Half Staff America

Flags flew at half staff over Veterans Day weekend in Kentucky and nationwide. A pocket park in Somerset, Kentucky was the scene of these flags. Photo/Keith Schneider

SOMERSET, KY. — A chilly wind again whipped the flags flying at half staff here in central Kentucky. This time it was for George Bush, who died on Friday. Three weeks ago Jews were massacred in a Pittsburgh synagogue. Collegians were massacred in a bar and dance hall near Los Angeles. The two tragedies are linked by America’s miserable devotion to assault weapons and spilled blood. Flags flew at half staff then, too.

There is plenty to mourn in America, even for the regions of the country that thought they were making a difference by electing Donald Trump. Like suburban Detroit. As a candidate, Trump held a rally in Warren, Michigan and promised that if elected “not one job” would be lost in the auto industry. This week General Motors announced it was closing the plant it operated just down the road from where Trump made his promise as part of a plan to shed the company of 15,000 jobs. What’s sadder is that as Trump sputtered his indignation in Washington, his supporters on the ground and in right wing state media insisted the president was guiding the economy on the right course.

Even the election didn’t lift the November in my soul. Progressives took the House. A big help. But the Senate added two more Republicans. And Trump, who campaigned hard in Florida and Ohio, held those two states that are essential to his reelection.

I’m not a depressed personality. But I’m so saddened by circumstances in the United States because of this single fact. Change will occur but only after conditions get worse, perhaps much worse. A nation that has so quickly lost its bearings depends on great leadership to recover. The president of the United States is a miserable, limited scourge of a man, and a disastrous leader. But it seems clear to me that the antidote for President Trump, and the steps for diminishing the devotion that the president enjoys in white and rural America, is for the economy to sour. That unfortunately looks like what’s unfolding. Job growth has slowed. The stock market has slipped. Trade imbalances tilt more steeply to our imports.

In my specialty, the environment and economy, Trump’s ignorance also is adding to the damage that makes living in America more dangerous. As the condition of air, water, and land decline so will Trump’s support in rural America, which is being ravaged by ecological menaces that the president’s anti-science, anti-regulatory doctrine is making worse. Hurricanes and floods in the Southeast. Flash flooding in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Tornados in the Great Plains.

Fires in rural northern California since July have burned down more than 28,000 homes so thoroughly they look like they’ve been bombed. Over 100 people have died. The president blames mismanaged forests for the problem. It’s an idiotic, uninformed view. The fast moving walls of flame — and blame — raced through heavily settled, climate-dessciated, bone dry brush and wild land areas close to towns, not in stands of timber suitable for commercial logging.

A home destroyed by the Carr Fire in Redding, California in July. Photo/Keith Schneider

Lament is not one of my typical emotions. To date, my mourning has been reserved for the people I love and lost. I don’t feel helpless. I’m saddened by the incapable place that is America. I feel plundered by the calamity that our country has become.

— Keith Schneider

Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum Opens in Owensboro, Kentucky

The Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Owensboro, KY., opened on October 18, 2018. Photo/Keith Schneider

OWENSBORO, KY. — This flourishing city of more than 59,000 residents has occupied the high ground on a big bend of the Ohio River so long that its history includes being the winter encampment for the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804. Owensboro’s famous sons include Johnny Depp, who was born here in 1963. Among its notable achievements is surviving the loss of 6,000 General Electric manufacturing jobs at the end of the 20th century, and emerging in the 21st with a rebuilt downtown, a magnificent Ohio River public park, a steadily growing population, and one of the best-managed small city governments in the country.

On October 18, 2018 Owensboro added more luster to its contemporary attractiveness when it opened the $15.3 million Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The 50,000-square-foot building, with the acoustically exquisite 447-seat Woodward Theatre at its center, is the latest addition to a downtown collection of new civic infrastructure that has pitched the old river manufacturing and trade city onto a development path very different from the one it pursued over the last 225 years. Nearby are a riverfront convention center, two new hotels with a third on the way, a new office building, a mixed-use riverfront building, the magnificent riverfront park, and a redesigned Second Street corridor of restaurants, watering holes, and shops.

Gabrielle Gray and Terry Woodward on opening night. Photo/Keith Schneider

The Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum fits right in. It’s a civic accomplishment that works in several dimensions.

The theater showcases the resonant songwriting and brilliant musicianship of a great and increasingly popular American musical genre.

The Hall of Fame and Museum honors the musicians that developed bluegrass and popularized it across the United States and the world.

And Owensboro can rightfully call itself the authentic capital of bluegrass. The city lies just 37 miles north of Rosine, KY., the birthplace of Bill Monroe, the mandolin player who was the father of bluegrass music.

But even as the ingredients for a new hall of fame and museum were apparent in Owensboro, mixing them to produce a successful formula for construction took years of work. Much of it was led by Terry Woodward, an Owensboro musical entrepreneur, who helped start the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), and recruited the association to open an office in Owensboro in 1986. Woodward also helped start the International Bluegrass Music Museum, a separate non-profit that temporarily closed in 1999 due to funding issues. Continue reading “Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum Opens in Owensboro, Kentucky”

Mara Bates Weds Brandon Rushton

A union of two lovely people. Mara Bates and Brandon Rushton are wed in Traverse City. Photo/Keith Schneider

TRAVERSE CITY, MI —Romance, certainly the most elemental energy we know, flows like human life itself. Its headwaters charge off the slopes of new love, adventurous, boiling, unstoppable. Further along, the currents of romance grow powerful and certain. The way ahead, after all, promises eddies of delight and shoals of distress. There is no way around that. Those fortunate to have married the right partner know that marriage is the sacred pact that ties two people to romance, to the love of life, to the certainty that the journey is much better made together.

On Saturday, October 6, 2018, two people that I know well and love immensely committed themselves to lifelong romance. Mara Bates, my daughter, a delightful woman raised in Benzonia, Michigan married Brandon Rushton, a thoughtful man raised in Clio, Michigan. She is a hotel management executive in Charleston, South Carolina now. He is a poet who teaches at the College of Charleston. Their romance was kindled during a college spring break trip to Florida. That was over eight years ago. They have been together ever since.

It is a good union. Mara is a strong woman, capable, intelligent, beautiful, and ambitious — especially for the relationships she cultivates with the tight circle of family and friends that she keeps close. Those assets translate well to her work in the lodging industry. Mara’s emotional depth and compassion shows itself in her steadiness, her perceptiveness, her instinct for making good choices. Her friends and her family know well those traits. Now they are admired by Mara’s professional colleagues. She is, in short, a formidable leader — hard to rattle and easy to love. They are such distinctive qualities that Mara’s teachers at Benzie Central High School honored her with a citizenship award when she was 15 years old. It was like being named her school’s MVP.

October 6, 2018 was a lovely day in Traverse City, MI. Mara Bates married Brandon Rushton. Photo/Keith Schneider

Brandon, too, is a person of depth and intelligence and ambition. Outwardly, he’s a Michigan man — quiet, polite, self-effacing. Inside, though, Brandon is a keenly perceptive observer of the artifacts of contemporary America that make this an age of bile and blasphemy. A slim and handsome young man, an only son raised near Saginaw in the bosom of a stable and loving family, Brandon nevertheless writes like a street beggar with a sore foot. He sees the world through what he calls “tears and tissues.” Random fortune is “like the dividend of distance in quarters tossed at the toll booth.”

Continue reading “Mara Bates Weds Brandon Rushton”

California’s Fire Calamity

Wildfire does not discriminate. It incinerates homes of wealthy families and the poor. Photo/Keith Schneider

REDDING, CA. — Cities along the Carolina coast were under water this month. Neighborhoods in California’s northern highlands were incinerated in July and August. Mother Earth is pushing back hard in this quickly unfolding era of ecological menace and there are twice as many people in the way as there were 40 years ago.

I’m in California reporting for ProPublica on the causes and the solutions to the state’s wildfire emergency. You’ve heard something no doubt. The fires are getting bigger, more dangerous, more destructive. What you probably haven’t heard is that this fire calamity has been anticipated for 35 years.

The federal and state governments are pouring a tide of money into fire fighting responses that are not working, and killing the men battling these fires. More effective, much less expensive, less ecologically damaging, and safer tactics to prevent fires have been pushed to the side. Reason: lawsuits, ideological intransigence from environmentalists and industrialists, legislative momentum to pay for war-like militaristic air and ground “attack” teams to battle the flames, and bureaucratic frustration and exhaustion by forest managers.

The single spark from a tire blowout that ignited the inferno here in Redding was the last deadly step in a long, stupefying, characteristically demoralizing tale of the nation that we’ve become: litigious, science rejecting, intransigent, money grubbing, finger pointing, blame shifting. It’s a rotten story.

More later.

— Keith Schneider

Destroyed home in Redding. Photo/Keith Schneider

Southeast Asia’s Dam Disasters

In July, 39 people were killed and 6,600 left homeless after a big hydropower dam collapsed in Laos.

Like a herd of wild bulls, raging floodwaters stampeded across a highland plateau in July and tore a hole in the mammoth Xi-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower complex dam in south central Laos. The boiling torrent crashed downstream from the nearly completed $1 billion dam, drowning 39 people identified so far, leaving over 100 more missing, and forcing more than 6,600 people out of their homes and into temporary government housing.

Little more than a month later, on August 29, floodwaters caused an irrigation dam to burst at Swar creek in central Myanmar, flooding 85 villages.Two people are missing.

The two catastrophes, both connected to the increasing ferocity of drenching storms in Southeast Asia, are an epochal moment of reckoning for the financiers, builders and managers of big dams, especially the mammoth hydropower dams that n nations are so intent on building despite the vivid and mounting risks. Mega dam developers are being challenged by fierce ecological havoc, as well as climbing costs, civic resistance, and engineering lapses. The result is that dams around the world are failing at a rate never seen before.In Southeast Asia alone three big dams have failed in the last year. A second hydropower dam failed in northern Laos in September 2017.

“There have always been big projects that failed,” said Bent Flyvbjerg, professor of major program management at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and a widely cited global authority on mega projects. “What is different now is that we have many more mega projects, they are much bigger, and there are spectacular failures that are more visible.”

The deadly collapse in Laos is a case in point. Until the Xi-Pian Xe-Namnoy disaster, Laotian leaders viewed mega hydro dam construction as a safe path to strengthening their treasury. The tiny landlocked nation of 7.1 million people set out to encourage domestic and international financiers and contractors to build over 100 big hydropower projects to sell electricity to its fast-growing Southeast Asia neighbors and to serve its own rising power demands. According to the Laotian government, two thirds of the country’s hydropower is exported, which accounts for almost a third of its export revenue.

In late August, an irrigation dam collapsed in Myanmar and flooded 85 villages.

More than 50 dams are in various stages of planning and construction, according to government reports. As a whole, Laos is undertaking one of the world’s largest hydropower development programs. Continue reading “Southeast Asia’s Dam Disasters”