The Forever Bridge?

From the St. Thomas Source <https://stthomassource.com/content/2019/03/29/bridge-to-nowhere-illustrates-v-i-s-poor-construction-management/>

[I’m surprised that it’s only been 21 years in the works — I thought this project had been proposed back in the early 1980’s. The other notable fact about this particular site is that it is (or was) the only freshwater marsh in St. Thomas. The extent of the marsh was either 0.7 of an acre, or 0.7 of a hectare, and it was just downstream from the Turpentine Run bridge. As I recall, a study was done by a researcher working for Island Resources Foundation in the early 1970’s — when the kennels and horse stables were established in the area later there was a concern that stream channelization and pollution from the facilities had destroyed the marsh. bp]

‘Bridge to Nowhere’ Illustrates V.I.’s Poor Construction Management

By
Dave MacVean –

March 29, 2019





The Turpentine Run project is still a far cry from the architectural rendering.The Turpentine Run project is still a far cry from the architectural rendering.The architectural drawing for the Turpentine Run project.The architectural drawing for the Turpentine Run project.

The Turpentine Run construction project on St. Thomas stands as a prime example of poor construction management in the U.S. Territory. After 21 years, the joint efforts of the V.I. government and the U.S. Department of Transportation have failed to complete the project.

In 1997, the V.I. and U.S. governments agreed to fund construction of a bridge over a stream that is prone to catastrophic flooding.

Costing more than $28 million to date, Turpentine Run was 87 percent complete as of Jan. 31, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported. The official date of completion is two months away, on May 31.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will host a public meeting for the Turpentine Run project From 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 3, at Bertha C. Boschulte Middle School Auditorium. Public Works Commissioner Nelson Petty Jr. will attend.

The architectural rendering of Turpentine Run still looks a far cry from the construction zone that remains today.

On Oct 9, 2018, former Gov. Kenneth Mapp declared it the “Bridge to Somewhere,” and opened the bridge to traffic with a ribbon cutting ceremony.

Although the new bridge was passable on that date, there were no traffic signals and contractors provided a makeshift “round about,” which was nothing more than an asphalt hump. Many drivers ignored the hump and drove directly over it, then navigated the open trenches that remained all around the project.

As of today, the hump and open trenches remain, and there are no working traffic lights.

Still pending is a final inspection by the project manager, Federal Highway Administration, the owners (the V.I. Department of Public Works), and contractor Island Roads Corporation according to Jose David, the Department of Transportation manager assigned to Turpentine Run.

Repeated emails to the V.I. government, beginning on Nov. 13, 2018, asked for detailed financial statements on Turpentine Run or “any completed road project.” There was no reply. After the arrival of Gov. Albert Bryan’s administration in January 2019, emails were sent to VITEMA, DPW, and the Governors Office, again with no response.

On Jan. 11, the Source submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Federal Highway Administration asking for detailed financial statements for all road projects on the USVI, specifically Turpentine Run. The Department of Transportation produced documents on March 9 showing verification of funds delivered to the V.I. government totaling $17 million from 2013 to 2017 for the project.

But similar to research into the V.I government, where detailed financial statements are difficult to obtain, the U.S. Department of Transportation took two months to produce six, single page, financial reports. The reports only have major line items, like “Veterans Way, $43 million,” but scant details.

The cover letter from the DOT said, “Certain documents have been withheld which protects attorney-client and other pre-decisional intra-government communication.”

Complicating construction was the need to purchase private property through eminent domain, as well as environmental contamination from an Esso gas station on site. The project was abandoned in 1998, the half-span of the bridge eventually overgrown by vines.

In 2012, when $12 million was budgeted for the project, Wystan Benjamin, who at the time was federal aid program manager at the Department of Public Works, said, “I’m not sure how long it will take to build it but 18 months at least,” he said.

“The bridge was built first to allow for the gut to be moved away from the homes,” according to Benjamin.

In September 2016, Island Roads was awarded a contract for $9.5 million to finish the 0.34 mile project.

Charles Electrical Services, LLC, was awarded a $220,000 contract in September 2017 for traffic signals and lighting.

The Department of Transportation’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget listed $4 million spent on the Turpentine Run Bridge, with $11 million available.

One professional working in road construction on St. Thomas, who requested anonymity, said there are questionable consultant contracts awarded, and projects show a lack of construction management, skilled labor, and financial control. Yet he went on to say, “Its working better than you think.”

The 2019 V.I. Government Budget lists $61 million in road construction projects, with the largest being $12 million for Main Street enhancements.

The $43 million Veterans Drive project has spent $13 million as of January, according to the DOT, and is reported to be 31 percent completed.

FEMA was contacted about its role in road construction in the USVI since the hurricanes of 2017. Their role is limited to non-federal, local roads. Some work can be done not related to storm damage.

On the home repair program they have obligated more than $222 million for example, sheltering and essential power. There have been repairs to more than 7,000 homes, he said.

FEMA media relations specialist Eric Adams said they don’t do projects.

“The territory drives, plans and administers projects on roads and public buildings. FEMA’s role is to support the territory with technical assistance and funding. FEMA obligates funding, the local government administers projects,” Adams said.

For example, FEMA obligated funds for tsunami sirens, then VITEMA has the plans to get the work done, he said.

FEMA provides funding to VITEMA, which provides it to individual agencies like the Housing Finance Authority or Water and Power Authority or Department of Education. They then hire contractors like AECOM or APTIM, which hire subcontractors, who have subcontractors who have subcontractors, on down to the people actually swinging hammers or laying asphalt. The federal government will ultimately closeout the projects and determine if the work was done properly and decide whether to release the funds, Adams said. Meanwhile, the local government agencies would have any detailed financial statements.

This convoluted process may preserve accountability at the federal level but leaves room for smaller contractors to have employees who wait to get paid while the process unfolds.

The V.I. government official website reports $1.6 billion in FEMA Hurricane Recovery Funds.

The most recent financial statement on the VITEMA website is from 2014.

Jose David of the Department of Transportation replied to our emails on March 25. He referred additional questions to DOT Public Relations, which was the same möbius loop that led to the Source filing the January 2019 Freedom of Information Act request.

Editor’s Note: This has been updated to clarify FEMA’s role in the funding process.

Posted in Fun

TWO Virgin Islands Reconstruction Stories from the on-line Washington Post

The URLs for these articles are

<https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/housing-crunch-mars-hurricane-recovery-in-the-virgin-islands/2019/03/27/b65493b2-4fc9-11e9-a3f7-78b7525a8d5f_story.html?utm_term=.60bb566e9065>

<https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/unpaid-bills-complaints-and-shoddy-workmanship-plague-recovery-efforts-on-us-virgin-islands/2019/03/24/c567c0a0-4695-11e9-8aab-95b8d80a1e4f_story.html?utm_term=.c284ceab2b2f>

National

Housing crunch mars hurricane recovery in the Virgin Islands

[Most photos did not transfer in this article]

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Sheila Freeman, right, in the hurricane-damaged home she shares wither with her daughter, Volupte Testamark, and granddaughter, Chardanae, this month on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

By Tim Craig. March 27

ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands — As she maneuvers around the temporary beams that support the leaky blue tarp draped over her home, Shelia Freeman tallies all the ways living there has been complicated since Hurricane Irma peeled off her roof in September 2017.

There is still no electricity or running water. To bathe or flush the toilet, Freeman has to empty gallons of bottled water or use a hand pump to retrieve water from an underground cistern. At night, the family is guided by two small battery-powered lights to avoid bumping into furniture that still dampens when it rains. And without refrigeration, Freeman cannot always stock enough ice in her freezer to keep food from spoiling.

Freeman’s daughter inquired about temporary housing as the family waits for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But she was told the government’s priority was sheltering storm victims who had been displaced from severely damaged public housing, she said.

So three generations of the Freeman family — including infant Chardanae — have been stuck living in an uninhabitable home for 18 months.

A shortage of affordable housing on this island territory has forced hundreds of families to remain in damaged and leaky houses during the lengthy recovery effort. The widespread destruction of hotels and public housing, combined with the flood of workers who have rushed to the islands to aid in rebuilding, have pushed rents higher, beyond the means of many disaster victims.

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A blue tarp roof covers Sheila Freeman’s house in St. Thomas. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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Chardanae, 1, has powder applied by her mother after a bath. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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Volupte Testamark and her mother, Sheila Freeman, do chores while Chardanae gets her bath. Their house still doesn’t have running water. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

“FEMA’s first traditional weapon is to give you money for rental assistance,” said Brad Gair, a consultant for Witt O’Brien’s, a recovery firm working with the Virgin Islands government. “But if there is nowhere to rent, and there is no affordable rental units here, where are they going to go?”

Even before the territory suffered back-to-back blows from two Category 5 hurricanes in 2017, the availability of affordable housing was a major concern on St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John, the three islands that make up the territory. A month before Hurricane Irma struck, a federal study found the median home price in the territory was nearly seven times the median household income of about $34,000, compared with four times as high on the mainland.

That became an even bigger crisis after the storms destroyed about 18,500 houses and businesses here, including about half of the island’s housing stock.

As it blew over St. Thomas, Irma also destroyed a major public housing project in the Tutu neighborhood, displacing about 300 families. More than a dozen major hotels on the three islands were also damaged or destroyed.

[Unpaid workers and complaints of shoddy construction plague hurricane recovery on U.S. Virgin Islands]

The waiting list for a housing voucher, a rental assistance program for very low-income residents, has grown to about 2,500 families, up from 2,000 before the storms.

The availability of affordable housing has been pinched further by thousands of relief workers and contractors who poured into the territory to help rebuild. Many are entitled to federally funded housing allowances, which make it more profitable for landlords to rent to them instead of residents or even tourists, officials said.

Joe Thayer, a real estate agent on St. Croix who also manages 110 rental properties, said a four-bedroom house on the island now rents for $7,000 a month, nearly double the cost before the hurricane. A one-bedroom condominium rents for about $2,500, up from $1,500 two years ago, Thayer said.

“Because there is nowhere to live, people are doubling up and tripling up to try to make places work,” said Thayer, adding that all of his rental units are not occupied. “Overall, for the island, the reconstruction is having a positive impact, but if you got a house that you need to get fixed, there is no place to go.”

FEMA decided not to bring in trailers, typically used as temporary housing after big disasters on the mainland, because each would cost a quarter-million dollars to ship and set up here, said Daryl Griffith, executive director of the Virgin Islands Housing and Finance Authority.

“And there were no hotels to rent, no houses for them to rent,” he said. “So as they went down their regular tool kit, they realized it just couldn’t work in the territory.”

Instead, FEMA and the Virgin Islands government have relied on the Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power, or STEP, program to try to help uninsured and underinsured homeowners rebuild.

Created by FEMA after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the program is designed to do quick repairs on houses so residents can remain in their homes, capped at $25,000 per house. Last summer, then-FEMA Administrator William “Brock” Long granted an exception so the territory could also do more costly, major roof repairs.

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Storm damage on St. John in January 2018. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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A home on St. John in January 2018. The U.S. Virgin Islands were hit by two hurricanes the prior September. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

“We went a step further with the Virgin Islands because we had a severe issue where we didn’t have a lot of shelters,” said Michael Byrne, FEMA’s federal coordinator for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Still, the program — which is slated to cost between $220 million and $500 million — has been structured so contractors tackle the easiest jobs first. That has left about 700 households, including Freeman’s, waiting for assistance.

“We would have loved to do it the other way around, but the issue was with how the programs were designed,” Griffith said. “This was a FEMA pilot program designed to just to do temporary repairs.”

[Photos: Irma’s wrath]

Byrne acknowledged that the housing shortage in the Virgin Islands is part of a broader challenge of finding shelter for victims after disasters. He noted the agency is also trying to help residents displaced by wildfires in California, tornadoes in the South and hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico and the East Coast.

CBS News recently reported that some residents of the Florida Panhandle are still living in tents more than six months after Hurricane Michael damaged or destroyed more than 40,000 houses there.

“We as a nation really need to look at our ability to address post-disaster housing to see if we can’t find a better way,” Byrne said. “The problem we have is you can never move fast enough and you can never rebuild fast enough.”

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Sheila Freeman, left, watches a movie on a laptop with her daughter and granddaughter. They use a noisy generator for electricity. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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Freeman makes a practice of writing a daily prayer. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Power cords at the family’s home on St. Thomas. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)spacer.gif

On St. Thomas, the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority has restored electricity to Freeman’s neighbors but cannot safely reestablish service to badly damaged structures, such as her one-story house.

Gas for the generator costs about $50 a week for Freeman, who has no steady income.

“It’s just very hard and very frustrating to be living in a house with no current,” said her daughter, Volupte Testamark, using a local term for a fan or air conditioning.

“And all of these mosquitoes,” she added, pointing to the crack in the front door that leaves the house exposed to bugs.

Robert Graham, executive director of the Virgin Islands Housing Authority, said he expects the housing crunch to gradually ease. By the end of the year, Graham said, the contractors will probably start leaving the territory, easing the rental market.

The authority plans to start rebuilding 1,555 affordable housing units next year. It also will add 2,000 Housing Choice vouchers, but it is not clear how soon they will be available.

The territory is also seeking federal assistance to expedite repairs on rental units, which have so far largely been exempt from recovery programs.

In the meantime, the housing shortage is starting to squeeze the middle class, as well, said Thayer, the St. Croix real estate agent. Over the past year, as the tourism industry has rebounded, the territory’s unemployment rate has dropped from 15 percent to about 6 percent, according to the U.S. Virgin Islands Bureau of Economic Research.

But some workers for local tourist shops and restaurants are being forced to sleep on the job site or on their bosses’ couches.

“I know one young man who came here and is sleeping in a tent on the beach,” Thayer said.

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You have to think like you’re living in the woods,” Freeman said of life in her damaged home. “You have to think of a way to survive and to live.” (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

15
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Tim Craig Tim Craig is a national reporter on the America desk. He previously served as head of The Washington Post’s Afghanistan-Pakistan bureau, based in Islamabad and Kabul. He has also reported from Iraq, the District and Baltimore. Follow

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National

Unpaid workers and complaints of shoddy construction plague hurricane recovery on U.S. Virgin Islands

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A construction worker repairs a damaged roof March 6 in St. Thomas. Frustration has consumed the U.S. Virgin Islands amid a wave of complaints over management of the recovery efforts following Hurricanes Irma and Maria. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
By Tim Craig

March 27

ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands — After back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes blew through here in fall 2017, Russell Bryan joined thousands of Americans who rushed to “chase dreams and promises” of big paychecks from the federal reconstruction effort.

A contracting firm said his crew would split about $50,000 for their work on 89 properties. So Bryan arrived with 10 friends and relatives last summer to repair blown-in doors and busted window frames and install FEMA-funded roofs, at times working up to 12 hours a day.

But the money never arrived, and Bryan could barely afford the ice water he needed to work under the blazing Caribbean sun. The 27-year-old had to call his mother and plead for a plane ticket home.

“I felt stranded,” Bryan said after he climbed down from the roof on his final day on the job earlier this month. “If I stayed here, as a guy looking for his money, it’s nothing but trouble.”

Frustration has consumed the Virgin Islands amid a wave of complaints about unpaid bills, broken promises and shoddy work in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. In one case, the tension culminated in an armed standoff over allegations of unpaid contractors.

The discord has cast light on how the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Virgin Islands government and two private multibillion-dollar engineering companies are managing the recovery, and the extent to which the financial windfall is filtering down to the sweaty workers doing much of the manual labor.

“It just seems to be a very sketchy business model and based on business practices that are questionable,” said Sen. Alicia V. Barnes, a member of the territorial legislature. “It seems to be a total breakdown in bureaucratic processes where there is no appropriate oversight.”

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Russell Bryan, who arrived in St. Thomas last summer to take advantage of the reconstruction effort, said he and his crew have not been paid in full for their work. Frustrated, he left the Virgin Islands on March 7. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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Destroyed lodging at Caneel Bay in St. John, Virgin Islands, on Jan. 26, 2018. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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Destroyed lodging at Caneel Bay in St. John, Virgin Islands, on March 7. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

A year and a half after Irma hit, the beaches have been cleaned and cruise ships again crowd area ports. Most residents say the overall pace of the recovery has been quicker than with past storms.

But the territory — which includes three islands and is roughly the size of Philadelphia — remains a long way from its pre-storm footing after 18,500 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed by the hurricanes, resulting in an estimated $11 billion in damage.

Like Puerto Ricans, the 103,000 residents of the Virgin Islands are American citizens, though they cannot vote in the presidential election and have no voting representation in Congress. President Trump has complained recently about the amount of disaster aid going to Puerto Rico, amid Democrats’ calls for more funding.

[Housing crunch mars hurricane recovery in the Virgin Islands]

Last summer, to try to expedite the recovery on the Virgin Islands, FEMA authorized a first-of-its-kind expansion of its Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power (STEP) program, created after Hurricane Sandy struck the U.S. East Coast in 2012, to make minor repairs on houses so residents could avoid costly relocations to hotels, temporary trailers and new rental units.

FEMA allowed the Virgin Islands to exceed the typical $25,000 cap on repairs on a case-by-case basis.

The territorial government contracted two global engineering firms, AECOM and Aptim, to carry out the construction, and more than 7,000 houses have been repaired so far. But homeowners have complained about the quality of some of the repairs, and some have alleged that workers are effecting cracks and leaks in doors, walls and roofs. In February, three major subcontractors working under AECOM said they and other firms are collectively owed more than $60 million for work performed, putting some firms at risk of insolvency or bankruptcy.

On Tuesday, the territorial government’s Senate Finance Committee voted to subpoena AECOM after the firm failed to show up for a hearing on complaints over nonpayment.

In a statement to The Washington Post, AECOM did not address whether its subcontractors have been paid in a timely manner, but said, “We are committed to doing everything we can in partnership with the Virgin Islands Territory and FEMA to provide the timely payment of services to subcontractors, including the substantial investment of our capital and resources to expedite payments in advance of the release of program funds.”

In a separate statement, Aptim Vice President Jeffrey Dorf said the company “is current with our payment terms and conditions with all subcontractors, in regard to our work.”

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Roofers work on a home in St. Thomas on March 6. Virgin Islands residents are still recovering after back-to-back hurricanes in 2017. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

There could be more financial trouble to come, given the federal and Virgin Islands governments are at odds over how much the STEP program will ultimately cost.

Daryl Griffith, executive director of the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority, said the territory has paid out nearly all of the $187 million in federal funds received for the STEP program. FEMA has promised another $86 million, he said, for a total of $273 million.

But Michael Byrne, FEMA’s federal coordinator for the Puerto Rican and Virgin Islands recoveries, said the agency has only allocated $223 million so far. Either way, it appears the federal allocation is likely to fall far short of the nearly half-billion dollars Griffith says the program will cost when all invoices are collected.

Many local workers worry the money will never make it to their pockets anyway.

Nathaniel Phillips, a 35-year-old native of St. Thomas, one of the territory’s three islands, said he assembled seven crews in November for roofing work for an Aptim subcontractor, based on a promise that each man would earn between $150 and $500 a day.

But after about a month of unpaid work, with Christmas approaching, the workers turned their fury on Phillips.

“They would say, ‘I am going to get my gun and I’m coming for my money,’ ” Phillips said. “I literally never thought about having a gun — I am a boxer. But after my life and my family’s life was threatened, I went to buy a gun.”

Phillips and his father cobbled together about $15,000 to hand out to the workers, though the subcontractor still had not paid him, he said, and he could not afford to buy a Christmas gift for his 12-year-old daughter. He and the rest of the workers finally walked off the job on Jan. 2, alleging they were owed a combined $150,000.

The subcontractor, Texas-based Allco Construction, did not return calls seeking comment.

After Phillips and the other workers held a protest on St. Thomas to draw attention to their plight, Allco arranged to pay some of them. Phillips wasn’t one of them.

Dorf, from Aptim, said the company “does not have direct line-of-sight into second-tier subcontractor payments” but allows them “to voice their concerns.” The responsibility for paying subcontractors ultimately rests with the company that hired them, said Brad Gair, a consultant for Witt O’Brien’s, which is advising the territory on its recovery efforts.

The layers of subcontractors working on the reconstruction is a “lesson learned” for the territorial government, Griffith said.

“Whether they pay or not on time, we don’t have visibility on that,” he said. “And all of these stories we hear are either totally heart-wrenching or in­cred­ibly infuriating.”

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Eddy had to throw out some of his clothing ruined by water damage. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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Vernon Eddy, 84, in his bedroom in St. Thomas earlier this month. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Licensed construction contractor Scott Johnson said the dispute over funding is indicative of broader management shortfalls .

A veteran of more than a dozen hurricane-recovery projects, Johnson was lured to St. Croix shortly after Christmas by a subcontracting firm under AECOM that promised him he could make more than $1,000 a week. He worked on four houses — all projects that had previously been started by other contractors who either walked off the job due to nonpayment or were yanked from the job because of poor craftsmanship.

At one job, he said, a homeowner cried on his shoulder because a previous contractor had done more damage to her home than the hurricanes did.

He fled back to Florida in early February, unable to finish even one roof because of chronic material shortages and poor supervision, he said.

“I have never in my life seen anything more mismanaged than this contract,” said Johnson, 46. “The people there deserve better. They should be treated on a level of eight to 10, but instead are being treated on a level of 1 to 1½.”

Gair said the quality of the work is inspected separately by the general contractor, Witt O’Brien’s, FEMA and the Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources, a process that can take months and lead to delayed checks.

[Puerto Rico faces food-stamp crisis as Trump privately vents about federal aid to Hurricane Maria-battered island]

Vernon Eddy, 84, is one of the Virgin Islands residents who believes the process has failed him. Hurricane Irma left a few small holes in the ceiling of his living room and bathroom in his St. Thomas home. As contractors replaced his roof, Eddy said, the rain that arrives here almost daily opened up more than a dozen new holes in his ceiling.

He begged them to return to repair the damage.

“They just say they are not coming back, and they are finished with me,” he said.

The problem was particularly urgent for Eddy. His 88-year-old wife was recovering from a stroke in Nashville, and he didn’t want to bring her home until the house was in top shape.

She died earlier this month as Eddy waited.

Sarah Mickelson, a senior policy director at the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, said FEMA’s STEP program is an example of how the federal government’s outsourcing of disaster-recovery operations can shortchange residents.

That states and localities are only reimbursed for approved costs after work is completed — meaning those governments have to front sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars — has proven especially problematic for the Virgin Islands, where the government was struggling to pay bills even before the storm.

The territory has accumulated about $1.7 billion in debt and has just seven to 10 days of cash on hand. Moody’s Investors Service, which rates the territory’s credit worthiness, has assigned it the third-lowest of 21 ratings, one above Puerto Rico, which declared a form of bankruptcy in 2017.

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Men play dominoes earlier this month in St. Thomas. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Faith in the system is deteriorating. The U.S. attorney’s office for the Virgin Islands has launched at least one investigation. In February, a federal grand jury indicted four individuals alleged to have submitted fraudulent invoices for housing allowances, including for some workers who never performed work on the island.

Meanwhile, tensions are escalating among those who have done the work and are struggling to get paid on time.

David Burgess, a local contractor, believes many of the large contracting firms working on the STEP program are engaged in what he called “sub busting.”

He said the large firms are giving local workers incomplete blueprints or specifications for how a roof should be constructed under FEMA guidelines. Then, just as a project is about to be completed, the firms fire the workers to avoid paying them.

“It’s a way of keeping everything top-heavy so the money never reaches the ground,” said Burgess, 62, who owns J&K Roofing, which the Virgin Islands Daily News has voted the “best roofer” on St. Thomas for the past two years. “They set you up to fail, and then after you complete 60 or 70 percent of the job, they come in and say, ‘You don’t get paid.’ ”

Burgess believes that is what happened to his 33-year-old son, David Burgess Jr.

In January, Burgess Jr. put together a two-man crew to work on a roof under a subcontractor for Aptim, with a promised payout of about $30,000, he said.

After about three weeks, the company threatened to kick him off the job and not pay due to slow performance — even though various inspectors kept arriving at the job site and giving conflicting information about the building code.

Soon after, armed security guards showed up and shouted at the crew to “get off the property right now,” Burgess Jr. said.

They refused and called Burgess Sr., who also showed up armed.

The four-hour standoff attracted local media coverage. It ended when the subcontractor agreed to pay Burgess Jr. $21,500, allowing him to pocket about $7,000 after accounting for his expenses — including ensuring his co-worker on the project got paid.

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Although St. Thomas residents are still recovering from back-to-back hurricanes, tourism is active. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

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Posted in Fun

NYTimes Opinion — The World We’re Coming To . . . . Skin Counts

From the Times . . .

news analysis

Human Contact Is Now a Luxury Good

Screens used to be for the elite. Now avoiding them is a status symbol.

By Marta Monteiro

SAN FRANCISCO — Bill Langlois has a new best friend. She is a cat named Sox. She lives on a tablet, and she makes him so happy that when he talks about her arrival in his life, he begins to cry.

All day long, Sox and Mr. Langlois, who is 68 and lives in a low-income senior housing complex in Lowell, Mass., chat. Mr. Langlois worked in machine operations, but now he is retired. With his wife out of the house most of the time, he has grown lonely.

Sox talks to him about his favorite team, the Red Sox, after which she is named. She plays his favorite songs and shows him pictures from his wedding. And because she has a video feed of him in his recliner, she chastises him when she catches him drinking soda instead of water.

Mr. Langlois knows that Sox is artifice, that she comes from a start-up called Care.Coach. He knows she is operated by workers around the world who are watching, listening and typing out her responses, which sound slow and robotic. But her consistent voice in his life has returned him to his faith.

“I found something so reliable and someone so caring, and it’s allowed me to go into my deep soul and remember how caring the Lord was,” Mr. Langlois said. “She’s brought my life back to life.”

Sox has been listening. “We make a great team,” she says.

Sox is a simple animation; she barely moves or emotes, and her voice is as harsh as a dial tone. But little animated hearts come up around her sometimes, and Mr. Langlois loves when that happens.

Mr. Langlois is on a fixed income. To qualify for Element Care, a nonprofit health care program for older adults that brought him Sox, a patient’s countable assets must not be greater than $2,000.

Such programs are proliferating. And not just for the elderly.

Life for anyone but the very rich — the physical experience of learning, living and dying — is increasingly mediated by screens.

Not only are screens themselves cheap to make, but they also make things cheaper. Any place that can fit a screen in (classrooms, hospitals, airports, restaurants) can cut costs. And any activity that can happen on a screen becomes cheaper. The texture of life, the tactile experience, is becoming smooth glass.

The rich do not live like this. The rich have grown afraid of screens. They want their children to play with blocks, and tech-free private schools are booming. Humans are more expensive, and rich people are willing and able to pay for them. Conspicuous human interaction — living without a phone for a day, quitting social networks and not answering email — has become a status symbol.

All of this has led to a curious new reality: Human contact is becoming a luxury good.

As more screens appear in the lives of the poor, screens are disappearing from the lives of the rich. The richer you are, the more you spend to be offscreen.

Milton Pedraza, the chief executive of the Luxury Institute, advises companies on how the wealthiest want to live and spend, and what he has found is that the wealthy want to spend on anything human.

“What we are seeing now is the luxurification of human engagement,” Mr. Pedraza said.

Anticipated spending on experiences such as leisure travel and dining is outpacing spending on goods, according to his company’s research, and he sees it as a direct response to the proliferation of screens.

“The positive behaviors and emotions human engagement elicits — think the joy of a massage. Now education, health care stores, everyone, is starting to look at how to make experiences human,” Mr. Pedraza said. “The human is very important right now.”

This is a swift change. Since the 1980s personal computer boom, having technology at home and on your person had been a sign of wealth and power. Early adopters with disposable income rushed to get the newest gadgets and show them off. The first Apple Mac shipped in 1984 and cost about $2,500 (in today’s dollars, $6,000). Now the very best Chromebook laptop, according to Wirecutter, a New York Times-owned product reviews site, costs $470.

“Pagers were important to have because it was a signal that you were an important, busy person,” said Joseph Nunes, chairman of the marketing department at the University of Southern California, who specializes in status marketing.

Today, he said, the opposite is true: “If you’re truly at the top of the hierarchy, you don’t have to answer to anyone. They have to answer to you.”

The joy — at least at first — of the internet revolution was its democratic nature. Facebook is the same Facebook whether you are rich or poor. Gmail is the same Gmail. And it’s all free. There is something mass market and unappealing about that. And as studies show that time on these advertisement-support platforms is unhealthy, it all starts to seem déclassé, like drinking soda or smoking cigarettes, which wealthy people do less than poor people.

The wealthy can afford to opt out of having their data and their attention sold as a product. The poor and middle class don’t have the same kind of resources to make that happen.

Screen exposure starts young. And children who spent more than two hours a day looking at a screen got lower scores on thinking and language tests, according to early results of a landmark study on brain development of more than 11,000 children that the National Institutes of Health is supporting. Most disturbingly, the study is finding that the brains of children who spend a lot of time on screens are different. For some kids, there is premature thinning of their cerebral cortex. In adults, one study found an association between screen time and depression.

A toddler who learns to build with virtual blocks in an iPad game gains no ability to build with actual blocks, according to Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital and a lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines on screen time.

In small towns around Wichita, Kan., in a state where school budgets have been so tight that the State Supreme Court ruled them inadequate, classes have been replaced by software, much of the academic day now spent in silence on a laptop. In Utah, thousands of children do a brief, state-provided preschool program at home via laptop.

Tech companies worked hard to get public schools to buy into programs that required schools to have one laptop per student, arguing that it would better prepare children for their screen-based future. But this idea isn’t how the people who actually build the screen-based future raise their own children.

In Silicon Valley, time on screens is increasingly seen as unhealthy. Here, the popular elementary school is the local Waldorf School, which promises a back-to-nature, nearly screen-free education.

So as wealthy kids are growing up with less screen time, poor kids are growing up with more. How comfortable someone is with human engagement could become a new class marker.

Human contact is, of course, not exactly like organic food or a Birkin bag. But with screen time, there has been a concerted effort on the part of Silicon Valley behemoths to confuse the public. The poor and the middle class are told that screens are good and important for them and their children. There are fleets of psychologists and neuroscientists on staff at big tech companies working to hook eyes and minds to the screen as fast as possible and for as long as possible.

And so human contact is rare.

“But the holdup is this: Not everyone wants it, unlike other kinds of luxury products,” said Sherry Turkle, professor of the social studies of science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“They flee to what they know, to screens,” Ms. Turkle said. “It’s like fleeing to fast food.”

Just as skipping fast food is harder when it’s the only restaurant offering in town, separating from screens is harder for the poor and middle class. Even if someone is determined to be offline, that is often not possible.

Coach seat backs have screen ads autoplaying. Public school parents might not want their kids learning on screens, but that is not an option when many classes are now built on one-to-one laptop programs. There is a small movement to pass a “right to disconnect” bill, which would allow workers to turn their phones off, but for now a worker can be punished for going offline and not being available.

There is also the reality that in our culture of increasing isolation, in which so many of the traditional gathering places and social structures have disappeared, screens are filling a crucial void.

Many enrolled in the avatar program at Element Care were failed by the humans around them or never had a community in the first place, and they became isolated, said Cely Rosario, the occupational therapist who frequently checks in on participants. Poor communities have seen their social fabric fray the most, she said.

The technology behind Sox, the Care.Coach cat keeping an eye on Mr. Langlois in Lowell, is quite simple: a Samsung Galaxy Tab E tablet with an ultrawide-angle fisheye lens attached to the front. None of the people operating the avatars are in the United States; they mostly work in the Philippines and Latin America.

The Care.Coach office is a warrenlike space above a massage parlor in Millbrae, Calif., on the edge of Silicon Valley. Victor Wang, the 31-year-old founder and chief executive, opens the door, and as he’s walking in he tells me that they just stopped a suicide. Patients often say they want to die, he said, and the avatar is trained to then ask if they have an actual plan of how to do it, and that patient did.

The voice is whatever the latest Android text-to-speech reader is. Mr. Wang said people can form a bond very easily with anything that talks with them. “Between a semi-lifelike thing and a tetrahedron with eyeballs, there’s no real difference in terms of building a relationship,” he said.

Mr. Wang knows how attached patients become to the avatars, and he said he has stopped health groups that want to roll out large pilots without a clear plan, since it is very painful to take away the avatars once they are given. But he does not try to limit the emotional connection between patient and avatar.

“If they say, ‘I love you,’ we’ll say it back,” he said. “With some of our clients, we’ll say it first if we know they like hearing it.”

Early results have been positive. In Lowell’s first small pilot, patients with avatars needed fewer nursing visits, went to the emergency room less often and felt less lonely. One patient who had frequently gone to the emergency room for social support largely stopped when her avatar arrived, saving the health care program an estimated $90,000.

Humana, one of the country’s largest health insurers, has begun using Care.Coach avatars.

For a sense of where things could be headed, look to the town of Fremont, Calif. There, a tablet on a motorized stand recently rolled into a hospital room, and a doctor on a video feed told a patient, Ernest Quintana, 78, that he was dying.

Back in Lowell, Sox has fallen asleep, which means her eyes are closed and a command center somewhere around the world has tuned into other seniors and other conversations. Mr. Langlois’s wife wants a digital pet, and his friends do too, but this Sox is his own. He strokes her head on the screen to wake her up.

↗️ Meet Zora, the Robot Caregiver

This robot is at the center of an experiment in France to change care for elderly patients.

Posted in Fun

Offshore Lease Bids Double in One Year

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who think this is good news, and those who think it’s NOT good news.

From the Houston Chronicle <https://www.houstonchronicle.com/business/energy/article/Interior-reports-offshore-lease-sale-doubled-from-13704232.php?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=HC_AfternoonReport&utm_term=news&utm_content=headlines>

Business // Energy

Interior reports offshore lease sale doubled from 2018

Photo of James Osborne
James Osborne March 21, 2019 Updated: March 21, 2019 10:29 a.m.

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Shell’s largest floating platform in the Gulf of Mexico, the Appomattox, trekked from Ingleside in May 2018 to its location 80 miles off the southeastern coast of Louisiana.

WASHINGTON – Oil companies are piling into the Gulf of Mexico once again, according to federal leasing data.

An offshore lease sale held in New Orleans Wednesday drew $244.3 million in winning bids, almost double what a similar lease sale in March 2018 drew.

“Today’s lease sale shows strong bidding by established companies, which indicates that the Gulf of Mexico will continue to be a leading energy source for our nation long into the future,” Interior Assistant Secretary Joe Balash said in a statement.

GULF REVIVAL: The winners and losers of Big Oil’s offshore spending revival

After years in the doldrums, oil prices have stabilized over the last 12 months. West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. benchmark, was trading for $59.09 a barrel on Monday, a few dollars down from the same time last year but up from less than $40 per barrel in 2016.

After recording less than $130 million in winning bids at a lease sale last March, the Interior Department recorded almost $180 million in high bids at an auction in August.

Photo of James Osborne

James Osborne

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James Osborne covers the intersection of energy and politics from the Houston Chronicle’s bureau in Washington D.C. Before arriving at the Chronicle in 2016, he spent three years covering Texas’s energy sector for the Dallas Morning News, where he chronicled the hydraulic fracturing boom, the rise of the wind and solar industries and how technology is changing the ways we produce and consume energy. James’s work has appeared in publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, Time and Fox News.

Posted in Fun

Never Home Alone – your household biodiversity

[A message from David Duthie, the former public information officer for the Ramsar Convention (wetlands conservation) — if he says this is a worthwhile book — it is.

BP]

Dear BIOPLANNERS,

Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity all commit, in Article 6a, to developing a “strategy and action plan” for their national biodiversity and also, in Article 6b, to mainstreaming that strategy and action plan into other landscape or economic sectors.

“Never Home Alone”, authored by Rob Dunn and recently released by Basic Books, and reviewed (twice) below, demonstrates that within our own homes – homes, not even gardens! – we could have literally hundreds of “housemates” for which you could develop a household strategy and action plan that goes beyond a “scorched earth” chemical attack.

My copy of the book is still in the post, but the two reviews below give a good flavour of the book and the real enthusiasm with which Rob has developed his “niche”, looking at the biodiversity in and immediately around us.

I found the thought experiment of making my house more biodiversity-friendly using some of the normal “ingredients” of a national biodiversity strategy and action plan (PAs, invasive policy, waste management, etc.) quite interesting and I think that Rob would probably give my house a pretty good score as it is – and brought back memories of the cane toad living behind the toilet of our shack when I was a conservation volunteer in Costa Rica (where cane toad is native) a long time ago!

Best wishes

David Duthie

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Bioplan is a list server run jointly by UNDP and UNEP. To join / leave bioplan, email: bioplan with “subscribe” or “unsubscribe” in the subject line. Please note: If you wish to reply to the sender only you must create a new message addressed only to that individual, or forward the message to that individual. Using the “reply” or “reply all” option delivers your response to list administrator.
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Moths, maggots and microbes: our 5,000 creepy-crawlie housemates – and the man who loves to hunt them

Biologist Rob Dunn is the David Attenborough of the domestic sphere, uncovering everything from microbes in the shower to spiders in the basement. He goes on safari in the dusty corners of one Copenhagen home

Lars Eriksen

Thu 28 Feb 2019

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/28/pests-homes-spider-man-bug-biolgist-5000-species

The good news is that I will never be home alone again. The bad news – well, it’s not in fact bad news, but it is slightly unsettling – is that I share my home with at least 5,000 other species: wasps, flies, spiders, silverfish and an exotic bunch of wild bacteria.

All that information is apparently contained in a patch of grey dust I have just swabbed with my right index finger from a door frame in my living room. It’s like a DNA test of my house, says Rob Dunn, a 43-year-old American biologist who has come to my house in Copenhagen to hunt microbial life. He carries no lab gear and his blue crewneck jumper and striped Oxford shirt are hardly the combat suit of an exterminator. But with every discovery we make, with every spider we find lurking in the corner or each swab of dust, he displays an almost childlike sense of excitement. He swears and smiles, even whoops with delight: “This dust sample contains bacteria, your body microbes, your wife’s body microbes, your child’s body microbes. If you smoke weed we would find marijuana DNA in there. Everything is visible, but it’s also present in every breath. Every time you inhale, you inhale that story of your home.”

Dunn is to house insects and indoor bacteria what Marie Kondo is to neatly folded shirts. He wants us to study the wildlife in our homes and realise that what we discover should spark much more joy than fear. When he began working as a biologist he went to the jungle to study wild beasts, but now his research is dedicated to species much closer to home: to the flies, spiders and bacteria hidden in every nook and cranny of our kitchens, bathrooms and basements. To the “jungle of everyday life”, as he describes it in his new book.

Never Home Alone tracks how we have been disconnected from the ecosystems of our homes. It’s a book of hard truths – I now know that I shed 50m flakes of skin every day, providing food for thousands of bacteria, and that cockroaches are basically our perfect interspecies Tinder-match. It also confronts our irrational relationship with cleanliness. Our modern instinct might be to swat a spider on the kitchen worktop or blitz creepy crawlies into oblivion with antimicrobial sprays, but we could be killing useful allies, according to Dunn: “The key thing is that your life is going to be full of life. And your only choice is which life. Our default is that we try to kill everything and fill our houses with stuff that’s totally terrible for us. We might kill 99%, but that leaves 1% – and that 1% is never the good stuff.”

Dunn is in Copenhagen for work and has agreed to come to my home to go through dusty corners and spider webs to point out where I might find some of the 5,000 species I bunk with. I suspect our 110-year-old house, shared with another family, is a fertile hunting ground, and Dunn seems optimistic. Using a screwdriver and tweezers, he pokes at light fittings and sifts through the basement, which can be a mould-friendly hangout during sticky, wet summers.

While I’m making coffee, Dunn lets out a yelp: “Oh yes, this is good!” He has spotted a globe-shaped lamp hanging in the basement hallway, and in the bottom of the hazy glass cover is a Pollockesque pattern of dead wildlife. He tips the contents of the lamp on to a fold-out table and uses the tweezers to organise the harvest: two types of fly, a wasp, a meal moth, some aphids and various planthoppers. He takes a closer look at two of the dead flies: “I can tell they are likely to be the same species, but I don’t know for sure until I look at their genitals.”

He turns to the silver-shiny meal moth. “Isn’t it just beautiful? It moved in with humans in ancient Egypt and has moved with humans again and again.”But how would it have ended up in our home?“

This meal moth could have come in with grains.”

Like from a box of cereal?

“Yes!”

Dunn wants us to see our homes the way we see our gardens. There are pests and pathogens we need to control – those that make us sick – but we also want to preserve diversity. He says fewer than 100 species of bacteria, protists and viruses cause nearly all infectious diseases today. We try to keep these in check with vaccinations and antibiotics, and by washing our hands. But that leaves us with a jungle of tens of thousands of other species, many of which we know little about, but which Dunn’s work suggests can often be more beneficial than harmful. For example, studies have shown that a higher diversity of bacteria on people’s skin – bacteria linked to soil and plants – can reduce the risk of allergies. He also mentions the discovery of a bug that could be a new source of useful enzymes:by testing the microbes in the gut of the camel cricket, found in many American homes, Dunn’s research team discovered bacteria that were able to break down industrial waste and turn it into energy. Making “cool discoveries” like this and enlisting the public to sieve through their homes for wildlife has spurred interest in a field he says has been neglected for too long.

“The first drawings of microscopic life are all of household species,” says Dunn, “but once we figured out the germ theory of disease it shifted, and both scientists and the public started to think that what was indoors belonged to pest control. Ecologists went to the Galapagos, we went to the rainforest, but it pushed us away from the home and it left us with this huge blind spot.”

Dunn grew up in rural Michigan, hunting snakes and turtles, building tree forts and being “more curious about nature than your average child”. Today, he is a professor in the department of biological sciences at North Carolina State University, where he has spent the past decade involving his colleagues and the public in studying the microbial landscape of our bodies and our homes. Part of the thrill of his new book is the sense of discovery and engagement with the world outside the lab. We head deeper into the basement, to the water-heating system, where one of the pipes has a leak; water drips into a chalk-crusted yellow bowl. Dunn grabs the bowl and tips it on to its side so we can see the puddle: “You could start a sourdough loaf with this.” The water heater is an example, he says, of the extreme conditions we create in our houses. These specific ones are similar to what you might find in an Icelandic geyser, which means that our basement heating system now attracts bacteria that would normally thrive in volcanic hot springs. He moves on to a sprawling mess on the wall next to the boiler. “That’s a lovely spider web,” he says excitedly. I feel a strange sense of pride and relief that my lack of cleaning is potentially boosting the ecosystem I inhabit. “This kind of spider is super-common in houses and can live for many, many years. This can grow up with your kid.”

I’m not sure I’m ready for an in-house pet spider, but while our natural inclination might be to shriek or stamp them out, Dunn wants us to protect them. “The natural enemies of the pests in our homes are very often, whether you like it or not, spiders,” he writes in Never Home Alone: “If you kill the spiders in your home (and this is precisely what we do with many kinds of pesticide applications), you do so at your own expense.”

The curse of pesticides brings us to the bathroom and another key area of his research: shower heads. Dunn and his team asked people from across the US and Europe to send in swabs from their shower heads. And within the biofilm – “a fancy word for the gunk” that builds up inside them – they discovered a pathogen, non-tuberculous mycobacteria (NTM), that is linked to lung disease in people with weak immune systems. What they didn’t know was why this pathogen seemed more prevalent in some regions than others. “There was more of the NTM in the US and in particular in chlorinated water,” says Dunn. They came to the conclusion that “residual chlorine kills all the competing bacteria and just leaves the NTM, which are chlorine-intolerant.” And when the competition is eliminated, the pathogens thrive.

He unscrews the shower head from the hose and runs his finger along the rubber fitting. There is very little biofilm-gunk, which he credits to the quality of the local water supply. “Most of Copenhagen still has untreated groundwater that relies on the wild biodiversity of crustaceans and bacteria to clean it. But if you break that – like we do in the US – it’s super-expensive to fix it and it sucks. And it makes you sick.”

Crustaceans?

“Yes, in some cases you can encounter small crustaceans in the tap water here. Denmark tastes like biodiversity.”

We continue through the living room and kitchen. He pulls a book from the shelf to test for book lice, and picks up a log of firewood that has a spidery, grey pattern of reindeer lichen growing on the bark. In the kitchen he checks the dishwasher soaptray for a particular form of bacteria that is otherwise only found “in the faeces of tropical fruit bats”. Even our salt jar is apparently full of life: “Almost every crystal of salt has bacteria inside, and when you brine something in salt, those bacteria contribute to the flavours of the brine. The longer it sits in the brine, the more the microbes in the brine are going to contribute to it. Isn’t that cool?”

Food is an area where Dunn has found the influence of microbes and bacteria to be more palatable to people he meets. Food is alive – whether it’s sourdough bread, kimchi or beer – and we are cool with that. Much more so than with the spider crawling across our windowsill. Dunn describes a study of how specific microbes found on bakers’ skin influence sourdough starters and the flavour of bread. His team gathered 15 bakers at a facility in Belgium and tasked each of them with making sourdough starters from identical ingredients. When they tested the bakers’ hands afterwards, it showed a close relationship between the microbial makeup of each starter and the bacteria found on the skin of the baker who made it. In his book Dunn describes how the bakers and biologists, drunk on spontaneously fermented Belgian beer, tucked into the breads and broke into an impromptu toast: “‘To bread, and to microbes!’ And to a house in which both are delicious. ‘To bread and to microbes!’ And houses in which we are all healthy. ‘To bread and to microbes!’ And to lives filled with wild species we have yet to study or understand, species that float like mysteries all around us and offer services we are only beginning to measure.”

Our house tour and inspection has come to an end. I’m curious about the professor’s verdict. Is this a happy, fungi-rich, insect-thriving home? “You have a lot of species that I think of as being part of a healthy house,” Dunn says. “To me, your house is rich in biodiversity and seems dominated by those things that you either shouldn’t worry about, or that are beneficial. Also, I don’t see antimicrobial products all over the place.”

He points to the leftovers of a coffee kombucha-glazed Danish pastry we were eating earlier. “And then you have things that spark joy for you: fermented pastries, salt that’s alive and healthy water from Denmark that we know is alive.”

Whether we like it or not, the species living in our homes are a measure of our lives, says Dunn, and his biggest fear is that we risk killing off that biodiversity. “If spiders scare the hell out of you, but you are willing to have one living in the corner, and maybe approach it sometimes to keep an eye on it, then that’s great. That’s much better than if your response is to jump away from it and spray pesticides all over your home, because that will only favour species that cause us harm and are resistant to pesticides. But it’s not easy. This book won’t solve [the problem], but maybe it will open some new conversations.”

As he says goodbye and walks down the garden path, I spot a tiny moth in our living room, flapping frantically in the corner. I don’t freak out or necessarily feel any great joy, but I leave the moth be. After all, there are 5,000 of us here, and you need to give your housemates some privacy.

Never Home Alone by Rob Dunn is published in the UK by Basic Books (£22.99) on 14 March

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A Book That Will Make You Terrified of Your Own House

By Robin Marantz Henig

Dec. 31, 2018

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/31/books/review/rob-dunn-never-home-alone.html

NEVER HOME ALONE: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live

By Rob Dunn

A young man I know used to say that humans have no need to bathe, since our hair and bodies are designed to self-cleanse. I would fight him on it, being of the opinion that washing up occasionally was good for us — and for the people with whom we lived. But now, after reading the entomologist Rob Dunn’s description of the myriad microbial life-forms that take up residence in a typical American showerhead, I’m starting to think maybe that young man was onto something.

With an army of collaborators, Dunn, a professor of applied ecology at North Carolina State University, took samples of the gunk inside hundreds of showerheads, and found a profusion of microbial fauna. Tap water itself, he writes in the chatty, informative “Never Home Alone,” teems with amoebas, bacteria, nematodes and crustaceans. As the water passes through the showerhead, these microbes lay down a kind of scaffolding known as biofilm to protect themselves from getting washed away with every ablution. They make the biofilm “out of their own excretions,” Dunn writes bluntly. “In essence, by working together, the bacteria poop a little indestructible condominium in your pipes.”

It gets worse. Filtered through that poop-biofilm, the water that washes over you, as you supposedly scrub yourself clean, might contain not only all those harmless amoebas and nematodes but a few bacteria that can be dangerous — in particular some species of Mycobacterium, cousins of the Mycobacterium that causes tuberculosis. And the pathogens are there because we provided the perfect breeding ground for them, when we tried to purify our tap water in the first place. Municipal water treatment plants use chlorine and other chemicals that kill off the bacterium’s natural predators, allowing Mycobacterium to thrive. Tap water that comes from a well, in contrast, has never gone through a treatment plant and has a rich microbial life. It might look more dangerous, but it’s actually safer, Dunn explains. All those organisms in well water are themselves harmless, and they tend to fight off the potentially dangerous ones like Mycobacterium — that’s how biodiversity works.

News from the showerhead biome is just one part of this fact-filled, occasionally disgusting, slightly alarming book. Dunn has been involved in an obsessive quest to document the tiny inhabitants of indoor environments, a project that involves teams of professional and amateur bug-watchers to take samples not only from showerheads but from door frames, refrigerators, hot water heaters, cellars, toilets, pillowcases, all sorts of surfaces from the places we call home. These workers swab and seal, swab and seal, and send their thousands of samples to Dunn’s lab in Raleigh, or to his other lab at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, for an ongoing microbial census.

“We expected to find a few hundred species,” Dunn writes of his first foray into indoor microbe-hunting, which involved 1,000 homes from around the world. Instead, he and his colleagues found a “floating, leaping, crawling circus of thousands of species,” perhaps as many as 200,000, many of them previously unknown to science.

These denizens of interior spaces are our most frequent companions. In the industrialized world, we spend upward of 90 percent of our time indoors. Luckily, most of our co-habitators are either benign or actually beneficial in some way, like the house spiders that keep down indoor populations of flies or mosquitoes that can carry disease. But because we’ve become so hyper about making our surroundings as pristine as possible — sealing off our homes from the outdoors and using pesticides and antimicrobials with a vengeance — we’ve tipped the scales away from those harmless or helpful bugs, in favor of some of the bad guys.

According to Dunn, indoor microbes are among the fastest-evolving species on the planet; they have an uncanny ability to live in ecological niches you could hardly imagine existing, like the dead skin cells we slough off every day (which is all that’s needed to survive for a class of bacteria known as detritivores).

They manage to evade our assaults, and evolve their way out of just about every biocide we throw at them. We’re left to contend with the consequences of our own warfare, such as pesticide-resistant German cockroaches and bedbugs, and antibiotic-resistant MRSA bacteria. We have turned a relatively harmless indoor biome into something that can make us sick.

That’s the take-home message of “Never Home Alone,” that the richer the biodiversity in our indoor environment, the better. “The biodiversity of plants and soil can help our immune systems function properly,” Dunn writes. “The biodiversity in our water systems can help keep pathogens in the water in check. … The biodiversity of spiders, parasitoid wasps and centipedes can help control pests. The biodiversity in our houses provides the opportunity, too, for the discovery of enzymes, genes and species useful to all of us, whether to make new kinds of beers or to transform waste into energy.”

I’m not quite as enamored of our microbial roommates as the author is. (I’m sorry, Professor Dunn, but I’m just being honest here: Those photos of the camel cricket and the American grass spider clinging to basement pipes and door thresholds — well, yuck.) It probably takes the soul of an entomologist, or maybe of a 9-year-old child, to love these bugs as much as Dunn does. Still, it’s hard not to be occasionally charmed by his prose, as when he catalogs the arthropods with whom we share our homes: “biting midges, mosquitoes, lesser house flies, phantom midges, freeloader flies and shore flies. This is not to mention fungus gnats, moth flies and flesh flies. Or crane flies, winter crane flies and minute black scavenger flies.” And it’s hard not to share, at least a little, his awe at their diversity, even in a single household. “If you see two flies in your home,” he writes, “the odds are that they are two different species. Heck, if you see 10 flies in your house, they are likely to be five different species.”

And don’t even get him started on the aphids. He’s amazed by them, as he is by “the wasps that lay their eggs in the bodies of aphids as well as the wasps that lay their eggs in the bodies of the wasps that lay their eggs in the bodies of aphids.”

There’s a real sense of “gee-whiz” in this book, but it’s mostly in service of Dunn’s overarching goal: to preach the preservation of biodiversity, not only in the lush forests and streams that fit our traditional image of nature’s abundance, but in the most humble places, too, where the vast majority of us will have most of our cross-species encounters — our basements, mattresses, refrigerator drawers and showerheads.

About those showerheads: Dunn isn’t suggesting that we give up showers. But he does say we might want to change the showerhead a little more often — and consider switching from metal to plastic, where biofilm is less likely to accumulate. Nonetheless, his bottom line for showerheads is like his bottom line for other aspects of the roiling microbial mix we live in: Don’t be afraid of letting life inside. “The water that is healthiest for bathing is that which comes from aquifers rich with underground biodiversity including crustaceans,” he writes. “The crustaceans in these aquifers are an indication not of the dirtiness of the water but of its health.”

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Robin Marantz Henig is a New York science journalist whose books include “The Monk in the Garden: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel.”

Posted in Fun

Gizmodo: Arctic to Warm 15º by 2100

From Gizmodo <https://earther.gizmodo.com/the-arctic-is-on-track-to-warm-over-15-degrees-this-cen-1833288900> ——

Climate change

The Arctic Is on Track to Warm Over 15 Degrees This Century Even If We Meet the Paris Agreement Pledges

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Brian Kahn
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Photo: Getty

A new report from the United Nations shows that it’s basically game over for the Arctic as we know it.

Even if carbon pollution magically stopped tomorrow, the region’s winters would still warm an astonishing 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) by century’s end. Meeting the Paris Agreement pledges—which do not get us to the two degree warming goal—would lead to that level of warming by midcentury and up to 9 degrees Celsius (16.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100, along the way unraveling one of the most fragile ecosystems on the planet and displacing people who have done very little to cause the disruption.

The report was released on Tuesday at a meeting of the United Nations Environment Program. The synthesis pulls together recent research and puts it all in one terrifying graphic-driven document. The litany of changes that have already occurred is unsettling, but the real shock is in what could come next.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe, which translates to dramatic change. Sea ice extent, which has shrunk about 40 percent since regular satellite monitoring began in 1979, could reach zero percent in summer as early as the 2030s. Old, thick sea ice will likely be gone even sooner. Permafrost, frozen ground full of carbon, could thaw out and destroy a third of all the infrastructure in the Arctic (and also release deadly strains of anthrax). Rising temperatures could also unleash a host of other infectious diseases like Lyme disease, which is already on the rise in Canada.

“Insects like mosquitoes and ticks have the potential to connect the Arctic and tropics,” the authors write, which sounds like the sequel to Contagion.

The cruel irony of this is that like their small island counterparts, the 4 million people living the Arctic have contributed precious little to the carbon pollution causing those dramatic changes. In the case of permafrost, its thaw could also hasten climate change along by releasing methane and carbon dioxide in a vicious feedback loop.

And all these bleak findings don’t even get into other issues like plastic pollution, heavy metal contamination, or ocean acidification, all of which are and will continue to compound the region’s woes. The report concedes that the best way forward for the region with little sway on carbon pollution is adapting to whatever changes are coming its way.

“Challenges can no longer be managed in isolation: a holistic, ecosystem-based approach that considers multiple drivers and cumulative pressures is needed,” the report said. “In the years and decades to come, adaptation that integrates and respects local knowledge and Indigenous knowledge will be vital to help Arctic societies address the coming challenges.”

And there is sure to be no shortage of them.

Posted in Fun

Get Girls Hiking

From High Country News — one of my favorite (weekly) newspapers <https://www.hcn.org/articles/hike-like-a-girl-to-close-outdoors-gender-gap?utm_source=wcn1&utm_medium=email>

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TrailPosse

The outdoors gender gap needs to be closed

Women’s tax dollars help fund public land – yet that public asset isn’t seen as safe for all people to enjoy.

Liz Thomas Opinion Essay May 10, 2016 Like Tweet Email Print

Women often wonder whether it is safe for them to hike solo. For me, the answer clearly is yes: I’ve hiked 8,000 miles by myself, pioneered routes in Utah and the Columbia River Gorge, and set an Appalachian Trail speed record. But others argue that in the eyes of a good chunk of women – heck, in the eyes of many people in this country – what I do is an exception.

Which makes me wonder: Since no one questions female pilots, police officers or professional athletes these days, why should hikers be any different?

The truth is, as the daughter of two conservative, middle-class parents, I grew up internalizing the idea, rooted in historic and cultural sexism, that walking solo is unsafe for women, whether in nature or in urban settings. For centuries, unaccompanied women frequently were attacked because women, for religious or cultural reasons, aren’t “supposed” to be out. That’s still true in many countries. Even in supposedly safe places that don’t hold such religious or cultural norms, like U.S. cities, women walking alone experience high rates of street harassment. For women, going into the outdoors sometimes is a confidence issue— the fear of being alone, paired with just the plain, old fear that everyone has going outdoors, whether because of four-legged critters or just the two-legged.

Liz Thomas treks through a Seattle neighborhood on an “urban thru-hike.”
Glenn Nelson/TrailPosse

The perception of the outdoors as “not a woman’s place” even has been reinforced by institutions charged with managing public lands. At its inception in 1916, the National Park Service listed park ranger jobs as “men’s only.” Things hadn’t changed much by 1967. With a line straight out of Mad Men, then Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall responded to a woman’s discrimination complaint by assuring the public that it was “our concern and affection for girls that prevents our saddling them with the full load of ranger duties.” Sporting airline-attendant inspired uniforms, so-called “rangerettes” were barred from law enforcement training and the ability to carry a gun until 1971. High Country News recently has published stories chronicling decades of sexual harassment and gender bias in the Park Service with a survey showing more than half of the female rangers and three-quarters of the female park police reporting on-the-job sexual harassment.

Despite the cultural taboos, I decided almost 10 years ago to backpack solo from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail. Those first few nights camping alone I was on such high alert that the U.S. Army Rangers, who use the trail to practice stealth travel skills, failed their mission. As they attempted to sneak past my lone hammock, I shined my headlamp on them. Dejected, the men disappeared into the woods, their training officer chastising them.

The more I hiked, the more I saw that, mile after mile, night after night, nothing bad happened. The vigilance that kept me up at night stirring with every sound quickly seemed unnecessary. My concerns about hiking solo were similar to those of a teenager learning to drive a car: Those first miles are exciting and scary, and then it becomes normal and routine. In fact, solo hiking and camping reinforced my sense that good things happen when going alone. I gained skills, bolstered my self-reliance, and observed and appreciated nature differently than when I hiked with men.

My story of discovery on the trail is not unique. Women have proven they can excel and can even surpass men in outdoor abilities, particularly during the past decade. Jennifer Pharr Davis was the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2012. Heather Anderson is the thru-hike record holder for unsupported treks of both the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails. Kristin Gates was the first female to solo hike the 1,000-mile-long Brooks Range in Alaska. Female outdoor adventurers have let their love of the mountains be their reward; their stories rarely get the traction (or, like their sports-athlete sisters, the sponsorship and funding) that male adventure athletes receive.

Still, while elite women are pushing the limits and shattering the glass ceiling, the message that hiking is safe and fun still hasn’t filtered down to your average elementary school girl.

That’s why I urge all women – especially younger women – to get outdoors during Hike Like a Girl Weekend, May 14-15. Whether you hike solo or with other women, the weekend is not only supposed to be fun, it also is meant as an act of defiance against norms that seem 100 years old yet persist today. It’s standing against every stereotype or micro-aggression ever foisted our way – from the women who are told “be safe” instead of “have fun,” to every company that designs women’s gear by shrinking-and-pinking men’s models, to the ranger who asks the solo female hiker, “Are you doing this all by yourself?” Women’s tax dollars also go to fund public land – yet we still live in a world where that public asset isn’t perceived as safe for all people to enjoy. Trees, rivers and mountains should be spaces that feel welcoming to everyone.

Knock on wood, but I’ve never had a problem while hiking alone. I also try to be smart about making sure conditions are right, doing research, and keeping a rational head.

While I’d like to believe my anecdotal evidence – female adventurers like me sharing stories that hiking solo is safe – will inspire other women to get outdoors, either by themselves or with a friend, real change happens when women go out and take that first step in the woods. The real empowering education and confidence comes from showing yourself that you can do something that previously seemed impossible. The experience becomes proof more powerful than any athlete’s testimony that hiking is safe and not a strange thing for a woman to do.

Hike Like a Girl Weekend doesn’t require you to go out and buy fancy gear. A pair of running shoes, polyester gym clothes and a school backpack will do. Bring water, snacks, a flashlight, sun protection and some extra layers. Bring friends or family, too, if you’d like. For just one day or just one weekend, try something completely off your radar – something that seems outside your limits – whether it’s going beyond your routine run, visiting a new park or trail or hiking solo for the first time. You may be surprised by what you learn. Like me, you may find yourself coming back to hike again.

Note: “Hike Like a Girl,” organized by Teresa Baker of African American National Parks Event, encourages females of all ages to walk or hike this weekend, May 14-15, and post about their experiences on social media with the hashtag, #HikeLAG.

Liz “Snorkel” Thomas is a Japanese American fast, light and long-distance hiker who held the unsupported speed record for the Appalachian Trail from 2011-15. She has completed the so-called “Triple Crown” of thru-hiking (Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails), and is vice-president of the American Long Distance Hiking Association, an ambassador for the American Hiking Society, the instructor for Backpacker Magazine’s online course, Thru-hiking 101, and author of the newly released, The Best Hikes on the Continental Divide Trail: Colorado. She writes about her adventures at www.eathomas.com and tweets at @eathomas.

Posted in Fun