2012 - %3, October

Will Sandy Blow Away East Coast Wind Farms?

| Tue Oct. 30, 2012 6:03 AM EDT

Big storms always raise the spectre of damage to nuclear reactors and other important energy infrastructure. But with wind speeds predicted to gust up to 90 mph today, how are the East Coast's wind turbines holding up to Hurricane Sandy?

"Wind turbines are designed specifically to harness the wind, but they are also designed to withstand it," Ellen Carey of the American Wind Energy Association said in an email. Most turbines are designed to stand up to winds up to 135 mph, she said, well beyond what's expected from this storm. And there are a host of techniques turbines operators can make use of to protect the infrastructure, starting with rotating the blades laterally so that wind slips through them.

Matt Tulis of E.On Energy said a wind farm the company operates in Munnsville, NY, will stay open through storm, barring any mandatory evacuations for workers there.

"They're prepared for whatever Mother Nature might blow in," he said. "We look for windy spots. So on a certain level, the more wind the better."

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Will Hurricane Sandy Lower Gas Prices by Election Day?

| Tue Oct. 30, 2012 6:03 AM EDT

As Election Day draws near, Mitt Romney continues to hammer President Obama on high gas prices in states like California—never mind how little say presidents actually have in the matter. But according to a recent national survey, prices, while still higher than last year, have been in decline these past two weeks—particularly in battleground states like Ohio and Wisconsin. And although Hurricane Sandy might drive up prices in the short term, experts say the storm could actually drive down gas prices further in the coming weeks.

"In the US, we produce about 8.5 million barrels of crude oil a day. During Sandy, we're likely to see demand reduced by 1-2 million barrels a day, and that final number will be dictated by the magnitude of the storm," says Avery Ash, AAA's manager of regulatory affairs.

Oil refineries in New Jersey and Pennsylvania have scaled back production in anticipation of the storm. But unlike Katrina, Sandy isn't slamming a major refining region. Instead, it's hitting the East Coast, which makes up a large portion of US demand but relies on refineries in the Midwest, or imported gasoline. "So you've got some supply issues, but in the longer term you've got 'demand destruction' bringing prices down. The question is when these two factors will balance out," Ash says. 

If Hurricane Sandy's "demand destruction" effect combines with factors such as lower seasonal demand and a recent drop in crude oil prices, Americans could be looking at cheaper gas by November 6. Whether such a late-breaking shift could help Obama at the polls is anybody's guess. Writes Clifford Kraus of the New York Times:

Most of the states that have the highest gas prices—California, New York, Oregon, and Washington—are Obama strongholds. And most of the states with the cheapest gas prices tend to be Southern and Romney strongholds, like Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Alabama…So while gasoline prices make for an easy line of attack in a debate or stump speech, it remains to be seen whether they will influence the election outcome.

Rick Newman, chief business correspondent for US News and World Report, counters that falling gas prices in swing states could ultimately help the president, because they "have an outsized effect on consumer psyches."

Will Romney Try to Exploit Hurricane Sandy?

| Tue Oct. 30, 2012 1:49 AM EDT

A friend and I were just emailing about Hurricane Sandy:

Friend: This may be the election right here. If Obama can look like he's handling this competently and in control he should be okay. But I'm sure Romney's people are all in a room trying to figure out how to make this Obama's Katrina.

Me: Benghazi didn't work for them, so Sandy is their last hope. But I do think this is a challenge for Romney. Any criticism will look nakedly opportunistic unless there's really a good reason for it. I think the press is probably waiting for Romney to say something obviously excessive.

Friend: I'd watch Drudge for the cues. He should have a picture of a stranded black person up at some point tomorrow.

The wingers will certainly be looking for some kind of Sandy-related incompetence to hang on Obama, but I really do think the press will be on the watch for this and ready to pounce. It's such an obvious thing for a desperate campaign to do, and exploiting a tragedy like this a week before an election would be a little too raw even for our conflict-loving media. Unless Obama really screws up something badly, Romney would probably be best served by quietly telling his surrogates to cool it on Sandy.

David Brooks Says We Must Allow the Hostage to be Killed

| Tue Oct. 30, 2012 12:22 AM EDT

Shorter David Brooks: congressional Republicans are such implacable assholes that they'll flatly refuse to support big legislation that's good for the country as long as Barack Obama is president. But congressional Democrats are more reasonable, so if Mitt Romney wins, he'll be able to get some big stuff passed. Therefore you should vote for Romney.

Shorter shorter David Brooks: the only way to deal with terrorists is to give them what they want.

If you think I must be characterizing Brooks unfairly, I urge you to click on the link above. Then come back and tell me what I got wrong.

Election Update: What Four Different Models Say About November 6th

| Mon Oct. 29, 2012 11:25 PM EDT

It's a week until Election Day, so here's an update on the status of the four most popular presidential forecasting models. On the top are Drew Linzer and Nate Silver; on the bottom are Sam Wang and Pollster. Obama has been widening his lead since about October 10, and is now the favorite in all four models. The average of the models gives Obama 301 electoral votes. Accordingly, you should expect much mud to fly from the Romney campaign over the next seven days.

The Real Real Story Behind Benghazi

| Mon Oct. 29, 2012 10:39 PM EDT

Having pretty much failed to persuade the country that the Obama administration misled the American public about Benghazi while cravenly refusing to call it an act of terrorism, conservatives now have a new conspiracy theory. It revolves around the notion that Obama basically had a real-time video feed of what was happening; knew that embassy staffers were requesting help; knew that a fast-response team could get there in time; but ordered them not to go in, thus making himself personally responsible for the deaths of four American diplomats. Charles Woods, the father of Benghazi victim Tyrone Woods, has been retailing this story all over right-wing talk radio, and conservatives are up in arms that the mainstream media is ignoring it.

But I guess that's old news. The latest latest conspiracy theory is that General Carter Ham, the head of AFRICOM, is being sacked because....well, let's let James Robbins tell the story that he heard from "someone inside the military that I trust entirely":

General Ham immediately had a rapid response unit ready and communicated to the Pentagon that he had a unit ready. General Ham then received the order to stand down. His response was to screw it, he was going to help anyhow. Within 30 seconds to a minute after making the move to respond, his second in command apprehended General Ham and told him that he was now relieved of his command.

The mainstream media is, once again, ignoring this bombshell on the pretext that the Pentagon flatly denies it. The real reason, of course, is that they're in the tank for Obama and won't do anything to hurt him before Election Day.

I have nowhere really to go with this, so I'll turn it into a reader poll. On Twitter earlier, I predicted that no matter who wins, Republicans will completely lose interest in Benghazi on November 7th. What do you think?

A. Yes indeed. Peddling this nonsense will no longer serve any purpose once the election is over.

B. No siree. If Obama wins, Benghazi will mutate from election fodder into impeachment fodder.

Vote in comments!

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Scary Beautiful: The Best Hurricane Sandy Maps

| Mon Oct. 29, 2012 5:49 PM EDT

My browser crashed three times to bring you this gale-force roundup of Hurricane Sandy visualizations. She looks rather lovely from here in unruffled San Francisco, but hey, unholy devastation rains down on our heads soon enough. Gaze deep into the mesmerizing belly of the beast, and stay safe out there!

NOAA's animated gif: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was gif'ing when gif'ing wasn't cool. This one shows Sandy's path today from 8:15 AM to 3:15PM EST.

 

Wind Map, by data-viz artists Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg. This real-time map of hourly wind speeds across America existed before Sandy reared her election-skewering head. On most days, the map shows a cute white fur gently rippling across the country. During hurricanes, the brutal convergence of high-speed winds is downright hair-raising, as in images captured during Isaac (scroll down). See the live map here.

 

Hurricane Irene vs. Hurricane Sandy: Via Gothamist, which points out that Irene, which ranked among the top-ten priciest disasters in American history, "looks like a stuffed animal tea party compared to Sandy." Cheers!

 

(Deep breath) The Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies' map of SSMI/SSMIS/TMI-derived Total Precipitable Water - North Atlantic: Or as I like to call it: "Ooooooooh prettttty." 

 

WNYC's Hurricane Sandy tracker: Which they've thoughtfully allowed you to steal and display all its terrifying glory on your own website, perhaps next to an inevitable photo of short-sleeved presidential disaster abatement?

 

Looking for form and function in your Sandy maps? Google's mapping active shelters. Way to be prepared just in case, Greyhound Station of Indianapolis, Indiana.

Got more scary-beautiful Sandy maps to share? Drop links below!

Romney's Mormon Background May Shape His Anti-FEMA Stance

| Mon Oct. 29, 2012 5:39 PM EDT

With Hurricane Sandy tearing up the eastern seaboard, Mitt Romney has been taking some knocks for his suggestion during a GOP primary debate in June 2011 that the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be shuttered in favor of letting the states and the private sector take responsibility for disaster response. Liberals criticized Romney's comments as just another example of how he and Paul Ryan would tackle the national debt by cutting needed services. But when it comes to dealing with disasters, Romney's view of the government's role may be shaped by something other than Republican orthodoxy—his experience as a sixth-generation Mormon.

In 2007, Romney gave what was then known as his "Mormon speech," in which he aimed to reassure voters that his faith would not prevent him from representing people of all religions. After the speech, I wrote a story lamenting that Romney hadn't spoken more about some of his church's strengths, most notably its ability to respond in a crisis, which in many cases has indeed been superior to efforts launched by the government, including during Hurricane Katrina. From that story:

The church's self-reliance dogma extends beyond the average family basement to the community at large. For instance, it runs Bishop's Storehouse Services, a network of regional warehouses that became well known during the Great Depression. When disaster strikes, church elders spring into action to distribute the goods through a welfare organization whose efficiency has been compared by some writers to the German Wehrmacht.

I grew up in Utah and have seen this phenomenon first hand. In the spring of 1983, after record levels of snow melted in the nearby mountains, City Creek flooded and threatened major parts of Salt Lake City. On a Sunday morning, as the water started to rise, the church quickly mobilized thousands of people to make sandbags to save critical parts of downtown (and, of course, the church infrastructure). We watched with amazement as the volunteers literally diverted the floodwater onto State Street, a major thoroughfare (where people later went fishing). The efforts were so successful that state officials estimated that they prevented 1,400 acres of land from flooding and $140 million in water damage.

More recently, the church went into high gear during Hurricane Katrina in a performance that put the federal government to shame. Before the storm made landfall, the LDS church in New Orleans safely evacuated all but about seven families out of about 2,500 local members, largely because the church had created an automated telephone emergency warning system that alerted all its members, instructing them to get out of town and telling them where to go.

Two days before the storm made landfall, while FEMA was floundering, the church dispatched 10 trucks full of tents, sleeping bags, tarps to cover wrecked roofs, bottled water, and 5-gallon drums of gas from its warehouses to New Orleans and other hard-hit areas. The supplies were distributed in an orderly fashion to people who desperately needed them.

Rather than downplay his religion, Mitt could spotlight the aspects of his church that reflect basic Republican values of self-sufficiency and the primacy of the private sector. After all, if disaster strikes, who will really care whether the Book of Mormon puts the Garden of Eden in Missouri? What matters is that if Romney ends up in the White House, his God will no doubt tell him to dispatch the trucks before the hurricane strikes.

The problem, of course, with Romney's projecting Mormon Church experience onto federal disaster management policy is that the LDS Church is sui generis. Their admirable model for self-reliance and disaster aid works only because the church is a unique, well-oiled, and tightly networked organization with members who will mobilize on command, as they did when Salt Lake flooded in the 1980s. There's no reason to believe, for example, that the state of Louisiana would have handled Hurricane Katrina any better if it had been left to its own devices.

Even in Utah, where Mormons have amply demonstrated their ability to respond to a crisis, the state has recognized that it can't rely solely on volunteer efforts to protect its residents. The current governor, Gary Herbert, a Republican, has requested federal disaster aid for several state crises. Federal funds have helped shore up the state's infrastructure to mitigate flooding, among other things, so there's more between residents and potential flood waters than just the sandbags of the Saints. But whether a President Romney would come around to the view of his supporters in Utah is anyone's guess.

PHOTOS: Hurricane Sandy Creeps Up on Brooklyn

| Mon Oct. 29, 2012 4:50 PM EDT

In Red Hook, a neighborhood along New York Harbor featuring low-lying land and industrial piers, sandbags weren't enough to prevent flooding, not just of seawater but also curious tourists, locals and television vans. A storm surge of between 6 to 11 feet tonight and into Tuesday morning is expected for areas like Red Hook. Dr. Alan Blumberg, an oceanographer with the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, has been keeping tabs on the storm surge with 200 sensors around the New York harbor. "We've been making measurements for 80 years," he says. "This is the worst we've ever recorded."

Winds became increasingly strong across the afternoon, narrowing the window for locals of "Zone A" to evacuate safely from the area. Officials are making final, strenuous arguments for locals to heed evacuation warnings.

Bill Johnson and Yolanda Dlamo (not pictured) were taking a break from preparing their Park Slope home ahead of Hurricane Sandy. "We're at the bottom of the street," said Johnson, "so if this floods we’re concerned about how much water we’re going to get in our area." In the meantime, like a lot of New Yorkers, they were greeting the storm with caution and curiosity.

Ulf Agger, above, from Brooklyn Heights, felt safe in his apartment. "I’m not scared, but I'm concerned. I think mostly about people who live in the lower areas, and all the flooding that will come," he said. "It still looks pretty calm, but you can see the water is much higher than it usually is. But I expect it to be here where we stand in a few hours' time."

Carol Serrano (right) and Nayda Ortiz decided to stay in Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood, despite mandatory evacuations, recalling what they thought were over-hyped precautions during last year's Hurricane Irene disaster.

"It’s beautiful and scary," Ortiz said, laughing with wonderment at the rising seas.

"This is exciting, this is cleansing," Serrano said. "I just don’t want to go anywhere this time. I want to be home. Home is cool: I have food; I have TV; if we don’t have lights, we have games."

"It’s scary, but I'm not scared, I think it’s more exciting than scary!" Ortiz said. "Isn't it fun? You guys are out here too!"

The couple came dressed for the occasion:

Additional reporting by Tim McDonnell.

One of These Tax Plans Is Not Like the Other

| Mon Oct. 29, 2012 2:55 PM EDT

Jared Bernstein compliments the Washington Post today for its tough line on Mitt Romney's evolving portfolio of magical tax plans. Unfortunately, he says, they can't leave well enough alone:

But the WaPo then goes unfairly to the “pox-on-both-houses” place when it claims that President Obama has not suggested explicit tax expenditures/loophole closures to pay for his corporate tax rate reduction, from 35% to 28%. In this document that introduced the administration’s corporate tax reform ideas, they explicitly call for eliminating an inventory accounting tax gimmick that costs the Treasury $74 billion over ten, oil and gas subsidies ($27 billion), the carried interest loophole, and a bunch of other cats and dogs that amount to over $140 billion.

Beyond that, however, they raise significant revenue (another $148 billion), and just as importantly, close down some distortionary incentives to offshore production, by closing international taxation loopholes. Moreover, their document suggests that some big ticket credits and deductions, including accelerated depreciation and tax preferences for debt over equity financing should be on the table.

How is that anywhere near analogous to the absence of specificity from the Romney campaign on their tax plan? So while I give the WaPo kudos for scrutinizing Romney’s tax math, the double pox formulation doesn’t work here. At the very least, they need to read the administration’s white paper and explain why I’m wrong.

Also worth noting: the Obama document is actually a serious proposal. It's not just four or five bullet points, as most of Romney's plans are. It goes into some serious detail about the pros and cons of various corporate tax reforms and explains what they mean and how much they cost. It's like night and day compared to the pabulum on the Romney campaign website.

More generally, Bernstein is right: this kind of editorializing is lazy, and it infects plenty of other subjects. If the Post doesn't like Obama's corporate tax proposal, that's fine. If they think his numbers don't add up, also fine. But why pretend that he's done nothing but go after trivial small-dollar pay-fors and hasn't produced a serious plan? It's just not true.