "all but closed down in anticipation of what forecasters said could be violent winds with the power to drive a wall of water over the beaches in the Rockaways and between the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan." My alarm reading this, I should add, was more for the state of journalism than the city of New York.

If this storm happens to fizzle early tomorrow, there will be a Category 5 shit-storm of political recrimination in locked-down New York City. Hoo boy, will that be interesting.

But if this storm does cause major problems this weekend, my guess is it's going to be concentrated on the one spot the hurricane hysterics have been ignoring as they broadcast into the breeze: The southern half of the New Jersey coast, and especially the barrier-island seashore communities, all of which have been under evacuation orders since yesterday.

Up in New York City, the major airports, Kennedy, La Guardia and the hilariously named Newark Liberty International Airport, are shut to arriving flights. Departing flights were allowed today as airlines scramble to get their planes out of the way. But this is a temporary tactic. Even if you have a way to get to Kennedy, please don't even think of trying to fly out of New York today, unless you're already at the airport with a boarding pass and access to an actual airplane.

UPDATE: The New York airports are now closed for all traffic, departing and arriving, on Sunday. And according to the mayor, Michael "Cyclone Mike" Bloomberg, it's unlikely that the New York City subways and buses will be back in operation on Monday. If so, that's going to create quite a wild scene in NYC come the start of the workweek.

The hurricane made landfall in North Carolina this morning, when it was downgraded to a Category 1 -- though the hurricane reporters, in full battle-stations mode, emphasized every strong gust. It was very clear to me that the media was very invested in covering a major hurricane.

To repeat: It isn't the wind, it's the water. And the big story isn't in North Carolina. If there is one, it's going to be in New Jersey and New York. If there is major flooding, it will come not only with the ocean and inlets, but also on the rivers and creeks amid heavy rainfall, as water also pushes in from the sea.

Hurricane reporters love wind, though.

Initial overblown (sorry!) reports of the wind's "devastation" as the hurricane "slammed" into the Outer Banks of North Carolina were that a section of a rickety old wood pier fell into the surf (again!), and the roof of a car dealership was damaged by gusts. There are also those widespread power outages. But it really has not been that much of a hurricane, as these things go.

It rained and rained, however. Rain isn't as sexy as wind, but ask Noah about how much of an impact it can have when it arrives in excessive volume.

[UPDATE: As the day wears on and the hurricane winds weaken, the media-hype language ("fury" ... "lashed" ... "raged") at least is being tempered. On the other hand, the justification-brigades are reporting for duty. For example, media are now reporting that the storm has become a "killer," because some deaths have occurred. Screaming headline currently on the Web site for the New York Daily News: "IRENE TURNS DEADLY!".

Well yes, true enough -- big storms usually cause deaths, quite routinely, in fact. In the case of this one, five deaths have been reported so far. A man was killed in North Carolina when his car skidded into a tree, and three others died when tree limbs fell on them. Also, a man died from a heart attack suffered while nailing plywood to his house -- a death that, arguably, could just as readily be blamed on hurricane-hype as on an actual hurricane


I don't mean to minimize dangers, especially with the possibility of major flooding that can occur as a persistent hurricane with weakening winds transforms itself into a very big out-of-season Nor'easter.

Particularly dangerous is that the storm is very slow-moving, meaning it will hang around for a long time in any given area, possibly dumping huge amounts of rain and pushing great volumes of water around. Also, besides flooding, it won't take much wind to blow down trees (causing power outages) on ground that is saturated from previous heavy rains this month.

Earlier today, though, I found it amusing to watch how the media hurricane-hysterics fell into the usual farcical patterns -- ominously intoning speculation from rainy beaches (the video person making sure to get drops of rain on the lens) while some credulous 27-year-old weather-desk anchor wearing the kind of startlingly bright dress that apparently are big ticket items in Atlanta malls maintains her somber mien of free-floating alarm. On the green-screen behind her, they were running stock footage of palm trees bending in some hurricane winds of yesteryear. In fact, the Weather Channel was constantly running howling hurricane video, and not informing viewers that it was stock footage from long-ago storms. This is unacceptable.

Speculation was the rule of the day.

Meanwhile, the Weather Channel, which loves to hype hurricanes as a matter of practice, had a person on the Jersey Shore, but in ... Asbury Park (mandatory citation here of Bruce Springsteen legally required any time Asbury Park is mentioned). However, Asbury Park (mandatory mention again: Bruce Springsteen) is situated on the northern coastal mainland, and is one of the least vulnerable places on the otherwise very vulnerable Jersey Shore.

As I said days ago, if you want coverage on the Jersey Shore, you wanted to have it in place south of Seaside Heights, all the way to Cape May. That's where the real vulnerability is. It's also within a virtual media black-hole due to the lack of news outlets in the area.

Meanwhile, the travel chaos spawned by astonishingly urgent hurricane-precaution measures in advance of the storm has been huge. Aside from a locked-down New York City and coastal New Jersey, evacuation orders are in effect from Virginia to Connecticut, covering an estimated three million people -- who, incidentally, could ultimately become a bloc of extremely pissed-off voters if this storm happens to fizzle out this weekend and tough questions inevitably arise about governmental overreaction and the profound civil disruptions caused by the unprecedented scale of the evacuation, shutdown and lockdown orders.

While airports in New York are closed, others in the rest of the Mid-Atlantic states and into New England were operating -- though big problems and delays are rippling through the whole national air-travel system because of the New York shutdown and cancellations.

Philadelphia has also shut down its subway system, the bright side of which being that crime rates in that city will certainly plunge this weekend.

Along the Jersey Shore, the areas most in danger are the barrier islands that have been recklessly overdeveloped since the last similar major coastal storm hit there -- in 1960. This is because barrier islands are by definition unstable spits of sand between the sea and the bays and inlets behind them. Beach erosion could be substantial.

Here is a geography/coastal-geology lesson for the media: Asbury Park is not on a barrier island. It is on the mainland, along the beach. The barrier island beach towns start at Island Beach (think Seaside Heights) and then continue southward to the Wildwoods, with the most vulnerable barrier island being skinny little Long Beach Island and its zillion-dollar homes foolishly built on shifting sand. Meanwhile, little old Cape May is sitting out there on the tip of the state between the ocean and Delaware Bay.

Up in New York City, where the authorities ordered extreme precautions that included the shutdown of the entire transit system and a mandatory-evacuation order covering areas of the city inhabited by about 350,000 residents, the long wait for calamity continued. What would Sunday bring?

Sounding just a little bit defensive to me, "Cyclone Mike" Bloomberg, the mayor, told reporters this morning: "The most dangerous thing we have to deal with is the storm surge and there is no indication that the forecast for that has changed. There is also serious risk of falling tree limbs in our parks." [The italics are mine.]


Friday, August 26, 2011

One Final Note Before the Storm ...

And rest assured, there will be a storm -- even if the Hurricane That Ate New York happens to fizzle out tomorrow somewhere in the forlorn Atlantic before reaching those anxious shores.

One tends to presume that the civil authorities are on firm ground when, as happened in New Jersey, the governor orders the mass evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people in the seashore towns along half of the coastline. Or when the governor of New York and the mayor of New York City put into effect the shutdown of a vast mass-transit system and the evacuation of areas of a great metropolis.

But that hurricane had better arrive tomorrow as predicted, is all I'm saying. If this turns out to be another instance of hurricane hysteria, it will have been on a scale of civil ineptitude not seen since, well, since Katrina in 2005. The result will be a storm of a different nature, a Category 5 shit-storm of biblical proportions.

If that hurricane fizzles, the New York mayor shall forever be known as "Cyclone Mike," New York Governor Cuomo will be "Hurricane Andrew," and the New Jersey governor shall be known as "'Thar She Blows' Christie."

Of course, that couldn't happen. The hurricane threat is real and imminent.

Right? I'm looking at the Weather Channel and all I'm seeing is some rain here and there, with reporters acting like the end is near.


Airlines Finally Pull the Trigger, Cancelling Thousands of Flights

Most airlines had avoided preemptively cancelling flights for this weekend as the hurricane headed for the Mid-Atlantic coast.

Till late this afternoon, that is. Now, given the urgency with which New York City has approached disaster preparations for this storm, airlines are pulling the trigger and announcing large numbers of flight cancellations. Here's a link.

Update: Delta said this afternoon that it is suspending service for Sunday at Kennedy; LaGuardia; the hilariously named Newark Liberty International Airport; and Philadelphia.

Minutes after Delta sent out its announcement, United-Continental said it would suspend operations starting Saturday at Newark, Kennedy and La Guardia, including regional flights operated as United Express, Continental Express and Continental Connection. The merged airline said it plans to resume operations at these airports on Monday morning.

United and Continental will also suspend operations at the following airports on Saturday: Raleigh-Durham, Richmond, and Norfolk.

United-Continental said it has now preemptively canceled a total of about 2,300 flights for Saturday and Sunday. Air France also said it is cancelling flights to and from New York and other Northeast airports this weekened.

Till late this afternoon, JetBlue had stood out in the pack because it decided yesterday to cancel about 900 flights. It's not clear to me why the others dawdled. As I said earlier, one reason could be that they were looking out a different window than the government officials evacuating coastal regions and closing down mass transit in New York City and elsewhere. Airlines worry about wind a lot more than rain, and the major impact of this hurricane is likely to be flooding on a very large scale. Another possible reason is that airlines were playing an elaborate shell-game trying to squeeze out as much revenue as possible while moving airplanes out of the hurricane zone.

Also, the airlines are barely profitable, and hoping to hold onto every dollar of revenue they can get here near the end of the summer travel season, with the air-travel system already at capacity and fully booked for the Labor Day weekend ahead. A canceled flight this weekend is likely to represent basic lost revenue, given the tight capacity's inability to accommodate a sudden surge of extra demand, once the air-travel system gets past the storm.

On then other hand, maybe the airline weather forecasters simply don't (or didn't) think the storm was going to be as calamitous as it sounded. I say again, if this storm should happen to fizzle out before New York, there are going to be a whole lot of extremely angry citizens, and some very embarrassed politicians having to defend actions like shutting down mass transit and evacuating parts of New York. Not to mention all those ruined weekends in the Hamptons.

Whatever, expect more flight cancellations. And if you're at an airport right now, get out while the gettin's good. Remember, the days of hotel and meal vouchers for those stuck at airports are pretty much over.


Travel Ahead: Is a Huge Mess Brewing?

As I said in an interview on Warren Olney's "To the Point" program on NPR this afternoon, the transportation story of the weekend can be summarized with a four-word headline, TRAVEL GRINDS TO HALT.

Usually, I'm extremely wary about hurricane hysteria, given past media and government wolf-crying (along with the cry that was so initially insufficient with the real catastrophe in New Orleans in 2005).

But unless officials in New York and New Jersey are grossly overreacting (could such a thing be even possible?), this storm is predicted to slam into the New York-New Jersey coast starting tomorrow -- and prolonged travel chaos could be one of the major effects.

New York mass transit, subways and buses and commuter trains, is shutting down tomorrow. New Jersey commuter trains also are stopping. Big chunks of the New Jersey coast, as well as some low-lying parts of New York City, are being evacuated.

So far, the airlines have been very, very slow in reacting to this. Usually, it doesn't take much potential weather disturbance to get the airlines running around and cancelling flights like their pants are on fire, but so far only JetBlue has announced significant preemptive flight cancellations starting tomorrow. Check out the airline Web sites, and what you get in terms of current information is, basically, "check back here frequently for updates ..."

Why the slow response? Well, the situation is coming into focus very rapidly, thanks to federal, state and local government officials who are looking hard at the potential for massive flooding, rather than just the potential for heavy winds. I think the airlines have simply been looking out a different window as this storm bears down on New York.

Also, I think some airline people are closing their eyes shut tight and praying for a near-miss on this one. (And in the unlikely event that their prayers are answered and this hurricane unexpectedly fizzles, there will be some serious hell to pay for the political officials who caused all this sturm und drang.)

By the way, this storm shows that a deep media black-hole exists in New Jersey, where the news media have never been particularly strong anyway. The rapacious Gannett empire, which never met a newspaper it didn't want to ruin, has gobbled up the newspapers in most of New Jersey outside of Newark -- and replaced individual newspaper news sites with combined happy-face supposedly hyper-local links, like this useless page that pops up when you try to visit any of the Gannett newspaper sites in New Jersey. I ask, who do they think they're
kidding with this ridiculous crap?

Anyway, if and when the flight cancellations do start piling up, as they will soon, they will sideline travel plans for a large number of people in New York, where almost 20 percent of all flights are handled, and throughout the rest of the country, as connections get scrambled and planes end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Worse, re-booking a flight after the storm passes will be a problem, assuming you want to re-book soon. We're headed into a peak travel period, the Labor Day weekend, and the air-travel system already is fully booked. Our air travel system now operates, even in normal times, without any slack built in.

Assuming the storm hits as expected, it's going to take us a while to sort this mess out.

An idea just occurred to me as a journalist. I could simply get on a plane today and fly to one of the East Coast airports, so I could be there for on-scene reporting when the misery begins, with thousands stranded.

I could, and there was a time when I would. But dang, it's hot and sunny here in Tuscon, and there's this horse that needs to get out and get some exercise.

Happy trails to you.


New York Subways, Buses, Commuter Trains to Stop Running During Hurricane

State officials have decided to shut down mass transit in New York City and on Long Island starting tomorrow afternoon, when the first major effects of the hurricane are expected to be felt.

Here's a link.

Also, Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey announced the closing of southbound lanes of the Garden State Parkway below the northernmost seashore exit, 98, even as northbound lanes were clogged with traffic evacuating the Shore. All of Cape May County and coastal Atlantic County is under evacuation orders. Atlantic City casinos are closing at noon tomorrow.

Christie repeated his call for all of the state's shore residents to leave now and not to wait until tomorow. Christie, as usual, was eminently quotable:

"I've heard some dopes on the television saying a Category 2 isn't anything more than a bad thunderstorm," the governor said, according to the Newark Star-Ledger newspaper. "You stay there at the risk of your own lives."

As "dopes on the television" evidently do not realize, the biggest problem is not going to be the wind, it's going to be the water.

As to air travel, most airlines have not yet pulled the trigger on anticipated mass flight cancellations at the three New York airports, which account for almost 20 percent of all passenger traffic in the U.S. JetBlue so far is the only carrier announcing a large number of preemptive cancellations.

But rest assured, the others will soon follow.

If you're planning on traveling by air on the East Coast this weekend, one word of advice: Don't.

Airline ticket-refund policies, already in effect for those who opt out of previously booked trips, allow for rebooking without the usual penalty fee -- if the rebooking is done within seven days of the originally scheduled departure. Rebooked tickets are subject to possible higher fares, as well.

And don't expect hotel or meal vouchers if you're flying and suddenly stuck at an airport during this mess. Ain't gonna happen.


It's Not the Wind, It's the Water

[Long Beach Island, a barrier island on the New Jersey coast]

South Jersey and the Jersey Shore appear to be directly in the path of this big hurricane moving up the East Coast. As usual, the media are missing the point when it comes to coastal New Jersey south of Asbury Park (here is mention of Bruce Springsteen mandatory in all media accounts that say Asbury Park).

The southern half of the 125-mile long New Jersey coast is characterized by large concentrations of population and development that were not present during the last comparable coastal hurricane that hit that area of the coast -- in 1960.

A weather bulletin late last night noted the potential for "catastrophic inland flooding." Those words need to be taken into account by reporters who love to report hurricanes by standing on the beach looking at waves or showing pictures of wind-bent trees.

If I were a city editor, I'd have reporters in Cape May, Wildwood, Atlantic City and on Long Beach Island, that thin strip of seashore development with all those expensive beach houses clustered on the northern portion. And I'd make sure they paid attention to the back bays and to the science of water flow -- a lack of attention toward which was one of the initial mistakes of the coverage of the New Orleans hurricane disaster.

If weather forecasts are correct, the most significant impact of this hurricane on the New Jersey coast will be the movement of water, great volumes of which will be pushed from the sea into the bays and inlets that thread through the coastal regions.

Most of the South Jersey Shore is on barrier islands, spits of land that by definition are subject to rearrangement by the sea and the inlets and back-waters always pressing in on them. For decades, coastal scientists have been warning that an inevitable major storm will significantly rearrange the geography of coastal New Jersey from Cape May, which sits on the tip of the coast between the ocean and Delaware Bay, to Seaside Heights, the boardwalk town on the northernmost major New Jersey barrier island.

I'm distressed to see news organizations focusing on the Atlantic City casinos closing, or interviewing people in, say, mainland Long Branch (or, for some unfathomable reason, focusing entirely on North Carolina) -- overlooking the fact that all of New Jersey's southernmost Cape May County (including the Cape May, Wildwoods and Absecon Island seashore resorts) is being evacuated today, along with coastal Atlantic County and Long Beach Island. I'd guess that around 1.5 million people will be suddenly on the road. What a scene that will be.

For decades, driven by money, New Jersey has taunted fate with its practices and policies on coastal development. Aside from the longstanding and accessible seashore towns like Cape May, Wildwood, Atlantic City and Seaside Heights, the Jersey coast is marked by long stretches of literally exclusive beach towns in which a great many expensive residences have been erected, on shifting sands, since 1960.

Those exclusive towns -- which conspicuously and brazenly block public access to their fine white beaches by non-residents, especially the dreaded "day-trippers" -- are always the first to scream for taxpayer assistance when even routine storms cause beach erosion. New Jersey and the federal Army Corps of Engineers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on beach-rebuilding projects in such places since the 1990s.

[When I wrote a column called "Jersey" for the New York Times from 1995-1998, I regularly paid attention to this folly. Meanwhile, Cornelia Dean, a New York Times science editor, wrote an important 1999 book on foolhardy coastal development, Against the Tide: The Battle for America's Beaches, that is, alas, out of print. Here's the Amazon link to the book, which can be ordered used.]

If this is the big one that has long been feared, it will be interesting to see how the disaster-relief battle plays out among those who have defied nature with the assurance that taxpayers will be there to bail them out when the tides turn.


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Jersey Shore Reality, Not a Show

Whoa, now I am impressed.

Usually, I ignore hurricane hype on the East Coast for the media hysteria it usually is. But hang on here folks, this looks serious. The entire South Jersey seashore is being evacuated. At the height of the summer season. An estimated 750,000 people, including hordes of summer visitors, are expected to be fleeing the coast.

The evacuation order covers Cape May, the Wildwoods, the whole crowd-clogged Jersey shore all the way up past Atlantic City. All Atlantic County shore towns including Brigantine, Atlantic City, Ventnor, Margate and Longport and Ocean City, are under a voluntary evacuation at 8 p.m. Thursday and a mandatory evacuation effective 6 a.m. Friday.

Cape May County -- that is, Cape May at the southern end of the Jersey Shore and the jam-packed Wildwoods just to the north -- is under a mandatory evacuation, with residents and visitors on the barrier islands being ordered to leave tonight and residents and visitors on the mainland being asked to leave starting at 8 a.m. Friday.

Assuming people remain safe (there are already awesome traffic jams), you can expect to see one great big aftershock on the Jersey Shore following this hurricane, if it hits as expected: Massive beach erosion on those delicate barrier islands, which have become impossibly highly developed since the last really big storm came that way.

Beach erosion on a scale that we haven't seen before. Literally for decades, coastal scientists have been warning that the Jersey Shore, especially on the barrier islands from Seaside Heights southward to Cape May, is perilously and recklessly overdeveloped on literally shifting sand.

Like, where did skinny little half-mile-wide Long Beach Island go? Where did all those mansions by the sea in Loveladies go?


Sunday, August 21, 2011

It's 7 a.m., Do You Know Where Your Teenagers Are?

Well, for one thing, they're working.

I'm at the Tucson airport bound for Denver. Got here at 7 and was surprised to see a kid working the shoeshine stand, where I stopped to have the desert dust shined off my loafers.

Kid appears to be about 12, but he says he's a sophomore in college.

"Where?" I ask.

"Last year at the University of Arizona; Pima Community College right now," he says, working expertly on the shoes.

"How come?"

"Tuition went up. I hope to be back next year."

Here's a lesson for me, comfortable in my late middle age, headed for a swell hotel in Denver. Tuition goes up a couple of hundred dollars at the U of A, and here's a kid shining shoes early on a Saturday morning, to try to get back into a good state school.

He started at 5 a.m. this morning.

I went to get a cup of coffee. The girl at the coffee counter also started early, at 4.30.

Both of these kids were cheerful and hard-working. They were not complaining.

Just a reminder to me, as I check into my $245 a night hotel room on a four-day business trip. You don't need to scratch the surface very hard to see how tough times really are for a lot of people, including kids.


Saturday, August 20, 2011

Tucson: Hot Enough for You?

[Saguaro at sunset, from my front yard]

There was a recent piece by Rick Moody about Tucson in Newsweek, or the Daily Beast, or whatever in hell it's calling itself these days.

Here it is. I thought it was accurate and evocative, actually, though I thought the photo they ran with it -- a line of ugly palm trees on some alley or something -- was ill-chosen. Occasionally, you'll see some palm trees that some horticultural vandal has planted in Tucson, but by and large, the Tucson tree (well, actually, it's a plant) is the giant saguaro.

Tucson really is, as Moody says, a place of startling beauty and sometimes horrific contrasts.

There's a lot to be said for, and against, Tucson -- but the truth is, I myself have never lived anywhere that I've liked as much as Tucson. Tucson, as I said yesterday, is the capital of what some people jokingly refer to as Baja Arizona -- that is, the southern part of Arizona that most definitely is not Phoenix.

Tucson is full of pleasant surprises. For example, just last weekend, my wife and a friend and I saw a local production of Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" put on by a Tucson professional non-profit theater group, Arizona Onstage.

Jaded ex-New Yorkers, we were not expecting much, but we were blown away by what we saw in Tucson, at the splendidly named 1927-vintage Temple of Music and Art.

My wife and I both saw "Sweeney Todd" in its original Broadway run in the early 1980s, a big-scale production with Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett. Then about six years ago we saw a wonderful Broadway revival, a stripped-down production with Patti Lupone as Mrs. Lovett.

Here in Tucson, we were astonished to find a terrific revival, with the huge chorus largely drawn from the University of Arizona's excellent music and dance programs, and great star turns in the lead roles by Kit Runge as Sweeney and Jacinda Rose Swinehart as Mrs. Lovett. I am here to tell you: Ms. Swinehart was in every measure -- voice, presence, timing -- a better Mrs. Lovett than either Angela Lansbury or Patti Lupone. I have no doubt that Stephen Soundheim, had he seen her, would have agreed.

But yet the review in the local paper was tepid, as if the critic were bored. Reflecting the critic's obviously narrow theatergoing experience, the review mostly complained about the fact that the set was big and needed to be shifted on occasion in full view of the audience. Egad! It wasn't like "Phantom of the Opera" at all!

Anyway, if I had a quibble with the Newsweek/Daily Beast piece, it would be the assertion that Tucson is characterized by a golf-resort facade. That's only true if you happen to visit one of the golf resorts in the foothills (and hey, no better time than now: They're really discounting because 1. Resort business is in the tank and 2. Nobody plays golf anymore except guys like John Boehner.]

I thought it also overlooked the very remarkable amiability of Tucson, a place where in my experience men actually hold doors for other men. This does not occur in Phoenix.

But what the heck, it's a short piece. A longer one might also look hard at the disgraceful scandal of the zillion-dollar, never-happening downtown redevelopment fiasco called Rio Nuevo; the lack of a decent hotel that isn't in the foothills; the laughable condition of the so-called convention center; the extremely questionable proliferation of red-light and speed cameras at a time when other cities are removing them; the way the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team stiffed the city and skipped town (for Phoenix) after a $38 million stadium was built for its spring-training use; the utterly dispiriting complacency of the local media; etc.

The local paper did stir itself to express outrage about the Newsweek/Daily Beast assessment of Tucson, however. A local columnist alleges that Newsweek/Daily Beast misreported the temperature one day, and was off by a year on its assertion of when the first traffic light was said to have appeared on the main east-west drag, Speedway Boulevard.

Well, let the record be set straight, for what it's worth. Newsweek/Daily Beast is correct, indignant local columnist aside. "It was never 114 here this summer," the hometown columnist insisted.

Well yes, Scoop, it actually was. It did reach 114 degrees in Tucson one day in June and again on a day in July. (That's by no means the record, incidentally.

My thermometer said 114 on one day and 115 on the other, and my thermometer is accurate. Neighbors said the same when I asked. That's basic reporting. Well, yes, it evidently did register a degree or two lower on those two days at the airport, where the official temperature is logged.

But as George Carlin said, "Who lives at the airport?"


Friday, August 19, 2011

Nice Weather for Gila Monsters

It rained hard here on the east side of Tucson yesterday. It really brought out the critters. To the left is a stock photo of a gila monster just like the one that was lolling around our front yard yesterday. Gila monsters are beautiful, but wickedly poisonous. Luckily they move slow and are not aggressive.

Just do not try to pet one.

As far as I know, the gila monster seen yesterday now lives burrowed somewhere in our front yard -- where last week I saw a golden eagle perched on a big Mexican pot. The two have not met, to my knowledge. Yet.

But I digress.

When it rains in a desert, people act weird. For example, they run out of stores and stand there looking at rain. The TV weatherman, who is the only journalistic bright spot in a very dim local media universe, acts sad when a storm threatens from down in Mexico and then bends away and passes the Sonoran Desert, as storms usually do. "Bad news," he calls it -- whereas in other places I have lived, of course, the arrival of a storm is considered the bad news.

We get most of our annual rainfall here during what is called monsoon season, when the sun shines all day and then, some days, the monsoon storms barrel in during late afternoon or after dark -- which I think is awfully decent timing of them, incidentally.

People here go on and on about rain, which definitely can cause problems, especially when the water gathers in the mountains and comes roaring down those washes that are usually bone-dry the rest of the year. A desert wash can turn into a suddenly raging river, and you do not want to be in one when the water tumbles down and the wash crosses the road. I personally have seen an SUV swept 500 feet downstream.

Anyway, I believe we have now had enough rain this monsoon season, thank you, even though we are short of the annual monsoon average. People keep saying "We need the rain," but I ask, what do you need a lot of rain in the desert for? The saguaro and other cactuses are doing fine; they're blooming. They get by just fine on a little bit of rain. The critters are thriving. My front yard looks like a damn Disney cartoon, with all those bunnies and lizards and quail and ground squirrels scampering around. (At least till the eagle lands, whereupon everything else abruptly disappears till well after the eagle flaps away).

By the way, for stickler grammarians, I insist that "cactuses" is the correct plural of "cactus." I mean, the plural of "circus" is not "circi," is it?

Anyway, there is enough drinking water here, despite it being a desert. Tucson is not like Phoenix, where the desert landscape has been has carpeted with green grass and other exotic plant life, and allergy clinics do a booming business. Tucson, the progressive capital of what some of the locals now call Baja Arizona, is not plastered with lawns and golf courses. I barely remember what lawn mowers and leaf blowers sound like. In recent years, Tucson's per-capita water use has steadily declined. By and large, people in Tucson understand that they are living in a desert.

Meanwhile, there is still snow on the Rockies, and the last time I saw the Colorado River, a few months ago, it was fat and swollen with mountain runoff. Way up at the Nevada border, the water level in Lake Mead, which I actually landed on two months ago in an amphibious airplane, was high up on that white bathtub ring around the rocks.

Long story short:

When it rains hard, as it did yesterday, the phone service in our house goes wacky, with a loud hum on the line. When that happens, I contact the phone company, which always hems and haws, and suggests that it must be my doing, and not the doing of their crappy 1970s-vintage wires.

Eventually, they do always send a guy out. Then the repair guy always hems and haws once he sees our property, which is many acres of desert land, in horse country, where the phone company many years ago tried to save money by placing the connection box down by the big wash, maybe 1,000 feet from the house, where it was more readily accessible, decades ago, than from the road.

"Where's the path?" the phone company guy always asks, looking worried.

"There isn't one," I have to tell him. And off he trudges morosely through the brush and the cactuses, lugging his tool box and ladder, in the 100-degree heat. We always offer Gatorade or other cold drinks, incidentally.

"Watch out for rattlesnakes," I always need to remind him.

This time, I'll have to add, "And for that gila monster. Don't pet him, whatever you do."

Anyway, long story short again, there's the loud hum on the phone line this morning, and I brace myself for the initial contact with the phone company.

The phone company has changed its name again, by the way. Most recently it was called Qwest, but now, evidently, it has become something called CenturyLink, which sounds to me like a struggling real estate company in San Diego. But what the hell, anything had to sound better than the readily misspelled "Qwest."

You can go to the CenturyLink Web site, where there is an online repair feature -- which of course does not work. Gamely, I try it, as usual. Of course, the user-name and password I have carefully kept a record of over the years is not recognized.

O.K., it demands, what then is my account number? Search me, as my phone bill is paid automatically and I never see the paper statement. Of course, I can retrieve a copy of the statement with my account number on it online -- but only by entering a valid user-name and password, which I obviously no longer possess. However, I am informed that I can in fact retrieve the valid user-name and password! All I have to do is ... enter my account number.

Mood darkening, I see another link that I know will yield nothing but frustration: "Need help with your user name and password?" it asks. Warily, I click it. It requires me to answer the following "security question":

"What is your favorite pets?" it asks with puzzling grammar.

Baffled, I try the names of each, and then both, of our parrots. No good. Next I try the name of my wife's horse. When that doesn't work, I type in the formal name the horse once had during his short-lived career as a thoroughbred racehorse back East.

Naturally, that does not work either. Incidentally, his fancy racing name is long-gone; my wife's horse is just called "Fred" here in Tucson, where we joke that he is living under an assumed name in the Racehorse Witness Protection Program.

Next I try generic answers, "parrot" and "horse," and then the plural forms.

Rejected every time.

Oh, incidentally, the online help-link does say it will call me with the answer if I so choose, which I do. The phone rings in a minute, but of course I can't hear the message because of that loud hum I am trying to have repaired. The last alternative I am offered to have the mystery answer mailed to me. Mail, as in U.S. Postal Service.

Finally I find an 800 "customer service" number, and call it, using my cellphone.

The automated voice asks me to say the phone number of the phone that has the "issue," which I do, fully aware that I will soon be asked to repeat the same number when I speak with a live person, as I know I eventually will. It then asks me whether the "issue" is regarding "local" or "long distance." What the hell does that mean? Do people have separate home lines for local and long distance? I start pressing the * button.

Finally a guy answers. I always hate it when I get men on customer-service lines. Just as I am wary of male flight attendants, as they often have Attitudes.

He asks me local or long distance. I know enough not to rile him, but I reply, "Aren't they combined?"

By his tone I can tell that I am on thin ice. He calls me "Joseph," which always sets my teeth on edge. Whatever happened to "mister" in this country? But I let it pass.

At length I succeed in obtaining an agreement to have a repair person come to our home, where I know from past experience he (haven't ever had a "she" phone-repair person) will sigh and trudge back to the wash, and fix the problem till the next time it rains really hard and the cheap wires the phone company put in back during the Carter Administration fail again.

I am informed: The repair person will be here anytime between now and 8 p.m. tomorrow.

Will I be home?

I suppose I must.

Or maybe the gila monster can assist.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Luxury Hotels Doing Well

As the affluent get affluenter (Wall Street/stock market shenanigans aside), luxury hotels continue leading the pack in hotel spending.

According to the most recent weekly data from the hospitality-industry data company Smith Travel Research, the luxury segment reported the largest increases in all three key performance areas, occupancy (up 4.4 percent), average daily rate (up 4.9 percent) and revenue per available room (RevPAR) (up a hefty 9.5 percent). Thatg's for the week of August 7-13, compared with the similar week last yeart.

Two other hotel segments ended the week virtually flat in occupancy: the economy segment and the mid-scale segment, Smith Travel says. But the mid-scale segment had decreases in both average daily rate (down 2.3 percent) and RevPAR (down 2.7%).


Saturday, August 13, 2011

More Media Hot Air

In today's low-brow media, everything is always new, everything is a surprise, because there is no history. There is just this strange thing they call "breaking news," which seems to occur with startling frequency during the course of any day.

So now we are diverted with dramatic photos and stories of Mt. Etna erupting in Sicily. Crisis!

In fact, Mt. Etna is in a constant state of volcanic activity and has been so since time immemorial. Many years ago, I spent a year writing a book on the Mediterranean island nation of Malta, and a typical diversion on a brilliant summer's day was to loll on the rocky beach and watch the smoke plume from Etna trailing away high in the blue sky, 150 miles across the sea.

Etna has been erupting for so long that an eruption there was lain as the cause of the thwarting of the Carthaginian advance on Syracuse -- in 396 B.C. Virgin waxed eloquent on Etna's eruptions in the Aeneid. The ancient Greeks believed that Etna was the home of the cyclops.

Once in a while, rather frequently, in fact, the volcano really rocks and rolls, and this is one of those occasions.

Today we have the Daily Mail of London, an excitable newspaper making big inroads online in the United States, sounding like a Monty Python parody of one of those airheaded old British newsreels. You can almost hear the cheery music. "So determined are they to enjoy their time on the beach, they don't even turn their heads to the sight of Europe's largest volcano erupting behind them," chirps the Daily Mail in the caption to the beach photo. It adds, "Or perhaps it's just volcano fatigue - after all, this is the sixth time Mt Etna has erupted in the last month."

Haw-haw, those crazy Italians!

Right. Or perhaps it's because the beach shown, which appears to be Taormina, is a 90-minute drive from the base of the 10,000-foot volcano, and the people on said beach probably did have a good look at the pretty volcanic plume before they settled in on their beach towels on a glorious sunny day.

After all, like just about everything else in Italy and Sicily, they have seen it all before.

On the other hand, it does make for pretty pictures.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Travel Advice for England; the Daily Mail Blames Liberals for Riots

Just when you think there is no possible way the British high-church establishment could look more ridiculous than it already has, here comes some smug pantload in the Daily Mail called Max Hastings to explain it all for you. It's the liberals and their "dogma" wot done it, explains Parson Hastings, who also has a flashback to Detroit in 1967, same cause, same "wild beasts," as he called puts it, who "respond on to instinctive animal impulses."

Then, separately, there's this guy. There will, I suppose, always be this kind of an England. Alas.

Meanwhile, the State Department hasn't weighed in with a travel alert for England, unaccountably (well, maybe not - the UK is big pals and there's a lot of dough involved, this being the height of the travel season.)

The big travel agency Carlson Wagonlit Travel (CWT), though, has sent out an advisory. Here it is:

"... London is experiencing rioting and looting across its outer districts and in cities such as Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool and Nottingham. The civil unrest began on Saturday, August 6, following a peaceful protest in Tottenham to bring attention to a fatal shooting by local police. At this time, it is being reported that a major clean-up operation is underway.

Public transport in/out of central London is unaffected, with most rail and underground stations operating as normal today. Disruption to travel is confined to pockets outside of the city center where there are some road closures.

Additionally, all CWT offices in the United Kingdom are operating normal business hours, and will be available for client/traveler inquiries.

The rioters have been intent on causing damage to retail and commercial property, which has resulted in very few human casualties. ...

CWT travelers are advised to:

• Ensure contact details in their CWT Portrait traveler profile are current
• Keep mobile phones charged and available at all times
• Monitor updates through CWT Alerts and local media to stay current on the status of the situation and any disruptions to public transport
• Avoid large public gatherings if possible
• Refrain from traveling to unfamiliar areas ..."


England Rioting: U.S. Media Finally Reporting the "5 W's?"

Finally, now that they're a little bored watching the thieves on Wall Street running around with their pants on fire, the U.S. media seem to be paying better attention to the rioting in the London area and a few other English cities -- as a police story, which it basically is, rather than as some ponderous political-sociological curiosity.

The other day, I mentioned here the journalistic basics, the so-called five Ws, that had been mostly missing in the coverage: The who, what, when, where and why. What we were getting way too much of: Cliched photos of flames. Photo editors love flames, and never seem to realize that one blazing fire looks pretty much like another, except for the background, whether it's in Wyoming or Tottenham.

Also, sadly missing from the coverage were useful locator maps showing us specifically where the trouble spots actually are -- even though (and maybe because, given the anti-historical proclivities of the way-too-powerful "graphic design" layout people) locator maps in newspapers have been around literally since the invention of the woodcut.

Anyway, here comes today's Wall Street Journal with a good old-fashioned news update on the England situation that even specifically mentions the "who" and "why" in the lede, and is presented along with a useful locator map -- a map, thank you! -- that provides the "where."

To which I add:


Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Long 'Tarmac Delays' Rose Again in June

[Chart: Bureau of Transportation Statistics, U.S. Department of Transportation]

As the chart shows, tarmac delays -- that is, planes that sat idled for over three hours after leaving the gate -- rose again sharply in June, month-to-month compared with June 2010.

The data from the Transportation Department's Bureau of Transportation Statistics was released today. There was a long period of few or no tarmac delays after a new federal rule went into effect in the spring of 2010, providing for fines of $27,500 per passenger for tarmac delays of over three hours without a very good excuse.

Delays shot up in May, and again in June.

No fines have yet been imposed against an airline under that rule.

Here's a Q&A from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics on tarmac delays, etc.

Whenever I mention this subject I get e-mails pointing out that "tarmac" is a misnomer, that the correct term is apron or ramp. Alas, tarmac is the word commonly used now. "Tarmac," by the way, is a trade name that has entered common usage to refer to tarmacadam, or tar-penetration macadam, the kind of paving material used for ... aprons and ramps and taxiways.


England Riots: Today's Update

Am shaking my head over the morning papers here in the U.S., where the coverage of the rioting in London, its suburbs and a few other cities in England is of little use to travelers -- or to anyone else curious about what is actually going on.

The cable news outlets are of course even worse, especially as they are unable to pay attention to more than one phenomenon at a time, and they're mesmerized right now by Wall Street. Dunno about the broadcast networks, which I haven't watched since, what, the Carter administration? You know, back when CBS and the like actually had foreign bureaus that produced news?

Anyway, yo, media: Remember who, what, when, where and why?

The situation in London and a few other cities is not improving. Here's a roundup in the Daily Mail.

And from the Guardian, which is far less excitable than the Daily Mail, this useful live blog.

Here's a roundup in the Telegraph, which also has an interactive map.

And here is the Guardian's interactive map today. It shows the verified trouble spots and describes the trouble.

Unlike the U.S. media, which appear to be blissfully unaware that readers actually know London and are anxious to see where trouble spots are. Instead, we're getting harrumphing about UK politics, as potentially affected by the rioting. Also, the U.S. media have largely forgotten what maps are for, having ceded so much layout authority to photo editors who love those pictures of big orange flames, and page designers with their damn crayons.

Incidentally, one of the themes of public reaction today in Britain is anger over the evidently hapless police response. The Metropolitan Police, a.k.a. Scotland Yard, now say they'll have 16,000 officers on London's streets tonight, compared with 6,000 last night.

But the coppers have been flatfooted in anticipating trouble flare-ups -- possibly because they're clueless about the way flash crowds have been assembled through social media. Hey, Scotland Yard, perhaps you're too busy hacking phones on behalf of Mister Murdoch, but really, you can monitor Facebook and Twitter without even breaking the law. It's all the rage!

I wonder how the New York Police Department would have handled this rioting. The NYPD are experts in well-planned crowd-control techniques, and usually can handle possibly unruly crowds and street disturbances without marching in like Napoleon's Grande Armée. Maybe Scotland Yard could break some of its officers away from the employ of Mister Murdoch and dispatch them to New York for a course in smart tactical riot-control from experts.

An editorial in today's Murdoch-owned Times of London carries this prim lecture: "Small sections of the capital’s youth have evidently come to believe that this is an amusing way to treat their city. They must realise they are wrong." Ah, so much for the fabled Thunderer.

Meanwhile, I gotta say that Matt Drudge is right on top of this story, incidentally. I've always said that Drudge is essentially a very good night-wire editor out of some panting right-wing tabloid in the 1930s -- but with unlimited space. I mean that as a compliment. The boy oughta be wearing an eyeshade instead of that fedora. Also, the guy does not glam up his Web site with a bunch of useless graphic design hooey.

Anyway, if you're headed to London, be alert.

Still waiting for the State Department, which is so quick to issue travel alerts for third-world countries, to take official note of the serious trouble right now in England, at the height of the tourist season.

The German foreign ministry, on the other hand, is paying attention. It issued a travel warning for England. It says, sensibly:

"Travelers are advised to exercise special caution, to immediately pull back if confronted with any signs of disturbance, and to especially follow advice given by security forces ... Travelers should also look to the media to keep themselves informed about the latest developments and act in an appropriate fashion locally."


Monday, August 08, 2011

London Rioting: A Heads-Up

There's no cause for excessive alarm yet, but good cause for caution and diligence if you're headed for London.

There have been three days of rioting, which began in the northern London districts such as Tottenham but soon spread to locations south and east of the central city, with even some disturbances reported in familiar tourist locales such as Oxford Circus. Elsewhere in the outer boroughs of the city and other places, gangs mostly comprised of young men, marshaling forces via cellphones, Blackberrys and social-networking sites, have been looting, smashing windows and setting fires.

Here's a link to the current coverage in the Daily Telegraph of London.

And here's the AP account.

Alas, U.S. newspapers no longer have a sensible appreciation of locator maps -- instead, they take up space with photos that photo editors think are dramatic and the rest of us think are the same generic old stuff. See one striking photo of orange flames seen them all, even in London.

But the Telegraph newspaper in London has a useful interactive map to locations of the trouble. Here's the link.

Rioting has also occurred in Birmingham, where a roving gang of about 300 caused police to shut road access to the central part of the city Monday. Trouble also was reported in Liverpool.

If you're traveling in London, there is no need to panic, but very good reason to be extra alert. And especially avoid any crowds of young men that you see forming on a street. During the rioting in some places, restaurants have been stormed and customers mugged.

There haven't been any travel alerts or advisories from the State Department yet. We'll see how willing State will be to warn Americans about traveling as trouble spreads in the capital and other cities in Britain, at the height of the tourist season.


Friday, August 05, 2011

I.R.S.: Airfare Tax Reinstatement Is "Retroactive," and There Are No Refunds. Do Airlines Now Have a Big Tax Bill?

The media are reporting a statement from the I.R.S. on the reinstatement of the federal airfare taxes without asking the most obvious question. That is, the F.A.A. today retroactively has reinstated the taxes suspended with on July 23 when Congress failed to extend F.A.A. funding reauthorization.

So no refunds, the I.R.S. says.

Clear enough.

But wait a minute: Does a retroactive reinstatement mean that airlines now owe the I.R.S. for the taxes they failed to collect from passengers (at the same time, remember, most airlines promptly raised their base fares by roughly the same amount as the taxes would have been).

I'm continually shocked by how my colleagues in the media fail these days to ask obvious questions like this one, which I am asking: Are airlines now on the hook for the back taxes, which amounted to a total of about $25 million a day. (And no, the figure is not $30 million, as the media inexplicably began claiming after the first few days of the tax holiday).

I'll let you know when I get an answer. [UPDATE: Evidently the airlines won't be required to remit payment for "retroactive" taxes, whatever the hell that means. Seeking further clarity. To paraphrase Lou Grant: "Mary, I hate 'Evidently.' "]

Here is the entire I.R.S. statement today (italics are mine):

"Today’s Congressional action extending the Federal Aviation Administration authorization reinstates retroactively the airline ticket taxes for passengers who traveled during the lapse of the FAA's authorization. As a result of the bill Congress passed today, passengers who purchased tickets prior to July 23 and traveled between July 23 and the date of enactment of today’s legislation are not entitled to a refund of the airline ticket excise tax. Additionally, the IRS intends to provide relief for passengers and airlines with respect to ticket taxes that were not paid or collected because of the lapse.

The IRS intends to provide guidance to the airlines which will allow for an orderly restart of the collection of ticket taxes. Airlines will have from the time of enactment of the legislation through 12:01 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 8, to resume collection of the ticket taxes.

The IRS is currently reviewing other effects of the legislation and will issue future guidance."

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

D.B. Cooper and John Emil List, and Flights of Fancy

[Left: John Emil List ... Right: FBI sketch of D.B. Cooper]

Oh geez, another "ABC News Exclusive." That's a phrase I've learned to approach with great skepticism. ABC News is somewhat notorious in the trade for "exclusives" that, as we say, remain forever exclusive.

This one, being breathlessly flogged here in the dog days of summer when everybody desperately needs a distraction from depressing political news, is about D.B. Cooper, the infamous fugitive who disappeared in November 1971 after hijacking a plane, pocketing $200,000 in ransom, and spectacularly parachuting out the aft airstair of a 727 at 10,000 feet, somewhere over the Lewis River in mountainous southwest Washington state.

The ABC News exclusive aside (whatever in the world it's trying to suggest, as I'm not sure), I happen to be an expert on a famous criminal fugitive who spectacularly disappeared, seemingly without a trace, in November 1971.

So kindly allow me to add my two cents here to one very tangential "connection" to the D.B. Cooper saga, and to elaborate on one of my own.

The famous fugitive I refer in this instance is middle-aged, bespectacled, soft-spoken John Emil List, the deeply religious, deeply politically conservative Westfield, N.J., father and war veteran who abruptly murdered his wife, three children and aged mother on November 9, 1971, left the bodies in a creepy display on the ballroom floor of the decrepit List mansion in Westfield, and disappeared into thin air -- until he was finally apprehended in 1989. Before killing his family, List had embezzled $200,000 from his mother's bank account.

Fifteen days after List killed his family and abandoned his car at Kennedy airport in New York, a middle-aged, bespectacled, soft-spoken man known as D.B. Cooper hijacked a Northwest Airlines 727 and parachuted into infamy with a bag of money. The sum: $200,000.

Given the striking physical resemblance between John List and FBI sketches of D.B. Cooper, and the equally striking coincidence of List's fleeing followed by the D.B. Cooper escapade a mere 15 days later, speculation understandably arose: Was the mysterious John List one and the same person as the mysterious D.B. Cooper?

Actually, the John List who finally was returned to face trial in New Jersey was a sad-sack of a fellow, though behind those eyeglasses you could certainly see the steely stare of an prissy, arrogant killer who had been capable of shooting to death, in cold blood, one after the other, in the course of a horrific, meticulously planned morning of horror in his home, his wife, aged 45, his three children, aged 16, 15 and 13, and his mother, aged 84.

List, who died in prison three years ago, always maintained (and had left a whiny crime-scene note to this effect) that he killed his family as an act of religious mercy, in that he had become financially unable to provide for them and wanted them sent to their heavenly father before the cruel world further corrupted their souls.

The media and the remarkably dumb cops in Westfield, N.J., bought into this pious baloney, then and forever afterward.

In 1989, I set out to write my book on the List murders ("Death Sentence," 1990), which critics called a "true-crime masterpiece." Alas, my book -- poorly agented and indifferently published -- sank because a couple of cheap competitors were rushed into print by more savvy publishers, while at the same time the late Helen List's sister and brother-in-law suddenly emerged working with Hollywood development barracudas. In such muddied waters a quality book drowns. Them's the breaks in true-crime writing, I learned.

Anyway, while researching the book I quickly uncovered instance after instance of how the List "investigation" had been botched, allowing the fugitive to escape and enjoy, to the extent that John List could be said to "enjoy" anything, his freedom for 17 additional years.

One thing I have never understood to this day is how the police and the media ignored some shocking discrepancies that I discovered in the official version of the List crimes. For one thing, though there was never any doubt about who had committed the murders, the crime scene itself had been hopelessly corrupted. First, the Westfield cops barreled in clumsily, local reporters panting in tow, and violated nearly every principle of forensic prudence.

But most weird was how the local cops had actually learned of the massacre in the first place, because the bodies were not discovered in that house till 28 days after List committed the horrors and fled.

This was in 1971, a time of great generational conflict. List, who had been spoiled by his doting and also obsessively religious mother throughout childhood, had an array of motives for the crimes, among them a selfish desire to wipe clean his slate and start anew, without the financial and emotional encumbrances of a family.

But there was another motive that really stood out to me. List was clearly deeply repressed. In my opinion, his rage was both sexual and political in nature -- primarily directed at his only-slightly-rebellious 16-year-old, Patty, and to a lesser but still significant extent at his wife, Helen, who was suffering through the tertiary stage of syphilis, which she had innocently contracted decades previously, during a very brief first marriage to a ne'er-do-well soldier. The elderly mother and two sons were essentially collateral damage in List's rampage against his wife and teenaged daughter.

I'm now planning on updating and re-issuing "Death Sentence," incidentally.

Besides List himself, and of course the D.B. Cooper coincidence, the very weirdest part of the story, as I described it in the book, involved Patty's friends. Much to List's alarm, Patty had become involved in her high school theater club, led by their "drama coach," a charismatic, energetic, emotionally high-strung middle-aged frustrated community-theater actor named Edwin Illiano. The close-knit theater-club group became a major part of the girl's life in 1970 and 1971.

Here's where the story gets extremely strange. Patty, who had expressed fears about her father to her friends, suddenly drops out of sight after November 9, 1971. Her friends are alarmed. Weeks pass, and the friends and their adult mentor quietly visit the big old house, where they see the bodies laid out in the pattern of a cross on the cold ballroom floor. They flee in terror. Only later, prodded by the group, do the police come to the house evidently to look for signs of a burglary. Only then, 28 days after the murders, do the police enter the house and discover the grisly scene.

This bizarre story, and the shocking corruption of the crime scene, were conveniently ignored during the trial almost 19 years later, when of course prosecutors had an obviously guilty man on the stand and, clearly, saw no need to complicate matters. Off List went to prison, and everyone was glad of it.

I did note at the time, as the cops were high-fiving each other for their brilliance in capturing the killer, that thanks to incompetence, the murderer had enjoyed almost 18 years of freedom before he was finally caught.

This of course did not make me a popular figure among the busy assemblers of the certified narrative -- which was further corrupted by the abrupt appearance of a fat "fictionalized recreation" of the List murders by a low-rank New Jersey pulp-fabulist called Mary Ryzuk, which was rushed out before my book was published. That was then followed by a competing nonfiction account compiled locally by two small-town journalists working in close cooperation with the Westfield cops -- who of course were taking credit for List's capture more than 17 years after their predecessors on the force had botched the investigation while the killer escaped and crafted a new life out West.

How was List actually caught?

He was turned in by a former neighbor in Denver, where he lived for at least 15 years after fleeing New Jersey. The neighbor, Wanda Flannery, told me that she liked and pitied List's timid replacement-wife in Denver (who was unaware of her husband's previous life), but disliked him. She thought he was a "creep."

When I visited her in Denver in 1989, shortly after List had been captured, Mrs. Flannery told me that she had for some time suspected the man next door -- who she knew as Bob Clark -- was actually John List. In 1987, Wanda said, she recognized him from an old photo of List that had run atop a retrospective story on the unsolved murders that she read in a supermarket tabloid, the Weekly World News (which ceased print publication in 2007).

Incidentally, the media narrative on this, on List's capture, is inaccurate. The media accounts, thanks to hype from a television program, "America's Most Wanted," abetted by the local cops in New Jersey who participated in the program, always claim that Mrs. Flannery called the police after recognizing Bob Clark as John List from a sculpted bust that had been commissioned by the TV show. To this day, "America's Most Wanted" crows that it captured John List.

However, the "America's Most Wanted" segment on List came long after the story had appeared in the Weekly World News -- and some months after "Bob Clark" and his hapless wife Delores had moved away from Denver to Virginia, where the unemployed List had found a new accounting job.

The TV show's breathlessly publicized sculptor's bust of how List presumably looked 17 years after the crime bore a slight resemblance (obviously, it had been modeled on photos of List) to the neighbor Wanda Flannery knew and already believed to be John List.

But it was not a fully persuasive likeness to Mrs. Flannery who, of course, knew the real man.

In 1989, when I went to her home in Denver to talk to her, Mrs. Flannery was an elderly, anxious woman who lived alone in the modest condominium complex where the Clarks had been her next-door neighbors.

When she read the story on John list in the Weekly World News in 1987, she happened to glance out her back window to see "Bob Clark" in his yard. The connection was immediate. Waiting till Bob Clark had left on an errand, an alarmed Mrs. Flannery took the Weekly World News story to over her neighbor, Delores Clark. Delores "turned pale" but firmly rebuffed her, dismissing the notion that her husband could be this fugitive John List. But Mrs. Flannery said she saw the fear in her friend's face.

Embarrassed, and afraid that Delores might have alerted her husband to her suspicions, Wanda retreated and kept silent. She didn't know what else to do, or who to talk to. "I'm certainly not going to go to the police, me, an old lady carrying some crazy story ripped out of a supermarket paper," she confided to me. Still, she warily kept her distance from Bob Clark from that point forward.

In 1989, months after the Clarks had moved away to Virginia, Wanda saw the America's Most Wanted program featuring John List. "America's Most Wanted" producers told me in 1989 that they reluctantly compiled that particular program after being approached on several occasions by members of the Westfield, N.J., police department -- who had also seen the Weekly World News story, and wanted the TV show to help them pry open the cold case.

Back in Denver, when she watched the "America's Most Wanted" program, however, Mrs. Flannery became more embarrassed and confused than ever. She told me that was because she thought the bust did not look much like Bob Clark -- though she was nevertheless nearly certain that Bob Clark was John List, thanks to the Weekly World News story and photo.

However, "America's Most Wanted" provide Mrs. Flannery with one option she hadn't had before. The TV show gave out phone number for viewers to call with any information. Mrs. Flannery, who had Delores's and Bob's new address in Midlothian, Va., fretfully decided to make the call, thinking there might be a reward.

Police arrested John List in Virginia 11 days later. The TV program and forensic sculptor (Frank Bender, who died last week, still getting credit) -- took bows, and the media bought into the narrative.

[Here's an interesting link to a follow-up in the Weekly World News in 1989 on Wanda Flannery and her actual role in the List capture.)

But I digress. Back to D.B. Cooper.

At the time List was apprehended, there was a lot of speculation about his possibly being one and the same person as D.B. Cooper.

For example, this is from the Los Angeles Times, in a story after List was arrested in Virginia:

"Although the man known as Clark denies he is List, authorities said fingerprints and a scar prove Clark and List are the same person.

Clark, 63, was arrested June 1 at the Richmond accounting firm where he had worked for 1 1/2 years. FBI agents had been tipped off by a viewer of the national television program, "America's Most Wanted," which 11 days earlier had run a segment focusing on the List murders.

Authorities said List fled to Colorado and then Virginia and had built a new life without changing his appearance or profession.

An FBI spokesman in Seattle said Thursday that List is considered a suspect in the November, 1971, hijacking of a plane by a man known as D. B. Cooper.

'John List is one of any number of people suspected in the D. B. Cooper case,' FBI spokesman John Eyer said. 'He will be investigated until he is eliminated.'"

The speculation about List and D.B. Cooper soon died out, though of course it lives online, where nothing dies.

I never thought there was any possibility that John List and D.B. Cooper were the same man. However, however unlikely the possibility was, the idea was awfully entrancing for someone like me, writing a book about John List.

List died in prison in 2008, aged 82, without ever adding any insight into the mysteries of his crimes other than an astonishingly dishonest 130-page book, ghost-written by a childhood acquaintance and published by a vanity publisher, that he compiled in prison called "Collateral Damage: The John List Story." In this final brazen act of jaw-droppingly arrogant evil, List and his pitiful amanuensis argued that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, stemming from his limited combat experience in World War II -- and that he, no less than the family he so brutally murdered, was to be pitied as a victim. He died two years later, and good riddance to that.

During his trial in 1990, I did manage to ask List whether he was D.B. Cooper amid the courtroom tumult in Elizabeth, N.J. In reply, he just blinked those cold killer's eyes, seeming not to comprehend the question. Then the guards nudged him away. Years later, in prison, he explicitly denied being D.B. Cooper.

As I said, I never bought into the remote possibility. Though he was depicted as a criminal mastermind who had cleverly planned the murders and the escape, List managed to avoid arrest for 17 years mostly through the incompetence of law enforcement. He planned the murders, did them, drove to the airport, abandoned his car and traveled (by bus, not plane) to Michigan, where he had grown up. He then made his way to Denver, took a new name, got a series of low-paid jobs, and insinuated himself into a Denver branch of the same church he had belonged to in New Jersey, a Lutheran evangelical congregation, the likes of which should have been the first place the police and FBI looked for him.

List had been an expert marksman in World War II and Korea, but he was not athletic at all, and I think the bewildered look I got from him when I asked him about D.B. Cooper was partly a reply that said, "Do I look like a guy brave enough to parachute from an airliner?" Most serious investigators, those not looking to cook up a new movie and book deal, believe that "D.B. Cooper," whoever he was, probably died right away, during the daredevil nighttime parachute escape at high altitude, plunging into the dark abyss through a raging storm over rugged terrain.

Besides, even the people who were hijacked in 1971 liked D.B. Cooper, who hurt no one.

Nobody liked John Emil List.


Tuesday, August 02, 2011

'Pleased to Meet You, Hope You Guess My Name' And Other Innovations Coming to the TSA Checkpoints

...Or something like that.

The TSA has now published some details on its coming-your-way-soon "expanded behavior detection program," in which "specialized behavioral analysis techniques" will be used to determine if a traveler should be referred for additional screening at the checkpoint. The new procedure will be tested first in Boston.

Additional so-called behavior detection officers will be working the lines to do this sleuthing. Oh what fun!

The TSA says: "The vast majority of passengers at the pilot checkpoints will experience a 'casual greeting' conversation with a Behavior Detection Officer (BDO) as they go through identity verification. This enhanced interaction is used by security agencies worldwide and will enable officers to better verify or dispel suspicious behavior and anomalies."

I know, lots of people scoff at the assertion that TSA screeners, even with the three weeks of training they receive in behavior detection techniques, have the skills to really pull this off, without causing additional delays in the processing of passengers.

I am told that this program, once it's fully operational, will be operated by way of making the security hassle less asinine, with less of the security-theater farce we know so well as we watch fellow passengers get busted for a tube of toothpaste or watch a 98-year-old woman struggle out of her wheelchair to stand for the grope.

We shall see.

The TSA published this Q&A:

Q. How is the role of the BDO changed for this pilot program?
A. These BDOs have undergone additional specialized training in interviewing methods designed to identify travelers who display characteristic at the security checkpoint by engaging them in conversation. During the test phase these officers will focus on passenger interaction and behavior analysis in conjunction with the Travel Document Checking (TDC) process.

Q. What is the purpose of the pilot program?
A. This pilot program is part of a larger effort designed to improve the efficiency, effectiveness and customer experience of the security screening process by identifying potentially high-risk travelers and ensuring they receive the appropriate level of screening.

Q. Where will the pilot program take place?
A. The expanded behavior detection pilot program will begin at Boston Logan International Airport. During the pilot, BDOs will employ specialized behavioral analysis techniques to determine if a traveler should be referred for additional screening at the checkpoint.

Q. How soon before passengers see these types of BDOs at other airports?
A. TSA hopes to expand the pilot program to a few other airports this fall; however, the results of this pilot program at Logan Airport will determine our next steps.

Q. What should passengers expect at the checkpoint?
A. After a passenger’s travel documents are verified by a TDC officer, a BDO will briefly engage each passenger in conversation. If more information is needed, the officer will refer the passenger to a second BDO for a more throrough conversation to determine if additional screening is needed.