Sunday, December 26, 2004

Holiday Empathies

It's easy for victims of the four Florida hurricanes to feel sorry for ourselves this holiday season. But our misfortune should make it easier for us to empathize with others who, alas, are enduring similar misfortunes -- greatly magnified.

Dreary Christmas Day

Pig-gray skies. Sleet. Cold rain. A biting wind. Dreary. Depressing.

Christmas Day in Pensacola? Yes, true. But elsewhere, too. Consider the holiday experienced by our soldiers in Iraq.
Under gray skies and a cold, steady rain, Anderson, 28, and his convoy of three armored Humvees from the Army's First Cavalry Division pulled out of Camp Falcon cheerily, with the guitar-heavy sounds of Metallica blaring from Sergeant Brandon Shaw's CD player. Specialist Steve Bobb, 24, of Meigs County, Ohio, gripped an M-16 and a mounted M-240 machine gun at the rooftop portal of the Humvee.

* * *
A few minutes into the patrol, their hopes for an easy afternoon were dashed. Headquarters radioed in with a new order: head to Route Irish, the deadly stretch of road leading to Baghdad International Airport, and secure it for an hour.

The mood soured quickly; conversations ended. Two of the battalion's men had already been killed and nearly two dozen injured on the road. Shaw, a 23-year-old State College, Pa., native sitting behind the wheel sullenly headed toward the airport. He turned off the Metallica.

Across Iraq, US soldiers tried their hardest to make the best of a tough, dreary Christmas.
In Pensacola, many wished at Christmas time for a new roof or a little help from FEMA. In Iraq:
"To be honest, we're all about trying to get out of here," said Staff Sergeant Miguel Molina, 34, a scout from Hammonton, N.J., based in Baghdad. "You sit in the Forward Operating Base and you got rockets and attacks every day. You don't focus on all the holiday stuff. I just don't want to send none of my guys home in a body bag."

Still shell-shocked over the 8 to 12 foot water surge that washed over Pensacola area beaches and cities? Today, a massive tsunami triggered by the largest earthquake in 40 years, swamped the entire coastline of Southeast Asia.

Early reports are that more than three five six seven no, eight no, ten thousand have died from Indonesia to India, and the death toll is mounting by the hour. The New York Times reports waves "up to 30 feet high" crashed into beaches in Thailand, "where thousands of tourists were lazing on the country's renowned white sand beaches when the earthquake struck."

We've seen what 12 feet of water can do to a moderately sized city. Imagine the destruction and heartache a 30-foot tsunami can cause as it powers over heavily populated communities stretching from Sumatra to the Indian subcontinent.

On Evacuation

About four thousand Pensacola Beach residents were kept away from their homes for nearly two weeks after Hurricane Ivan. Many grew frustrated, angry, and fearful of losing what little they might have left. When we were finally allowed to return, most of us found our homes unlivable. We moved in with relatives, into FEMA trailers, pitched tents, or area rentals. And then the task of making repairs and wrestling with insurance companies began.

But let's pause for a moment to consider how the 250,000 residents of Falluja must be feeling after evacuating their homes for more than six weeks. Yesterday, a small fraction, only 2,000, were "allowed back into the city for the first time since the American-led assault in the city in November."
Many civilians who fled Falluja have said they are desperate to return. Many have been camping out in winter temperatures in tents, or staying in schools and other public buildings.
Instead of showing a deputy sheriff a driver's license and beach pass, Falluja residents have to submit to fingerprinting and eyeball scans. And what do they find when they arrive home? According to Dr. Saleh Hussein Isawi, the acting director of the Falluja general hospital:
I was there, inside the city -- about 60% to 70% of the homes and buildings are completely crushed and damaged, and not ready to inhabit... . Of the 30% still left standing, I don't think there is a single one that has not been exposed to some damage.

One of my colleagues... went to see his home, and saw that it is almost completely collapsed and everything is burnt inside.

When he went to his neighbours' home, he found a relative of his was dead and a dog had eaten the meat off him.

I think we will see many things like this, because the US forces have cleared the dead people from the streets, but not from inside the homes.

* * *
There is no water, no electricity, no sewage system - there is nothing inside the city, except a very small amount of medical supplies that have come from Falluja hospital by two ambulances.
Christmas Rations

Remember those MRE's we were glad to have after Ivan cut Pensacola off from the rest of the world for nearly a week? Consider the plight of Russian cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov and U.S. astronaut Leroy Chiao, whirling 127 miles above the Earth inside the International Space Station. Last month, they were 'asked' according to Rueters and 'ordered' according to the Los Angeles Times to cut their daily rations because they were about to run out of food -- including MREs.
Russian officials accused the previous crew of overeating during their 6-month mission, leaving a deficit of meat and milk and a surplus of juice and confectionery.
Christmas Day, a resupply ship arrived with "2 1/2 tons of equipment, supplies and more than enough food to ease a serious shortage." If you happen to find yourself in space, "more than enough food" means you can eat until March, when the Space Station has to be re-supplied again.

Rating Disasters

Sick of all the talk about the Saffir-Simpson Scale for hurricanes? Try the Torino Scale "used to categorize the threat of asteroids."
The Torino Scale is named after the city in Italy in which it was adopted during a workshop in June, 1999. The scale uses numbers and colors to indicate risk of collision, all based on complicated analysis of an asteroid's path and calculations of how that path might change as it's affected by gravity from Earth and other bodies.
And what's the forecast for the coming Asteroid Season? According to USA Today NASA issued a Dec. 24 update stating Asteroid 2004 MN4
is now being tracked very carefully by many astronomers around the world, and we continue to update our risk analysis for this object. Today's impact monitoring results indicate that the impact probability for April 13, 2029 has risen to about 1.6%, which for an object of this size corresponds to a rating of 4 on the ten-point Torino Scale.
Still, we're told, the odds against a life-destroying impact with Earth are about 60 to 1.

Anybody remember the odds of four hurricanes hitting Florida within a two month period?

Update on the Tsunami
Monday, December 27

The Washington Post reports this morning that more than 20,000 are now believed dead from the Christmas Tsunami. The Chinese news agency Xinhua reports the toll has topped 22,000. Australia's The Age reports the total has topped 24,000.
Millions of survivors have lost everything, and now urgently need medicine, shelter, food and clean water. "This is a massive humanitarian disaster and the communications are so bad we still don't know the full scale of it. Unless we get aid quickly to the people many more could die," said Phil Esmond, head of Oxfam in Sri Lanka.

The worst affected countries are Sri Lanka, where the reported toll last night passed 11,500, India (6600 dead), Indonesia (4991) and Thailand (839).

A Gulf Breeze friend, Don Rolle, is presently living on the island of Borneo, well north of quake. He cautions in an email message received today that "other places like Burma and Malaysia have not really reported in" as yet. The death toll is sure to continue rising.

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