Saturday, December 10, 2005

My trip to Japan, October 2005

My brother had been living and working in Japan as an English teacher since April of 2004. In October of 2005, I was finally able to visit him. Here is a recap of my trip, with some pictures. (Good thing I went when I did; he returned to Houston in December.)

Getting there and back was possible because I had accumulated enough Continental OnePass miles (although it took me a dozen years to do so, since I don’t fly nearly as frequently as I would like) to fly for free; all I needed to pay out-of-pocket were about $60 in various fees and taxes. Most of the flights were on Continental’s codeshare partner, Northwest. This meant that, in order to get to and from Osaka’s Kansai International Airport (which sits on a man-made island out in the bay), I had to fly through Northwest’s hub in Detroit.  I left Houston the morning of Thursday October 21st and, after transferring in Detroit and crossing the international date line, arrived in Japan the following evening.

I thought that flying on a 747 for the first time would be a fun experience. It was not. The plane was cramped and I was stuck in a middle seat between two other people for fourteen hours straight. I could not get any sleep because it was simply too uncomfortable to do so, given the cramped conditions and intermittent turbulence. None of the channels on the plane’s audio system worked, either, making the headphones they passed out to everyone essentially useless unless we wanted to watch the crappy in-flight movies they were showing.

Eventually, the flight landed and I wearily made my way through Kansai International Airport.  The woman at passport control got upset with me because I didn’t fill in the line on the immigration document stating what my address and telephone number in Japan were going to be. None of the books or websites I read about traveling to Japan said that this information was required, so I didn’t bother to get David’s address or telephone before I left. I was about to tell her to go outside and ask him where he lived, because he was out in the terminal lobby waiting for me, but she finally let me through. I collected my suitcase, passed through customs, met my brother and we took a bus back to his apartment in Nishinomiya.

Nishinomiya is a municipality located roughly halfway between Osaka and Kobe on the north side of Osaka Bay. To be sure, the north and west sides of Osaka Bay essentially constitute one large urban area, and there isn't any physical distinction between individual municipalities. However, Nishinomiya's relatively central location did make for easy day trips to other cities in the Kansai region, such as Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and Nara. This made it easy for David to plan out an extensive itinerary for me.

Thus, the next several days were a whirlwind of traveling, sightseeing, eating and drinking. The first full day I was there, Saturday October 22, David, his girlfriend and I went to the ancient capital of Kyoto, about an hour and a half from Nishinomiya. Once we reached Kyoto we made our way to the imperial palace grounds so we could watch the Jidai Matsuri (Festival of the Ages) parade. It was an interesting parade which depicted different eras and personalities in Japan’s history with ornate costumes, musicians, horses and palanquins (portable shrines). Afterwards we made our way across the river to eastern Kyoto where most of the famous shrines and temples are located.  We visited the Kyomizu temple, which is famous for its hillside view overlooking Kyoto, and afterwards strolled through the streets of the nearby Gion district, walking through parks, looking at other temples and shrines, and stopping for ridiculously overpriced coffee. We then made our way back across the river and dined at a restaurant along Kyoto’s waterfront. (David has more detail about this particular excursion on his blog).

Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto is one of many historic temples and shrines located along the city's eastern hillsides.

A view of Kyoto from the Terrace at Kiyomizu Temple. Kyoto was the capital of Japan until 1868, and remains and remains one of the country's most historically-significant cities. 
 On Sunday the three of us went to Osaka. We toured the Osaka Castle and Museum, went to a crab sushi restaurant in the central Nanba district, and then went to the Floating Garden observatory atop the Umeda Sky Tower to see an amazing nighttime view of the city. That evening, David's girlfriend drove us over the mountains to the town of Sanda, where we ate dinner at a friends' house. Japanese homes are a mix of the modern and the traditional, with fully-automated kitchens just steps away from traditional washitsu with tatami mats. 

A busy pedestrian mall in the Nanba district of Osaka. Osaka is the main city of the Kansai region and is Japan's second-largest city.

A view of Osaka at night from the observatory atop the Umeda Sky Building. The city stretches for miles, ending only when it meets the mountains. The scale and density of Japanese cities is amazing and is unlike anything I've seen anywhere else.
On Monday, we took a trip to Kobe, the port city that had to be largely rebuilt after a devastating 1995 earthquake. There we rode the ropeway up a mountain overlooking the city and later went on a boat cruise of the busy Kobe harbor, which allowed us a great view of the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, which is the longest suspension bridge in the world.
The busy port city of Kobe is located to the west of Osaka. It suffered a devastating earthquake in 1995.
On Tuesday October 25th, my brother and I embarked on the "big" excursion, a two-day journey to Tokyo and the highlands around Mt. Fuji. David was looking forward to the trip as much as I was because, in spite of being in Japan for a year and a half, he had never ridden the Shinkansen (bullet train) or visited Tokyo. Neither failed to impress either of us. 

Once we arrived in Tokyo, we took a bus tour of the city's main sites including the Tokyo Tower, the grounds in front of the Imperial Palace, and the Asakusa Temple. We later checked into our hotel in the Shinagawa district, and dined at a yakitori restaurant in the city's upscale Roppongi district. In the process of traveling around town, we familiarized ourselves with Tokyo's impressive subway system.

A view of Tokyo from the observation deck of the Tokyo Tower, looking westward. The cluster of buildings in the distance is Shinjuku-ju, a major commercial, shopping, administrative and entertainment district. Like most Japanese cities, Tokyo is multi-nodal; it lacks a single, clearly-defined "downtown" and is comprised of multiple major commercial and office centers.

Tokyo at night. This view is looking northward from our hotel. To the left is the brightly-lit Tokyo Tower, where the previous picture was taken.
The following day, David and I took a leisurely walking tour of some of central Tokyo's major districts, including Nihonbashi, with its famous zero-milestone bridge, the upscale Ginza district, and the riverfront Tsukiji district. We then took the subway to across town to see the Meiji Shrine and the trendy Harajuku district. Finally, we made our way to Shinjuku station and boarded a highway bus which took us out of Tokyo and into the highlands. We spent the night in a ryokan on the shores of Lake Kawaguchi.  

The Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. It was constructed in 1920 (and rebuilt after World War II) to commemorate Emperor Meiji, who became the first emperor of "modern" Japan in 1868. It is located adjacent to Yoyogi Park on the city's near west side and is close to Tokyo's trendy Harajuku district. Unfortunately, the rain kept all the teenagers in outlandish fashions - the "Harajuku Girls" - from coming out that day.
Here I am standing at the Tenjo Ropeway overlooking Lake Kawaguchi. We came to the scenic highlands surrounding Mt. Fuji hoping to see the great mountain itself. However, clouds spoiled our view.
Well, they say it rolls downhill! This sign, which we found at the Tenjo Ropeway, is an excellent example of "Engrish." As an English teacher in Japan, David quickly discovered that he had his work cut out for him.
On Thursday the 27th, David and I spent time in around Lake Kawaguchi, hoping to catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji. Unfortunately, we had no such luck; clouds obscured our view of the majestic mountain all day long. Dejected, we took a bus from Kawaguchi to Mishima early that afternoon so that we could catch the bullet train back to Osaka (and, from there, a local train to Nishinomiya). However, the ride was slow and circuitous and my eventual need to find a restroom caused the two of us to get off the bus at Subashiri, a village outside the town of Gotenba. There we found the necessary sanitary facilities as well as a delightful shine which led to an overlook that, on an clear day, would have afforded a great view of Mt. Fuji. 

Since we had time to kill until the next bus to Mishima arrived, David and I went to a small cafe near the overlook for a cup of tea. While we were there, David explained to the cafe's owner that we had come to see Mt. Fuji, but were frustrated by the clouds and therefore were on our way back to Nishinomiya.  

We had finished our tea, paid our bill and started walking back towards the bus stop when the cafe's owner ran behind us, calling for us. Had we forgotten something? No. She had felt so bad about the fact that we were unable to see Mt. Fuji that she wanted us to have two snapshots - from her own, personal, photo album - of the mountain.

Although the woman need not have given us her own pictures of the mountain, David and I gratefully accepted the photos; it would have been rude, in the Japanese cultural context, to do otherwise. Besides, it was a wonderful gesture on the cafe owner's part and it is a unique little memory of Japan that my brother and I will always have. In retrospect, I'm glad that my need to use the restroom caused us to stop at that village! 

We caught the next bus to Mishima, grabbed a bite to eat once we arrived there, and then took the next Shinkansen back to Osaka.

Friday October 28th David and I returned to Kyoto, this time to see the Ginka-kuji (Silver Pavilion) temple and its beautiful and serene Japanese gardens. We also took a stroll down the “Philosopher’s Path." The following day, we took a day trip to Nara, one of Japan's oldest cities, to see more temples and shrines as well as the deer that roam freely about the city.

We returned to Kyoto to see another famous temple, the Ginkakuji. This Zen Buddhist temple features a beautiful and serene garden. One could spend days upon days in Kyoto and still not see everything.
Deer roam freely about the ancient city of Nara. They are said to be messengers of the gods and are considered sacred. They are not afraid of humans; in fact, they come up to people expecting to be fed.
One of Japan's most famous temples is the Todaiji in Nara. This massive wooden structure, built at the end of the 1600s, is actually smaller than the structure which preceded it.
Inside the Todaiji is a gigantic Buddha. It is six stories tall; pictures just can't do it justice. Many Japanese are syncretic in regards to religion: they might practice both Shinto as well as Buddhist rituals. It's common to find a Buddhist temple and a Shinto shrine on the same property.
On October 30th, I took the Skinkansen to Hiroshima. David was unable to make the trip with me, so I was "on my own" for the day. Despite not speaking any Japanese, I was able to find my way from the main train station to Hiroshima's Peace Park and back without trouble. Hiroshima is a vibrant, bustling city. Other than the serene Peace Park, there really is no visible indication that the city was obliterated by an atomic bomb in August 1945.

The Memorial Centotaph for Atomic Bomb Victims in Hiroshima commemorates the estimated 80,000 people who died as a result of Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on the city on August 6, 1945 from the Enola Gay. In the distance is the Atomic Bomb Dome, which was the prefecture's industrial exhibition hall before World War II. It is the only surviving ruin of the atomic bombing and is a symbol of the destructiveness of atomic warfare.
I returned home on Halloween Day, Monday October 31st. The return trip was slightly better. This time, I had an aisle seat, so I had a bit more room to stretch out. The flight was also a bit quicker because the eastbound plane was flying with the jet stream instead of against it. One audio channel was working, which meant that I could at least listen to the same songs over and over again. However, I couldn’t get the audio for any of the in-flight movies they were showing (and they were actually showing something I wanted to see on the flight back!), and the overhead reading light didn’t work, either. Northwest Airlines, having declared bankruptcy, is clearly deferring nonessential maintenance of their aircraft.

My original itinerary back to Houston required me to land in Detroit, go through customs, languish at the Detroit airport for a couple of hours, take a short flight across Lake Erie to Cleveland, languish at the Cleveland airport for a couple more hours, and then fly to Houston. However, I was able to avoid the extra layover by convincing a very nice Northwest gate agent to put me on a direct flight from Detroit to Houston. My bags were already checked through Cleveland, however, and so even after I arrived in Houston my father and I had to languish in the baggage claim area for a couple of hours, waiting for the plane from Cleveland to arrive so I could collect my luggage. Oh, well. At least I made it home safely, in spite of all the languishing.

If I ever fly to Japan again, I think I’m going to go with Continental’s non-stop service from Houston to Toyko and then take the Shinkansen to my final destination. Having to transfer to and from long international flights is no fun; I prefer getting through customs and going home. Besides, the spacious, comfortable environment of the Shinkansen is a welcome relief from the cramped quarters of the plane, and with a 7-day Japan Rail Pass currently costing about $250, it pays for itself even if you only ride the Shinkansen a couple of times. 

Being in the transportation planning profession, I obviously found Japan’s extensive network of trains fascinating. From the sleek Shinkansen to the rickety streetcars of Hiroshima, from the extensive JR (Japan Railways) system to the various private railways (including the Hankyu system, which David and I used the most), from the relatively young and small subway system in Kobe to the bewilderingly extensive subway in Tokyo, Japan is a veritable rail nation. With an overall population density that is an order of magnitude higher than that of the United States, high-capacity transportation is not an option. As a result, the entire country is crisscrossed by every conceivable type of rail system. Most of it is electrically-powered, but I did see at least one diesel multiple unit (DMU) consist at JR’s Osaka Station. Japan’s main railway stations double as shopping centers; in many cases, in order to connect from one line to another you have to literally walk through underground malls. 

My brother made sure that I got to experience many different types of Japanese food while I was there. The evening I arrived, for example, I managed to shake off my exhaustion long enough to go out with him and his girlfriend to eat okonomiaki, which could be described as a combination of a pancake, an omelet and a pizza. It was actually pretty good. I also liked the yakitori (grilled skewers), chabu chabu (which could best be described as a Japanese fondue), and izakaya, which is similar to Spanish tapas in that you generally order a variety of small dishes and share them. We also went to a conveyor belt sushi restaurant: 

Here's my brother David at a kaiten-zushi, or conveyor belt sushi restaurant, in Nishinomiya. Just sit at a table and grab what you want to eat as it comes by. A sensor counts the number of plates consumed and totals your bill. This is actually one of the less-expensive dining options in Japan, and it's very family-oriented.
I think my favorite dining experience was the kushikatsu restaurant in Kobe, however. This type of dining featured a deep-fryer in the middle of the table and a nearby buffet stocked with meats, shrimp and vegetables on skewers. We chose what we wanted to eat, brought the skewers back to the table, dipped them into a batter provided at the table, stuck them in the deep fryer and then ate them. The buffet also featured a salad bar and a self-service udon soup bar, just in case anyone got tired of deep-fried skewers. It was very good, and it was all you could eat - and drink - as well… but only for two hours. After our two hours were up, the waiter came to our table and politely told us to get lost.

The food and drink weren’t cheap, however. As I quickly discovered, everything one hears about Japan being an expensive place to visit are true. Although most of the lunches we ate were reasonable, oftentimes the dinner tab for the three of us (myself, David and his girlfriend) would approach $100 US. One night the three of us managed to run up an $80 bar tab after only a couple of drinks apiece.

I brought back several items, ranging from exquisite lacquered wooden bowls from Kyoto to tea and sake from the supermarket near David's apartment. One of my purchases was a battery-operated Fortune Cat with a moving left paw. Lori says I got the wrong type of Fortune Cat; we need one with a raised right paw, which attracts money. A Fortune Cat with a raised left paw only attracts visitors...

I wish I could have stayed a few days longer, but considering all that I got to do and see while I was there I think ten days were sufficient. I came, I had a good time, I saw a lot of interesting stuff and ate a lot of interesting food, I took lots of pictures and video, and, most importantly, got to finally travel to a country I’ve always wanted to visit.

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015.)

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Screw Bowl and the Shaft Bowl: 2005 Edition

Several years ago, I began doing the Screw Bowl and the Shaft Bowl as a way to recognize the handful of deserving college football teams that, in spite of their good seasons, were left spending the holidays at home. Last year, there was fortunately no need for either the Enron Screw Bowl nor the Astroglide Shaft Bowl, as only three teams within winning records (all of whom ended the season at 6-5) stayed home, and two of those teams - South Carolina and Clemson - brought their misfortune upon themselves by engaging in an embarrassing brawl following their annual rivalry game.

However, in spite of the fact that 56 teams made it to bowls following the 2005 season, no less than eight teams with winning records were forced to stay home for the holidays. All eight of them are from non-BCS conferences; five are from the Mid-American Conference alone. Here are the 2005 Screw Bowl and Shaft Bowl matchups:

The AstroGlide Shaft Bowl: for two deserving teams that got shafted by the postseason bowl selection process, Northern Illinois vs New Mexico.

The Northern Illinois Huskies (7-5) make their third consecutive Shaft Bowl appearance. They came up on the short end of an exciting MAC Championship game, losing in the final seconds to Akron. The loss, combined with the MAC's lack of bowl berths, meant that the Huskies must spend the holidays at home, even though their season included wins over bowl-bound Toledo as well as Central Michigan, Western Michigan and Miami of Ohio, all of whom ended the season with winning records. The Huskies' offensive attack features explosive RB Garrett Wolfe as well as reliable WR Sam Hurd.

The New Mexico Lobos (6-5) started the season strong, defeating their first three opponents including BCS school Missouri. The Lobos, however, lost their next three games and never quite regained momentum (although they did beat bowl-bound Utah). The NIU defense will have to watch out for RB Dontrell Moore, who led the MWC witth almost 1,300 rushing yards.

The 2005 Astroglide Shaft Bowl will be played Monday, December 26, 2005 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.

The Enron Screw Bowl:
for two worthy teams that are no strangers to being screwed over by bowl selection committees, we present a rematch of the 1997 Shaft Bowl: Miami of Ohio vs Louisiana Tech.

The Miami of Ohio Redhawks (7-4) ended the season in a three-way tie for the MAC East but, along with Bowling Green State, lost the tiebreaker to Akron despite beating the Zips on the field. The RedHawks also beat rival (and new BCS school) Cincinnati. Miami's senior-laden team includes WR Martin Nance, who could be playing on Sundays next year.

The Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (7-4) ended the 2005 season on a high note, beating a ranked Fresno State team on the road. Unfortunately, their winning record - the Bulldogs' first since 2001 - wasn't good enough as losses to Nevada and Boise State hurt and no bowl seemed willing to recognize or reward the generousity and hospitality Louisiana Tech showed by allowing the Tulane Green Wave football team - rendered homeless by Hurricane Katrina - to seek refuge in Ruston and use their facilities for the season. Bulldog linebackers Barry Robertson and Byron Santiago might make NFL rosters.

The 2005 Enron Screw Bowl will be played Saturday, January 7, 2006 at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Missouri.

Other schools that managed winning records in 2005 but were passed over by the bowl system include Central Michigan (6-5), Western Michigan (6-5), Bowling Green (6-5) and Louisiana-Lafayette (6-5). Better luck to all these teams next year!

The Astroglide Shaft Bowl*
Year                                            Stadium          City             Date
1996  Wyoming (10-2)     East Carolina (8-3)    TWA Dome         St. Louis, MO    Jan 4 97
1997  LA Tech (9-2)      Miami, OH (8-3)        Vanderbilt       Nashville, TN    Jan 3 98
1998  Wyoming (8-3)      Miami, OH (10-1)       Arrowhead        Kansas City, MO  Jan 3 99
1999  W. Michigan (7-5)  Houston (7-4)          War Memorial     Little Rock, AR  Dec 23 99
2000  W. Michigan (9-3)  UA-Birmingham (7-4)    Papa John’s      Louisville, KY   Dec 26 00
2001  Ole Miss (7-4)     Hawai’i (9-3)          Estadio Azteca   Mexico City      Dec 26 01
2002  N. Illinois (8-4)  South Florida (9-2)    Neyland          Knoxville. TN    Jan 4 03
2003  N. Illinois (10-2) Connecticut (9-3)      Browns Stadium   Cleveland, OH    Dec 17 03
2005  N. Illinois (7-5)  New Mexico (6-5)       Arrowhead        Kansas City, MO  Dec 26 05


The Screw Bowl presented by Enron*
Year                                            Stadium          City             Date
1996     Rice (7-4)      Southern Miss (8-3)    Tiger Stadium    Baton Rouge, LA  Dec 28 96
1997     Rice (7-4)      Toledo (9-3)           RCA Dome         Indianapolis, IN Dec 24 97
1998     UCF (9-2)       Colorado St (8-4)      Skelly Stadium   Tulsa, OK        Dec 24 98
1999     LA Tech (8-3)   Akron (7-4)            Legion Field     Birmingham, AL   Dec 21 99
2000     Toledo (10-1)   San Jose State (7-5)   TWA Dome         St. Louis, MO    Dec 22 00
2001     Boise St (8-4)  Bowling Green (8-3)    Invesco Field    Denver, CO       Dec 28 01
2002     NM State (7-5)  Bowling Green (9-3)    Owen Field       Norman, OK       Dec 24 02
2003     Toledo (8-4)    Air Force (7-5)        Memorial Stadium Lincoln, NE      Jan 3 04
2005     Miami, OH (7-4) LA Tech (7-4)          Edward Jones DomeSt. Louis, MO    Jan 7 06

*The Screw Bowl was "sponsored" by Stanley Tools from 1996 to 1998 and by Ace Hardware in 1999 and 2000. DISCLAIMER FOR DUMBASSES: The Screw Bowl and the Shaft Bowl aren't really sponsored by Enron, Astroglide, Stanley Tools or Ace Hardware. In fact, the Screw Bowl and the Shaft Bowl don't really exist! I just used these names because they seemed like fitting "title sponsors" for the fictitious Screw Bowl and Shaft Bowl (especially Enron, since they did such a good job of screwing their employees, their investors, the entire City of Houston, etc.). I do not endorse any of these companies or products (okay, that's not really true; I like to shop at Ace Hardware because I hate Home Depot for their lousy customer service and their predatory corporate tactics, and some of my Aggie friends tell me that Astroglide is the best lubricant for their shee... Oops, I better not go there. Anyway, you get the idea.). 

(Retroblogged August 23, 2015. The number of actual bowl games has continued to grow since 2005, meaning that virctually every team with a winning record [and even a handful of teams without one] get to go go bowling these days, so I don't do this tongue-in-cheek commemoration anymore.)

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Testing, testing...

Okay, so I've finally decided to "get a real blog." This will eventually replace my current, low-tech Mean Green Cougar Red.

I'll be tinkering with this site for a few months before I actually start posting here.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Astros are going to the World Series. I'm going to Japan.

I'm still having a hard time wrapping my head around that one. It's eight in the morning, about ten hours after Cardinal catcher Yadier Molina popped out in the bottom of the ninth to assure the Houston Astros of their first ever World Series appearance, and I'm still a bit stunned. As a long-suffering Houston sports fan, it really is hard to believe.
Especially after Monday night's game. When Pujols hit that monster homer in the ninth inning to send the series back to St. Louis, I really thought the momentum had shifted in the Cardinals' favor and that this would wind up as another one of those painful Houston sports memories I mentioned last week.

But not this time. Roy freakin' Oswalt is the man.

Now the Astros go on to face the Chicago White Sox in the World Series. The White Sox have had their share of suffering as well; their last World Series appearance was 1959, three years before the Astros (who were then known as the Colt 45s) even began playing. Although both teams would certainly like to win the World Series, the fact is that the 'Stros and the Chi-Sox are just happy to be here. Both teams are going to have fun, and for that reason I expect a loose, celebratory World Series. I really don't care who wins at this point. As far as I am concerned, the Astros have already won. 

Anyway, on to Japan. I'm not looking forward to the long flight over, but I am looking forward to seeing a country I've always wanted to visit and seeing my brother, who's been living and teaching English there since April of last year. I'll be sure to take lots of pictures and I will try to post them on this site once I return Halloween evening.

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015.)

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Coogs win the "Kat-Rita Bowl"

It was a good weekend for the Houston Cougars, who currently have a winning record after beating the Tulane Green Wave 35-14 at Cajun Field in Lafayette, Louisiana. I had not planned on attending any UH road games this season, but once I discovered that the game would be played in Lafayette I decided to make a day trip to Acadiana. It was a journey through an area hit hard by Hurricane Rita just a couple of weeks ago to see a game that had to be relocated because of Hurricane Katrina, and I saw plenty of signs of both hurricanes' devastation.

I-10 east of Houston is a very congested highway right now, in both directions. It seemed that the majority of vehicles on the highway, even on the Texas side of the Sabine River, had Louisiana plates. There were lots of U-Haul and Budget rental trucks. Lots of trailers. Lots of pickups, SUVs and minivans packed with people and belongings. I wondered what all their stories were and where they were all going.  Some were probably returning to their homes (or what is left of their homes) in New Orleans (now that much of the city has reopened to residents) or other parts of Louisiana that were evacuated as Katrina / Rita approached. Others were probably going home only long enough to gather whatever they can salvage and return to what has over the past several weeks become their new homes. On the way back home, I passed somebody towing a mud-covered car that had obviously been underwater in New Orleans. I guess the vehicle had sentimental value to somebody.

Abandoned cars were everywhere alongside the highway. They had all been tagged for towing by Texas or Louisiana troopers, but I didn’t see any tow trucks actually removing any cars. They were probably the cars of Katrina and Rita evacuees which for whatever reason stopped working; as with all the people and belongings moving back and forth along the highway, I wondered about the stories behind all these abandoned cars as well.

The Ford Park special events complex just outside of Beaumont had been converted into an emergency logistics and distribution center, full of eighteen-wheelers, military vehicles and tents. Signs in front of the venue directed cars into lines for ice or drinking water distribution.

Things looked really bad between Beaumont and the Sabine River, where the eye of Rita moved across two weeks ago. I saw  two churches - one in Vidor, one in Orange - with their roofs completely ripped off. Trees were still laying on top of houses. I saw several piles of debris that used to be mobile homes, and many gas stations with their canopies torn away. Tarps over roofs were a common sight. Billboards were knocked down, highway signs were flipped over, and downed and splintered trees were everywhere. There were a lot of tree-trimming crews out along the interstate that day. I saw repairs being done to electrical lines as well. On the way to Lafayette, in fact, I passed a convoy of probably 20 electrical line trucks from Kansas.

Harrah's in Lake Charles is going to be out of commission for a while. Isle of Capri and the new L'Auberge du Lac, on the other hand, had just reopened and, from the number of cars in the Isle of Capri parking garage, appeared to be doing a brisk business. I didn't know whether to be amused or disgusted by the fact that gambling has become as important to the Lake Charles economy as oil refining, but it's clear that getting the riverboat casinos back on line was a local priority.

I reached Lafayette about an hour before kickoff and made my way down Ambassador Caffery Parkway to Cajun Field. Lafayette itself didn't seem to be any worse for wear after Hurricane Rita, but like other cities (e.g. Houston and Baton Rouge) its population has been swollen by the Katrina diaspora. Something like 1,400 evacuees from New Orleans still living at the Cajundome; they all wore tags that had their pictures on them and read "CAJUNDOME RESIDENT." Many of them attended the game - they got in free of charge - and naturally cheered for Tulane.

There were probably about 500 UH fans at Cajun Field, including a good portion of the UH band, which I thought was a decent turnout considering that this game's status was unsettled as recently as three weeks ago and there were virtually no hotel vacancies in Lafayette. Tulane probably brought about 1,500 people (it was technically a home game for them), and ULL students, evacuees, national guard members, relief workers and others made the rest of the crowd of about four or five thousand people. I don't know where the 15k attendance figure in the boxscore comes from - perhaps tickets Tulane sold to this game before the hurricane?

The first half was probably the worst half of football I have witnessed in a long time. Neither the Cougars nor the Green Wave were particularly impressive on offense, and the score was 7-7 at the half.  However, the Cougars made adjustments at halftime and scored 21 points in the third quarter by keeping the ball on the ground and wearing away the Green Wave defense. Tulane simply could not stop Cougar running backs Jackie Battle and Ryan Gilbert. The Houston defense stepped up as well, forcing a turnover and allowing the Green Wave to reach the endzone only once more, during garbage time late in the fourth quarter. As an added bonus, the Cougars made no special teams mistakes and had no turnovers. Dare I say that improvement is being made?

My friend Amy also happened to be in Lafayette that weekend, visiting her family, and she and her son came out to the stadium to meet me and watch part of the game with me. She even brought me a link of boudin from Comeaux's Grocery. Cajun hospitality! Otherwise, I spent the game sitting with fellow UH fans watching the Coogs notch their second consecutive victory on the road.

After the game, it was time to return home. It was evident from the interstate that there are still several neighborhoods in Lake Charles, Orange and Beaumont that still do not have electricity. Roadside services are available along I-10, even in the area hit by Rita - I got gas at a station in Sulphur, outside of Lake Charles - but from the interstate it's hard to tell if gas stations or restaurants are open at night because all of the high mast signs have been blown out.

I returned to Houston around midnight. It had been a long trip, and seeing firsthand the physical destruction of Rita and the social upheaval of Katrina was a very sobering experience. But the watching a critical UH victory over a divisional rival definitely made the trip worthwhile.

Next up for the Coogs is Memphis. This Saturday's game will be their first home game in a month, since September 24th's home game against Southern Miss had to be rescheduled due to Rita. 

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015.)

Astros knock off the Braves for the second year in a row

Last weekend was a good weekend for Houston sports teams. Well, except for the Texans, and let’s face it, who really cares about them?

The Astros outlasted the Atlanta Braves in an amazing and historic National League Divisional Series Game Four and made it to the National League Championship Series for the second year in a row, where they will once again meet up with the St. Louis Cardinals. The eighteen-inning marathon set a new record for the longest postseason game ever played. The previous record, the sixteen-inning Game Six of the 1986 NLCS, also featured the Astros. 

Although the Astros were not technically facing elimination in Sunday’s game, I really didn’t like their chances in a possible Game Five, since they would have had to travel back to Atlanta and face Braves hurler John Smoltz, who has historically owned the Astros in the postseason. For much of the game, however, it looked like a return trip to Atlanta was indeed on the agenda, as the Astros trailed 6-1 going into the eighth inning. However, a grand slam by Lance Berkman in the bottom of the eighth, followed by a just-barely home run by Brad Ausmus with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, tied things up. The tie would remain for the next nine innings of what essentially became a doubleheader. The extra frames were excruciating to watch, as neither the Braves nor the Astros could put any more runs on the board, and by the sixteenth inning the Astros had run out of bullpen relievers and had to resort to Roger Clemens, who made only his second relief appearance in his long career.

I remember all too well the aforementioned Game Six of the 1986 NLCS. I remember Kevin Bass striking out in the bottom of the sixteenth inning. I remember the New York Mets, who would go on to win the World Series that year, celebrating their 7-6 victory on the Astrodome turf. And I remember crying my eyes out. A lot of people believe that Game Six of the 1986 NLCS is the greatest game ever played. One guy even wrote a book about it. For me, it’s just another painful memory as a Houston sports fan, much like Jimmy Valvano’s wild celebration after his North Carolina State team upset the Houston Cougars on a last-second dunk in the 1983 NCAA basketball championship game, or the Houston Oilers’ spectacular 32-point choke to the Buffalo Bills in the 1993 AFC Wild Card game. And as I watched the agonizing extra innings last Sunday, I kept having flashbacks to that NLCS moment, nineteen years ago. Would this be yet another in a long line of bitter, painful Houston sports memories?

Fortunately, Chris Burke assured that it would not. Instead, his magnificent game-winning home run in the bottom of the eighteenth instantly became one in a (much shorter) list of Houston sports highlights. 

As a Houston sports fan, I am accustomed to watching the local teams fail. So when a local team succeeds, especially as amazingly and improbably as the Astros did last Sunday, it's always a pleasant surprise.

So now it’s on to the Cardinals. Will this be the year that the Astros finally make it into the World Series? Probably not; the Cardinals are just as good as they were last year and the Astros don’t have Carlos Beltran or Jeff Kent in the lineup this year. But after Sunday's game, as well as the remarkable fact that the Astros made the playoffs after being fifteen games below .500 at one point this season, I'm really not complaining. The Astros beat the cursed Braves two years in a row, and that's always something to celebrate.

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015.)

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Wrapping up Rita

Lori made it home safely late last night. She was exhausted, physically as well as emotionally drained from her week-long absence, but glad to be home nevertheless. She left Kirby in Temple with my mother and my aunt; mom will probably bring him home sometime today.

Things in Houston are quickly returning to normal. Gas stations are being resupplied, grocery stores are busy restocking shelves, businesses are reopening and streets and highways that were eerily deserted last Friday and Saturday are once again full of cars.

An article in Monday's Chronicle regarding the evacuation process reflects my feelings about the ordeal. As the subtitle says, "The evacuation shows more need to stay put, and all lanes should be outbound."
Hurricane planners have a little ditty that goes, "run from the water, hide from the wind."

It means evacuate if you are in a coastal surge area, but hunker down if you are in an area that will get hurricane-force winds and rain only.

The biggest problem in Houston's painful evacuation last week was that perhaps a million people, almost half of those who left, ran from the wind. To make matters worse, the regional evacuation plan was missing a key element — pre-planned contraflow lanes that are a part of virtually every other hurricane-prone city's evacuation strategy.
As I've said, a lot of people got caught up in a (mostly-media-driven) frenzy and left when they probably would have done just as well to stay where they were, and that exacerbated the evacuation chaos. It also absolutely amazes me that, before last Thursday, there was no contraflow evacuation plan in place - it was all done ad-hoc as the interstates leading out of town became hopelessly clogged with people.

Hurricane Rita is a learning experience for everybody: residents, local planning and law enforcement officials, elected officials, and, hopefully, the local media.

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015.)

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Rita: did we overreact?

I finally went to sleep around 7 am yesterday morning, once the winds had begun to die down and the radar showed that the storm was on its way out. Later in the afternoon I went to my folks' house and helped my dad cut and clear fallen limbs from the front yard (it's the same sickly ash tree that lost most of its limbs during Alicia 22 years ago; it probably just needs to be removed altogether and replaced with a stronger species). Damage to this neighborhood has been confined to tree limbs and branches. The streets were a mess, littered with leaves and branches, but that was the extent of destruction - no roof damage or broken windows, from what I could see. Thankfully and amazingly, we never lost power or cable/internet service here (Danny and I were even chatting with my brother in Japan over the computer early Saturday morning, as the winds howled outside), although other parts of this neighborhood did; my parents' house was without electricity until late this afternoon so my dad spent last night here.

Saturday evening Danny and I actually found a gas station nearby whose tanks had just been reloaded and we used the opportunity to fill up the car. Then we went to the Dog House Tavern (one of the few businesses open last night) to celebrate the passing of the storm.

The Houston area dodged a bullet at this time. A direct hit, from a much stronger hurricane, would have been absolutely devastating. As recently as Wednesday, that very scenario was one being predicted by the weather forecasters.

That sent millions of people fleeing the region, which in turn created gridlock on highways leading out of town. Four-hour trips to Dallas and San Antonio turned into grueling sixteen-hour journeys as the highways became hopelessly clogged with vehicles. Untold numbers of people ran out of gas and became stranded along the shoulders, desperately looking for assistance. In a freak accident, 23 elderly people being evacuated from a Bellaire nursing home were killed when their bus literally exploded outside of Dallas. There were other reports of death from heat exhaustion was well, as motorists, in an attempt to conserve gasoline, turned off air conditioners and put themselves at the mercy of 100-degree temperatures.

In the coming weeks, there is going to be a great deal of discussion and finger-pointing regarding this evacuation process. Was the area's evacuation plan adequate? Did people, with the destruction wrought by Katrina fresh in their minds, overreact to the approaching storm?

The answers, in my opinion, are "probably not" and "probably." The network of evacuation routes, the contraflow implementation plan, and the prioritization of evacuation zones will probably all need to be revisited and refined, but there's only so much that can be done when upwards of three million people are all trying to get out at once. The second question is one that has been discussed by other bloggers (see Beldar and Kuff, for example), and while I really don't think you can "overreact" to the prospect of a category five hurricane bearing down on your city, I do believe that a lot of people - folks out on the northern and western fringes of town, not in floodplains or designated evacuation zones, for example - got caught up in a collective hysteria and decided to leave when when it wasn't yet necessary for them to do so, thereby adding to the overall gridlock. There were reports of people in mandatory evacuation zones such as Clear Lake City or even Galveston giving up and returning to their homes due to the standstill conditions on area freeways, and that is something that is truly unacceptable.

I believe it would have helped if the overall reaction to the storm were a bit more measured and rational in the days before it hit. I think the local news media deserves most of the blame in this regard; they hyped this thing for all it was worth and, in my opinion, needlessly panicked a lot of people. Hurricane predictions 72 hours before landfall are notoriously inaccurate, meaning that the storm more than likely was going to spare Houston a direct hit. This, indeed, is what happened to Rita: it veered off to the east and only brushed Houston. Secondly, there was almost-universal agreement among weather professionals that the storm, which was indeed a category five as it churned over the warm sea earlier in the week, would weaken as it moved into cooler waters closer inland and would not be as intense once it made landfall. This, again, is what happened to Rita, as it weakened from a category 5 out in the Gulf to a category 3 when it made landfall. I wish that these facts, as well as the locations and the designs of the evacuation zones themselves, had been more prominently explained by the local media (as well as elected officials), as it no doubt would have caused a lot of people who were not in areas of high risk, such as Katy or Cypress or Tomball, to assess the situation a bit more objectively before they decided to jam the highways leading out of town. That, in turn, would have helped to allow the people that were in truly high-risk areas to get out first.

But instead of rational, calm discussion of the hurricane, the uncertainties inherent in its projected path, the effects of wind on areas several dozen miles inland, and the like, what we got were a bunch of blow-dried local television anchors and weather-guessers orgasmically screaming about a monster category five hurricane heading our way and bringing with it certain death and destruction to the city of Houston. The media also focused on the evacuation story, which in my opinion created a very clear implication of "everybody else is getting out why they still can, and you should be getting out, too."

With that said, I want to make it clear that I do not fault anybody for their decision to leave, regardless of their location. The local media breathlessly kept repeating that Houston was faced with the prospect of a direct hit from the third-strongest Gulf hurricane on record, and people did what they obviously thought was best at the time, which was to get out of the path of the destructive storm. As I've said in a previous post, the fact that trees were being toppled and power outages were occurring here in Houston from a storm whose center was one hundred miles to the east - making landfall in another state - proves just how massive, powerful and deadly these things are, and people took this storm seriously. My own family members were among those who fled; Lori decided to take Kirby and relocate to Dallas Wednesday morning, and my mother took off to Temple later that day. Both of them, fortunately, got out before the bulk of the traffic built up.

So perhaps the people who got out didn't overreact; the media, however, clearly did. Objective information regarding the storm, and the evacuation process, should had been clearer earlier on, so people who were not in high-risk areas could have made a more informed decision before they decided to flee.
There's also the risk that the media-driven hype over Rita will desensitize people, especially those living in high-risk areas, to the threats raised by future storms. These folks will remember the chaotic evacuation process, and the much-ado-about-nothing shrillness heaped upon Rita, and make the risky decision to ride the next storm out. Houston might not be so lucky next time.

There's a flip side to this as well: just as the people who evacuated the region do not deserved to be criticized, the people who decided to stay, such as myself, do not deserved to be criticized either. I've seen comments on various local forums that the people who stayed behind were "lucky rather than smart" - the clear implication being that those who decided to hunker down and ride it out were somehow stupid - and I've even received criticism from family members for deciding to stay. I find these insinuations and criticism unfair and even insulting.

I sheltered in place at my house, which is a good fifty miles inland, it is not located in a floodplain, and it is not in a designated evacuation zone. My own plan, as I have said, was to move up to the in-laws' house in the northwestern portion of the county, using local roads, if the hurricane remained a category four or five and continued its track towards Galveston or Freeport. That would have put another thirty miles between myself and the coast. However, as Rita's projected area of landfall veered off to the east, I decided to remain here. In retrospect, it was the correct decision for me.

Obviously, I'm not saying I'll make the same decision next time. Each storm is different, and the "stay or go" decision will be made on a case-by-case basis given the information available regarding the storm's path and strength. But my neighborhood is not in a high-risk area, and I don't think I need to add to the horrific traffic jams by reflexively evacuating from a hurricane whose landfall, which has a margin of error of hundreds of miles, is three days away.

I guess my point is this: if you decided to evacuate, you did so based on the information you had available at the time (although I believe some of that information was needlessly exaggerated) and you did what you thought was in your best interests. Likewise, if you decided to stay (provided you were not in a coastal evacuation zone or other are of obvious risk), you also did so based on what you thought was in your best interests. Nobody deserves to be criticized for their decision to stay or go. Fortunately, things worked out for the best for Houston (not so much for Lake Charles, Beaumont or Port Arthur, obviously, and I wish those communities a speedy recovery). All we can do is learn from this and move on, because hurricanes are a fact of life along the Gulf Coast and there will certainly be a "next time."

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015. With the tenth anniversary of Rita only a month away, it's worth noting that, in terms of human suffering, the evacuation was catastrophic. 107 people perished during the exodus: that's more than were killed by Hurricane Carla, Hurricane Alicia, Tropical Storm Alison and Hurricane Ike - combined.)

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Rita Update II

It's now 2 am, and amazingly enough I still have electricity. I expect to lose it at any moment, however, as the wind continues to pick up. Otherwise, things are going as well as can be expected. No structural damage or falling tree limbs yet, and the rain hasn't even been too heavy thus far.

The rain and gusting winds we're experiencing here are being generated by a system whose center is well over 100 miles to the east of here. It really makes you understand just how massive and just how powerful hurricanes are. They are awesome in every sense of the word.

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015.)

Friday, September 23, 2005

Rita Update

It's about 8 pm, and the outermost rainbands of the hurricane are now reaching my neighborhood. The rainfall is really very mild at this point and the winds are still rather gentle. This will not remain the case for long, however; heavier rainbands are quickly approaching and I expect the really nasty stuff to start hitting in another two or three hours.

Yesterday Rita's projected area of landfall moved to the other side of Houston and it now appears that it's going to hit Port Authur. That puts Houston on the so-called "dry" side of the hurricane. This is not to diminish the weather we're going to get here - hurricanes are dangerous no matter what side of them you're on - but being to the west of a hurricane is better than taking a direct hit or being just to its east.

Danny and I are staying where we are. I think we'll be okay, although I'm worried about the tree in front of the house.

I'll try to provide another update in a few hours if I still have electricity. 

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015.)

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Rita approaches

Lori took herself and the kid to Dallas, but I've decided to ride the storm out here at the house as long as the predicted landfall location remains south of Freeport. My brother-in-law Danny will be here with me.

I expect there to be some wind damage here, especially to trees, and there might even be some street flooding like this neighborhood experienced during Alison, but at this point in time I feel that I am far enough inland and the storm's projected path is far enough to the south that I do not expect major structural failure to occur.

If the situation changes (i.e. the projected storm track moves significantly northward) then Danny and I will probably relocate to to his and Lori's parents' house on the northwest side of town.

I will try to post updates, although I expect to lose electricity at some point. Wish me luck.

(Retroblogged August 23, 2015.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Coogs begin 2005 season with a win

Last Saturday, the Coogs notched their first win of the season by defeating the Sam Houston State Bearkats 31-10 at Robertson Stadium. Some might say that a win over a I-AA school is meaningless, but I’d have to disagree in this instance because, let’s face it, wins of any kind have been hard to come by for the Coogs lately. Besides, Sam is a pretty good I-AA squad, having gone all the way to the I-AA semifinals last season (a football playoff! What a concept!), and they always give the Coogs a good game. So I’ll gladly take it.

Play was sloppy at times, and the Coogs still have some problem areas that must be addressed: penalties, special teams miscues (several kickoffs went out of bounds) and turnovers. A better pass rush is a must, too. It will be a long season if these concerns aren’t remedied in a hurry.

Houston has a short week to prepare for their next opponent, the Texas-El Paso Miners. Friday night's nationally-televised game at the Sun Bowl is going to be tough, and it will be a good barometer of how good (or bad) the Coogs actually are.

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015.)

Astroworld calls it quits.

At the end of the 2005 season in October, Six Flags is going to shut the 37-year-old theme park down and sell the property on which it sits. Six Flags claims that rising land values in the area have made the property worth more than the park itself, which has suffered from declining attendance, and that parking disputes with the folks at Reliant are also to blame. For whatever reason, a Houston landmark is disappearing.

I can’t say I’m surprised. The park has been on the downhill for a long time. It was aging and poorly-maintained, and was unable to expand beyond its 109-acre footprint. Attendance declined as the park suffered from a proliferation of new Six Flags properties in places like San Antonio, Louisiana and Mexico (whose thrill-seeking population no longer had to travel to Houston to get their roller-coaster fix) as well as a reputation as a gang-banger hangout. The exorbitant admission price (currently $42 for an adult) also kept increasing numbers of people away.

I have mixed feelings about AstroWorld’s demise. When I was a kid, I spent many a summer day there, riding the Greezed Lightnin’ and the XLR-8. When I was in college, I spent the summers of 1992 and 1994 working there, being treated like crap for minimum wage. (Somewhere in the Bush family photo album is a picture, taken during the 1992 Republican National Convention, of Bugs Bunny posing with a bunch of George and Barbara’s grandchildren and well as a few secret service agents. The guy in the Bugs Bunny costume would be me.) I hadn't set foot in the theme park for a long time, and really have had no desire to do so (my tolerance of long lines, brutal heat and overpriced food has waned somewhat since I was a kid), although I always envisioned that one day I’d be taking Kirby there. It looks like that’s not going to happen.

The site on which the property stands is has excellent access to transportation, since it is bounded by Kirby, Loop 610 and the light rail line. It is in a good location, near the Reliant complex and the Texas Medical Center. Given the fact that over 100 contiguous acres of property are hard to come by in this area, I’d have to say that this property probably won’t be on the market for long. Hopefully some sort of well-designed mixed-use development will appear there, with retail along the 610 frontage and a transit-oriented component adjacent to the light rail station.

AstroWorld was originally developed by Harris County Judge Roy Hofheinz as part of the so-called "Astrodomain" that included the Astrodome and Astroarena. It opened in 1968, three years after the Astrodome, and was purchased by Six Flags in 1975. The park’s signature ride, the Texas Cyclone, opened a year later. I think I’ll miss the Cyclone most of all.

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015. I wrote an article very similar to this in 2008. The anticipated redevelopment of the park's site has never occurred and, with the exception of its use as overflow parking during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the land still sits vacant. But I still don't miss that place.)

More on the future of New Orleans

Joel Garreau, author of Edge City and The Nine Nations of North America, wrote an article in Sunday's Washington Post exploring the future - or lack thereof - of The Big Easy. It is interesting to compare his take on the city's future with George Friedman's Stratfor article that I referenced last week. Friedman argues that, since a port at the mouth of the Mississippi River is critically important to the nation's economy, and ports need cities to support them, New Orleans will be rebuilt. Garreau agrees with the need for the port but is not convinced of the need for a city, because modern port operations are extremely automated and do not employ enough people to support a large city. Garreau argues that “a thriving port is not the same thing as a thriving city” and that New Orleans, with its high office vacancy rates, tourist-reliant economy, and crippling poverty, was anything but thriving. “The city of New Orleans has for years resembled Venice -- a beloved tourist attraction but not a driver of global trade,” he writes. Garreau looks back at Babylon, Carthage and Pompeii to remind us that “cities are not forever:”

What the city of New Orleans is really up against, however, is the set of economic, historic, social, technological and geological forces that have shaped fixed settlements for 8,000 years. Its necessity is no longer obvious to many stakeholders with the money to rebuild it, from the oil industry, to the grain industry, to the commercial real estate industry, to the global insurance industry, to the politicians.

Garreau is among those (such as myself) who suggest that New Orleans, with its population scattered across the nation – “the biggest resettlement in American history,” according to Rice professor Stephen Kleinberg in this Christian Science Monitor article – might end up much like Galveston did after the 1900 hurricane. “Galveston today is a charming tourist and entertainment destination, but it never returned to its old commercial glory,” he writes. “In part, that’s because the leaders of Houston took one look at what the at what the hurricane had wrought and concluded a barrier island might not be the best place to build the major metropolis that a growing east central Texas was going to need.”

This sentiment is echoed by an article in Tuesday’s USA Today regarding the instant boomtown of Baton Rouge, which is currently Louisiana’s largest city as well as its commercial center. The city is in the process of absorbing 200,000 new residents and at least two thousand businesses from New Orleans. Displaced companies are setting up shop in whatever space they can find, even abandoned grocery stores, and rental rates are skyrocketing. Homes are selling, oftentimes sight unseen, for $500,000 in cash. The city is choked with traffic. Schools are overcrowded. Hotels are all booked. Airlines are adding flights from Chicago, St. Louis and Newark. 

While Baton Rouge residents worry the boom may be temporary until New Orleans is rebuilt, the aftermath of another deadly hurricane may point to a different outcome.

A devastating 1900 hurricane in Galveston, Texas, forced a massive exodus of people and businesses to what was then a small community: Houston. Now, Baton Rouge is competing head-to-head with Houston, the fourth-largest city, with a population of 2 million, for businesses that are thinking twice about returning to New Orleans.

Hurricane Katrina will be remembered for a lot of things, from its unspeakable devastation to its horrific human toll to its virtual destruction of a major American city to the miserably bungled federal, state and local response in its wake. But it will also be remembered for the profound demographic, economic and social changes it created – not just along the Gulf Coast but nationwide – as it scattered hundreds of thousands of displaced people across the country in a matter of weeks and permanently altered the urban hierarchy of the region, as cities like Baton Rouge, Jackson, Shreveport and Houston absorbed the people and businesses of New Orleans.The true effects of Katrina can only be accurately evaluated in retrospect, but its hard not to believe that this disaster will go down as one of the most monumental and pivotal events in US history. 

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015. Ten years later, how accurate was this? It turns out that the hurricane's effect on Baton Rouge was short-lived; Katrina evacuees eventually returned to New Orleans and Baton Rouge's 2010 population was not significantly larger than its 2000 population. Those flights to places like Chicago, Newark and Denver were canceled a few years after they were started.)

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The future of New Orleans

As the floodwaters are pumped out and the decomposing bodies are collected, the slow and difficult task of rebuilding this ruined city will begin. Amid the wall-to-wall media coverage of the aftermath of Katrina – an event which will almost certainly go down as the worst natural disaster in this nation’s history – a great deal of discussion regarding the future of New Orleans, and by extension the entire Gulf Coast, is occurring. What will a rebuilt New Orleans look like? Will it be able to retain its unique culture in the wake of this calamity? How many people will return to the city? Should the city, which sits below sea level, be rebuilt at all? These questions have spawned numerous articles in numerous publications, from the Boston Globe to the Chicago Tribune to the Dallas Morning News to USA Today. Even local bloggers are engaging in the discussion.

Most fundamentally, does it make sense to spend billions of dollars to rebuild the flooded city at all? Jack Shafer at says "no" while George Friedman at says “yes.” Friedman’s argument is that New Orleans “is a terrible place for a city to be located, but exactly the place where a city must exist” due to its location at the mouth of the Mississippi River. There needs to be a place where the river barges carrying goods and materials from the Great Plains and the Midwest are  offloaded onto ocean-going vessels, and vice-versa. The Port of New Orleans is critically important to our nation’s economy, and for that reason the city that supports it will return, “because it has to.”

Even if New Orleans is rebuilt – and I think that much of it will be – it will clearly never be the same city it was before Katrina obliterated it. For one, it will be much smaller. It’s impossible to stay at this time just how many of those who called New Orleans home on August 28th will return once it is safe to do so, but it is clear that many of those who have left – some having been evacuated to places as far away as Utah or Alaska – have nothing to return to and very likely will not be coming back. Those that do return to the region are likely to choose a location that is not as vulnerable to tropical storms. That’s why I believe that Baton Rouge, which in the same general region but many miles upriver from New Orleans, and whose population has been swelled by refugees from New Orleans, will probably eventually surpass New Orleans to become Louisiana’s largest and most dominant city, much the same way Houston overtook Galveston to become Texas’s major city after the 1900 Hurricane. 

Houston’s future, likewise, will almost certainly be different. A New York Times article (reprinted in the International Herald Tribune) declares that “no city in the United States is in a better spot to turn Katrina’s tragedy into opportunity” and notes that corporations are already moving their headquarters from New Orleans to Houston, even if only on a temporary basis. Added to this is the influx of tens of thousands of evacuees from New Orleans, many of whom are likely to stay. There will be a short-term economic boost as evacuated businesses fill vacant office space, evacuated residents fill empty residential space, and millions of dollars in federal aid for the displaced flows into Houston. The long-term economic, demographic and cultural effects of Katrina on Houston are less clear but are nonetheless likely to be positive. And the positive coverage Houston has received from the media regarding the city’s generosity and compassion for the victims of Katrina is likely to boost the city’s national image as well. 

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015.  Unfortunately, a lot of these links are now dead. The tenth anniversary of Katrina is approaching and I will probably write something about it later this week.)

Monday, April 25, 2005

Ecuador dumps another president

Last week, the National Congress in Quito ousted former army colonel Lucio Gutierrez, who had been in office since 2003, amid widespread anti-government protests in Quito. Gutierrez has since fled to Brazil and vice-president Alfredo Palacio has been sworn in as the Andean nation's head of state. Palacio becomes Ecuador's eighth leader in ten years (more details below); no president has been allowed to finish a four-year term of office since 1996. According to The Independent, Ecuador is now officially the most policially unstable nation in South America. And that's no small feat, considering that political crisis and Latin America seem to go hand in hand. 
Ironically, Lucio Gutierrez was one of the leaders of the January 2000 coup that deposed Jamil Mahuad. That coup was caused by widespread opposition to Mahaud's plan to dollarize the economy following the nation's 1999 economic meltdown. Economic instability doesn't seem to be an underlying cause of Gutierrez's ouster, however; the country's economy grew by 6 percent last year, and the nation has benefitted from high oil prices. Instead, this most recent round of political instability appears to be due to the Ecuadorean population's growing frustration with corrupt politicians, as a story in today's Chronicle notes:
[Critics] point out that Gutierrez campaigned for the presidency on a populist, anti-corruption platform. But once in office, they contend, Gutierrez approved harsh economic austerity measures, installed family members in government posts and cut deals with corrupt politicians rather than jailing them.
"You give them your trust, and they do the exact opposite of what they promise," said Carlos Tamayo, a taxi driver in Quito. "They suck the blood of the people like bats."
Indeed, the nation's political infrastructure is rife with corrpution - the watchdog group Transparency International claims that Ecuador is one of the most corrupt nations in the region. What really seemed to upset the Ecuadorean people, however, was Lucio's deal with exiled former president Abdala Bucaram and his populist PRE party (for more information on Abdala, see my 1997 Daily Cougar column about him):
The move that seemed to seal Gutierrez's fate was his temporary alliance with Abdala Bucaram, a former president who fled to Panama after being ousted from office in a 1997 uprising.
Pro-Bucaram legislators briefly gave Gutierrez a razor-thin majority in Congress. Gutierrez persuaded lawmakers to fire the Supreme Court and then reconstituted the judicial body with his cronies. The new court annulled corruption convictions against Bucaram, paving the way for the ex-president to return to Ecuador earlier this month.
The move sparked a wave or protests that came to a head Wednesday. Fearing a blood bath if they were ordered to fire on demonstrators, Ecuador's army and police withdrew their support from Gutierrez, and the Congress voted to dismiss him.
"The person who violated the constitution was the president," said Gustavo Larrea, director of the independent Latin American Human Rights Association in Quito. "The people were calling for a return to a state of law. This was an exercise in direct democracy."
The Chronicle article, however, focuses on the possibility that these "exercises in direct democracy" that seem to be occurring with increased frequency in Latin America are not necessarily a good thing, because they are little more than incidences of mob rule mentality. Don't like the president? Then there's no reason to wait until his term of office is up - just take to the streets and force him out of office! Rather than being an affirmation of democracy, these uprisings could really be nothing more than events that undermine the democratic process and foment political instability:
[John] Walsh, of the Washington Office on Latin America, said people power doesn't necessarily lead to more democracy.
"Mob rule lends itself to any configuration," Walsh said. "The next time it happens, (people) might not agree with the result, and, in that sense, it's very dangerous."
Given the dangers of "mobocracy," however, I can fully understand the frustration of the Ecuadorean people and their propensity to take to the streets. Ecuador's leaders, democratically-elected as they might be, have collectively done very little to improve the impoverished nation's standard of living. As I noted in following my most recent trip to Ecuador, "the things that needed to have changed the most - the poverty, the lack of basic infrastructure, the corruption, the pollution - are still the same. It's depressing, since the country really doesn't seem to be better off than it was fifteen years ago, when I first visited." Contrast this to Mexico, the other Latin American nation I visit frequently, which, while still very impoverished, is clearly progressing economically and politically. Corrpution is waning, the infrastructure is improving and a middle class is emerging in Mexico. The same cannot be said for Ecuador, unfortunately...

Since Ecuador moved from a military dictatorship to a civilian democracy in 1979, the country has experienced the following results:

Jaime Roldos: 1979 - 1981: Killed in a plane crash shortly into his term

Osvaldo Hurtado 1981 - 1984: Finished Roldos's term; he left office right as a nasty El NiƱo and the oil bust decimated Ecuador's economy
Leon Febres-Cordero 1984 - 1988: This guy was lucky he survived a full term, considering the mess that the economy was in while he was president. He did spend an evening as a prisoner at a Guayaquil air force base during a failed coup attempt

Rodrigo Borja 1988 - 1992: The leader of the Izquierda Democratica (Leftist Democrat) party fancied himself as an enlightened neo-Marxist reformer - until his party's congressional majority was wiped out in 1990 mid-term elections

Sixto Duran 1992 - 1996: This Boston-born architect was Ecuador's last president to serve a full term; he presided over a short border war with Peru in 1995 (Jimmy Carter intervened and the two nations later signed a peace treaty)
Abdala Bucaram 1996 - 1997: It wasn't hard for the National Congress to dismiss this Guayaquil populist on grounds of "mental incapacity" - his preferred nickname was "El Loco" and he released an album entitled "A Madman in Love" shortly after his election

Rosalia Arteaga - 1997: She served as interim president for a few days, becoming Ecuador's first female head of state in the process
Fabian Alacran 1997 - 1998: Caretaker president appointed by Congress until new elections were held; he left office during the devastating 1998 El Nino and the Asian economic meltdown and subsequent oil crash

Jamil Mahuad 1998 - 2000: Ecuador's economy collapsed during his presidency; he was forced out by a coup led by junior military officers and indigenous leaders 

Gustavo Naboa 2000 - 2003: Tried to rebuild Ecuador's economy by pressing ahead with Mahuad's reforms, including dollarization. Ecuador's official currency is now the US Dollar

Lucio Gutierrez 2003 - 2005: One of the army colonels who participated in the 2000 coup now finds himself on the other end of the wrath

Alfredo Palacio 2005 - ???: Good luck, Al. You're going to need it!

If this political instability continues, Ecuador should consider changing its national anthem from Salve O Patria to Won't Get Fooled Again... 

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015. Palacio finished his term but was replaced by Rafael Correa in the subsequent election. Although Correa's left-leaning, authoritarian administration has been controversial, it has also resulted in the longest period of political stability in Ecuador since the mid-90s; Correa was re-elected in 2013.)