Briefly

Stuff that matters


Hurricane Maria

Donald Trump is threatening to end federal relief to Puerto Rico — on Twitter, of course.

In a memo leaked last week, Department of Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert recommended White House staff pivot to a “theme of stabilizing” with regard to messaging around the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico.

President Trump, however, appears to have missed that particular update. On Thursday morning, he threatened to pull federal relief workers from the devastated island just three weeks after Maria made landfall.

Meanwhile, most of Puerto Rico is still without power, hospitals are running out of medical supplies, and clean water remains scarce.

Trump isn’t the only prominent Republican refusing to recognize the severity of the crisis. In an interview with CNN on Thursday morning, Representative Scott Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican, accused host Chris Cuomo of fabricating reports of the severity of the disaster.

“Mr. Cuomo, you’re simply just making this stuff up,” Perry said. “If half the country didn’t have food or water, those people would be dying, and they’re not.”

45 Puerto Rican deaths have been officially confirmed so far, and reports from the ground indicate the unofficial number of deaths due to the storm is higher.


Hurricane Maria

Puerto Ricans might be drinking Superfund-polluted water, the EPA says.

Three weeks after Hurricane Maria struck, 36 percent of Puerto Ricans — more than a million people — still lack access to clean water. That’s a slight improvement from 1.5 million two weeks ago, but still.

In desperation, people are getting their water from contaminated creeks, sewers, and maybe wells at Superfund sites, those polluted areas often contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals. Quietly tucked away in an EPA news release from Tuesday:

There are reports of residents obtaining, or trying to obtain, drinking water from wells at hazardous waste “Superfund” sites in Puerto Rico. EPA advises against tampering with sealed and locked wells or drinking from these wells, as it may be dangerous to people’s health.

Puerto Rico has more than its share of Superfund sites, a legacy of industrial pollution, toxic landfills, and bomb testing by the U.S. militaryEighteen such sites, to be precise.

These toxic sites aren’t the only danger. There’s also risk in getting water from rivers and streams. People are already dying from diseases caused by contaminated water, and health experts warn that Puerto Rico could see “significant epidemics.”

Keep that in mind next time you hear someone from the White House say the relief effort is going well.


Hijo, No

Donald Trump is helping Puerto Rico with … more debt.

While we’re all talking about IQ tests, here’s a math problem: Imagine you’re a tree with 56 apples to take care of. One day, a massive storm comes and knocks out about four of those apples. They’re all on the ground now, kind of smushed.

But one of those apples didn’t have the same advantages as the other ones — too many pesticides growing up, let’s say — and it’s extra-smushed. It is also $74 billion in debt. (You may ask: Who loaned an apple $74 billion? Hedge funds have long embraced predatory lending practices, but that’s a math problem for another time.)

Anyway — as the tree, it’s your job to get those apples back in shape. You decide to allocate $36.5 billion in fallen-apple assistance. But only $5 billion specifically goes to that extra-smushed, indebted apple, and then that apple has to pay it back. It has to share about $14 billion with the other less-indebted and -smushed apples.

Surprise! This isn’t really a math problem — it’s an ethics problem. The tree is the United States government, the apples are all of its states and territories, the smushed apples are Florida, Texas, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the extra-smushed apple is Puerto Rico. Donald Trump’s self-lauded aid plan for the ailing and indebted territory is a loan.


Electric Roundup

You’re probably going to be driving an electric car soon.

Volkswagen Group, the company behind VW, Audi, and Porsche, pledged to commit $1.7 billion to electrify heavy-duty vehicles like trucks and buses at an event in Germany on Wednesday. (Yes, this is the same company that got tangled up in not one, but two emissions-cheating scandals in the span of about a year.)

The release is one of multiple similar announcements made by big automakers this month:

  • Jaguar Land Rover revealed a new plug-in hybrid option Range Rover on Monday, available for purchase in 2019.
  • Last week, General Motors, America’s largest automaker, announced plans to release 20 all-electric vehicles by 2023. Two of those models will be unveiled in the next 18 months.
  • Not to be outdone, Ford Motor announced plans to release 13 electric models by 2020, and the company will electrify 40 percent of its cars worldwide by the end of the decade.

All these announcements come as big countries lay plans to start phasing out gas and diesel powered cars: France and the U.K. will ban fossil-fueled vehicles by 2040, Sweden and Scotland plan to ban them by 2032, Norway is on track to stop sales by 2025, and India will go gas-free by 2030. Even China, the world’s largest market for automobiles, is working on a timeline for phasing out production of gas-powered cars.


broken record

California’s out-of-control wildfires are officially the worst in state history.

Heartbreaking images are pouring in from wine country, north of San Francisco, where fires continue to rage. At least 21 people have died in the blazes so far, and in one county alone, 670 people are listed as missing.

The devastating wildfires in Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino counties have reached historic proportions: More than 3,500 structures had been destroyed as of Wednesday morning. That surpasses the damage of the 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm, previously the worst wildfire disaster in state history. Nationally, this week’s fires rank as the most destructive wildfire complex since at least 1980.

Although California’s epic five-year-drought has largely ended, it led to diseased and weakened trees that have fed the flames of the current fires. Plus, last winter’s heavy rains spurred the growth of grasses and shrubs which have since dried out during a record-warm summer — leading to a whole lot of dead things available to burn. Tack on the exceptionally strong “Diablo Winds” and a few stray sparks, and we’re seeing the horrific consequences.

Altogether, the fires have burned more than 170,000 acres, an area more than one-fifth the size of the state of Rhode Island. The National Weather Service forecasts strong winds and low humidity on Wednesday, which could cause the fires to grow even more in the next day or two.

As climate change continues to make droughts longer and more severe, conditions like these will become more and more common.


take a deep breath

Wind energy over the oceans could power the world, geophysicists say.

A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that wind farms over ocean waters could generate “civilization scale power” — theoretically. To name one major problem: The technology to capture and transfer the energy blowing over the deep ocean hasn’t been invented.

According to the study, wind energy over North Atlantic waters has the potential to generate three times as much power as on land, given the same area. Open ocean wind farms could access wind speeds that are an average of 70 percent higher than on land.

We have a long way to go before we can start capitalizing on open-ocean wind energy. Even then, we will need to think carefully about how much of the ocean’s surface we want to carpet in turbines, which could cause long-term effects global temperatures.

However, the new research hints that wind farms over the deep ocean could play an important role in our future clean energy landscape — especially if the industry takes this as a signal to start developing offshore technologies now.


scariest place on earth

Wildfire smoke adds apocalyptic hellscape to Disneyland’s attractions.

An out-of-control blaze in the Anaheim Hills east of Los Angeles cast a foreboding orange glow over the city on Monday as it burned homes and forced the evacuation of thousands of local residents.

As of Tuesday morning, the Canyon Fire 2 — following a previous Canyon Fire last month — was just 5 percent contained, with more than 1,000 firefighters on-site. Along with deadly fires in the San Francisco Bay Area, this week’s statewide wildfire outbreak ranks as one of the most destructive in history.

The Anaheim inferno grew 100-fold in size within a few hours on Monday. Residents in foothill neighborhoods scrambled to safety throughout the afternoon. The Los Angeles Times reported that at an elementary school within the evacuation zone, parents were seen abandoning their cars and going to grab their children on foot.

At nearby Disneyland, bewildered tourists gawked at the orange sky as a red sun shone through the pall of wildfire smoke. The significance of the juxtaposition was not lost on internet commenters.

So-called “Santa Ana winds” fanned the flames, leading to explosive fire growth. Scientists expect that these gusts, notorious for stoking some of the worst fires in state history, will become more severe with climate change.

Weather conditions are expected to improve on Tuesday, but the local branch of the National Weather Service expects another of these wind events this weekend.


Hurricane Maria

FEMA director calls San Juan mayor’s concerns ‘political noise.’

In a tweet on Sunday, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz requested help for San Juan’s hospitals from FEMA Chief Brock Long. Cruz has been vocal about the Trump administration’s response to the crisis in Puerto Rico in recent weeks, prompting backlash from President Donald Trump.

When asked about the mayor’s plea in an interview on ABC’s This Week, Long dismissed her comments. “We filtered out the mayor a long time ago,” he said. “We don’t have time for the political noise.”

Instead, Brock Long might consider filtering Puerto Rico’s water supply.

Forty-one percent of the island’s residents still lack running water. Even those who do have access to running water have been advised to boil it or else risk exposure to water-borne illnesses. But that’s easier said than done, as 85 percent of Puerto Ricans are still without power.

This isn’t the first time Long has dismissed Cruz’s criticism of FEMA. On Fox News Sunday last week, he encouraged people to see “what’s actually being done” instead of “what the mayor spouts off.”


end of an era

California plans to reject a controversial natural gas plant, embracing a cleaner future.

After a three-year battle over the proposed Puente Power Plant in Oxnard, California, a committee of the state energy commission said it will recommend that the commission deny the project.

The committee saw a number of problems with the proposed plant. It poses environmental hazards and could feasibly be replaced by renewable sources. “The proposed rejection of Puente marks the end of new gas plants in California,” Matt Vespa, staff attorney at the environmental law firm Earthjustice, said in a statement.

The Puente plant was supposed to replace an older facility and provide back-up electricity for the surrounding area in Southern California. But people in Oxnard protested that the new plant was unnecessary and would further pollute an already overburdened town, as Emma Foehringer Merchant reported for Grist in August.

A study by the energy commission in June found that renewable alternatives could feasibly fill Puente’s role, though less reliably and at a higher cost.

The apparent defeat of Puente demonstrates that, at least in this case, California is staying true to its commitment to a cleaner, modernized electricity grid.