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Harvey is changing the way we feed people during disasters

This story was originally published by CityLab and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Each hurricane season, Brian Greene calls in reinforcements in the form of tractor-trailers. Long before a particular system is swirling on the horizon, Greene, the president and CEO of the Houston Food Bank, dispatches 40-plus hauls of disaster-relief supplies to local shelters so each outfit will have a stockpile of water, granola bars, and cleaning supplies. The idea is to get out ahead of any storm, and then hunker down. “That’s our normal plan,” Greene says. “And it looked pretty good.” But Tropical Storm Harvey wasn’t normal.

Under normal circumstances, hurricanes don’t hold steady overhead. “They’re not supposed to do that. They go 15 or 20 miles an hour. They hit you and move on and then you assess and then begin the follow-up work,” Greene says. But Harvey continued to assail the city for days, throwing a wrench in the food bank’s plans.

In a normal catastrophe — to the extent that any crisis is normal — “you’ve got maybe a 24-hour period where you’re shut down,” Greene says. In this case, the food bank was snarled for days — not because it had flooded, but because nearby roads had turned to rivers with white-capped waves. With the paved arteries clogged by churning water, supplies had to stay where they were.

On Tuesday, for instance, Celia Cole’s hands were tied. As the CEO of Feeding Texas, Cole was fielding calls from places that had run down their supplies. An assisted-living facility reached out: They were swamped by floodwaters and the patients and staff were out of food. Not even the largest vehicles on hand could make it through the water, Cole says. “It’s awful to say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you.’”

Seven of the 21 food banks in the Feeding Texas network were affected by the storm. By Wednesday, water had begun to recede in some areas, and people began streaming to local food banks and pantries. But the work was just beginning.

The immediate aftermath of a storm is often much-publicized and scored with desperation: Picture cameras panning across grocery stores with bare shelves and glass doors fastened shut against the rain; shivering crowds and interminable lines snaking across a parking lot pitted with puddles. In these tellings, a storm’s consequences are like broken bones — clean, complete, emergent. The Washington Post reported that some stores were looking to turn a quick buck on the trauma, gouging prices on basic necessities like water, which was selling for as much as $8.50 a bottle. But across the food system, the impacts may be more like hairline fractures, partial and enduring.

That’s because the busiest time for disaster relief isn’t while winds are howling and rain is pelting down in sheets, Greene says. It’s after. And that’s also when donations might slow from a stream to a trickle, and when the landscape of need is murkiest.

The problem is, in the past, cities’ resilience plans haven’t considered the food system. That’s starting to change, Erin Biehl, the senior program coordinator in the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future’s Food System Sustainability & Public Health program, told me earlier this month. Biehl is the lead author of a new report that surveys the blueprints various cities have laid out to respond to disasters that could shock all aspects of the food system, from warehouses to packaging facilities and bodegas. Now and for the foreseeable future, Houston will be reckoning with the very conditions Biehl and her collaborators outlined.

One of the primary takeaways from the CLF report is the paramount importance of connected networks. In the wake of disasters, the first major food hurdle is “figuring out who’s got what and who needs what,” says Roni Neff, the director of the CLF’s Food System Sustainability & Public Health research program. Greene experienced that challenge while working at food banks in New Orleans when Katrina swept through. “One of the most frustrating parts was how communication utterly, utterly broke down,” he says. Drenched landlines were unreliable, and cell towers were finicky. “It took weeks before we even found our staff,” Greene adds.

Now, in Houston, the team has outsourced and centralized contact information and plans at the state level, and stored it on the cloud. They leverage extensive communication networks to stay in touch with 600 partner organizations, including churches and community centers. “Everything we do is a collaboration,” Greene says. “Everything.” Feeding Texas also has a disaster coordinator on staff, who works out of the state’s department of emergency management.

In Houston, trucks are arriving from all over the state, and from others, too. “North Texas is already sending aid to shelters and at the conference center in Houston. Those were all part of a very coordinated network and everybody is standing by to respond,” Cole says. Corporations are pitching in to boost supply. Greene says Kellogg’s is dedicating 125 truckloads of cereal to the relief squad.

The Houston Press and Chronicle maintained running lists of restaurants and stores that were creaking open their doors amid the risk of flooding, or mobilizing as hubs of relief efforts. Some served free meals to first responders; others solicited donations of blankets, diapers, baby formula, and single-serving, packaged snacks and ferried them to the George R. Brown Convention Center, which is sheltering residents displaced from their homes.

Many families will have long-term needs, too. The melee delayed the start of the school year — and, by extension, the meals that students would have received in the cafeteria. Submerged businesses may be closed for weeks or months, slashing the paychecks of workers who earn hourly wages. In turn, their food budgets may be precariously slim. “If you’re on the margin and you just lost a quarter of the month’s income, you’re in trouble,” Greene notes. Staring down crumbling walls and blooming mold, it’s hard to decide how to allocate thin resources. People will struggle for a toehold as they repair their lives. “We’re anticipating what’s going to be sort of like a refugee crisis once people are actually able to get out of Houston,” Cole says.

On the policy side, one intervention is a temporary stretching of SNAP benefits. In anticipation of the deluge, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission put in a statewide waiver request on Aug. 26. Through Sept. 30, SNAP benefits can be used toward hot, ready-to-eat food items that are usually exempted from the program. The change may be a lifeline in Galveston. The island city was lashed with more than 22 inches of rain, and 37,371 of its residents received SNAP benefits in 2011. In the event that the food system is still shaken a month from now, a USDA official says the department will consider extending the waiver upon request from the state.

Neff wonders whether some repercussions might be even more wide-ranging. Reports of drowned fields and escaped livestock raised questions about the effects on farmers and the meat industry. With some refineries flooded or otherwise damaged, Neff says, fuel prices might rise, cutting into grocery stores’ margins and perhaps leading to mark-ups for consumers.

That all remains to be seen. The next challenge is scaling up, and doing so accurately. Outside of storm season, the Houston Food Bank moves about 350,000 pounds of food a day, six days a week. That number balloons when the bank springs into crisis mode. After Hurricane Ike struck, the food bank shuttled 500,000 pounds a day. This time around, “we just say, ‘OK, this is a lot bigger. Call it a million,’” Greene says. From there, the food bank has to tinker with its regular operations. How many additional forklifts do they need? How many more trucks?

It’s difficult to anticipate the magnitude of a storm — and what will be required to respond to it — before it’s baring its teeth. From a distance, Greene says, it’s tricky to imagine what damage might follow. Afterward, even from the ground, it’s hard to deduce a precise need from a quick survey of wreckage. “We won’t really know how this will pan out until it’s over,” Greene says.

So the best estimate is just that — but, ideally, a generous one. “There’s a big Katrina lesson. Whatever you do, do not fail people now when they need you most,” he adds. “So if you overshoot, you deal with the consequences of that — but the consequences of undershooting are far worse.”

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Harvey is changing the way we feed people during disasters

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That’s It For Today

Mother Jones

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This is my last post for the day. Starting in a few minutes we’ll be replacing the guts of our website with something newer and better than what we have now, and no one at MoJo is allowed to edit the site until we’re done. That will be Tuesday morning according to our tech boffins.

I fully expect everything to go flawlessly during this conversion, because that’s how things usually go with computers. Right? Still, there’s an outside chance of something going wrong, which might mean I don’t show up for blogging duty on Tuesday. If that happens, don’t panic. Leave that to us professionals. We’ll get it all sorted.

In the meantime, I have important robot research to do and even more important vacation planning to do. See you Tuesday.

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That’s It For Today

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The Intercept Discloses Top-Secret NSA Document on Russia Hacking Aimed at US Voting System

Mother Jones

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On Monday, the Intercept published a classified internal NSA document noting that Russian military intelligence mounted an operation to hack at least one US voting software supplier—which provided software related to voter registration files—in the months prior to last year’s presidential contest. It has previously been reported that Russia attempted to hack into voter registration systems, but this NSA document provides details of how one such operation occurred.

According to the Intercept:

The top-secret National Security Agency document, which was provided anonymously to The Intercept and independently authenticated, analyzes intelligence very recently acquired by the agency about a months-long Russian intelligence cyber effort against elements of the US election and voting infrastructure. The report, dated May 5, 2017, is the most detailed US government account of Russian interference in the election that has yet come to light.

While the document provides a rare window into the NSA’s understanding of the mechanics of Russian hacking, it does not show the underlying “raw” intelligence on which the analysis is based. A US intelligence officer who declined to be identified cautioned against drawing too big a conclusion from the document because a single analysis is not necessarily definitive.

The report indicates that Russian hacking may have penetrated further into US voting systems than was previously understood. It states unequivocally in its summary statement that it was Russian military intelligence, specifically the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, that conducted the cyber attacks described in the document:

Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate actors … executed cyber espionage operations against a named U.S. company in August 2016, evidently to obtain information on elections-related software and hardware solutions. … The actors likely used data obtained from that operation to … launch a voter registration-themed spear-phishing campaign targeting U.S. local government organizations.

Go read the whole thing.

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The Intercept Discloses Top-Secret NSA Document on Russia Hacking Aimed at US Voting System

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Why Are Former Presidents Supposed to Shut Up About Their Successors?

Mother Jones

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Since leaving office, Barack Obama has made a few veiled criticisms of Donald Trump. Conservatives are pretty unhappy about this. It’s tradition for ex-presidents to maintain a dignified silence about their successors, after all.

This is mostly true, but when did it become a tradition? It certainly hasn’t been one forever. Herbert Hoover was a constant presence on the radio blasting FDR during the Depression, and Harry Truman remained a gadfly after he left office.

Eisenhower changed things up. After beating Hitler and serving two terms as president, he decided to adopt the elder statesman role. Then Kennedy died before leaving office, LBJ slunk back to Texas a broken man, and Nixon resigned in disgrace. By hook or by crook, the “tradition” of ex-presidential silence was two decades old by the time Reagan became president. It’s mostly held ever since.

Is there a good reason for this? The pretense seems kind of precious to me. Why treat sitting presidents like china dolls who can’t take some heat from their predecessors? Ex-presidents are among the greatest politicians alive, and usually the effective leaders of their party, at least for a while. They typically command a throng of admirers. The most natural thing in the world would be for them to maintain a robust political presence if they want to. Why shouldn’t they?

Ditto for losing presidential candidates. This is usually less of an issue, since most people don’t really want to listen to losers. But not always. Hillary Clinton should never run for office again—and she’s said she won’t—but why shouldn’t she stay loudly involved in politics if she can help lead the loyal opposition until Democrats coalesce around a new party leader?

Does anyone know the answer about this tradition? Is it really just an Eisenhower thing that somehow congealed into conventional wisdom? Do other countries have anything similar?

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Why Are Former Presidents Supposed to Shut Up About Their Successors?

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Nobody Knows Anything, Washington DC Edition

Mother Jones

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From President Trump’s press office:

From President Trump’s budget chief:

Tomorrow’s headline: EPA chief says “protecting the environment” not the “primary aim of this agency.”

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Nobody Knows Anything, Washington DC Edition

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Look at All the Ways Trump’s Staff Is Avoiding Answering This Basic Question

Mother Jones

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Nobody at the White House seems to have asked President Donald Trump about his position on climate change. For years, Trump has been calling global warming a hoax, sometimes alleging that it was invented by China.

So why not just confirm that this is still his opinion? Especially when, after withdrawing the United States from the most important climate deal in history, aides might want to use the opportunity to show that the president understands the basic science.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and White House press secretary Sean Spicer had several opportunities to share the president’s current thinking on the issue. At Friday’s press briefing, four different reporters asked Pruitt four variations on this basic question from ABC’s Mary Bruce: “Yes or no, does the president believe that climate change is real and a threat to the United States?”

And four different times, Pruitt basically gave this response: “All the discussions we had over the last several weeks was focused on one singular issue: Is Paris good or not for this country?”

But Pruitt isn’t alone. Over the last several days, many of his closest advisers have revealed they spend no time discussing global warming with the president.

At Tuesday’s press briefing, when a reporter asked if Trump believes that human activity contributes to global warming, Spicer replied, “Honestly, I haven’t asked him. I can get back to you.” When he appeared at the podium again on Friday, Spicer still didn’t have an answer.

On Thursday, after the Paris decision was announced, CNN asked Gary Cohn, Trump’s top economic adviser, whether or not the president believes climate change is real. “You are going to have to ask him,” Cohn responded.

During a press briefing following the Paris announcement, a reporter asked about Trump’s beliefs on climate change. “I have not talked to the president about his personal views on climate change,” a White House official said.

Earlier on Friday, Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway also refused to answer if Trump thinks global warming is a hoax. When pressed by news anchor George Stephanopolous on Good Morning America, she assured him “The president believes in clean environment, clean air, clean water.”

Many of his advisers may not broach climate change with Trump, but recently, K.T. McFarland, his deputy national security adviser, slipped him two Time cover magazine stories about global warming to get the president riled up.

The only problem? One of the stories turned out to be an internet hoax.

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Look at All the Ways Trump’s Staff Is Avoiding Answering This Basic Question

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The Biggest Beneficiaries of "America First" Are . . . Russia and China

Mother Jones

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Donald Trump is addicted to dramatic announcements, and he’s had a bunch. He killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership on his first day in office. He’s weakened ties with Europe and trashed NATO. He’s cozied up with autocrats and given short shrift to our usual democratic allies. He’s focused all of his attention in Asia on North Korea. Yesterday he pulled out of the Paris climate accord. Who do these actions benefit?

TPP: Mostly China, which was left out of TPP and now has an open road to create its own trading bloc. The benefit to the US is minuscule at best.

NATO: Russia, of course. I assume this needs no explanation?

Paris: Mostly China, which can now take the high ground and bill itself as the global leader in combating climate change. The benefit to America is probably zero or negative.

North Korea: China. They’re pretty obviously stringing Trump along, doling out tiny claims of progress in return for concessions by Trump. I’m guessing their claims in the South China Sea are very safe as long as they keep up this charade with Trump the global bumpkin.

Autocrats: China and Russia, which very much like the idea of the leader of the free world affirming that human rights are for suckers. America gets nothing from this policy of alienating the allies we have in return for kowtowing to autocrats who share no values with us and have no intention of becoming allies.

I’m not saying this is a deliberate policy from Trump. I doubt he really has one. But it’s pretty remarkable that America gets nothing from “America First,” while China and Russia are big beneficiaries.

For a more coherent take on this, check out Max Boot in the LA Times today. He has a pretty clear-eyed read on what’s going on.

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The Biggest Beneficiaries of "America First" Are . . . Russia and China

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Let’s Cut the Crap About Why Hillary Clinton Lost

Mother Jones

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The latest thing for the caterwauling classes to caterwaul about is Hillary Clinton’s recent interview with ReCode. Basically, she said that the big reasons she lost the election were Russia, the Comey letter, and the media’s infatuation with her email server. Everyone is outraged that she refuses to admit that she herself made gigantic mistakes that led to her loss.

Bah. Let’s run the tape:

Hillary Clinton was running for a third Democratic term with an OK but not great economy. Most models predicted a roughly 50-50 race.
In the end, despite everything, she still outperformed the models and won the popular vote by 2 percent.
The Comey letter cost her 2-3 percent, and the other stuff probably cost her another couple of points. Without those things, she wins in a landslide and cruises into the White House.

So she’s right. I guess everyone wants her to be the captain going down with her ship, but that’s stupid. She accurately described why she lost. Why shouldn’t she?

But still, what about all the stuff she screwed up? There wasn’t that much, really, but sure, there are a few things:

The Goldman Sachs speeches were dumb.
The private email server was dumb.
The “deplorables” comment was dumb

But look: no candidate is perfect and every campaign has stuff like that. It comes with the territory. And despite all that, Clinton had a comfortable 7-point lead by the end of September. Those things couldn’t have been the reason for her loss since they were all well known by then. After that, she crushed Trump in all three debates and was all set to win.

So why didn’t she? The answer is pretty simple: despite running a pretty good campaign, she got walloped by things that decidedly don’t come with the territory: Russian interference via the WikiLeaks drip; an indefensible letter released by the FBI director; and a press corps that treated the Comey letter like the OJ trial. She got slammed late in the game, and had no time to recover.

That’s just what happened. Denying that reality because we like losers to wear hair shirts is dumb.

Now, there is one thing I’m still curious about: did her data analytics team blow it in the (now) infamous states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania? In most recent campaigns, there’s at least one embedded reporter who promises to embargo everything until after the election, and then gives us the inside dope when it’s all over. But I guess Clinton didn’t allow that, so we don’t really have an inside view. Supposedly, though, internal polling is far more accurate than the stuff we plebs see, and it should have alerted her that something was going on in her firewall states.

Did the analytics fail? Or did they work just fine, but she ignored them? To this day, does anyone know?

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Let’s Cut the Crap About Why Hillary Clinton Lost

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It’s No Mystery That Donald Trump Isn’t Paying Much Attention to Immigration

Mother Jones

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From the Washington Post:

Lawmakers baffled that immigration getting short shrift in Washington

Meh. Trump never cared much about immigration. It was just a campaign tool, and he practically admitted as much at one point. That’s not to say he won’t try to get something done about it, but it’s never likely to be a huge issue for him. And without him putting a lot of energy behind it, it won’t go anywhere. There are too many Republican members of Congress who are opposed to highly punitive immigration rules.

Eventually the immigration hawks will learn the same thing as everyone else: it’s all just one long con. Trump doesn’t care about policy. Not immigration, not taxes, not abortion, not health care, not ISIS. He has vague inclinations on all these things, but that’s all. He’s mainly driven by whatever can keep him in the spotlight for the next week or two.

That’s probably the real reason he pulled out of the Paris climate accord. If he stays in, he gets nothing. If he pulls out, he gets a week or two of attention. It was an easy choice.

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It’s No Mystery That Donald Trump Isn’t Paying Much Attention to Immigration

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Why Is Mick Mulvaney Complaining About CBO’s Score of the Republican Health Care Bill?

Mother Jones

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Republicans have a problem. The party of fiscal discipline and a balanced budget really, really wants to pass a tax cut for the rich that will blow up the deficit. Unfortunately, Senate PAYGO rules don’t allow this,1 and Democrats can filibuster any attempt to change those rules.

But there’s a metaphysical issue embedded here: how can you know—really know—that a bill will increase the deficit? That’s like seeing into the future! What godlike intelligence could possibly do that? It’s impossible!

Nonetheless, in our fallen state this task has been given to the Congressional Budget Office. And they have an annoying tendency to produce results that Republicans don’t like. So Trump’s budget chief, Mick Mulvaney, is making the case that we should get rid of the CBO entirely:

“I would do my own studies here at OMB…And other folks would do their studies from the outside. And those would come with their natural biases. The Heritage Foundation comes in and says it’s going to cost a lot. Brookings comes in or the Center for American Progress says the benefits would be great.

….Asked what would happen in a scenario in which, say, a Democratic administration says a bill costs $500 billion and Heritage Foundation puts out a report saying the same bill would cost trillions, Mulvaney responded, “Then they would do it and if it works, they would get re-elected and if it doesn’t, they don’t. And that was the way it worked before the Congressional Budget Office.”

In other words, there would be no rules at all. You’d just do whatever you wanted, and if you get reelected it must mean you were right. This is a fascinating ontological approach to budget estimation.

But what’s more fascinating is Mulvaney’s pretense that what he’s really upset about is the CBO’s score of the Republican health care bill:

Mulvaney was particularly critical of the CBO’s recent estimate that the House-passed healthcare bill would result in 23 million fewer people with health insurance. He argued that the CBO’s model assumed that the mandate requiring individuals obtain coverage has a lot more influence on people’s decisions than it does in real life.

“Did you see the methodology on that 23 million people getting kicked off their health insurance?” he said. “You recognize of course that they assume that people voluntarily get off of Medicaid? That’s just not defensible. It’s almost as if they went into it and said, ‘Okay, we need this score to look bad. How do we do it?'”

But CBO’s most recent estimate says the health care bill will reduce the deficit by about $100 billion. Mulvaney has no beef with this, nor any reason to be upset about the estimate of 23 million people losing insurance, since that’s the very thing that reduces costs enough to make the bill compliant with PAYGO rules. So why is Mulvaney kvetching about this?

In fact, Mulvaney doesn’t care a fig about AHCA. He’s just preparing the ground for an assault on the CBO when it comes time to score his cherished tax bill. A few years back Republicans finally badgered the CBO into accounting for the “dynamic” effects of tax cuts, but they’ve never been satisfied with CBO’s refusal to use the most fanciful dynamic models, which assume that tax cuts pay for themselves entirely. And CBO is obstinate about this even with a Republican in charge! What to do?

Answer: Get rid of the CBO. But Democrats would filibuster any attempt to do that. So what is Mulvaney up to? Just this: it turns out that the Senate Budget Committee isn’t actually required to use CBO estimates. They always have in the past, but that’s a custom, not a rule. They have the authority to make their own estimates, and all it takes to make them stick is a majority vote in the committee.2

Mulvaney is basically trying to start up a campaign to put some spine into the SBC’s Republican members to ignore the CBO and simply score the tax bill using a model that will pronounce it deficit-neutral. That’s what this is all about.

1The House has no PAYGO rules for tax cuts.

2There are also Byrd Rule problems with the tax cut bill, but Republicans already think they might have a way around those.

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Why Is Mick Mulvaney Complaining About CBO’s Score of the Republican Health Care Bill?

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