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« Reply #15645 on: Today at 05:29 AM »

Lockdown Begins in Sierra Leone to Battle Ebola

By ADAM NOSSITER
SEPT. 19, 2014
IHT

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — The most ambitious and aggressive government campaign against the Ebola epidemic gripping parts of West Africa began on Friday when Sierra Leone ordered everyone in the country to remain indoors for three days, suspending commerce, emptying the streets and halting this beleaguered nation in its tracks in an attempt stop the disease from spreading.

Calling the struggle against Ebola a matter of life or death, the government mustered police officers, soldiers and nearly 30,000 volunteers to go house to house, hoping to educate the country about the dangers of Ebola and identify people who might pass the disease to those around them.

“Some of the things we are asking you to do are difficult, but life is better than these difficulties,” President Ernest Bai Koroma said in an extraordinary radio address on Thursday night explaining the national lockdown.

From the start, the limits of the government campaign were evident. The warnings, mobilization and exhortations quickly clashed with the reality that cases here are surging and the infrastructure to deal with them hardly exists.

There is no large-scale treatment center for Ebola patients in the capital, Freetown, so many patients have to be placed in a holding center until they can be transported to a facility hours away — that is, if an ambulance can be found to pick them up and if those packed facilities have room.

The countrywide lockdown showed the desperation among West African governments — particularly in the three hardest-hit countries, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — as they grapple with an epidemic that has already killed more than 2,600 people and shows no signs of slowing down.

While governments in the region have already cordoned off large swaths of territory in hopes of containing the outbreak, none have attempted anything on the scale of what is being tried here. The government says it wants to visit every residence in this country of about 6 million, with the aim of instructing people in how to stop the disease from being transmitted and to find out who is harboring sick people, with potentially deadly consequences.

“We have been sending lifesaving messages through radio, TV and print, but it’s not enough,” said Roeland Monasch, a representative for Unicef, which supported the government effort, providing money, advice and information materials. “We need to take information to where people are.”

In the streets of the capital on Friday, one woman lay curled in a fetal position, eyes shut, precariously balanced on cardboard sheets next to an open gutter in front of locked storefronts. From a wary distance, the anti-Ebola volunteers said she had high fever. Hours of calls had produced no ambulance.

A small crowd, including the police, soldiers brandishing guns, presidential advisers and spectators taking cellphone pictures of the immobile woman, milled about. A medical worker said two more bodies in the vicinity needed attention. But still there was no ambulance.

“They are not responding; they say they have lots of cases now,” said a volunteer, Alhassan Kamara.

Finally, a rickety ambulance pulled up, more than five hours after the initial calls, the volunteers said. But the loosely outfitted attendants refused to pick up the sick woman: they had no chlorine spray and said it was not their job. A loud anti-Ebola jingle played on a car radio. It took a second ambulance, and the president of a moped club who quickly suited up in protective gear, to get the sick woman bundled off to uncertain care.

On nearby streets, other volunteers were going house to house to warn people of the disease’s dangers. Normally clogged streets in the capital were empty, stores were shut down tight, and pedestrians were rare on the main thoroughfares.

The senior United Nations envoy appointed to work on the Ebola crisis, Dr. David Nabarro, said he was struck by the yawning gap between the spread of the disease and the ability to fight it. The world needed to increase the efforts on the ground many times over, he said.

That would include “the capacity to treat between 9,000 and 10,000 people within the countries at any time,” he said. “To get there, we need to get extra people and cash into the countries, obviously, but also we need fantastic organization and logistics that are second to none.”

Dr. Dan Lucey, an American who volunteered in an Ebola holding center at a Freetown hospital, described the situation as horrific. “There were not enough beds, space,” he said. “When you first see this, you say this is totally intolerable. It can’t be this bad,” he said after returning home. “It was an incredible, searing experience not like anything I’ve ever seen.”

Without treatment units in the capital, he said, patients who tested positive for Ebola had to be driven at least four hours away. Those who tested negative could be exposed to Ebola while they waited. When Dr. Lucey volunteered, there was just one other doctor present. Patients were housed together in open wards with a plastic curtain between beds, awaiting their test results. At the foot of each bed were three buckets — one for urine, one for stool, one for vomit.

“There were body fluids everywhere,” he said. Fuel for the ambulances could be hard to come by. “It’s beyond belief until you see it day after day,” he said.

Dr. Oliver Johnson, a British physician currently working at the hospital with King’s Health Partners, said Friday that the 18-bed unit had received 10 patients during the first day of the lockdown and now had four physicians. He said two other isolation units had opened in the Freetown area in the past several days. “We’re starting to see more beds, more supplies. More staff are coming to work,” he said.

Sierra Leonean health workers, who he said have worked bravely, are now being offered hazard pay. “Things are improving,” he said, but “the real question is whether we can get ahead of the curve. We’ve been seeing more new patients than we’ve been able to build new beds.”

The United States is planning to build as many as 17 Ebola treatment centers in Liberia, with about 1,700 treatment beds, while the United Nations is planning an expanded mission in the region, based in Accra, Ghana, according to Anthony Banbury, the United Nation’s Ebola operation crisis manager. It is intended to be more nimble than the United Nations’ notoriously bureaucratic operations, bringing in as many as 500 trucks and jeeps from other missions in Africa, possibly paying teams in one country to speed up safe burials, buying fuel for monitoring teams in another country, or offering helicopters to transport health workers where they are needed.

But even with the promises of help, international health officials are worried by what they describe as a rapid growth of cases here in Sierra Leone’s capital — a dense urban environment where containment is difficult and the ability to respond is limited.

“The situation in Freetown is very worrisome as cases increase,” said Michael Goldfarb, a spokesman for Doctors Without Borders. “Without an immediate, massive, and effective response, there could be an explosion of cases as has been witnessed in Monrovia,” he added, referring to the capital of Liberia.

Whether Sierra Leone’s lockdown will constitute an effective response is open to question. Despite the mobilization, the volunteers hardly appeared to be thick on the ground. In some neighborhoods, residents said they were yet to see any of the green-vested young men and women who had volunteered.

In other neighborhoods, the volunteers — many of them students, all working for no pay — complained that there was no response to their knocks at most houses. If they arrived without supplies like soap or chlorine, residents were not interested in speaking with them, the volunteers said.

Where there was a response, it was often followed by cursory admonitions to residents to wash their hands, report on neighbors suspected of illness and wear long-sleeve shirts at the market.

At one house, several volunteers talked loudly at once about hand washing, leaving the residents visibly dazed. At another, they were amazed to discover residents who were supposed to be under quarantine because of their suspected exposure to Ebola, but were actually unguarded and free to roam about. At still another, one gave out questionable information about the Ebola virus — seeming to contradict some basic precautions.

Well into the morning, the house-to-house visits had yet to begin in Kroo Bay, a densely populated neighborhood of iron-roof shanties where roughly 14,000 people live, despite officials saying they would start at dawn. The police cruised into Kroo Bay on a pickup truck, yelling at residents to go indoors and warning of imprisonment. People simply stared at the officers and continued lingering as the police drove off.

“The policeman is doing his thing, and I am doing my thing,” said Kerfala Koroma, 22, a building contractor. “We can’t even afford something to eat on a normal day. How can we get something now?”


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« Reply #15646 on: Today at 05:32 AM »

Fleeing Gaza, Only to Face Treachery and Disaster at Sea

By FARES AKRAM and ISABEL KERSHNER
SEPT. 19, 2014
IHT

ABASSAN, Gaza Strip — Samir Asfour, 57, held a mobile phone that never stopped ringing in one hand, a cigarette in the other. His Palestinian passport was sticking out of the chest pocket of his white jalabiya.

“I will travel whenever I can,” he said, speaking nervously outside his home in Abassan, a small town east of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip. “I need to go and bring back their bodies from wherever they are.”

Mr. Asfour’s son Ahmed, 24, and three of Ahmed’s cousins, ages 17 to 27, are among dozens of young Gazans missing in the Mediterranean. Mr. Asfour last heard from them on Sept. 6, a week after they left Gaza for Egypt. There, they intended to board an illegal migrant ship bound for Italy. Their final destination was not clear, but relatives said they had been heading to Europe in search of jobs and better medical care.

The ship, with about 500 migrants aboard, sank last week off the coast of Malta after it was rammed by human traffickers on another boat during an argument with the migrants, according to survivors. Nearly all aboard are believed to have died.

Mr. Asfour said he had contacted one survivor who made it to Malta, Mamoun Doghmosh, who confirmed that he had seen Ahmed on the boat. Mr. Asfour said he was sure that his son was dead because he was sick and could not swim.

The recent war between Israel and Hamas, the militant group that dominates Gaza, prompted a wave of attempts by Palestinians to reach Europe with the aid of Egyptian smugglers, despite — or perhaps because of — Israeli and Egyptian restrictions on regular movement in and out of the Palestinian coastal enclave.

Fleeing conflict, unemployment and an outlook that many here described as hopeless, at least 1,000 Palestinians have left Gaza in the past three months seeking passage to Europe, according to Palestinians tracking the migration, joining the increasing flow of asylum seekers and migrants from Syria, and from Egypt, Sudan and other parts of Africa who set out from ports in Egypt and Libya. Facebook posts by those who made it safely to Europe encourage others to attempt the journey.

But the deadly shipwreck has suddenly shined a light on the exodus, and for the distraught relatives back in Gaza, it has underscored the risks involved. The Euro-Mid Observer for Human Rights, an organization based in Geneva with an office in Gaza, said 90 Gaza residents were among the hundreds missing and feared dead in the shipwreck, though information about the dead, the missing and possible survivors has been scarce here.

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations human rights chief, on Friday condemned what he said appeared to be a “mass murder in the Mediterranean” and called for concerted international action against traffickers.

“The callous act of deliberately ramming a boat full of hundreds of defenseless people is a crime that must not go unpunished,” Mr. Zeid said in a statement from his Geneva office.

The ramming was just the worst case among four or five other boat sinkings over several days.

For many, the journey out of Gaza began in a smuggling tunnel running beneath the border with Egypt. But because Ahmed Asfour and his cousins were wounded in an Israeli airstrike in Abassan during a previous Gaza conflict, in 2008-9, they had medical records allowing them to enter Egypt legally, via the Rafah border crossing, on the understanding that they would receive treatment, Samir Asfour said.

Ahmed had the worst injuries. He lost sight in one eye and part of his pancreas. Leg injuries prevented him from walking long distances. After that earlier war, he initially received treatment in Egypt, then in Israel, and he was arrested and spent three years in an Israeli prison, his father said, declining to elaborate.

After his release in 2012, Ahmed could not find a job and received welfare payments of 800 shekels (about $220) a month. The Palestinian authorities said they could not pay for further treatment. “We reached a dead end,” Mr. Asfour said.

Before boarding the boat in Egypt, Ahmed and his cousins phoned their relatives in Gaza and asked them to pay the smugglers through a money-changing store in Khan Younis.

“They are a network,” Mr. Asfour said. “The smugglers have agents here, and they are like the Western Union.”

Mr. Asfour and his sister-in-law Samah Asfour, the mother of one of the cousins, Raed, 17, went to the money changer together and paid $2,000 for each of the four. Mrs. Asfour said that the usual cost was $1,500, but that the money changer had told her that the extra cash would ensure their sons a place on a large, sturdy ship, not a small one that could sink.

“We paid more so our boys would be safe,” she said. They were hoping to find medical treatment, jobs and a better future than the one they saw for themselves in Gaza. “They went for treatment. Why would we send them there?” Mrs. Asfour said. “This country doesn’t care for them, and they are desperate. They were seeking a good life.”

Mr. Asfour said he spoke to one of the smugglers in Egypt on his son’s mobile phone. “I asked him to take care of Ahmed because of his special situation,” Mr. Asfour said. “The smuggler told me not to worry and said Ahmed should only bring with him boxes of bottled water and juice and a box of dried dates.”

Other Gazans described how relatives left through the tunnels at Rafah in groups organized by a smuggler, paying him $1,500 per person and $2,000 for the boat runners.

The International Organization for Migration, based in Geneva, says records show that around 2,900 Palestinians have reached Italy this year, most of them in July and August.

Only 11 people are known to have survived the sinking of the rammed vessel, eight of them Palestinians from Gaza, and accounts from relatives of others aboard the doomed ship suggest that most of the passengers were Gazans, according to Joel Millman, a spokesman for the migration organization. He said the office had received a constant stream of calls from Gazans desperately seeking news of family members.

Relatives in contact with some of the migrants as they prepared for the journey said they had been driven in buses carrying 90 to 100 people to an Egyptian port, Damietta. Those aboard the boat included around 100 children younger than 10 who were stuffed below the deck, the migration organization reported.

Some of the Palestinians on board may have already spent a few years in Egypt before leaving for Europe, according to Palestinians tracking the migration.

Majdi Abu Daqqa, a lawyer and human rights activist in Gaza, said most had been sailing to Italy with the intention of moving to Sweden, Belgium or Greece, where friends told them it was easier to stay. Mr. Abu Daqqa said some members of the security services in Gaza were colluding with the smugglers, taking a cut of their fees.

Now, amid the recriminations of relatives in Gaza, Hamas, which controls the border area on the Gaza side, says it is taking measures to prevent further illegal migration. Mr. Abu Daqqa said about 150 illegal migrants who had crossed through the tunnels were caught at Egyptian checkpoints and were being held in Egypt.

But the money-changing store in Khan Younis, on a street full of other currency exchange stores, was still open this week. When a reporter asked about transferring money to his wife in Egypt, a man behind the counter asked, “For immigration?” Asked how much it would cost, the man replied, “Two thousand dollars.” He then became suspicious and said the store handled only money transfers.

“We have nothing to do with the immigration,” he said.


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« Reply #15647 on: Today at 05:37 AM »


Asteroids: between a rock and a hard place

There have been recent near misses – an explosion over Russia, a mysterious crater in Nicaragua. But what would we do in the event of an actual meteor strike?

Tom Lamont   
The Guardian, Saturday 20 September 2014          

If you've ever stopped to peer with suspicion at the sky, wondering how that would go, a mammoth piece of space rock on its way in to bring ruin, the last two years have not been especially restful. In February 2013, a large asteroid ripped over the Chelyabinsk district of Russia, trailing cartoonish lines of smoke as it made its shallow entry, radiating so much light and heat that onlookers were left with reddened faces. Skin peel. When the asteroid exploded, 15 miles up, there was a terrible, prolonged bang – a noise that has rung on, in its way, ever since.

We now know that the explosion over Chelyabinsk occurred with a force equal to 500 kilotons of TNT, or a couple of dozen Nagasaki bombs. Had it come down a little steeper that February, directing the might of its detonation at rather than over Chelyabinsk, the asteroid would have killed thousands on the ground. A little later, it might have done for many more in Moscow, or Riga, or Gothenburg. Though nobody died at Chelyabinsk, it was an event of such calamitous potential that the asteroid was classified by certain astronomers a "city-killer". Those astronomers have wondered, since, if we're not being a little complacent.

In November last year, having had months to chew on the data from Chelyabinsk, a Nasa scientist called Bill Cooke said the likely frequency of such meteor strikes was being re-evaluated. That month, a trio of studies published in the journals Nature and Science suggested impacts of Chelyabinsk's magnitude were between three and 10 times more likely to happen than previously supposed. The UN, in December, called for the creation of an international asteroid warning network. Come the new year, it took only hours for the first major rock of 2014 to arrive: a car-sized lump that burst apart over the Atlantic on 1 January.

To recap: asteroids are hunks of space rock that whisk around the solar system in orbits around the sun, colliding with anything that crosses their path. If they collide with Earth, we call them meteorites. Most are small and burn up in our atmosphere; some are big enough to matter, such as the Chelyabinsk rock, which was the size of a swimming pool, 20m from end to end. Though Nasa has for some time been tracking giant asteroids (those at least 1km wide), it has never seemed much concerned about lesser rocks – those capable only of scraping away a city, say.

At a press conference earlier this year, former Nasa astronaut Dr Edward Lu announced that there are around 1m asteroids in the Earth's vicinity "with the potential to destroy a major metropolitan area". He teed up an animated graphic to demonstrate how unprepared we are. The graphic showed the Earth in orbit among the dangerous asteroids we knew about and were tracking, around 10,000 of them. Seen like this, our planet looked like a pedestrian hustling along a busy street, not overly troubled. Then Lu changed the graphic to show "what it really looks like out there" – the Earth ploughing on through a million-strong field of city-killing asteroids. I saw the same pedestrian, now trying to make it across a train station concourse in the middle of rush hour, avoiding collisions purely by fluke. "Blind luck," as Lu put it.

This information, I thought, watching online, was appalling. Why wasn't it all over the nightly news? I can't be the only person who feels fidgety on the subject, having watched Deep Impact and Armageddon at an impressionable age. I watched some of the YouTube videos of the Chelyabinsk strike, dozens of them recorded on mobile phones, and found that though the images were shocking (people swept flat by the shock of the impact), it was the noise that was truly unbearable. The meteorite's thoom rang on for longer than made sense; it sounded unnatural, or maybe too natural. It seemed to contain an old message. Don't get comfy, Beijing. Look alive, London.

"Feel the heat coming off that," a meteorite expert called Peter Jenniskens said to me. We stood together watching a tower burn, fire spouting out of it as a troupe of firefighters prepared to approach and subdue the flames. It was a warm day, doubly sweaty in front of the tower. "People in Chelyabinsk felt heat like this," he said, "looking up."

It was April, days after Lu's press conference, and I was at a firefighters' training compound in Texas, north of Houston. A documentary called Disaster Playground was being filmed on the site; led by experimental film-maker Nelly Ben Hayoun, its crew had travelled the world asking catastrophe specialists to simulate on camera how they'd behave if an asteroid were to come in and raze their home town. The day I joined the crew, they'd set up in Texas to focus on the likely reaction of the fire crews and response teams who'd be first on the scene to face… what, exactly?

If I wanted to know what a city-killer would look like, here it was. The training compound was just like a theme park, only one devoted squarely to unhappy things, an expanse of Texan scrub transformed into a town that had endured devastation on multiple fronts. Piles of rubble represented collapsed houses. Warehouses belched black smoke. There were plastic corpses strewn about, as well as live actors wearing fake blood. Crushed vehicles were parked next to pieces of aeroplanes and there was a full-length train, derailed, its buffet car at an angle atop its sleeper.

I watched from behind the cameras as a group of specialists, firemen, operation chiefs, a communications officer and Jenniskens spent a day simulating death from above. An operations chief wondered where best to park a command vehicle – up wind or down wind from smoking space rock? – until Jenniskens pointed out, kindly, that there wasn't likely to be much space rock left unevaporated. Everyone anticipated bodies. If a city-killing asteroid made land, or burst apart low enough in the sky, "it would be similar to what you'd have after a nuclear explosion", Jenniskens said. "You're standing on a planet that is moving at 30km a second around the sun. If there's anything in our way, it's hitting us at 30km a second. That energy has to go somewhere."

An astronomer employed by the Seti (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) institute in California, Jenniskens had flown to Texas especially for the shoot. He had thinning hair under his baseball cap, and wore round spectacles and a polo shirt with irretrievably crumpled collar wings. Born and raised in Holland, his English is pleasantly accented, a gentle singsong. "I hope I never see this in real life," he told me as we toured the disaster site together. The 52-year-old has spent most of his adult life watching the skies, counting, charting, anticipating. In the course of his studies, he's "looked at around 175,000 meteorites. Twice."

He especially likes to hunt meteorites on the ground, and in 2008, after an asteroid exploded over Sudan, he led the team that searched the Nubian desert for fragments. There was some warning before the Sudanese rock arrived, an astronomer having spotted it around 20 hours beforehand; Jenniskens booked a flight. When he travelled to Russia last year, to try to recover pieces of the Chelyabinsk asteroid, he was necessarily slower off the mark. The Russian strike happened without warning: coming in from the direction of the sun, it was invisible even to telescopes pointed in the right direction. The entire space community had to give a collective shrug and admit they found out about it on Twitter.

Jenniskens has the scientists' habit of crisp and demoralising literalism, describing the death of the dinosaurs as only Earth's "most recent" asteroid-brought extinction. For a jumpy civilian like me, conversation with Jenniskens was fraught; but he knows as much about the subject as anyone alive, and if there was cause to be nervous he would know. Do meteorites scare him? "I'm a scientist!" Jenniskens said, meaning no. They thrill him. Anyway, he said, the rocks with the most lethal potential collided with Earth every 10m or 100m years. None was on course to hit us for 200 years at least. "The really big impacts are infrequent," he assured me. Together we inspected a burning chemical tanker. "It's the pesky ones you could start to worry about."

Chelyabinsk in 2013. Sudan in 2008. Impacts over Indonesia, Egypt, Australia, Argentina, California and Finland; four in the north Pacific and three in the south, two in the south Atlantic and one in the north, four in the Indian Ocean, one in the Med, one in the Arabian Sea, one in the Tasman and one off Antarctica. Call them what you like – "city‑killers" or "pesky ones" – there have been 26 meteorite strikes since the turn of the century that were large enough to cause a kiloton-class pop.

Lu believes we should be worried by that. "Every single day," he told me, "we roll a dice. And on most days? Nothing large hits the Earth."

Lu and I met over Skype, not long after he'd given his press conference in Seattle. A stocky, 51-year-old Asian American, with military-short hair and a bulbous nose, he spoke from his San Jose home, having just dropped his kids off at swimming class. He wore a yellow shirt with a spaceship decal stitched on to the breast, a keepsake from his days as a Nasa astronaut. Behind him I could see pieces of meteorite arrayed on shelves, next to a toy model of that other city scourge, Godzilla.

I told him how nervous his press conference had made me. Lu chuckled and said, "I don't like to dwell on the worst things that could happen." Then he briskly worked through a scenario that had the Chelyabinsk asteroid explode over London, causing a collapse of the world economy, slinging humankind back to the dark ages. Though he'd rather inspire people than scare them, Lu insisted, he felt obliged to talk this way. "How else do you wake people up so we take a problem seriously before a million people are killed?"

Only one person on record has ever been struck by a meteorite. Mrs Elizabeth Hodges, a housewife in Alabama, was bruised on the hip by a bowling ball-sized rock that fell through her roof in 1954. A teenager in Uganda was meant to have been pinged in the head by a bullet-sized meteorite two decades ago, but he has never been properly identified. There have been other claims of encounters with space rock: a Suffolk grandmother nicked on the arm in 2004, a German kid burned on the hand in 2009, a Norwegian skydiver almost scythed in half in 2012, all ultimately downgraded to cases of wishful thinking. If meteorites were a threat, I said to Lu, why had nobody been killed by one?

"Human civilisation is not that old," he replied. "Only in the last couple of hundred years has the population skyrocketed." We had placed ourselves in unprecedented danger, he suggested, by spreading ourselves so thickly around the world. "The effects of an impact are going to be much, much worse than they would have been 1,000 or 2,000 years ago. Drop a large asteroid in the middle of the Pacific back then? You lost a bunch of fishing villages. It was a story about a flood. Do it today? You lose Tokyo. Los Angeles. Sydney."

When I got in touch with Lu's former employers to ask if we should be worried about meteorites, a Nasa spokesman hedged. "Not yet," said Don Yeomans, a senior figure in the Near-Earth Object Programme, "but we're a long way from finding and tracking them all." As the world's most prominent space agency, Nasa has had to walk a fuzzy line on asteroids. On the one hand, it can't be seen to be doing nothing about an obvious, provable threat from the solar system. On the other, the matter carries with it a whiff of hobbyhorsing, of paranoia. Nasa commits a tiny proportion of its budget to "planetary defence", a fraction of 1%; there are sexier projects out there, like getting feet on Mars. Even so, gestures have been made: a few years back, it set up a Twitter account, @AsteroidWatch, to deliver updates on near-misses as well as tidy pleasantries about our general safety.

In April, an anxious tweeter was told by AsteroidWatch that Nasa was "watching the Earth's back". Lu was sceptical. "I understand there's a natural tendency to believe, 'Oh, there must be smart people working on this.' The truth of the matter is, the governments of the world, the government space agencies of the world, are currently not addressing it." Lu once helped invent something called a "gravity tractor" – a craft that could be launched into space at an asteroid due to collide with us, subtly to tug at its orbit so that it would miss the Earth. Such an effort would have to be undertaken years if not decades in advance in order to be effective, and though Lu's gravity tractor is generally agreed to be our most plausible shot at diverting an incoming threat, we'd never have time to launch it as things stand.

There was less than a day's notice before the Sudan asteroid hit back in 2008, but at least that was some warning. The rock was spotted by an amateur skywatcher from an observatory in Tucson, the first time in the Earth's history that inbound rock had been identified before it struck. (The second time in history was last New Year's Eve, when that car-sized lump came into view on its way towards the Atlantic. It was seen by the same skywatcher in Tucson, who'd fortunately chosen to sit by his equipment as midnight approached, rather than go to a party.)

Lu doesn't believe this is good enough. He guessed it would cost roughly as much as a new shopping centre to build and maintain the technology to find and track the million city-killers out there. Lu knew the figures because he'd spent years trying to get just such a project off the ground. "You could split up all of human history into two phases," he said. "One where you're subject to this random control-alt-delete of life on Earth. Or the phase that we are just entering now, where we can put a stop to it."

He explained something called the Sentinel mission, a plan to launch, in 2018, a privately funded satellite that would orbit the sun near Venus and send back data about asteroids that were on course to whack us. Millions of dollars had been raised for the Sentinel already, but Lu and his colleagues needed more. The Sentinel mission was nonprofit, Lu was careful to state; though he was paid for his advocacy work, he had taken "a substantial pay cut" to be a part of it. His previous job had been at Google, where Lu helped develop the Google Earth application. He changed careers because "sometimes there are things that are so important that they just need to be done".

I asked if becoming a parent was also a factor. Lu said: "That, and having seen the Earth from space. You realise this is all we've got."

I had flown to Texas to watch Disaster Playground being made with the idea that it would increase my appreciation of human competency, our readiness to cope with the threat from space. If I could get a sense of how the ground reaction to a city-killer would play out – ideally, in my mind, the hurried assembly of prime earthly talent, as per Armageddon and Deep Impact – it might offset the lingering memory of Cormac McCarthy's book The Road, which went big on post-apocalyptic ruin and hopelessness.

As the documentary's simulation pushed into the afternoon, however, filming became increasingly stressful. There was a mock press conference in which the communications specialist, a jowly Texan called Will Welch, gave advice on the kind of language people would need to hear in the wake of catastrophe (dry evasion, mostly), as well as the kind of language that might inadvertently send them running for the hills. I watched a fireman called Dornhoeffer, his heroic surname printed in large letters on the tail of his treated coat, put himself into character as a first-responder brought to quivering dread by the horror of it all. "Oh God," said this rhino of a man, his voice cracking, "multiple victims. Multiple victims! Does anybody copy? Bring everything."

Like Dornhoeffer, the disaster specialists assembled for the day kept having to improvise. Few seemed to have given the prospect of a meteorite strike much thought; there was no official procedure to draw on. And I guessed that if this group of genuine proficients, most of whom had recently answered the threat of killer tornadoes, killer spills, killer explosions, had no methods in place to cope with killer asteroids, it was a good bet the responders in other world cities didn't either.

Only Welch seemed to have a plan. When he sat down for his on-camera interview, he was prompted to imagine the very worst kind of asteroid impact, and said one of the first things he'd do was call his wife. The director urged him to enact how this conversation might go, so Welch took out his mobile phone. "Sweetheart," he said, "let's meet at our primary location. Grab the safe box with the documents… Screw the CB radio on to the car… I'll be on our designated channel." The director was surprised. Welch and his wife had a designated CB channel? Yes; also, he kept a locked box in the bed of his truck containing water, self-heating food parcels, sleeping bags and spare pairs of his wife and kids' shoes.

Shit, I thought, how quickly we'd got there – to shoe hoarding. I could picture it suddenly, after the rock came down. Our subsistence in the hands of guys such as this, with their locked boxes of food. These were the things McCarthy had imagined. According to The Road's timeline, it wouldn't take long before the psychopaths assumed control. "Within a year there were fires on the ridges," goes one memorable line, "and deranged chanting."

On the fringes of the Texas training yard, next to a collapsed house where an actor streaked with artificial blood was shouting, "Somebody help me!", I took out my phone. It suddenly seemed very urgent I call my wife, to ask if she thought we should choose a designated CB channel of our own. On a nearby stretch of ground, I saw the uniforms of a dozen firefighters left in piles, jackets laid over boots with the sleeves neatly folded. From where I stood, the piles looked like firefighters who'd given up and were prostrate, covering their heads.

At breakfast the next day, Jenniskens suggested we head out into the Texan wilds. He knew a place where we might find remains from the biggest known asteroid ever to hit the US. Two miles wide, it came down 35m years ago and caused such a mess that there was still debris to be found in some places, including in the bed of an ancient river about 40 miles from our hotel. "It's different," Jenniskens promised, "when you can feel this stuff in your hands."

We hired a taxi and went asteroid hunting. Our driver, an overweight, sunny man called Joe, told us he'd never taken a fare to find 35m-year-old rock before. Where in Texas had the asteroid fallen? Not in Texas, Jenniskens said. It fell on the east coast, but this particular impact had been significant enough to send molten rock about a third of the way across North America. Joe and I thought about that for a while. "What bothers me," Jenniskens said, "is that it's the scary aspect of meteorites that is put forward." He meant by film-makers, by novelists, by journalists. "Because it makes people sit up and go, oh wow! But flying in a plane is scary. Getting in a car is scary."

The site was a stretch of chalky ground between two farms. Jenniskens had hunted for asteroid treasure here before, and been successful. He instructed me to scour the pale ground for small, dark pieces of rock that were translucent when held to the light. "Like beer-bottle glass," he said.
Firefighters at the simulated meteor strike in Texas If a city-killing asteroid made land, or burst apart low enough in the sky, 'it would be similar to what you’d have after a nuclear explosion'. Photograph: Nick Ballon

Jenniskens' obsession with meteorites began in 1981, when he first went out stargazing in Holland and was lucky enough to see a lusty meteor shower: four distant space rocks streaked across the night sky in one hour's watching. At the same time, the chance in it bothered him. He wondered if asteroids couldn't be better mapped so that we could begin more accurately to predict their distant appearances in the sky, even their collisions with Earth. He made this his life's work, moving from the Netherlands to California to join Seti in 1995.

Some of his methods have been unconventional. Not long ago, he commissioned a private plane to get (very slightly) closer to a meteor shower. He said he'd once petitioned Hollywood studios to show more shooting stars in their films, an effort he felt had been a moderate success. Jenniskens is a love-your-meteorite campaigner of some 30 years' standing, and his enthusiasm for these things was infectious. Under the Texan sun, we searched for an hour, me bounding over every so often with a sample, mostly to be told it was beer-bottle glass. I lasted in the heat as long as I could before drifting back to Joe in his air-conditioned cab, where we fell into a discussion about film.

"For pure entertainment? Armageddon," Joe said. I told him I was more of a Deep Impact man. Did he ever think about the events of those movies coming to pass? "One or two times," Joe said. And? "If it happens, it happens. Nothing I can do." When he returned to the car, Jenniskens wouldn't accept this degree of fatalism. If it happens, it happens? That used to be the case, the astronomer corrected Joe, before detection advocates started chipping away at the divine chance in it all.

Jenniskens had found no asteroid debris today, but he'd brought some treasures with him in case. Opening his satchel, he showed me pieces of impact debris he'd recovered on an earlier visit to this part of Texas; also some tremor-smashed glass collected in Chelyabinsk and a fragment of the Chelyabinsk meteorite itself. It was magical to see it, this pebble from space, black as coal and studded with goosebumps that glittered faintly. It would have been up there for a billion-some years, orbiting between Mars and Jupiter before farcical chance brought it to Texas, via Russia, and into the satchel of a Dutchman.

There was an inevitability and even a beauty in asteroids coming to Earth, Jenniskens believed. He subscribed to the popular theory that, 4bn years ago, it was a bombardment of asteroids that first brought organic matter here, creating the conditions that made life possible. He told me the Earth most likely once orbited the sun on its own, until an asteroid the size of Mars banged in and tore us out a moon. The evidence was there that ours was a little planet that coped, moved on.

Take the largest meteorite ever to strike Europe, Jenniskens said: a mile-wide killer that plummeted into what is now France a few million years ago. It would have wiped out every living thing for 300 miles around, but on the site of that old catastrophe, there was now a beautiful little town with a chateau constructed from impactite, or rock that had been altered by the impact. As a building material, the rock is apparently excellent. "Asteroids can take life away," Jenniskens said. "And they can create it."

Rochechouart's main restaurant, honouring the area's ancient devastation, is called La Météorite. Diners can order Jupiter salad with a glass of Météor beer for about €15, and I ate this one afternoon in May, visiting the town on Jenniskens' recommendation. Rochechouart was indeed beautiful, its chateau especially, a 13th-century fortress on a hill with birds spiralling the turrets and donkeys grazing the fields beneath its walls. The town around it was just big enough to have a tourist office, a pair of competing bakeries and a saucy underwear shop. Until recently, I learned from an old photograph, there was a sign on the hillside road into Rochechouart that warned of falling boulders. But someone, perhaps an asteroid tourist, had taken it down.

I took a stroll, roughly tracing the width of the meteorite that had struck. The journey took me along a twisting road through a couple of villages and back; a long walk, because I couldn't help pausing to peer at the sky, wondering at the sight of it, a mile of rock bearing in. Lightly buzzed on Météor beer, I passed information boards that highlighted the rich geology of the area, the diversity of plant life rare for the region and almost certainly an accidental gift from the old meteorite. On the way back through town, I found a museum devoted to the strike, a poster by the door reading: "Imagine the worst kind of seismic upheaval!" Inside, I told the curator I'd been doing just that.

She let me know I wasn't alone, leading me to a display of drawings by young visitors. This collage of felt-tipped pages took up three walls and depicted, without exception, meteorite-brought hell. Six-year-old Alexandra had drawn the fiery destruction of her apartment block, and five-year-old Robin the last moments of a small town. Alyesee's drawing included a dinosaur with a speech bubble – "Attention! Meteorites!" – and Kylian had sketched a Nasa astronaut, hopelessly outmatched. One young artist, Adrienne, imagined a blatant civilisation-ender, her asteroid as big as the Earth. It was on a direct collision course, no chance it would miss.

Hot rocks: a brief history of asteroids and the Earth

4.5bn years ago The Earth gets its moon (according to the "big splash" hypothesis) when an asteroid the size of Mars breaks off a chunk of our planet.

2.4bn years ago An asteroid lands on what is now the Karelian district of Russia, leaving a 16km-wide crater, the oldest identified.

65m years ago The dinosaurs are done for, when a 10km-wide rock strikes what is now the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico.

1790 Reports of a cottage crushed in the French town of Barbotan, killing a farmer and his cattle.

1868 Thousands of small stones shower down on Pultusk in Poland after a meteorite explosion in the sky; still bought and sold by collectors today, they are called Pultusk Peas.

1908 Hundreds of square miles of trees in Tunguska, Siberia, are flattened by a multi-kiloton explosion; some of the trees are even stripped of their bark.

1954 A fragment of meteorite bursts through the roof of Elizabeth Hodges' home in Alabama and hits her on the hip, briefly hospitalising her – the only confirmed case of a human struck by space rock.

1996 A big hit in rural Honduras leaves a 50m-wide hole.

2007 An explosion in Peru creates a 13m-wide hole and knocks a villager off his bike; after brief talk of fallen US satellites, and even missiles from neighbouring Bolivia, a meteorite is identified as the culprit.

2012 A strike in San Francisco, close to the site of the 19th-century Californian gold rush, prompts a new gold rush of sorts as meteorite hunters descend on the area looking for fragments.

2013 The Chelyabinsk event hospitalises more than 1,000.

2014 The appearance this month of a 12m-wide hole in Nicaragua was attributed to an asteroid strike. "Seems unlikely," said a Nasa spokesperson.

• The Disaster Playground project previews at the V&A museum in London this weekend; go to disasterplayground.com for details.


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Kerry at the U.N. Builds Support for Anti-IS Coalition

by Naharnet Newsdesk
20 September 2014, 08:43

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brought together 35 countries at the U.N. Security Council on Friday to build support for Iraq's new government and the campaign to confront jihadists.

The crisis triggered by the "Islamic State" group's seizure of large tracts of Iraq and Syria has challenged countries that are often at loggerheads to confront a common enemy.

Washington's traditional foe Iran was represented at the meeting as were U.S. allies France, Britain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Kerry said the turnout showed "the clear need for all of us to come together, to welcome and to support the new inclusive government in Iraq and of course to put an end to ISIL's unfettered barbarity."

Tehran is supporting both Iraq and Syria in its battle against the Islamic State group, and Kerry said that in combating the jihadist threat "there is a role for nearly every country to play, including Iran."

This week, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claimed he had rejected a private approach from the United States suggesting cooperation on the battlefield.

U.S. officials have not confirmed or denied making a request in private, but they do not regard Tehran as part of their coalition.

"ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. It has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way," Kerry told the council.

"In the face of this sort of evil, we have only one option: to confront it with a holistic, global campaign that is committed and capable of degrading and destroying this terrorist threat."

The council adopted a statement condemning the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and expressing support for the new government of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi.

ISIL, which has since renamed itself the Islamic State, now controls large swathes of Iraq and Syria after a summer offensive.

"Combating these terrorists in Iraq and preventing them from spreading evil is in everybody's interest," said Iraq's new Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

The meeting at U.N. headquarters in New York opened as France, which opposed the 2003 Iraq war, joined the United States in a campaign of airstrikes against the Islamist fighters.

"Taking action against Iraq in 2003 divided this council, but in the very different context of 2014, taking action in support of Iraq and against the Daesh terrorists is a duty for us all," said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, using the Arabic term for the group.

Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Majid Takht Ravanchi told the meeting that the international coalition shaping up to fight IS "has yet to pursue a serious strategy."

Describing IS as a "despicable group," Ravanchi said it "has grown out of the chaos created and the assistance provided to it in the past decade," implicitly criticizing the policies of the United States and its Gulf allies.

The deputy foreign minister called for cooperation with the Syrian regime in Damascus to confront the jihadists, saying that "any strategy that undermines these authorities including the Syrian government... will be a recipe for defeat."

More than 50 countries have come forward with commitments as part of the anti-IS coalition including Egypt which has pledged to work closely with Kurdish and Iraqi forces, Kerry said.

"It is time to put an end to a group so extreme in its rejection of modernity that it bans math and social studies for children," he said.

"It's time to put an end to the sermons by extremists that brainwash young men to join these terrorist groups and commit mass atrocities in the name of God."

The Security Council's show of solidarity with Iraq set the stage for talks next week during the General Assembly meeting at the United Nations that will be dominated by the jihadist threat in Iraq and Syria.

Source: Agence France Presse

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Bernie Sanders Blast The Media For Ignoring The Koch Brothers Attempt To Buy The Government

By: Jason Easley
PoliticusUSA
Friday, September, 19th, 2014, 12:51 pm      

Sen. Bernie Sanders is calling out the corporate owned media for turning a blind eye to the Koch brothers attempt steal your freedom by buying the government.

A new Media Matters study found that the networks devoted a minute of airtime each to covering the issue of money in politics over the last 19 months.

Sen. Sanders expressed his disappointment in a statement,

    There is a reason why confidence in the American media is declining. More and more people say the media is not paying attention to the issues of real importance to the American people. This study confirms that.

    To my mind, the single most important issue facing our country today is that, as a result of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, we are allowing billionaires to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to elect candidates who will represent the wealthy and powerful rather than the needs of ordinary Americans. This is an issue of enormous consequence. I am disappointed, but not surprised, by the study’s finding that the major networks barely covered the issue of money in politics.

The study found that only the non-corporate owned PBS gave substantial airtime to Citizens United and money in politics. The PBS Newshour spent 1:13:51 discussing the issue. ABC, CBS, and NBC spent a combined 47:41 over 19 months on the campaign finance issue. The lack of coverage of the Citizens United/money in politics/Koch brothers story is part of a larger pattern of corporate owned media censoring stories that are important to the American people.

The corporate media benefits from the hundreds of millions of dollars that the Koch brothers and other billionaires spend on campaign ads. Of course, they aren’t going to blow the whistle on a practice that they are financially benefitting from. They don’t care about the right-wing agenda and the impact that it will have on regular people. They don’t care about people losing their voices with their own government. The media isn’t concerned by elected politicians who only represent the interests of their largest donors.

Corporate media have deemed the fact that a handful of billionaires are attacking the nation’s electoral process and fundamental democratic rights as not newsworthy. The corporate media are more than happy to dumb down the people with stories about celebrities and reality television stars, while people like the Koch brothers plot to buy the government.

Big media used to be a watchdog, now it is an enabler and part of the problem. The study confirms what most people already knew. Big media are on board with the billionaires’ agenda, as generating a profit has been placed ahead of informing the public.

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Wendy Davis Dominates Greg Abbott In The First Texas Gubernatorial Debate

By: Jason Easley
PoliticusUSA
Friday, September, 19th, 2014, 7:58 pm      

Wendy Davis had a dominant night at the first gubernatorial debate. Davis brought facts and the vision for the future, while Greg Abbott was left with Republican talking points and lies.

Video of the debate: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FThK3OglizQ#t=90

Davis got the first question about balancing border security and local development. She answered that she would listen to local leaders, and hammered Greg Abbott for calling this part of the area Third World. Abbott rebutted by saying that secure communities promote economic development. Abbott tied economic development in the Rio Grande Valley to economic development. Abbott’s first question was about the state Supreme Court ruling the school funding system unconstitutional. Abbott answered with no education plan, but with Republican platitudes on education. Davis pointed out that she protested the education cuts that Abbott is defending. She called the education cuts he supports “dumb,” and vowed to fight for more regulation for schools.

Davis was asked about what she sees as fair regulations for abortion. She called out Abbott for campaigning with a known sexual predator (Ted Nugent). She said, “Mr. Abbott that is not protecting Texas women.” Abbott rebutted with more Republican talking points about establishing a culture of life. (Abbott’s answers have been straight off the national Republican talking points sheet.)

Greg Abbott started to squirm when he was asked about his comments calling the Rio Grande Valley to a third world country. Abbott tried to rewrite history and claim that he was talking about the entire state, when media reports contradict his claims. At the quarter point of the debate, it is easy to see why Abbott is not performing as well of other Republicans in the polls. He is a very underwhelming candidate.

Wendy Davis ripped Abbott for not expanding Medicaid. She said, “Mr. Abbott is California’s best friend in Texas because he wants to keep sending our tax dollars to them.” Abbott accused Davis of wanting to expand Obamacare in Texas and called Obamacare an abject failure. Abbott said you had seen the future of Obamacare in veteran’s care, which was a total lie, because Obamacare is not government run healthcare.

Abbott said that Texas needed even less government and rejected raising the minimum wage, even though the increase would help 2.8 million Texans. Abbott tried to say that there aren’t many minimum wage workers in the state, when the truth is that Texas ranks near the top of the country in the number of minimum wage workers. Davis rebutted, “Raising the minimum wage is not only good for Texas families, it’s good for our economy.” She said Abbott is looking out for his insider friends, not Texas families.

Davis scored effective points on almost every question, but will it be enough to overcome a generic Republican opponent in deeply red Texas?

In the portion of the debate where the candidates could question each other, Greg Abbott asked Davis if she regretted voting for Obama. Davis answered that she is busy running for governor. She ignored his question and used it to discuss her vision of what the governor should be doing. (She didn’t answer the question.)

Davis asked Abbott about the state funding system being ruled unconstitutional. Davis asked Abbott if he will drop his appeals and appropriately fund the schools. Abbott tried to blame Davis for his unwillingness to settle the lawsuit. Davis got fired up and told Abbott that what he is doing is wrong.

Sen. Davis was asked about the decision to indict Rick Perry. She said that she believed that these are serious charges that deserve serious consideration. Abbott said the charges were bizarre for Perry to be indicted for exercising a veto. (This was a complete distortion of what Gov. Perry did.) Davis criticized Abbott for accepting a $100,000 donation from Koch Industries and blocking residents from having the right to know what kinds of dangerous chemicals are stored in the communities. Abbott said that residents can’t know about potential dangers like the explosion that happened in West, TX because of terrorism.

Abbott defended voter ID laws by claiming that voter fraud is real, despite the fact that there is no evidence of voter fraud.

Wendy Davis had a dominant performance in the first of two Texas gubernatorial debates. Watching this debate it is easy to see why Texas Republicans are working so hard to derail Davis’ political star. If he wins, Greg Abbott has the look of a candidate that voters will regret electing.

Abbott alternated between lying and blaming the federal government for his failures. He also showed no leadership and vision for the future. Attorney General Abbott is a Koch Republican, who could have been interchanged with thousands of other generic Republican candidates around the country.

Wendy Davis had a fantastic debate. She is a Democrat on the rise, and her strong debate showing should continue to help her close the gap on Greg Abbott.

**********

Texas Turmoil: Greg Abbott Fakes Support By Busing In People For Debate With Wendy Davis

By: Jason Easley
PoliticusUSA
Friday, September, 19th, 2014, 2:46 pm      

Texas Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott is being forced to bus in supporters to create a false impression of strength ahead of his debate with Democrat Wendy Davis.

The Burnt Orange Report wrote, “Abbott’s campaign has resorted to busing supporters to the Rio Grande Valley to show faux-support for the Republican in the region. He’s even paying for their lodging! Wendy Davis’s campaign released the following email image from an organizer looking to send recruits to the Valley:

The Republican is leading in the polls, but the fact that his campaign had to bus in supporters for the debate should be a cause for concern. Wendy Davis has run a more competitive campaign than Republicans in the state are used to, and they have been letting their nerves show for months.

If Abbott were as comfortably ahead as his supporters claim, he would need to bus supporters in to create a false impression of support. Immigration will be a hot topic at tonight’s debate, but observers aren’t sure what to expect. It is possible that Abbott and Davis will mix it up, but they also could stay in their lanes and appeal to their own supporters. The Republican campaign against Wendy Davis has been vile. Davis has faced months worth of sexist and ugly attacks on her character.

The Republican campaign against Wendy Davis has been vicious because they fear her. They are afraid because Greg Abbott’s lead is underwhelming for a Republican in a Texas statewide race. Davis has a chance tonight. If she is impressive in the debate Davis could whittle more points off of Abbott’s lead. Busing and flying supporters in was a favorite trick of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, and everyone remembers how that turned out.

Any time a campaign has to bus supporters in for an event, it is a sign of weakness. When that campaign also has to pay lodging on top of transportation, it is a sign of desperation.

Wendy Davis is putting a scare into the Republican Party. They are so worried that they are bringing in ringers to create an impression of support for Greg Abbott’s lackluster campaign.


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