Thursday, March 23, 2006

Who's your "IQ"? 

Via Angry Ashley, we see that Raymond has located the "IQ" website with its slate of assessor reform candidates for New Orleans.

Many of you know that reforming and consolidating the seven[!] Orleans Parish Assessors is a pet issue of mine, as well as the Times-Picayune. Today, the Pic reports how the feds view this antiquated system of favorites:

The [Bureau of Governmental Research] lists several reasons why it believes consolidation is needed:

-- The multiplicity inherently wastes money. The report estimated taxpayers could save more than $560,000 by shrinking the office from seven to one. "Basically, New Orleanians are paying for seven CEOs when one would do," the report said.

-- The current system is rife with corruption and unprofessional practices. What the BGR describes as "an overly cozy relationship between assessors and their constituents, combined with unprofessional practices," has created inequitable assessments and exerts upward pressure on millage rates.

-- The district structure lacks rationale. For example, the 4th District has 6,710 taxpayers compared to 71,812 in the 3rd District. "The system of seven assessors appears to be nothing more than a historical accident," the report said.

-- The multiplicity cannot be explained by workload. The bureau points out that the total number of parcels handled by Orleans' seven assessors is less than the number handled by one assessor in Jefferson Parish and one in East Baton Rouge Parish.

There is hope, however:

In a post-Katrina effort to change the system, a slate of seven candidates qualified to run for each of the assessor positions on a platform to forgo their combined annual salaries and expenses to hire a private professional appraisal firm to assess property.

New Orleanians, meet your "IQ" reform candidates.

IQ ticket Home.
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1. Congrats to Mark from the Wet Bank Guide who wrote a great op-ed in today's Time-Picayune, (though his regular readers got a preview of his thoughts several days back). The topic concerns those hardy folks from other regions who don't need no gubmint handouts in the aftermath of poor crop seasons or natural disasters. My favorite line: "[N. Dakota is] like a disaster buffet at the Sons of Norway."

Hoss can write!

2. Da Paper also has a helpful front page article on the extent to which wetlands serve as storm surge buffers. Some time ago, Tim questioned the conventional wisdom that wetlands were just as necessary as levees and floodwalls for protecting S. Louisiana from disasterous hurricanes. Turns out, it becomes a very complicated issue very quickly. The Times-Picayune article explains some key points concisely, and I will quote some excerpts at the end of this post at length, mostly for later reference. I'm still in the camp that believes restoring coastal wetlands is an essential component to any longterm hurricane protection plan for South LA (even if they don't reduce storm surge as much as I would have hoped). Tim's a skeptic on this point, and I very much respect his reasoning.

3. Smorgasblog has an update about the U.S. government's disaster assistance to Australia in the wake of Cyclone Larry.

T-P story

[A]nother lesson emerging from Katrina is that wetlands -- woods as well as marshes -- proved to be effective natural armor for levees. From the MR-GO to eastern New Orleans, levees with a buffer of wetlands had a much higher survival rate than those that stood naked against Katrina's assault. Re-establishing or building even narrow buffer zones could dramatically increase storm protection, [LSU researcher Hassan] Mashriqui said.
The concept of wetlands as storm buffers is not new to Louisiana. In the late 1960s, the Corps of Engineers produced a report that has become gospel for coastal wetlands advocates: 2.7 miles of coastal marsh reduces storm surge by 1 foot. And while many storm researchers today consider that report to have been widely misinterpreted, there is no disagreement that wetlands can reduce the worst effects of a hurricane: wind and rising water.

The problem is that much of the wetlands that once stood between New Orleans' levees and the Gulf of Mexico have been destroyed by manmade developments. And while environmentalists for years fought a lonely battle against wetlands abuse, Katrina provided a deadly demonstration of their importance in storm protection -- not just in huge swaths many miles wide, but even in narrow borders adjacent to the levees
, researchers like Mashriqui contend.

Marsh and wooded wetlands reduce the impact of hurricanes in different but essential ways.

Friction from marsh grass reduces the speed, or current, of a storm surge, but not as most people would imagine. The common concept of a storm surge is a wind-driven wall of water rolling across the landscape. Actually, a storm surge is a dome of water that rises over hours and days as a hurricane nears the coast. The direction and speed of the surge is determined by the path and speed of the storm -- not the winds.
For example, during Katrina, northeast winds drove huge waves against the southwest shoreline of Lake Borgne and the MR-GO levees. But below the surface the surge was actually flowing in a northwest direction.

It's a critical distinction, because moving water will erode a levee the way a rushing river cuts into its banks. The faster a storm surge current brushes the surface of a levee, the more dangerous it is. So reducing the speed of that surge is important.

Mashriqui said data collected by the state showed the speed of the surge in the open water of the MR-GO approached 7 feet per second as it flowed over the shoulders of the levee at the Bayou Bienvenue floodgates. But in the marshes across the channel, friction from grasses and shrubs reduced that speed to 3 feet per second.

"If you can reduce the surge speed by half, this is very important to protecting levees," he said. "Had there been marshes in front of the MR-GO levee instead of the (2,000-foot) wide canal, they would have had a much better chance."

In addition to being a speed bump to storm surge, large expanses of marshes also provide a de-facto rise in ground elevation, Mashriqui said.

"If the top of the marsh grasses is 3 feet, then in effect you have raised the land elevation by 3 feet," he said. "To build waves, the surge must first flood that marsh with 3 feet of water, then add water to the top of that. And the marsh grasses are so thick, if they stand 3 feet tall, the surge must be 3 feet higher to gain momentum, force and speed.

"So, for all practical purposes, you are gaining elevation for your levees and your communities with marshes."
Wooded wetlands, such as the cypress swamps that once ringed New Orleans, are even more effective at lessening storm surge, researchers said, because their height and size act as natural breakers for wind as well as water. A study done by Japanese scientists showed that an area about the size of a football field with a tree density equal to what is found in most Louisiana swamps would reduce the wave energy in a storm by 90 percent, LSU researchers said.
However, quantifying the storm-dampening effects of wetlands is tricky business, experts said. Much depends on the size of a storm as well as its speed.

"You'll get a lot more benefit from wetlands during a fast-moving storm, because the surge has less time to build," Kemp said. "But in a slow-moving storm -- something that just sits over the area for days -- then you'll eventually just be overwhelmed."

The type of wetlands in a storm's path also are important. For example, that 1960s study by the corps was based on storms that had come ashore in southwestern Louisiana, which has many miles of healthy freshwater marshes crossed by natural ridges forested with oak trees. Southeastern Louisiana's coastal marshes are built on young river deltas and are much thinner and more fragile, with few ridges.

"Even before the amount of erosion that has taken place in southeastern Louisiana, you probably wouldn't see that level of surge reduction as they did in that study," said Joe Suhayda, a retired LSU professor. "So the type or quality of the wetlands is very important.

"The reduction in surge will depend on the characteristics of each storm and the wetlands it crosses."
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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Springtime for the Healthier 

Humid Haney invites other bloggers to get fitter. I shall join him in this effort!


Stats: Weight: 255, Height: 6'3"

Goals: lose 35 pounds by June 1st (I recognize this is terribly, perhaps unhelpfully, ambitious, but there's a high-stakes bet with Lovely on the outcome.)

Obstacles: Like Haney, I sit on my ass too much and eat... in New Orleans.

Work out plan: Still "working out" the details. Heh. It will be varied and painful, to be sure. Zone diet.
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Armor the Levees with Abandoned Cars! 

If that's not the strategy, how are we to make sense of the Mayor's desire to pay $23 million for auto-removal services (rather than have an East Texas company pay us for the privilege)?

Further, how else can one explain this idiotic quote?
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Thick as a $100 brick 

"A taxpayer dollar ought to be spent wisely, or not spent at all." --GWB 2/8/05

From the White House website, we review a Katrina recovery factsheet from last month:
The Administration is committed to spending taxpayers' money responsibly. To make sure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and honestly, the President is requesting $13.5 million for agency Inspectors General to investigate and audit recovery activities and $9.7 million to prosecute fraud. This is in addition to the $15 million Congress previously appropriated to the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General to guard against waste, fraud, and abuse.

Via the Flaming Liberal, we find this article from the Guardian, which asserts that the U.S. misadventure in Iraq was one of the Greatest Financial scandals in world history:

At the start of the Iraq war, around $23bn-worth of Iraqi money was placed in the trusteeship of the US-led coalition by the UN. The money, known as the Development Fund for Iraq and consisting of the proceeds of oil sales, frozen Iraqi bank accounts and seized Iraqi assets, was to be used in a "transparent manner", specified the UN, for "purposes benefiting the people of Iraq".
Because the Iraqi banking system was in tatters, the funds were placed in an account with the Federal Reserve in New York. From there, most of the money was flown in cash to Baghdad. Over the first 14 months of the occupation, 363 tonnes of new $100 bills were shipped in - $12bn, in cash.

And that is where it all began to go wrong.

"Iraq was awash in cash - in dollar bills. Piles and piles of money," says Frank Willis, a former senior official with the governing Coalition Provisional Authority. "We played football with some of the bricks of $100 bills before delivery. It was a wild-west crazy atmosphere, the likes of which none of us had ever experienced."

The environment created by the coalition positively encouraged corruption. "American law was suspended, Iraqi law was suspended, and Iraq basically became a free fraud zone," says Alan Grayson, a Florida-based attorney who represents whistleblowers now trying to expose the corruption. "In a free fire zone you can shoot at anybody you want. In a free fraud zone you can steal anything you like. And that was what they did."

A good example was the the Iraqi currency exchange programme (Ice).

An early priority was to devote enormous resources to replacing every single Iraqi dinar showing Saddam's face with new ones that didn't. The contract to help distribute the new currency was won by Custer Battles, a small American security company set up by Scott Custer and former Republican Congressional candidate Mike Battles. Under the terms of the contract, they would invoice the coalition for their costs and charge 25% on top as profit. But Custer Battles also set up fake companies to produce inflated invoices, which were then passed on to the Americans. They might have got away with it, had they not left a copy of an internal spreadsheet behind after a meeting with coalition officials.

The spreadsheet showed the company's actual costs in one column and their invoiced costs in another; it revealed, in one instance, that it had charged $176,000 to build a helipad that actually cost $96,000. In fact, there was no end to Custer Battles' ingenuity. For example, when the firm found abandoned Iraqi Airways fork-lifts sitting in Baghdad airport, it resprayed them and rented them to the coalition for thousands of dollars.

In total, in return for $3m of actual expenditure, Custer Battles invoiced for $10m. Perhaps more remarkable is that the US government, once it knew about the scam, took no legal action to recover the money. It has been left to private individuals to pursue the case, the first stage of which concluded two weeks ago when Custer Battles was ordered to pay more than $10m in damages and penalties.

But this is just one story among many. From one US controlled vault in a former Saddam palace, $750,000 was stolen. In another, a safe was left open. In one case, two American agents left Iraq without accounting for nearly $1.5m.

Perhaps most puzzling of all is what happened as the day approached for the handover of power (and the remaining funds) to the incoming Iraqi interim government. Instead of carefully conserving the Iraqi money for the new government, the Coalition Provisional Authority went on an extraordinary spending spree.

Some $5bn was committed or spent in the last month alone, very little of it adequately accounted for.

One CPA official was given nearly $7m and told to spend it in seven days. "He told our auditors that he felt that there was more emphasis on the speed of spending the money than on the accountability for that money," says Ginger Cruz, the deputy inspector general for Iraqi reconstruction. Not all coalition officials were so honest. Last month Robert Stein Jr, employed as a CPA comptroller in south central Iraq, despite a previous conviction for fraud, pleaded guilty to conspiring to steal more than $2m and taking kickbacks in the form of cars, jewellery, cash and sexual favours. It seems certain he is only the tip of the iceberg. There are a further 50 criminal investigations under way.

And the sand-castle virtues are all swept away
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Oooh Oooh Oooh (*frantically waving raised hand in back of class*) 

I once had a roundabout with Jeff at Protein Wisdom. Honest, I did, I really did! And John Cole got in on the action-- more or less defending the point I was making.

Even though Jeff didn't compare me to a gibbon, he did say my irony was "cheap and canned" and that my "kind of fevered partisanship cooks the human brain to such a point where one can almost hear the analytical funtion melt to gruel and slosh noisily about the brainpan."

Ah, those were the days. Good clean "my political party inc. is less racist than your political party inc.." fun.

Now it's all just... too dirty.

Speaking of John Cole's Balloon Juice, he recently linked to a chart from Alas, a blog regarding abortion which clearly delineates where the real issue is for some folks.
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Why do I Google? 

So I read the breaking story posted at the Dead Pelican: "Louisiana Man arrested in Bolivian bombings":

An American man and his Uruguayan girlfriend were arrested Wednesday after bombs severely damaged two low-budget hotels in Bolivia's capital, killing two people and injuring at least seven.

Police initially said the blasts were "typical of terrorist crime," and President Evo Morales lost no time in denouncing them as an attack on Bolivia's democracy.

"This American was putting bombs in hotels," Morales said. "The U.S. government fights terrorism, and they send us terrorists."

But other Bolivian officials discounted terrorism as a motive, saying the American appeared to be mentally ill.

"The possible motives behind these attacks are incomprehensible. There don't seem to be any concrete objectives other than causing deaths," Deputy Interior Minister Rafael Puente told Radio Fides.

A third attack was foiled by police, Puente said.

Police identified the suspects as Claudio Lestad, 25, of New Orleans, and Alda Ribeiro, 40, of Uruguay, though authorities said Lestad used various names, including "Lestat Claudius de Orleans y Montevideo."

Intrigued, I google "Lestat Claudius de Orleans y Montevideo".

Yeah, cringe-city here we come. It APPEARS that we found records of a Mr. Lestat in the Colombian "poorbuthappy talkzone" from 2004 where he was on the prowl for women a couple years back:

There, he declares:

I am a twenty-two Year old American Man with long brown hair and hazel eyes. I am five feet and nine Inches tall (1.75m). I am currently in Colombia as a political refugee from the United States. I am into music, reading, writing, and politics, among other things.

The chat room mocks him immediately and relentlessly. However Lestat does attempt to answer some of the many questions asked of him:

I: I am no good at meeting women because I am the Superman of Loosers, remember????

II: I have comne here as a political refugee after several attempts were made on My Life in California due to My Political Activities there (note: I voted for Bush, and I am not from Florida).

Well, if he voted for Gore I'm sure this would be blazing around blogs quicker than a fire in a dry Cali valley: "Liberal terrorists strike!... Time to round them up.... etc.".

[Note: the declared age of "Lestat the Looser" from the chat room and the one from the news report are about a year off. But the long brown hair, the nom de plume, and the friendless/loser in South America personae all seem to correspond.]

Update: Ew. This becomes a rather sad exercise very quickly. Here, at the same forum in 2004, "Slmieball" (aka "Lestat the Looser") inquires about the motives behind some motel bombings.

Here he says he's "Looking for horny, but potentially loyal, Latin (E.G. Colombian) women for something that counts."

Here's more ("Need A Little Assistance Here To Make Something Work"), and here's a comment from his pseudonym at a fireworks website.

If this is somehow NOT the same guy, the authorities should seriously look into finding whoever this other mentally unstable character is.
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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

A "generous and thoughtful" gesture 

Emailer Joe alerts us to this story of a category 5 cyclone that nailed Australia.

Lickety-split, President Bush is on the horn to the Prime Minister offering troops and immediate assistance to that "part of the world."

That's good.

Delays in those sorts of situations can be... very costly.

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SDI: does the "I" stand for Impotent or Insecure? 


[Senator David Vitter] said the defeat of bills merging the assessors, courts and court officials at the February special session "got noticed" in the nation's capital, almost as much as the passage of the consolidated levee boards.

"They (federal officials) perceive that seven assessors (and other overlapping offices) are a waste of taxpayer money," Vitter said.

Yes, seven Orleans parish assessors who don't do their job are indeed a waste.

However, I wonder if this little item also "got noticed" by the feds for its wastefulness ($100 billion and counting).
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Patsy Inclined 

If you don't have a lunch date, why not skip on over to the local Barnes & Borders and read the intro to Ultimate Sacrifice in the cafe? You'll probly get more of a rush from the book than from whatever beverage you're sipping, anyway.

Even if you're utterly bored by assassination theories, Ultimate Sacrifice is electric reading if only for the parallels to the current Iraq experience. That's right: 9/11 changed nothing. Iraq is the new Cuba, and Saddam the new Fidel. The Kennedys were neocon before neocon was cool, and god help you if the mob or Nixon or Rove (but I repeat myself) get an angle on you... Go and enjoy.

In twelve years, I believe the accepted, mainstream historical view of the JFK and RFK assassinations will be totally subverted, changing from "lone gunman" to "conspiracy". Declassified documents and deathbed confessions will upset a lot of comforting illusions.

As for 9/11 (and the levees for that matter), I'm firmly in the "Incompetence Theory" camp, as outlined in this fine article, which is worth reading if only for the following quote: "There anywhere he ain't got no brother?"

I've not seen a 9/11 conspiracy theory that comes close to passing the laugh test.
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Monday, March 20, 2006

"This internets thing? Just a fad if you ask me." 

Seems to be the opinion of our visionary legislators. The Dead Pelican has the story.
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Sunday, March 19, 2006

Happy St. Joseph's Day 

There was a front page article in the Times-Picayune about Joseph Canizaro: Real Estate Developer, First Bank founder, and proud friend of Bush and Rove. Mayor Nagin selected Canizaro, a Bush Ranger, to be chairman of the Bring New Orleans Back commission. (I wonder if someone phoned Nagin "suggesting" Canizaro.)

I was aware of Canizaro's business prowess and his political associations, but was surprised to learn of the primary role religion plays in his life. Here are some excerpts from the article:

[Now], late in an extraordinary career, associates say [Canizaro's] public service is motivated as much as anything by a fervent Catholic's belief that money and power mean nothing in the absence of noble works.
"If you asked him his greatest love, what he really wants to get out of life, he'd tell you he wants to go to heaven, and bring as many souls with him as he can," said Mel Lagarde, co-chair of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission and a friend of Canizaro's for about a decade.
Most mornings, the first stop in Canizaro's busy day is a Catholic mass at St. Francis Xavier in Old Metairie, often with his priest and close friend, Andrew Taormina, who lives in Canizaro's old home, an $800,000 house he donated to the church. Before the storm flooded Canizaro's new $12 million mansion on Northline in Old Metairie, he prayed in a private chapel he had built in the sprawling, white beaux-arts palace.
Though once a nominal Catholic, Canizaro recommitted himself to his faith in the late 1980s, he said, beginning a journey toward spiritual renewal that continues today. At around that time, Canizaro made a trek to Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, where tens of thousands of pilgrims flocked in response to reports that a group of children there communed daily with the Virgin Mary, who appeared to them on the mountainside.

Sitting near that mountaintop surrounded by a pastoral scene of grapevines and wheat, Canizaro witnessed the "miracle of the sun," he said, by staring directly into its harsh brilliance for minutes at a time without damaging his eyes. The sun appeared covered, he said, by a white circle resembling the Eucharist, the circular communion wafer Catholics believe is the body of Christ. The vision has stayed with him. "It's not like I see it every day, just sometimes," he said, motioning toward the horizon outside the window of his 17th-floor corner office.
In 1990, McDermott said, Canizaro petitioned God with a proposal: He needed help pulling himself out of one of the many financial crises he has survived. He promised in return to donate $1 million to Mother Angelica, the staunchly conservative and at-times controversial matron of EWTN, Catholic television.

Whether by divine intervention or Canizaro's toughness and skill, he soon emerged from financial peril and made good on his private vow, flying with retired New Orleans Archbishop Philip Hannan to deliver the donation to Mother Angelica's headquarters in Birmingham, Ala.

Canizaro's faith in God's direct hand, he said, was reinforced again about ten years ago, through the trauma of one of his two daughters' struggle with drug addiction. He blamed himself for not making his family his highest priority, and sought solace in a private prayer with one of Medjugorje's children, Ivan Dragicevic, who had come to New Orleans to evangelize.

"I really broke down," he said of his prayers with Dragicevic. "I asked him to recommend prayers to the Blessed Mother."

Soon after, his daughter hit bottom and began the difficult and redemptive journey back to health and a habit of daily prayer, Canizaro said.

"To me, that was a miracle," he said. "It told me what this young man was saying he was experiencing, he obviously was experiencing. The miracle of the sun, as we call it, is one thing. But when you have it impact you directly -- and you know that's what happened, that's another."

Before Canizaro stared at the "Miracle of the Sun", 70,000 Portuguese witnessed a similar supernatural event in 1917, which is accepted by the Catholic church as an authentic historic, physical occurrence. More here.
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