Authors Posts by Leah Dunaief

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By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

There I was, tapping on my computer keyboard, when what sounded like a pneumatic drill started tapping right outside my window. I jumped up, ran down the hall, out the front door and around the house to be greeted by the sight of an unperturbed woodpecker.

Busily bobbing his beak into my shingles, he ignored me for a few seconds, despite my frantic hand waving and yelling, then cocked his head to see what the fuss was about. We looked at each other but he didn’t leave. I picked up a pine cone that had fallen on my driveway and threw it in his direction, along with a couple of words I wouldn’t repeat in polite company. Slowly, letting me know it was his idea, he flew away.

He left behind three black holes on the side of the house, each the size of a quarter. I went back inside to my computer, and then there he was again, rat-tat-tatting on the shingles. The words, “How much wood could a woodpecker peck if a woodpecker would peck wood?” passed through my mind as I again ran out the door and yelled. This time he moved away more quickly. I made a little pile of pine cones along the side of my driveway and returned to my computer. Not five minutes later, the scene repeated itself. I replenished my arsenal, knowing he would be back, and he was.

Good heavens, what was I to do, stand guard all day? What if I hadn’t been home? From the number and size of the holes, he had clearly been there before.

A truce seemed at hand. I pulled out my cell phone and dialed my neighbor. Yes, he was aware that there was an energetic woodpecker among us. In fact, hadn’t I heard? The neighbor on the other side of my house was having his wood shingles removed and replaced with vinyl that looked like wood but obviously didn’t taste the same. Maybe the culprit had just moved over to my shingles.

Next, I called my trusty neighborhood hardware store. Yes, they had heard of such a problem before and they did have one possible remedy, a roll of reflective tape for $7 that I should cut into 3-foot strips and hang from my house. 

We rushed down to get the tape and also bought a roll of twine.

Back home we did as instructed, knotted the red and silver streamers to the twine at five-foot intervals as if on a clothesline, then hung the entire line high up across the side of the house. We repeated the process for the front of the house where he had also started pecking. I am lucky to have saintly friends who executed these maneuvers on ladders for me. When it was done, we stood back and looked at the handwork. The house looked decorated for Halloween.

As you might expect of me, I researched “woodpeckers” on my computer and found four reasons that woodpeckers would carry on this way. The first was to make a “satisfyingly loud noise and proclaim that this was his territory and attract a mate.” Bully for him.

The other three explanations were less romantic but more practical: to find food in the shingles, especially larvae of carpenter bees, leafcutter bees and grass bagworms; to store food; for nesting.

I further found some good news, or at least some consolation. It seems that ancient cultures associated woodpeckers with luck, prosperity and spiritual healing. To other cultures they represented hard work, perseverance, strength and determination.  Woodpeckers are, apparently, among the most intelligent and smartest birds in the world.

More good news in the form of fortune cookie messages: When they appear, it is time to unleash one’s potential and change any situation to one’s best advantage. From woodpeckers one can imbibe the skills of being resourceful and determined. They encourage the power to unshackle ingenuity and creativity in those around them.

Well, now you know. Whatever success ensues, I will owe it to my woodpecker.

P.S. After one more short visit, he has not come back.

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By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Who typically thinks about inflation?

Inflation is one of those words that cuts both ways. Low inflation is considered a desirable thing by borrowers and the Federal Reserve. A lot of inflation can be a disaster for the financial markets and for everyone’s pocketbook. 

Those who deal with money and work in finance keep an eye on inflation. After all, inflation refers to a general increase in the price of goods and services in the economy over time that corresponds with a decrease in what you can buy with the same amount of money. And if your money is going to be devalued, best keep that eye. 

Years ago, I learned a simple definition for inflation: too many dollars chasing too few goods. Because of disruptions in the supply of goods, demand has currently outstripped supply. You can tell that from some of the empty shelves at the stores. Consequently, when products or services are scarce, we pay more for what we can still get.

When that happens suddenly, we all pay attention to inflation. Pull up at the gas pump and fill your tank. What do you know? The price for the exact same gas that you used last month has gone up. Go into a restaurant and order your favorite dish. It now costs a little more. The proprietor has no choice but to charge more because he or she had to pay more for the ingredients, due to disruption in delivery. That’s inflation. The government tracks inflation with the Consumer Price Index, or CPI. They leave gas and food out of the Core Index because those tend to be more volatile from one month to the next. But we can’t leave them out. We have to pay for them.

So how are we doing with inflation now?

Initially, rising prices were thought of as transitory, the result of pent-up demand that was suddenly released with the drop in COVID cases and the increase in vaccinations, that would even itself out before long. But prices of goods and services are still up while supply continues to be disrupted. Additionally, people have had more money to spend on those goods and services as a result of the billions in government aid.

As of this week, the CPI was up 5.4%. That’s how much prices have increased in a year. This is well above the Fed’s targeted rate of two percent, but so far there seems little interest on their part to raise rates and slow inflation. Social security checks, which are intended to keep pace with inflation, will be up 5.9% next year, the most in four decades. When rates are raised, it costs more money to borrow, whether for business expansion or mortgages, and that works to slow down inflation and growth. It seems the Fed still believes present inflation will diminish when current disruptions fade. President Joe Biden (D) has announced plans to keep ports open 24/7 to try and ameliorate the supply delays. But trucks and truckers are also insufficient.

There are other, less obvious signs of inflation. I attended the New York Press Conference two weeks ago and stayed for three nights at a hotel in the center of Troy. For the same room rate, we had no room service, no one cleaned the bathroom or made the beds. Clean towels were left in a bag outside our door. Breakfast was included, but there was only coffee, some wrapped Danish and small containers of yogurt. When we asked for bread, we were told there had been no delivery for many days. So in essence, we were paying the same money but getting less, like the old trick of getting candy for the usual price but in a smaller box. That’s inflation, too.

What actions should we take?

We probably should do our holiday shopping now, while some of the gifts we want are still available and at current prices. We might want to nail down a mortgage rate soon if we are in the market. As for our investments, who ever knows?

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By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

A good idea during this later stage of the pandemic is to have an at-home rapid COVID test, which indicates a result in 15 minutes. Sometimes you just don’t know whether it’s a simple cold that’s arrived and is making your throat sore, or if the situation is more dire and you need to seek help. Or perhaps you find that you have been exposed to someone who has now tested positive, and you want to check yourself accordingly. Or you are about to visit grandma and you want to be sure you are not carrying the pathogen to her. 

Besides the personal value, the tests can be an important public health tool, although for the moment demand is high and they are hard to find. I was able to locate two tests at a local drug store by calling around. They can be purchased at pharmacies for anywhere from $10 to $40 a test. The following are available without a prescription, according to The New York Times article, “At-Home COVID Tests: Valuable if Used Right,” in the issue of Oct. 5, and written by Emily Anthes: Abbott BinaxNOW, the Ellume COVID-19 Home Test (although there was some issue with this one yesterday), and the Quidel QuickVue At-Home COVID-19 Test. The tests “detect small viral proteins, called antigens,” and they “require rubbing a shallow nasal swab inside your nostrils, and then exposing the swab to a few drops of chemicals,” as described by the article. OraSure also makes them, among many other companies rushing their products to market.

While the manufacturers’ tests are fairly simple, their directions have to be followed carefully in order to provide a correct answer. And while their results are correct 85% of the time, the tests can give a false negative if taken too soon after exposure. Further, the tests are more sensitive to people with symptoms, especially during the first week, and when people are most infectious and can be actively transmitting the virus, according to Anthes.

The successful detection rate goes up to 98% when the tests are used repeatedly, say every three days for screening. But again, those with symptoms may test immediately, while those who have been exposed to the virus should wait 3-5 days to let the antigens accumulate in the nose, if they are there, before testing. In the event of a positive result, people should take the usual precautions: isolation, monitoring symptoms and calling for medical help if necessary. They should also get a second test to confirm the result.

Rapid COVID-19 tests are for sale in grocery stores for one euro (a bit more than a dollar) in Germany, and in Britain a pack of seven are free. Policymakers around the world realized that rapid tests were a valuable public health aide. We here in the United States must make them available and more cheaply so that we can know who is infected, who is a carrier and where the outbreaks are. President Joe Biden (D) has recognized this need and is working to make the tests accessible and more affordable. He needs to make the rapid tests official public health tools rather than medical devices. That would only take an executive order. And it would allow global manufacturers of COVID-19 tests to enter our market and immediately increase our supply.

According to a piece on the Opinion page of The New York Times in the Oct. 2 issue, written by experts Michael Mina and Steven Phillips, “Past economic analyses predicted that a major government-funded rapid testing program that reached every American could add as much as $50 billion to the gross domestic product and save tens of thousands of lives or more,”

There is, happily, bipartisan support for making all this happen. Vaccination plus rapid testing would mean no more unnecessary isolations, no more missed holidays with families, no more randomly closed schools or businesses. We would, in effect, be able to live with the bug.

Help wanted sign in window

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Here is a possible answer to a couple of current questions. How to deal with the thousands of Afghans we have brought to our country ahead of the Taliban takeover and also those refugees from Central and South America who have massed at our border? That is one question. Another is how to respond to the ever-widening gap between the rising need for home health care workers and hospital aides, and the aging of the current United States population who will need such services?  And there are other such industries that urgently need workers, where there are not enough Americans to fill them.

Some of the immigrants may be well-educated or have needed skills. Those can probably be settled readily into American locations after they have been vetted and vaccinated. For those without obvious skills, the government will need to offer training, including English classes. The newcomers could be given a choice of what work they would want to do. Some may be or would like to be farmers, and we certainly need more workers in agriculture. Some may already be carpenters or landscapers or roofers or mechanics. If they can drive, we might be able to prepare them to drive trucks or buses, jobs that are going begging today. Perhaps they could help moving companies, which are understaffed and leaving customers stranded in their new homes waiting for their furniture to arrive. Some could help veterinarians, who are hugely overworked now by the many new pet owners who wanted companionship during the pandemic and acquired dogs, cats and other domestic creatures. 

Child care is a field that needs more workers. Mental health practitioners, overwhelmed by those experiencing anxiety, depression and stress could certainly use non-managerial help. So could both be teaching and non-teaching educational services, and sawmills turning out lumber for new construction and renovation, and textile mills trying to meet the sudden demand for back-to-school and back-to-work clothing places to welcome help. We have a desperate shortage of nurses in our country, both PNs and RNs. Hospitals, now newly reduced in their staffing because of the vaccine mandates, probably need help with basic services.

All of these positions, of course, would need varying degrees of training, and that in turn would offer new teaching jobs to the currently unemployed. Such programs would be no small task to organize, but it was doable during the Great Depression almost a century ago, and we can surely again put people to work where they are needed. Some of the jobs would be easier to prepare for than others. All could improve our economy, especially in areas with stagnant growth, and perhaps meet urgent needs.

I wonder if the federal government is thinking strategically when they place thousands of refugees in select communities. Currently, some 37,000 Afghans are at military installations in 10 states while other evacuees remain at overseas bases waiting to be processed, according to Nayla Rush, writing for the Center for Immigration Studies on Sept. 23. In total, the Biden administration has reported that over 100,000 Afghans were evacuated.

The top ten states receiving the newcomers, according to the Center, are California (5255), Texas (4481), Oklahoma (1800), Washington (1679), Arizona (1610), Maryland (1348), Michigan (1280), Missouri (1200), North Carolina (1169) and Virginia (1166). To coordinate this mammoth resettlement, President Joe Biden (D) appointed former Delaware Governor Jack Markell. He is also the former chairman of the National Governors Association and has held top positions in the private sector. 

“Nine religious or community-based organizations have contracts with the Department of State to resettle refugees inside the United States,” according to the Center, and they have final say on the distribution. These agencies, in turn, maintain nationwide networks of local affiliates to provide the necessary services. State and local officials are not involved and have no control over the program. Refugees are not resettled in states that do not have any local affiliates, which explains why some areas are skipped. 

Our country has a need of workers. Potential workers are entering the United States in significant numbers. Together that creates opportunity. We need some thoughtful and skilled management here.

Otto Heinrich Warburg

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

There are two good stories in “Ravenous: Otto Warburg, the Nazis, and the search for the Cancer-Diet Connection.” The newly released book, by Sam Apple, is about the Nazi’s hunt for the cause of cancer and the remarkable support Hitler gave, before and during World War II, to Otto Warburg, a premier scientist, homosexual and Jew.

Hitler’s mother, possibly the only person he loved, died a painful death from breast cancer. Hitler, reportedly a vegetarian and a hypochondriac, periodically thought he was dying of cancer. Otto Warburg, who won the Nobel Prize in 1931 and had been nominated repeatedly for the prize during his career, did in-depth biochemical research on the metabolism of tumors, especially cancer cells. Despite Warburg’s several obvious drawbacks and outspoken criticism of Nazi values — he refused to have Nazi flags in his lab or offer the Nazi salute — Hitler protected him and allowed him to do his work.

Otto Heinrich Warburg, born in 1883 into a prominent family of bankers and scientists, first distinguished himself in the elite cavalry regiment, the Uhlans, during WWI. He won the Iron Cross for bravery and was still fighting at the front in 1918 when Albert Einstein, a close friend of his physicist father, wrote him a letter urging him to come home. Einstein told him that science needed him. That, combined with his breakthrough research before the war on sea urchins, and his aristocratic family, did much to solidify his lifetime arrogance.

He did return home, continued his distinguished work, and was named director of a Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin founded by the Rockefeller Foundation, designed by him in the Rococo style, in 1931. He proceeded with his investigations into the causes of cancer, which had been relatively rare until the 19th century but was exploding in numbers in the early 20th century. The German people, along with people in the United States and elsewhere, were terrified of the disease.

Warburg’s hypothesis was that cancer growth was caused by tumor cells generating energy (to reproduce) mainly by the anaerobic (no oxygen) fermentation of glucose. Healthy cells, by contrast, generate energy mainly from oxidative breakdown with the salt pyruvate in the mitochondria (part of the cell responsible for producing the cell’s energy.)  If you don’t understand those last sentences, it doesn’t matter. The point is that Warburg believed the primary cause of cancer was the replacement of the respiration of oxygen in normal body cells with the fermentation of sugar. Therefore the culprit: SUGAR. 

Today the understanding of the cause of cancer is mutations in oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes that lead to a malignant transformation. The metabolic changes in cells that Warburg observed were not causative, today’s scientists believe, but the result of those mutations.

Warburg’s work offered support for the role of metabolism in the mitochondria in aiding tumor suppression. He oversimplified the complex interactions between the mitochondria and the cell nucleus, between metabolism and mutations.

After the war, Warburg did come to the United States, but his self-important personality, his tyrannical behavior in the lab, his imperiousness with his peers and finally his inability to admit error, all helped to push his research out of sight. He ultimately returned to Switzerland.

In the 1960s, scientific attention turned to the newly defined DNA and cancer-causing genes. Only with the new century has there been a metabolism revival and attention to the role of insulin and the link with obesity.

The book offers us interesting history, both about the Nazis and scientific research into the causes of cancer. Reading it will certainly make us think about what we eat.

METRO dinner

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Here are some ways to spice up our lives. I’ve done this all my adult cooking life, and I recommend the concept. I have added store-bought sauces to otherwise bland foods, like eggs, chicken and some fish. Please read on as I explain. 

How did I happen upon this technique, you might wonder? It was a solution born of desperation over 50 years ago. I was to be married in two weeks, and my roommate at the time asked me what I was going to cook for my new husband the first night. Cook? I only knew how to boil water. It hadn’t occurred to me, although tradition at the time had it, that I was to be the cook in this pairing. 

When I panicked, she calmed me down by asking what my fiancé’s favorite meal was. “Breaded veal cutlet,” I remembered, and for the next 10 days, at dinner, she tutored me on the fine art of making that, along with a salad of greens with store-bought dressing, and spaghetti with some bottled red sauce. I then sailed into marriage prepared and duly impressed my groom with my culinary skills. 

Soon enough, we came to the menu for the second night. Again panic. I had to sit down and figure this one out. I was working and didn’t have time to digest the thick book, “Joy of Cooking,” that some kind soul had given us as a wedding present — at least not yet. Prepared foods for takeout were not invented. There were Swanson frozen dinners, but that suggested I was really inadequate.

What to do?

I thought about how I had made that first meal. I used bottled dressing to flavor the salad and also bottled sauce for the spaghetti. I wondered what other sauces might be available on the supermarket shelves. That’s when I found duck sauce. Reading the label, I saw their suggested uses; one was with chicken. Inspired, I rushed to buy a whole chicken that I brought back to our new apartment, poured all the duck sauce over it, and popped it into the oven at 375 degrees as instructed by the amused man behind the supermarket meat counter. I kept checking it, and when it looked like it was done, I served it, along with more salad.

“Wow!” my new husband exclaimed. “I didn’t know you could cook!” I was launched.

I will confess to having learned a few more things about cooking since then, including how to read a recipe, but my affection for bottled sauces continues to this day. To further my repertoire, I have gleaned the following information from a consumer publication called, “Bottom Line,” that has proven its value sufficiently to earn my ongoing subscription dollars. The article, written by Jay Weinstein, a member of the Institute of Culinary Education, is headlined, “Make Mundane Meals Instantly Exotic, with these international bottled sauces,” offers nine suggestions, and pretty much all of them appeal to me.

First, there are some Asian possibilities: banana sauce, “the ketchup of the Philippines, … usually sweet, with subtle tropical flavors,” good on any foods from omelets to whatever comes off the grill. Anther is gochujang, a dark red paste made of red chili peppers, rice powder and fermented soy beans — tangy, spicy, salty & slightly fruity — good added to eggs, noodles, dumplings or ham. Then there is kecap manis, “an excellent marinade or glaze for meat, seafood or vegetables.” Oyster sauce will add “an unmistakable Asian flavor” and will transform hamburger. Ponzu is tangy and bright and offers “a lively citrus note” to dishes. Thai peanut sauce is a particular favorite of mine. It is a good marinade, and I happen to like it on noodles. 

Then there are what the author classifies as European Sauces: aioli, “a Mediterranean mayonnaise with garlic … drizzled over vegetables or seafood”; ajvar (pronounced “aye-var”) of “roasted sweet red peppers, eggplant and … tomato.” Use atop baked potato, meatloaf and pasta or for potato salad; and Maggi seasoning, for noodles or roast chicken “or mix a little into soup.”

There are lots more, but I think I should stop. While I probably have incurred the wrath of gourmet cooks, who make everything from scratch, perhaps I have helped some new brides … or grooms.

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By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

The way my parents remembered Pearl Harbor is the way I remember the assault on the twin towers the sunny, beautiful September day that changed our lives. In both instances, our nation was attacked. For my parents, the attackers were readily identifiable: a hostile country declaring war. For those of us who watched the planes crash into the iconic New York buildings, the culprits were evildoers. Who were they? Why were they intent on killing the passengers on the planes and the workers in the offices, all civilians?

At first, in our total unpreparedness, we thought it was an accident. The pilot had a stroke. The plane suffered a mechanical failure. The brain struggles to supply an acceptable explanation for the unacceptable. When the second plane hit, we knew it was an intentionally horrific act. How could this be happening? Where were our defenses?

I was on my way to HSBC Bank when the first plane hit. I had been told by the bank manager to come early because I was taking out a loan to buy the other newspaper in town, The Three Village Herald, and the closing was in the attorney’s office later that day. I got there a couple of minutes after they opened, and I was the only customer. The tellers were in the private staff room, watching the television and following the sounds, I wandered in just in time to see the second plane hit the South Tower. The two women in the room screamed as the manager yelled profanities. I had never before heard him so much as raise his voice.

We were riveted to the television screen, smoke and fire pouring from the buildings, and then the phone rang. The manager left the room to answer it, and when he returned, he informed me that I couldn’t leave. He had gotten the order to lock the doors of the bank to prevent a run, and he had immediately complied. I spent the next five hours in their company. The four of us stared at the television and saw the plane hit the building over and over as the networks continually replayed the footage. The sight will be forever imprinted on my brain.

A tormenting visual over all these 20 years is one that I actually did not see. In my 20s, I worked for Time-Life on the 32nd floor of their building on 50th Street and 6th Avenue, opposite Radio City Music Hall. I had been delighted by the view from the office windows, the cars like toys and the people like ants in the streets below. I know how life unfolded right after getting to work in the morning in such a location. Women went to the bathroom to put on mascara and fix their hair, little preparations for the day they didn’t have time to do before rushing to the subway. Men lined up at the coffee trolley, affectionately called “the roach coach,” in the hall for that cup of java and maybe a Danish to bring back to their desks to help power them through the morning. These are the ordinary activities in the first hour of work.

That’s what ordinary people were doing in the skyscrapers on Tuesday, September 11, when they died.

The killers took away those people from their wives and husbands and children and mothers and fathers when they flew the planes into the towers. Those workers are forevermore missing, as are the twin fingers pointing to the sky in the Manhattan silhouette each time I cross the bridge into town. And life goes on, as it always does, no matter what happens.

We attended a New York Press Association conference in Vermont two days later, and people flocked to us when we stopped for gas and they saw our New York plates, to express their sorrow and their support. People flew American flags everywhere. For at least six months, everyone held the doors open for those behind them. Shared tragedy evokes kindness. 

We were all one that day.

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Rarely do I sort the jumbled contents of my drawers. With a burst of energy, I did just that the other day, and I was rewarded with an archaeological find. There, toward the back, where I had clearly put it for safekeeping, was a $25 United States Saving Bond that had been given to my husband in 1950.

Curiously, it happened to be exactly on the day and month of our second son’s birth many years later. But I digress.

Back to the matter of the bond. What to do with this bit of Series E antiquity?

First thought was to bring it to my friendly banker, who searched for the serial number on the web and found it was worth $147 and change today. OK, not too bad, since it originally cost $18.75. At least the gift has kept up with inflation.

Next were the requirements for cashing the bond. That has proven not to be so simple for a couple of reasons. First, there is another name listed as the recipient on the front. It is that of his mother. The name on the face of the paper reads this way: that of my husband OR that of his mother. Whoever gave him the bond probably thought it was a good idea to have the parent involved as a backup. After all, my husband was just a teenager then. So, not only do I have to supply key information about my husband, like social security number and death certificate. I also have to produce the names of my mother-in-law’s parents, the county in which she died, her last residence, along with her social security number and her date of death in order to get her death certificate. Well, that’s not happening. At least not without some huge sleuthing.

At this point, kudos to my banker, who will not give up. And we do have a couple of lucky breaks here. She was born in the United States, so presumably, a death certificate can be found. Further, one of my husband’s siblings and his wife thankfully are still alive, with both retaining every single brain cell. They could tell me where she lived and her parents’ last name. They had no idea of her social security number, nor could they recall where she died. My daughter-in-law, called in to help, was able to use the internet and found her date of death.

Another kink in the thread is that the last name of both is misspelled, with an extra ‘f’ on the end. The gifter did not know their correct spelling. My brother-in-law assured me she did not spell their name that way. I don’t know how much of an obstacle that will be in this age of computer exactness.

The biggest challenge remaining is to determine in which county she died. She lived in Queens, she may have died in a Manhattan hospital, or she may have been living in an adult home in Nassau County, near her daughter, at the time of her death. I will be paying $23 and some change in order to file for a search of that elusive certificate. Perhaps I will have to do that three times.

This is not about money now. I know both those people listed on the bond would want to be made whole lo these 71 years later. I owe it to them to continue the search. Besides, as my banker explained, this is the first such conundrum he has been presented with, and he will learn from it and know how to deal with the next one.

For my part, I will consider any money I should ultimately receive, as the 1936 Bing Crosby song goes, pennies from heaven.

Pixabay photo

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Another birthday has come and gone. It was a memorable day, first, because it began with an overflowing toilet bowl, and it ended with the imminent arrival of Hurricane Henri. The latter caused my children and grandchildren, who were happily visiting, to depart abruptly for their homes before sunset. In between, we enjoyed a terrific party, with lots of laughter, board games and food, lingering over each meal long enough to plan the next one.

We on Long Island were lucky to have escaped the worst of the storm after the dire predictions. Lots of rain fell, some of it torrentially, but the electricity stayed on and the flooding wasn’t too bad. What could have been a disaster for us made me consider more carefully an article I recently read in the Spring/Summer edition of Columbia University’s magazine. 

Titled, “How to Prepare for a ‘Megadisaster,’” by Kevin Krajick and David J. Craig, it is an interview with Columbia’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness Director Jeffrey Schlegelmilch. The center conducts research to help “prevent, prepare for and respond to natural and human-driven disasters on behalf of the United States.” Megadisasters are events that would have “society-altering potential,” like the Black Death in the Middle Ages or the Irish Potato Famine. 

In our century, we are seeing more large-scale disasters, both because of human activity and our vulnerability to them. We are polluting our atmosphere, which is thought to cause more extreme weather, and we are building in flood zones and forested areas susceptible to wildfires. We are also “encroaching into wildlife areas and coming into closer contact with animals harboring exotic pathogens” that then, as we travel, spread across the globe.

Schlegelmilch names five categories of mega risk: climate change, biological perils, infrastructure failures, cyberthreats and nuclear conflict. COVID-19 could have been a megadisaster had we not responded, albeit too slowly, to the extent that we have so far. While we lacked the medical supplies needed to handle a pandemic, we did rapidly develop vaccines, which certainly are helping to control the long-term impact. Climate change, with its prolonged droughts, can cause widespread food and water shortages and their catastrophic consequences. The American Society of Civil Engineers has given the nation a C- grade on the most recent Infrastructure Report Card. Our electric grid might be the biggest problem in this category, since it is “aging, overloaded and quite susceptible to breakdown,” or to terrorist attacks. Remember that millions of people lost electricity in Texas last winter due to a couple of severe storms. More than 2,300 of our dams are structurally worrisome, as are 46,000 of our bridges.

The long-term human toll of disasters needs also to be considered and planned for, especially for children. Those whose lives are severely impacted “are much likelier to suffer anxiety and depression, to display behavioral problems and to struggle in school for years.”

So what can we do to ready our nation for disasters?

We need forward-looking strategies from governmental agencies and the many non-profit organizations to deal with these possibilities. We must demand those. Disaster response, like insurance, which we hope never to need, must be in place. Woe to those who try to catch up with a disaster after it happens. Chaos ensues even with planning. It does to a much more horrific extent without some degree of readiness.

According to Schlegelmilch, disaster preparedness really began in the US in the early 2000s, after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. He believes a lot of progress has been made since then. The strength of social bonds among neighbors and within a community makes the biggest difference in how well areas recover after a catastrophe. Also coordinating relief efforts is helped by artificial intelligence, software specifically designed for sifting through a great deal of information, then picking out the critical data for making life and death decisions. Preparedness for biothreats. however, needs attention.

Meanwhile, what can we do to prepare ourselves? 

Whatever the disaster, we will either have to stay at home for long periods or leave immediately, says Schlegelmilch. We should hope neither happens yet prepare for both.

Pixabay photo

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

The other day, I went to the kitchen sink for some water, and when I turned on the faucet, only a few drops came out, then nothing. Puzzled, I tried it again, shutting then opening the tap. No water. My first thought was that something might be wrong with the pipes in the house. Zipping around, I tried the bathroom sinks. Same result. The water line into the house looked intact, no leaks. This was going to be a big problem, I worried, worse than when the electricity cuts out. I had an awful feeling of deprivation. Where was our water?

It turned out that there was a major leak in the underground water line to our block. Before too long, the Suffolk County Water Authority workers arrived and began digging up the blacktop. It was during those high heat days, and soon the men were drenched in their own sweat, but I admired their work ethic. They kept at the job for a full 12 hours until the line was repaired. We deeply appreciated them and let them know.

I also had a new perspective on having water. We turn the handle and expect to have water to drink, to cook, to clean, to bathe. Yes, I have traveled in other countries where I had to drink bottled water, but nonetheless, water came out of the taps. I follow the news about water shortages around the world, including in our country, but it is with a different perspective now when I see such reports on television. We feel entitled to running water, but we are so privileged. To turn on the faucet and have nothing come out, even for a few hours, is deeply unsettling.

Here is an example where water is a great concern. We know there has been a drought in California for the past two years. Southern California cities have prepared for the worst by building aqueducts and reservoirs and storing water underground. Despite their more arid climate, the south of the state is prepared. Smaller northern California towns, located in what was a more rainy climate, and much loved by tourists, are caught short. Reservoirs there are at worrisome levels and even power-generating dams have had to stop producing electricity because of insufficient water. These are agricultural areas too, and farmers, as well as restaurateurs and innkeepers, are afraid they may have to shut down. To truck in water costs 20 to 45 cents a gallon compared with the typical utility company rate of less than a penny a gallon.

Further, the level of water in the Colorado River and Lake Mead, which is formed by the Hoover Dam, is falling, threatening the water supply for Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada residents and especially Arizona’s agricultural output. Even major semiconductor manufacturers, expanding there, require a lot of water to produce their much needed product. Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, is now at its lowest level ever. The $1 trillion package just passed by the Senate does include water shortage mitigation funds.

Worldwide, over a billion people lack access to water and 2.7 billion find water scarce for at least one month a year. Countries most affected include Egypt, Syria, Somalia, Pakistan, Haiti, Laos, Cambodia, Ethiopia and Afghanistan. The irony is that over 70 % of the earth is covered by water. Desalination, which is an expensive option, could become a solution. There is also water in the air. An Israeli company called, Watergen. pulls water from the air, as much as 6000 liters a day. that is used to support entire hospitals in Gaza and rural villages in central Africa. It also helped Australia battle bush fires in 2020. Further, harvesting the pure water from icebergs is big business along Canada’s east coast.

These are all possible solutions. Perhaps most important is the care we humans must take with our precious supply, not to mindlessly pollute or overuse what we are grateful to have. I am duly reminded how lucky we are.