Friday, September 15, 2023

How low will it go? Farmers worry over Mississippi River levels and fear repeat of last year's crop-transportation crisis

Towboats line the shore near Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio
flows into the Mississippi. (Photo by Chris Kenning, USA Today)
As the Midwest grain harvest nears, farmers are hoping for higher water levels on the Mississippi River. But as time goes on, that does not look likely, and farmers fear a repeat of last year's expensive crisis. "Last fall, drought led to about 40 days of critically low water in parts of the Mississippi that hadn't seen it in years –grounding barges, stalling traffic, blocking river ports at the height of harvest season and causing an estimated $20 billion in losses, according to AccuWeather," reports Chris Kenning of USA Today. "As this year's harvest approaches, the river is again on the decline."

How far the river will drop is uncertain, but "Mississippi water levels have been falling since June. The Ohio River, which usually has more volume than the Mississippi at their confluence, "dropped almost 10 feet in the last two weeks of August. Levels are predicted to fall farther in the coming weeks," Kenning writes. Margy Eckelkamp of Farm Journal reports, "Most notably, fewer barges are being connected to form a single unit. And barges are being loaded to lighter weight." Soy Transportation Coalition Executive Director Mike Steenhoek told Eckelkamp: "When you start diminishing both the depths that barges can sink to and the number of barges you can put together, that changes the economics of barge transportation, which certainly impacts our competitiveness. . . . It's a movie sequel that none of us wanted to watch."

"With 61% of the Midwest classified as abnormally dry or in drought as of late August, most of the Mississippi is expected to face low water in September that will most likely affect industry and navigation, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System," Kenning reports. "That's worrying farmers who ship grains such as soybeans on the river to New Orleans and, from there, around the globe – relying on lower costs that help keep it competitive for the global export market. They fear another year of backups and spiking costs that eat into profits."

The forecast doesn't look hopeful. David Welch, a National Weather Service hydrologist at the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center, told Kenning, "Right now, there's no rainfall in sight that will turn things around." Kenning notes that nearly 60% of U.S. grain exports use barges, which are "less expensive than trains, can each carry 70 semi-trucks worth of grain. Industry officials said it's a key reason U.S. soybeans are globally competitive. Last year, stymied barge traffic meant nearby granaries filled up, leaving some farmers scrambling for more expensive or distant storage options."

Using data and art, new study helps to determine how much people are willing to pay for improved watershed quality

Researchers used visual and textual descriptions when asking survey participants
about watershed quality. (University of Wisconsin illustration; click on it to enlarge)

How much are people willing to pay for a healthier watershed? More than researchers thought, a new study from the University of Wisconsin found. UW researchers teamed up with the Environmental Protection Agency to develop and use "a method to gauge the value of improvements in watersheds protected by the federal Clean Water Act. Their results, which surveyed thousands of residents of three major river watersheds in the United States, were published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences," reports Chris Barncard of UW News.

Daniel Phaneuf, a UW professor of agricultural and applied economics and an author of the new study, told Barncard, "From the perspective of economics, human well-being can be generated by a lot of different things. At a fundamental level, we're interested in measuring how much households are willing to trade off spending on other things in order to have better environmental quality."

To design practical research tools, study researchers worked with ecologists using data from 19,000 sites across three river basins— the Upper Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee rivers--their goal was to clearly "show" study participants what scientists meant by watershed "improvement." Phaneuf told Barncard: "We wanted this to be meaningful and understandable to everyone, so we didn't use technical terms like 'biological condition gradient.' We worked with ecologists and graphic artists to create ways to represent these differences in biodiversity and visual conditions and the sort of human activities — like boating, swimming or finishing — each level of the BCG may actually represent."

"Along with watershed maps, the researchers took visual and textual descriptions of the stepwise differences in levels of ecological integrity to a survey group of 2,000 households across the river basins, presenting each one with maps describing current conditions in watersheds both in their area and farther away and maps describing improvements from potential remediation projects in those areas," Barncard explains. "They asked an overarching question for each cleanup scenario: How much more would you be willing to pay in taxes every year — ranging from $20 to $750 — to make this improvement happen?"

The healthier the watershed improvements would be, the more residents were willing to pay. "Respondents were willing to pay about $300 annually for one-level improvements in BCG in a nearby watershed, pushing closer to $500 if the changes would meet a Level 2 designation—a swimmable waterway just one step away from a natural state," Barncard reports. Phaneuf told him: "That's not so much of a surprise. People put a lot of value on the watersheds they get to see and enjoy. What may be a surprise, though, is that people are willing to pay even when it's not in their backyard. That is something that the EPA is quite interested in."

The 'rock-and-roll president' may surprise you

Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter and Gregg Allman, Feb. 2, 1976.
(Photo by Jerome McClendon, Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Which president loved rock and roll the most? Bill Clinton? Barack Obama? Some say it was Jimmy Carter.

"Before Bill Clinton wailed on a saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show or Barack Obama invited Stevie Wonder and Prince for a private show at the White House, Jimmy Carter stood in a field, hands on his hips, clad in a T-shirt promoting the Allman Brothers Band's Win, Lose or Draw album," recalls Melissa Ruggieri for Oxford American. "It was July 1976, and Carter, feathered hair blowing in the wind, was gunning for the presidency. But there he was supporting a quintessential Southern rock band, one of his favorites, in front of the traveling national press corps."

Carter was an original diehard fan. Ruggieri writes, "Prior to a 1975 Allman Brothers benefit concert for Carter's campaign, the presidential hopeful introduced the band to a crowd in Rhode Island by remarking, 'Anybody who wants a president who doesn't like music like this, and who doesn't like people who make music like this, should just simply vote for another man,'" Ruggieri writes. "So much about this peanut farmer from teeny Plains, Georgia, was an anomaly from the start: Georgia had never produced a successful presidential candidate, and the humble Carter had never held a national office, making him a mystery to much of the country. . . . Publicly embracing the sweet and sour songs of a group of long-haired Southern firebrands wasn't a typical move for a politician.

"Maybe it wasn't apparent at the time, but Carter was positioning himself as the rock-and-roll president, the one history will remember as not only a connoisseur of the rock music of his home state, but also as a student of Bob Dylan's lyrics, a devotee of Willie Nelson's warble, an admirer of Aretha Franklin's searing soul, and a scholar of Dizzy Gillespie's mesmerizing bebop," Ruggieri writes. "While the Allmans and Carter shared an everlasting mutual affection, the band wasn't the only Southern mainstay to play at the White House. In 1978, the Atlanta Rhythm Section, the soft-rock toe-tappers 'Imaginary Lover' and 'So Into You,' performed at a cookout on the South Lawn. Johnny Cash and his family visited frequently."

"Carter's affiliation with musicians was never about a photo opportunity or a cynical underground ploy to court voters. . . . His allegiance was born out of devotion to the art," Ruggieri writes. "Carter, the Allmans, and others were small-town Southern men bringing their messages to the national stage. America took notice. . . . At the end of the Rock & Roll President documentary, Carter sits pensively in his home in Plains, circa 2018, while Lynyrd Skynyrd's 'Simple Man' plays in the background. It's a fitting coda. . . . 'Music,' he says, 'is the best proof that people have one thing in common.'"

Reflecting on the pandemic as Covid-19 comes back, Iowa editor writes: 'This is a lot for any nation to absorb'

Art Cullen
As U.S. pharmacies roll out updated Covid-19 booster vaccines, it might be a good time to look at how much the pandemic still alters daily life around the planet. The trauma and changes brought on by Covid-19 still cast a long shadow, Iowa editor Art Cullen writes for his Storm Lake Times Pilot.

"It's impossible to forget: I was on the phone one dank morning in the spring of 2020 with brother John, who lives just a block east. We were isolating at home, trying to figure out what to do with the newspaper. Should we just shut it down? . . . We decided we couldn't quit. . . . . We're okay now, but the thought of it still traumatizes me. . . . People were dying every week. Some businesses never came back.

"We're still living it. The latest iteration of Covid spreads as classes resume. The psychological trauma persists. Friendships eroded through isolation and political extremity. Eating habits changed from dine-in to carry-out. Church attendance dropped even farther. . . . Shocks to the food system continue to ripple. . . The pork and poultry industries are beset by trouble as supply chains work out the huge whipsaws of the past four years. Food prices have moderated but continue to fire inflation sparked by the pandemic shutdown.

Cullen writes that changes go well beyond the United States. "The pandemic rewired world trade. China is reeling. Brazil has become the most-favored soybean trader with Asia. . . . These are huge changes that have not been fully digested. . . . 

"This is a lot for any nation to absorb. We are still working through it. . . . Early polling that confirms a general angst over everything — call it the blues or clinical depression. . . . The pandemic casts a shadow over our personal lives, our communities and politics. Supply shocks, inflation, rewriting world trade, and unkinking food supply chain links all are moving parts in this complex machinery. . . . American resilience is amazing. Democracy and justice have prevailed so far," Cullen writes.

"Still, we are not post-pandemic. It colors everything. Gov. [Kim] Reynolds last week rejected the idea of any more lockdowns. 'My answer—not on my watch,' she said. Not that anybody in Iowa was actually suggesting another shutdown. It just shows how the trauma of it still animates us."

News-media roundup: Ark. sunshine; Okla. local-news study; week-long series on Neb. paper's role in community

Open-government advocates in Arkansas quashed efforts to carve large loopholes in the state's Freedom of Information Act, in a special session Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders called to do that and to make secret information about her security arrangements. The latter measure passed. Rejected were open-records exemptions for attorney-prepared documents and the "deliberative process" leading to "governmental decisions and policies" and attorney-prepared documents, and a change that would have "made it harder for people to recover legal fees for lawsuits filed under" the act, reports Neal Farley of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Another rejected bill "would have shielded 'records reflecting communications between the governor or his or her staff and the secretary of a cabinet-level department'." The outcome showed "the power of citizen action," writes longtime FOI leader Sonny Albarado, editor of the Arkansas Advocate.

Counties in study (To enlarge the map, click on it.)
"Oklahomans statewide primarily rely on social media and local word of mouth for local news," and "rarely subscribe to local newspapers," media and political-science professors say in a study report after interviewing 352 news consumers in seven diverse counties in the state. The study is the "first qualitative observational study of both news deserts and under-served metro communities statewide in Oklahoma," says the Oklahoma Media Center, a nonprofit that funded the work by Rosemary Avance, assistant professor in the media school at Oklahoma State University, and Allyson Shortle, associate professor of political science and co-founder of the University of Oklahoma’s Community Engagement and Experiments Lab. They say "Small-town residents express more trust in local news when a local person is in charge of it."

"Final edititon of the Norfolk Daily News," trumpeted the main headline in the Aug. 17 edition of the Nebraska paper. "Or is it?" a subhead teased. Under it Kent Warnecke wrote, "The primary role of a headline is to attract a reader’s attention. Chances are, the headline on this story did just that. To be clear, this is NOT the final edition of the Norfolk Daily News. The Daily News will be published tomorrow, next week and into the future. But that isn’t the case elsewhere in the nation, and, as a result, it’s not an exaggeration to say our freedom as citizens is at risk." The story was part of a week-long "Protect the Pillar" series, referring to the news media as the fourth pillar of democracy. One story noted the demise of 16 Nebraska newspapers since 2004. Looks like good material for National Newspaper Week, Oct. 1-7.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

How rural hospitals are fighting Medicare Advantage

Medicare Advantage plans may offer more benefits but also
have rules
that can limit patients' choices. (Anthem website)
St. Charles Health System in central Oregon has "threatened to cut ties with all Medicare Advantage plans next year, a move that would leave an estimated 26,000 local beneficiaries without access to a hospital less than 100 miles away," reports Nona Tepper for Modern Healthcare.

"A program intended to promote seamless and higher quality care has instead become a fragmented patchwork of administrative delays, denials and frustrations," St. Charles CEO Steve Gordon said in a news release last month.

Tepper reports, "Health systems nationwide appear to share Gordon's consternation, especially those similarly located in rural areas. Rural healthcare providers tend to be disproportionately affected by factors such as reimbursement cuts or denied and delayed payments from Medicare Advantage plans because Medicare enrollees make up most of their patient populations. Cutting off Medicare Advantage plans, or at least declaring that to be a possibility, is a response to the growing market power these carriers have, especially over rural providers.

According to Tepper, "Rural Medicare Advantage enrollment is growing faster than overall enrollment: Since 2010, the share of rural beneficiaries who choose private plans over the traditional program has more than quadrupled, to 40% from 11%, according to KFF survey results published this month.

"Among the 58 publicly known contract disputes between insurers and providers this year, 35—more than half—involved Medicare Advantage carriers, according to data compiled by FTI Consulting

"Most conflicts center on how health insurance companies do business more than on reimbursements, said FTI Consulting Managing Director Adam Broder."

Tepper reports: "At Aspirus Health, some Medicare Advantage insurers deny as many as 35% of claims, said Matthew Heywood, CEO of the Wausau, Wisconsin-based nonprofit health system. In response, the 17-hospital chain is renegotiating contracts to include provisions regarding prior authorizations and claims processing times, he said."

The public vs. private power battle revives as some Mainers, sick of poor service and reliability, push for a takeover

A worker inspects a Central Maine Power electricity corridor.
(Photo by Robert F. Bukaty, AP via The American Prospect)
In the 1930s and 1940s, one of the greatest political battles at the state level was between investor-owned utilities and public power, which had as its best allies member-owned rural electric cooperatives. Now, the battle has been rejoined as customers of investor-owned utilities in one of the most rural states try to make them public. "Investor-owned utilities are hardly known for being adored by the public," reports Lee Harris of The American Prospect. "Even so, Maine has two of the least popular in the Northeast. For the past two years, Maine's two privately owned utilities, Versant Power and Central Maine Power, have ranked last in a customer satisfaction survey evaluating utilities' performance in the Eastern United States." (Of note, the ratings for rural electric cooperatives are dominated by large co-ops near cities, suggesting that data on smaller co-ops was too limited to rank them.)

Buying a private electric utility is complicated; however, some communities have succeeded. "Winter Park, Florida, formed a public power utility in 2005, after 69 percent of residents voted in favor of the plan. Since then, it has laid the majority of its electric lines underground, strengthening storm resiliency," Lee explains. "But other cities have struggled to pull off similar de-privatization. Boulder, Colorado, recently gave up on its decade-long struggle to take over its private utility. Maine Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, vetoed a similar utility buyout plan in 2021, after the legislature approved a bill that would have taken the proposal to Maine voters."

Enmax and Avangrid have "poured millions into a campaign to prevent Pine Tree Power's proposed takeover," Lee writes. The initiative also faces union resistance. "Workers' biggest concern is that the PTP initiative would cause them to be classified as public employees, potentially weakening the union. Since the 2018 Supreme Court ruling in Janus, public employees have not been required to pay dues to unions representing them, even when the union bargains on their behalf."

Hardrock mining companies pay 'a pittance' for minerals mined from public lands. Some say taxpayers need more.

A copper mine shaft 1,100 feet below the surface near
Superior, Ariz. (Photo by Tamir Kalifa, The New York Times)
Since 1872, mining companies have taken stores of gold and other metals from public lands without paying royalty fees to the federal government. The Biden administration says lawmakers need to "fix the Gold Rush-era General Mining Law so it can better manage the mineral resources buried under millions of acres of public land," reports Lisa Friedman of The New York Times. "A top priority: require companies to pay something in exchange for what they take. Unlike companies that extract oil, gas and coal from federal lands, hardrock miners pay no royalties to the federal government."

Initial plans suggest a 4 to 8 percent fee of the net value of mined materials, which "could translate into as much as $97 million annually and drew sharp opposition from mining operators," Friedman writes. Tommy Beaudreau, the deputy secretary of the Interior Department, told Friedman: "The biggest takeaway from our report is that our 150-year-old-law, the 1872 mining law, needs to be reformed and brought into the 21st century."

Beaudreau heads up a "working group of officials across federal agencies who reviewed policies and regulations for hardrock mining," Friedman explains. "The group found the law did not do enough to steer mineral exploration away from sensitive resources or to promote 'early and meaningful' engagement with tribes or other affected communities. . . . And the law should require mining companies that take resources from public lands to pay something for that privilege. . . .The report stated, [the law] 'fails to provide the American taxpayer with any direct financial compensation for the value of hardrock minerals extracted from most publicly owned lands.'"

While mining operations pay state royalties and taxes, operators on federal land "only pay the U.S. government one-time claim processing fees totaling $60. Many companies also pay an annual $165 maintenance fee per site, according to the report," Friedman writes. Mining companies oppose the change. Rich Nolan, chief executive of the National Mining Association, told Friedman that the changes would "throw additional obstacles in the way of responsible domestic projects and would-be investment, forcing the U.S. to double-down on our already outsized import reliance from countries with questionable labor, safety and environmental practices."

Environmental groups praised the proposed change. Chris Wood, the president of Trout Unlimited, a conservation group, told Friedman, “It’s the only commodity produced off of our public lands where there is no tax or royalty." Friedman reports, "Wood added that money raised from federal royalties could help to clean up an estimated half a million abandoned mines scattered across the American West."

Most people have end-of-life wishes, but don't talk about it; planning for death is less likely in rural areas, study finds

St. David's Foundation graph; click on it to enlarge.
As America ages, more families face end-of-life decisions, and rural Americans are less likely to have their wishes known or followed by family members, reports Liz Carey of The Daily Yonder. "A new study found that while most people have end-of-life wishes, only a little over a third of them actually get them fulfilled. That is even more true with rural residents, researchers said."

Researchers from St. David's Foundation in Texas found that when it comes to end-of-life care, most Texans want to die at home (76%) and not be a burden to their families (77%). "But only one in three people surveyed said their loved one's wishes were honored," Carey writes. "Of those who are least likely to have their end-of-life wishes followed are rural residents, the study found. . . . Only 37% of the survey respondents said their loved ones died at home. Close to half of them (47%) said their loved one faced challenges related to their care – from problems with insurance coverage to facing cultural or language barriers."

Honoring a person's wishes begins with knowing what they are. Andrew Levack, senior program officer with St. David's Foundation, told Carey: "One of the interesting things the study found was how few conversations respondents had with their doctors around plans for end of life. I think people have an idea of what they would like, but it takes some active planning and advocacy to make that happen."

Study researchers noted a common thread of disconnection across the state -- people have end-of-life care desires, but don't voice them. "Most Texans, even older adults, are unprepared for decisions about end-of-life care. The vast majority believe it is important to have their wishes in writing, yet over half have not done so. Similarly, many say they would like to discuss end-of-life planning with their health care provider if they were faced with a serious illness, yet only 17% have had a provider initiate a conversation about it."

Geographical isolation and a lack of health care access make rural populations more likely to not have end-of-life plans or discussions. Dr. Kate Tindell, medical director for Austin Palliative Care and Hospice, told Carey: "People have really disjointed health care now. We've sort of lost that sense that there is a captain of the medical ship who is aware of all the moving parts and is giving the patient that guidance. I think that really causes people to not have the kind of relationship that would allow them to have that kind of conversation (about end-of-life wishes) the way they would if they had seen the same provider every single time for 10 years."

October is for estate planning: Start thinking about it, get a free kit and 'plant the first seed'

Photo by Imso Gabriel, Unsplash
Each year, October is designated National Estate Planning Awareness Month, highlighting individuals' need to outline financial and inheritance plans alongside future health decisions. A person doesn't have to be rich to need an estate plan, and although planning may take a bit of time, many resources are free and, once completed, offer peace of mind for individuals and families.

The ETV Endowment of South Carolina website has free resources and encourages everyone to take time to "Plant the First Seed" of their plan: "It is estimated that more than 120 million Americans do not have proper estate plans to protect themselves or their families in the event of sickness, accidents or untimely death. This costs many families wasted dollars and hours of hardship each year that could be minimized with proper planning. . . . No matter your age or income, now is a great time to get started on your plans."

Many Public Broadcasting Service affiliates, public universities, colleges and Cooperative Extension Service offices offer free planning tools with online discussions, attorney guidance, resources and tips to make the process less intimidating. For people who like pen and paper, some PBS stations will mail an estate planning kit to homes for free. Most sites emphasize that you don't have to be wealthy to need a plan, and once completed, people are glad they took the time.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Goldman Sachs commits $100 million to help rural businesses raise capital and expand

Photo by Andrew Kelly, Reuters via ASBN
In a win for rural entrepreneurship, global investment leader Goldman Sachs has committed $100 million to help "rural small business owners raise capital and grow their enterprises" through its 10,000 Small Businesses initiative, reports Colin Velez of America's Small Business Network. "According to the Goldman Sachs website, the company plans to divide the new $100 million among three groups: community lenders funding rural small business owners will receive $75 million; community college courses hosted by the 10,000 Small Businesses organization will receive $15 million; local entrepreneurs will receive the remaining $10 million in the form of grants."

The rural initiative will launch in North Dakota and Arkansas.

The investment will seed entrepreneurship and business growth that addresses rural businesses' unique challenges and vital role in rural community economics and overall health. The release noted how a lack of capital prevents rural business owners from growing their businesses. It cites an "accompanying survey that found only 7% of rural entrepreneurs felt they received adequate support from non-government entities. Limited access to child care, healthcare and labor were also cited as obstacles to expansion," Velez writes. "Noting such individuals employ roughly 65% of their local workforces, the company argued that these conditions are also holding back economic growth."

Rural enterprises often struggle with investment dollars and are "naturally neglected by typical lenders and education institutions, as they represent a smaller portion of the national economy than competitors in more populous states," Velez reports. "If more entrepreneurs were to leverage private and government programs that prioritize small business growth in underserved areas, this could help reverse these tendencies and ultimately ensure wealth is distributed more evenly between different parts of the country." 

The loss of timber jobs left this county awash in poverty, violence and tree poaching

The Guardian illustration
Illegal tree harvesting is not ordinary in some parts, but it can become a person's primary source of income in lands where national parks and environmental concerns have ebbed out timbering employment. "Timber poaching exists at a confluence of this rural economic decline and environmental policy," reports Lyndsie Bourgon of The Guardian. "A number of poachers in Orick, California, detailed their motivations as an alchemy of poverty, lack of opportunity, drug misuse and resentment toward national parks, the federal government and environmentalists. . . . It's a snapshot of how rural communities across North America face de-industrialization, the ways they have failed to transition away from those dependent economies, and the people who remain rooted through the change."

Bourgon writes about Danny Garcia, a man who grew up in Orick, a Humbolt County town along California's Redwood Coast. Garcia was born into a beleaguered rural economy and became a tree poacher. Bourgon writes, "Redwoods National Park was instituted in the 1960s, then expanded in the 1970s, and in the late 20th century, the town was not spared from the Pacific north-west's timber wars. Orick's logging industry began to shrink, then all but disappeared as mills and lumber companies closed or moved." 

Alongside life in rural Orick, Garcia lived with the violence and trauma that often accompanies poverty. "By the early 1990s, Garcia's mother had died by suicide. His grandfather and many of his uncles were killed in logging accidents, traffic accidents and by drowning. Some spent time in prison; some used hard drugs. One of his aunts told me about the assaults she and her friends had experienced in the town from husbands, boyfriends, and other family members."

The sociologist Jennifer Sherman, a professor at Washington State University, studies unemployment's effects on rural communities in California and Washington. She told Bourgon, "Domestic violence is a huge part of my work. It seems to accompany poverty wherever poverty goes." Bourgon reports: "Humboldt leads California in violence against women; in particular, Indigenous women (close to 50% of Indigenous women in Humboldt are victims of domestic violence, according to Humboldt county domestic violence services). . . . Humboldt County averages 50% more domestic violence-related police calls per capita than the rest of California, and of those, close to half include a weapon."

Be prepared for the storms: Journalists must plan now to cover severe weather

Reporter Emily Foxhall works during Hurricane Harvey.
(Photo by Godofredo Vásquez,Houston Chronicle)
Environmental journalists covering weather disasters are having a hectic year. "New government data revealed that the U.S. has already experienced more billion-dollar weather disasters in 2023 than in any other year since authorities started tracking such data 40-plus years ago," reports Lydia O'Connor of HuffPost. "The catastrophes include 18 severe storms, two floods, a tropical cyclone, a winter storm and the deadly wildfire event that struck Maui last month." Reporting on weather disasters like these takes planning, reports Emily Foxhall for the Society of Environmental Journalists. Foxhall shares these tips:

Prepare supplies and food well ahead: My guiding principle for reporters in the field: Be prepared to rely on yourself for everything, as if you were spending a week camping.

Step one happens before disaster hits. Newsrooms need to organize go-bags for reporters with essential supplies. Reporters who will be assigned to disaster coverage should get stipends to purchase nonperishable food to last however long they will be there.

Some supplies I've found especially helpful include a power inverter to charge devices in your car, a flashlight or lantern with extra batteries, a first-aid kit, sunscreen and bug spray, quick-drying clothes, rain gear, waterproof bags for a phone and notebooks, thick-soled shoes to walk safely in debris-strewn floodwater — and lots of extra socks.

Make a reporting plan when the disaster looms. Meteorologists know when a hurricane is approaching, giving newsrooms time to plan. Other disasters might not have the same lead time. No matter how rushed you are, before leaving to cover any emergency, try to take the time to do the following:
  • Fill your gas tank.
  • Be sure your spare tire is full of air.
  • Charge devices and backup power banks.
  • Download Maps. Me for offline map access.

Talk with those in your newsroom about how they can help while you're on the scene reporting. While you're focused on the victims and the survivors, reporters in the newsroom can help you figure out where to go next or provide helpful context about a certain city or neighborhood where you're spending time.

Colleagues can also help by watching news conferences, quickly filing the necessary public information requests and finding you a safe place to stay (this could be with first responders early on; hotels will need to be booked quickly because they fill up after disasters). They might also pull needed context on how climate change affects what happened.

Know this will still be hard, and that's OK. Being ready will help make disaster coverage as smooth as it can be. I've found it's still important to give myself patience and grace when working through it.

By the time I covered Hurricane Laura in 2020, I thought I had all of this down. I'd covered several disasters by that point. I'd trained younger colleagues on how to cover hurricanes. I had my supplies ready. I knew contacts in the area who could help me get around flooded spots.

I still faced difficulties.

I'm glad to hear editors talk about prioritizing the well-being of reporters and how to support them through this type of work. If that conversation isn't happening in your newsroom, it may be time to get it started. Climate change is only making this kind of disaster coverage more necessary. We owe it to ourselves and our industry to be ready.

Flora and Fauna: Steer rides shotgun; beans are back; beavers inherit the world; this dog has a home

It's a Howdy Doody ride. (Washington Post snapshot)
Some things are just way too fun not to share -- like Howdy Doody. "Howdy Doody, (is) a 2,200-pound, 9-year-old Watusi-longhorn mix steer who's more doglike than fierce fighting bull," reports María Luisa Paúl of The Washington Post. "His owner, Lee Meyer, said Howdy Doody enjoys going on walks on a leash, getting treats and, yes, feeling the wind rush past his face when they go on rides. Howdy Doody also knows some commands, such as 'back up' and 'come here.'" Link to the delightful video.

Beans have made a comeback. "The chaotic availability of food during the pandemic, coupled with a growing interest in plant-based nutrition and home cooking, helped boost bean sales by as much as 400 percent in 2020," reports Shleby Vittek of Ambrook Research. "But even before the novel coronavirus started making headlines that March, causing people to panic-purchase shelf-stable grocery staples like beans, flour, and yeast, consumers were revealing a budding obsession with the humble legume."

Scientists say beavers are truly busy. (Mongabay photo)
"If humans went extinct tomorrow, who would rule the world? Beavers. Well, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. These tree-felling, water-slowing, wetland-creating rodent engineers have a massive impact wherever they live," reports Jeremy Hance of Mongabay. "Indeed, when it comes to their power over water flow," biologist Cory Mosby told Hance, "I'm not aware of another species that does this (save humans) on the scale that a beaver population can." Who else is watching beavers? NASA.

Not all bugs are good bugs. "Scientists are experimenting with new ways to kill the spotted lanternfly, a worrisome threat to plants such as wine grapes and beer hops," reports National Geographic. "Native to China, this striking, black-and-red planthopper showed up in the U.S. for the first time in 2014, perhaps stowed away on an international shipment of decorative stone bound for Berks County in eastern Pennsylvania. . . . The invasive species has damaged agricultural crops since its arrival."

Vanessa and her favorite human, Ellie
(Photo by Danielle Carter via the Post)
Some good news: "Vanessa, a senior pit bull, was dropped off at the Louisiana shelter in 2012 when she was a puppy, and her owners didn't want her anymore." The dog was finally adopted after 11 years at a shelter, reports Cathy Free of The Washington Post. Paramedic Ellie Mitchell saw Vanessa's picture and submitted her application to adopt. Now Vanessa has found her forever home.

Montana has long been a fly-fishing haven, but climate change, industry and over-fishing "along the state's rivers like the Big Hole appear to be contributing to alarmingly low numbers of the state's renowned rainbow and brown trout," reports Jim Robbins of The New York Times. "Clouds of insects no longer hover in such big swarms, and some key species, like the salmonfly, that are critical sources of food for fish are less abundant. . . .State biologists report that the numbers of brown and rainbow trout in the river have plummeted over the last seven years to historic lows, with strange maladies afflicting some of the most sought-after fish."

Rural election voting processes have improved since 2020; the election denial movement could pose a threat

As the country gears up for November voting as well as a future presidential election, experts are voicing concern over the election denial movement, which threatens to disrupt improvements in how votes are cast, counted and reported in rural America, reports Claire Carlson of The Daily Yonder. "Civics experts say rural communities have the most to lose from the pressures of the election denial movement. . . . Rural America already has lower voter turnout rates, which some researchers argue is due to inadequate election infrastructure. One 2022 study found that voting-by-mail restrictions hurt rural voters the most because there are fewer rural polling locations than urban ones, increasing the distance a person must travel to cast a vote."

U.S. voter engagement has trended steadily upward, "The 2020 presidential election saw the highest turnout in the 21st century with 66.8% of citizens age 18 or older casting a vote, according to the Census Bureau," Carlson writes. "Former President Donald Trump's unfounded attacks on the U.S. election system and the resulting election-denial movement put these gains in jeopardy."
La Plata County Clerk Tiffany Lee in the county elections
office (Photo by Ilana Newman via The Yonder)

The election-denier movement focuses its suspicion on rigged voting machines, for which the only antidote is  manual counts. Carlson reports, "[There are a] growing number of counties–rural, suburban, and urban–where election deniers have successfully urged local governments to recount election results or throw out electronic voting machines altogether." Justin Grimmer, a political science professor at Stanford University who studies election denialism, told Carlson, "We're at this period that I think should be being celebrated as a sort of high point of participation in American democracy." Carlson reports, "reversing improved election infrastructure – the use of equipment that more accurately counts votes and ensuring better access to voting through absentee and mail-in ballots, for example – could set back civic participation."

Carlson reports, "After Trump left office, the election denial movement morphed into a "core group of 'influencers. . . .These influencers have made it a full-time job traveling the country to spread the election denial movement's primary message: elections are being stolen, and it's the government's fault."

Charles H. Stewart, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published research earlier this year exploring election-denial roots. He told Carlson, "The thing that we're seeing in 2020 that we didn't see in 2016, or in 2012, or other times when these sorts of [election integrity] questions arose, is that we now have about a half-dozen of these traveling road shows." Carlson reports, "In La Plata County, Colorado, an influx of open records requests have poured in since 2020, challenging the county's election tools, including Dominion Voting Systems, an electronic voting hardware and software company, and mail-in ballots. The county has relied on mail-in ballots since 1992." La Plata County Clerk Tiffany Lee told Carlson: "What's happened to us is people from the outside and different organizations that don't have anything to do with our local communities are attacking us because ‘Oh my gosh, you have Dominion or you use mail ballots, and we don’t trust you.'"

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

U.S. consumers throw away 90 billion pounds of food a year; confusion over expiration dates is a big reason

Wall Street Journal graph, from ReFED Food Waste Monitor data
Food-safety people hate "best by" food labels because consumers mistakenly think once a product is past the date, it's longer safe to eat, which wastes tons of decent food, reports Josh Zumbrun in his opinion for The Wall Street Journal. "Food experts broadly agree that the expiration dates on every box of crackers, can of beans and bag of apples waste money, squander perfectly good food, needlessly clog landfills, spew methane and contribute to climate change." No oversight body regulates product "best by" labels. Martin Wiedmann, a professor of food safety and food science at Cornell University, told Zumbrun: "Those dates are not about safety, that's not why they're there, that's not what they're doing. . . For many foods, we could completely do away with it."

Most date labels on food don’t claim that anything is
expiring or unsafe. (Photo by Alexander Cohn, WSJ)
What are they for? "The dates originated as a coded system for manufacturers to communicate to retailers when to rotate stock," Zumbrun explains. "Consumers clamored for information on the freshness of food, and in the 1970s and 1980s consumer-facing dates became widespread, though never standardized. . . . Food manufacturers have tried, largely in vain, to explain that these are mostly general indicators of when food is at its peak quality. Most foods, properly stored, remain edible and safe long after their peak. . . . This misunderstanding is one reason Americans waste a colossal amount of perfectly good food. The Department of Agriculture has estimated that 31% of the available food supply goes uneaten. . . . Retailers discard 43 billion pounds of food annually, consumers a further 90 billion."

Andrew Harig, vice president at the Food Industry Association, a Washington trade group representing food retailers and producers, told Zumbrun, “It’s intended as a sort of consumer guide to be helpful. It’s just that it morphed into less of a guide and more of a rule, and that’s one of the challenges. Food technologists and food-safety people, they absolutely hate these labels.” Zumbrun reports, food-safety experts prefer using just two labels: "'Best if used by,' which indicates the product might not taste quite as good after that date but is still safe, and 'Use by' for those cases where the food might actually be unsafe, such as meat from the deli counter."

"U.S. consumers are wildly confused about the labels’ intent. In a 2019 paper, researchers at Johns Hopkins University and Harvard University found 84% of consumers threw out food at the package date 'at least occasionally' while 37% did so always or usually, though that wasn’t what most labels recommended. Over half thought date labeling was federally regulated, or were unsure," Zumbrun adds. "In fact, with the exception of infant formula, the labels aren’t federally mandated and the food isn’t unsafe. Safety concerns usually arise from food that is contaminated or improperly stored. If you care about food safety, Wiedmann advises you to ignore 'best by' dates and just set your refrigerator no higher than 37 degrees. Keeping food too warm is a real safety risk that has nothing to do with an expiration date."

As flood risk changes and homeowner's flood insurance premiums are recalculated, sticker shock is a sticking point

More accurate flood data has changed insurance rates.
(Photo by Kellly Sikkema, Unsplash)
As the Federal Emergency Management Agency recalculates national flood insurance premiums to include more accurate data, insuring property in places like Valley City, Illinois, which was recently underwater because of another flood from the Illinois River, may not be financially possible for some residents," reports Kery Murakami of Route Fifty. "After FEMA made changes to how it sets premiums for the 5 million policyholders in its National Flood Insurance Program, homeowners in Valley City, an area that's hit a major flood stage seven times since 2002, will be seeing a major jump in their premium to cover their damages. . . . Over roughly the next ten years, the 91 single-family homeowners in Pike County, where Valley City is located, will see their premiums rise six-fold from $699 to $4,933."

FEMA's new way of setting flood insurance premiums will "more accurately reflect how much flood risk properties are facing. But in many areas around the country, homeowners will see their premium payments multiply several times," Murakami writes. "Up until now, the premiums had not considered how often an area was expected to flood in the future and didn't consider many types of flooding, like that from heavy rainfall. That's led to an unfair situation in which many owners of properties at risk of flooding have been paying 'peanuts,' said Chad Berginnis, executive director for the Association of State Floodplain Managers. And indeed, Pike County's single-family homeowners had been paying among the lowest rates of any county in the country, according to FEMA data examined by Route Fifty."

Lawmakers say flood insurance only helps if homeowners can afford to buy it. "Some members of Congress from areas where premiums will jump are balking at the prospect of NFIP policyholders paying thousands more for federal flood insurance. Raising premiums so sharply, they say, could discourage people from buying insurance and leave them vulnerable if a flood damages their home," Murakami reports. Federal law caps premium increases at 18%. "Those who are not paying as much as FEMA's new risk assessment says they should be paying will be on what the agency calls a 'glide path' until they reach their new premium level. . . . The agency estimates that the percentage of people paying the amount FEMA believes they should be paying will rise from about a third to 90% over the next decade."

Using a more accurate picture of where flooding has or is likely to occur to set premium costs has supporters. "Some changes should be made, said Berginnis. . . . The new premiums, for example, will not take into account steps property owners take to reduce the threat of flood damage," Murakami writes. "Still, he said, the new flood insurance rates will 'send people the correct signals about flood risk.'

Some Eastern Oregonians look to join Idaho, saying they have little in common with people in their current state

Map by Amanda Hernández, from Stateline research
Amid ongoing tensions and political disagreements, Eastern Oregon residents from 12 counties look to secede from Oregon and join Idaho. "At a meeting late last month, 25 people packed into a stuffy conference room in the Wallowa County Courthouse—35 miles west of the Idaho state line and 260 miles east of Portland—to hear county commissioners debate a single agenda item: leaving Oregon," reports Matt Vasilogambros of Stateline. Known as "The Greater Idaho movement," the idea to leave Oregon for Idaho had "sputtered along for years, gaining little traction. But then, the coronavirus hit in the spring of 2020."

Disagreements over Oregon's Covid management became the tinder that reignited the Greater Idaho movement. "Quarantines and remote learning inflamed residents' anger with the state government for shutting down schools and businesses," Vasilogambros explains. "This tension invigorated the effort to join Idaho, a state whose government reacted wholly differently to Covid than Oregon did. . . . Secession is a long shot that would require approval by Congress; so far, there have been ballot measures, and there has been a lot of talk. But the fact that the movement has gotten even this far illustrates the growing tear in the American fabric."

Greater Idaho has reached succession benchmarks other states, such as California and Illinois, have failed to meet. "If supporters here achieve their goal, it could mean a paradigm shift nationally, proponents say, inspiring more states to split along cultural and political lines," Vasilogambros writes. "County by county, Eastern Oregonians have voted on similar measures over the past three years, securing much of the large rural region for the secessionist movement. In June, Wallowa County became the 12th to pass a ballot initiative in support of joining Idaho."

Wallowa County is 6 hours, 55 minutes from
Oregon's capital in Salem. ( map)
"Stateline traveled more than 1,000 miles of Eastern Oregon, where supporters of the movement to join Idaho said they feel unheard by the decision-makers in Salem," Vasilogambros reports. "Would-be secessionists freely recognize that their communities represent less than a tenth of the state's population, but they also asked: Don't we matter? Their grievances are many: They dislike rules that restrict tree-cutting, protect coyotes and promote electric vehicles. They oppose transgender rights, classroom discussions of gender and race, and limits on guns. They detest the taxes and regulations they believe have devastated the region's economy. And they hate what became of Portland, a city many of them look back on with nostalgia."

For Eastern Oregonians, there's "a sense of desperation, as if all options have been exhausted and all that remains is joining Idaho," Vasilogambros reports. Mike McCarter, who leads the Greater Idaho movement, told Vasilogambros: "I have people come at me and say, 'Well, what can we do to change it?' It's gone too far over the top to change." Vasilogambros adds, "Whether they can succeed is another story."

Quick hits: Burning Man's footprint; affluence and affordability; adaptive gardening; books to read on child-welfare system

Photo via The Daily Yonder
"As a retired child-welfare professional, I no longer spend my days working with abused and neglected children, but they are never far from my mind. Certainly not after the three excellent books that I've read recently," recounts Charlie Baker for The Daily Yonder. "The Pulitzer Prize-winning Demon Copperhead is a novel set in southwest Virginia. Lucky Turtle is a love story that begins in a wilderness reform camp in Montana. And Invisible Child, also a Pulitzer winner, is a nonfiction account of 'poverty, survival, and hope in an American city.'"

The Burning Man ends up burning the equivalent of a lot of fossil fuels. What began as a movement for climate change might leave much more "than a trace" behind, reports Zoya Teirstein of Grist. "The festival generates around 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide every year, the equivalent of burning over 100 million pounds of coal."
Matt Scheer bought a house 11 years ago when the price was
more affordable. (Photo by Joanna Kulesza, The Post)

Places that are attractive to live are also getting to be pricey. "The outdoorsy lifestyle of Colorado mountain towns has become a magnet for the new remote-worker class, upending life for those already rooted there," reports Talmon Joseph Smith of The Washington Post. "Job growth has severely outpaced the stock of shelter throughout Colorado. Median rent in Frisco—which a decade ago was considered a modest 'bedroom community' for commuting employees—is about $4,000 a month, according to Zillow, and 90 percent above the national median."

If you call 911, your first point of contact is a dispatcher who will stay with you through your call, answer your questions, and help keep you calm. But what about those dispatchers? How many calls have they taken? Have they been up all night? "Through long days and mentally taxing calls, dispatchers work to maintain a helpful demeanor that keeps citizens calm and engaged on the line as they work with complex tracking and dispatching technology," report Mike Brewer and Steve Cover of Route 50. "Recognizing the toll the position can take on mental and physical health, Jeffcom911 in Jefferson County, Colorado, has invested in technology to ease workloads on emergency dispatchers by reducing the number of non-emergency calls they receive."

America is struggling with a divisive culture. In his essay for The Atlantic, George Packer writes that the country has split not two ways but four. "People in the United States no longer agree on the nation's purpose, values, history, or meaning. Is reconciliation possible?"

Illustration by Sonaksh, The Washington Post

Gardening can bring joy, fresh food and healing. "For Rosemary McDonnell-Horita, a 29-year-old with multiple disabilities, gardening gave her an opportunity to be a caregiver rather than a care receiver. Taking care of plants shifted the way she thought about her own body," reports Amanda Morris for The Washington Post. McDonnell-Horita told her: "Over the years, gardening has made me feel more confident in every aspect of my life. I'm planting what I want to grow, and there's a lot of power in that."

Marion County Record raid shows rural newspapers' vital role in government; International Democracy Day is Sept.15

Friday, Sept. 15, is International Democracy Day, a day the United Nations set apart to remind everyone living in a democratic society to celebrate their hard-won freedoms and to refocus on each citizen's responsibility to protect those liberties.

For rural newspapers, this year's raid on the Marion County Record's newsroom was a sobering reminder of how mutable democracy is without the free press. Our community newspapers are the first voice of the people, and pushing to maintain your local presence is a service to your community and, more broadly, your country.

"We all need to speak out. . . . The recent raid on The Marion County Record in Kansas was a shockingly flagrant disregard of the Constitution and, unfortunately, underscores a deeply concerning trend of governmental overreach and attempts to intimidate the press in the U.S.," Tim Regan-Porter, CEO, Colorado Press Association, told Gretchen A. Peck of Editor & Publisher. "Such interference in the press' ability to hold government accountable threatens democracy itself and should concern not only members of the press but all citizens. As champions of free speech and democracy, it's imperative for the industry to unite against such unconstitutional strong-arm tactics and safeguard the essential role of the press in society."

According to a statement from The Committee to Protect Journalists' President Jodie Ginsberg, "Local news providers are essential in holding power to account—and they must be able to report freely, without fear of authorities' overreach." Peck adds, "News publishing advocates also expressed support and solidarity with the local news publisher."

Part of the Sept. 15 celebration can be recognizing that in the case of the Record, the U.S. press stood behind a community newspaper as it pushed fearlessly onward to do its job--supporting democracy with good community journalism.

Monday, September 11, 2023

Overdose is now the No. 1 cause of death for people under 40 in most states. Street fentanyl is mostly to blame


In most states, the number of Americans under 40 who died from accidental drug overdoses has exceeded any other cause of death. "It's now the top cause in 37 states," a new Stateline analysis shows. Death rates for Americans under 40 "were up by nearly a third in 2021 over 2018, and last year were still 21% higher," reports Tim Henderson of Stateline. "Covid-19 was a small part of the increase, causing about 23,000 deaths total between 2018 and 2022 in the age group. . . . Vehicle accidents and suicide (about 96,000 each) and gun homicide (about 65,000) all took a cumulative toll from 2018 to 2022, according to a Stateline analysis of federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. . . . Overdose deaths, however, took almost 177,000 lives in that time."

A lethal dose of fentanyl
(FDA fentanyl fact sheet photo)
The number of unintentional overdose deaths shows fentanyl's deadly presence in U.S. street drugs. The "fresh wave of overdose deaths is different from the first three," Henderson writes, . . ."driven by drugs spiked with powerful fentanyl." Daliah Heller, vice president of drug use initiatives at Vital Strategies, an international advocacy group that works on strengthening public health, told Henderson: "Somebody might think they're getting a Xanax [for anxiety], or methamphetamine or cocaine. . . They have no experience with opioids; it's not what they're expecting, and now they have a much higher risk of overdose and death." According to the Food and Drug Administration, fentanyl is approximately 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin.

To lessen fentanyl's impact, states "are responding with 'harm reduction' strategies that can include warning of the new danger of recreational drugs laced with deadly fentanyl, training and equipping people to counteract overdoses when they see them," Henderson explains. "Nationally, accidental overdoses dominated the increase in deaths in residents under 40 across racial and urban-rural divides, but many disparities exist. The increase in young overdose death rates was 154% for Black Americans, 122% for Hispanic residents and 37% for white people, yet even for white residents, they represented the largest increase. . . The largest urban areas saw increases in overdose death rates of 70%, and rural areas 64%—the largest increases in both areas for any cause of death."

'Recovery-friendly' employers can help both those healing from addiction and the broader community

Cafes and catering businesses can offer flexibility and
support for people in recovery. (Photo by K8, Unsplash)
By providing a job and a supportive structure for people transitioning into drug-free living, employers are helping their broader community, reports Kristi Eaton of The Daily Yonder. "Rural communities ravaged by substance misuse could benefit from people in recovery being active members of the local workforce, say experts in criminal justice, substance misuse, and labor studies." Sometimes called "second-chance workplaces," these businesses offer employment and a place of meaning without drugs.

Kristina Brant, assistant professor of Rural Sociology at Pennsylvania State University, told Eaton, "[These are] employers hoping to adopt specific policies and practices that are going to be supportive of people who are in recovery from substance use disorder. They want to create an environment that's structurally and culturally going to help people in recovery thrive." Eaton adds, "Stable and meaningful employment is a goal for many people in recovery – not everyone, but many people, she said."

Drug misuse recovery can be harder in rural places because of stigma and a culture of "everybody knows everybody's business." Eaton reports, "Being in recovery can still hurt peoples' chances at getting a job, acquiring a place to live and even making friendships, Brant said. . . . Logistics also play a role. Someone in treatment court may be required to attend court several times a week, and a recovery-friendly workplace would be conducive to that."

Black Sheep logo
Some business models are flexible and can adjust to addiction recovery needs. "Brant said there are many examples of recovery-friendly workplaces. Cafes are popular options. One example is Black Sheep Brick Oven Bakery and Catering, located in Jackhorn, Kentucky," Eaton reports. "The restaurant hires. . . folks emerging from incarceration created by the opioid crisis." Brant told Eaton: "You're serving this dual purpose of creating a place that people know will be a supportive work environment, but also bringing something positive to the community. I think that's a really nice model to focus on."

Douglas Swanson, associate extension professional in the Labor & Workforce Development Program at the University of Missouri Extension, said, "Rural communities and employers have greater challenges due to the shallower pools of available workers." Swanson told Eaton: "You can't hire workers who aren't there. This dynamic puts rural employers in the position of needing to look at the potential an employee may have instead of their past."