5 x 8: A dip in the disaster fund pool

A call to action: Later today I hope to provide the annual July Fourth post of photos of the inappropriate displays of affection for the American flag in all of its various forms — the beer koozie, the paper plate. the pants etc. You are a vital cog in the effort. Please send your photos to me (bcollins@mpr.org)

Now then: Five themes percolating in the world:


Megan Kellerman of Minneapolis uses her cellphone on Saturday, June 22, 2013 while it charges off the battery of her car, which was crushed by a fallen tree on Humbolt Avenue near 33rd Street in Minneapolis.  (MPR Photo/Hart Van Denburg)

As colleague Nate Minor points out, Minnesota officials are asking the federal government for aid in the wake of last month’s severe storms and flash floods. Disaster recovery experts with the state say the cleanup costs could exceed the $7.26 million minimum to be considered for federal funding (requiring a state match), Nate reported. There’s no question it was a big storm and it affected a large part of the state. Some roads in the southeast part of the state, for example, are washed out. Most of the public focus of the “disaster,” however, seemed limited to much of Minneapolis and the fairly prosperous western suburbs.

Federal Emergency Management teams will be in the area next week to see if the damage was expensive enough to warrant the federal government spending money to fix it.

We won’t know until at least then, of course, what the extent of any aid will be. The state’s request is only aimed at public infrastructure and that owned by certain non-profit entities. The last time FEMA was in Minneapolis, it said “no” to the people of North Minneapolis when a May 2011 tornado visited and left a true disaster in its wake, especially given the poverty of the area and the inability of many people to even start a recovery.

That November, City Pages documented how North Minneapolis had been ignored. It took months for street lights to be turned back on in some neighborhoods, it reported.

When it made its calculations, FEMA said there was enough volunteer support in North Minneapolis and the area didn’t needs its money, even though it obviously did.

Since that denial, the federal government’s disaster budget has gotten worse, but communities are still getting the help. Earlier, sections of the western part of Minnesota were approved for help recovering from a spring ice storm. Yesterday, the president declared counties in Iowa a disaster from spring flooding, upstate New York is a disaster waiting to be declared. Last year, the Duluth area, understandably, had no problem getting the federal cash, although some Minnesota lawmakers were not happy about being asked to pitch in.

West, Texas asked for it after the fertilizer plant exploded and didn’t get it, however.

“This was a very easy turndown,”Frances L. Edwards, a disaster response expert, told the New York Times. “The State of Texas is not a poor state. They have significant revenues. The philosophy is that federal money should only be used as a last resort where there really is no reasonable alternative.”

After the Moore, Oklahoma tornado, US News’ Ryan Alexander suggested the entire federal disaster aid program be reformed:

In 15 out of the 20 years between 1991 and 2011, Congress passed emergency supplemental appropriations bills to address the needs of communities in the wakes of flood, fires, tornadoes and terrorism. And in three of the five years in which emergency supplemental bills were not passed, budget games were employed to allow disaster relief funds to pass through the regular budget process without being subject to regular order budget caps, according to the Congressional Research Service.

People want and need federal disaster relief, but we need to plan ahead, understand how to pay for it and reduce or mitigate costs where we can. Disaster spending is not a primary cause of our overall budget woes, but it does reflect our underlying challenges. We didn’t accumulate a $16.5 trillion debt solely through wasteful spending; we also built the debt through habitually spending more money – sometimes on critical, vital services – than we take in.

Which brings us back to Minnesota and the role of federal aid. Is a state that opened its coffers to a football owner a “poor” state? Is the question a matter of needing help to make things better, or making different priorities of the money the state has? After many recent disasters, outsiders asked why people would live in area susceptible to (fill in name of disaster here)? Now it’s our turn.

Discuss below.


I told you in this space yesterday morning about the trailer theft of a non-profit organization that helps developmentally disabled people earn a living. A lot of their equipment disappeared in the heist.

It wouldn’t have surprised me if people responded to their plight and they did, WCCO reports.

Nearly a half a dozen lawn mowers have been donated, including a blower — and that’s not all they’re raking in.

“One anonymous donor said ‘How much would a trailer cost?’ and I said, ‘Approximately $3,000,’” CEO Lynne Megan said. “He said, ‘My wife and I will be donating $3,000.’”

The new tools are also nicer than the ones they had.

Now, they just need more lawns to mow at $47 an hour.

More good: When you “put yourself out there, expecting nothing in return.”


There’s an interesting one-sided political debate breaking out in the wake of the awful deaths of 19 firefighters battling the wildfire in Arizona. My Twitter feed, for example, is often mocking President Obama and others for likely blaming the wildfires on climate change, even though they haven’t. It’s a pre-emptive strike to try to keep the topic from being raised.

But someone has. The people on the ground fighting — and occasionally dying — in them.


A lot of things we don’t want to be true we think we can make untrue by just repeating they’re not true. Even if they are.

But climate change can’t be ignored in these fires, the Guardian notes today.

“Many firefighters have commented that they are facing more extreme fire behavior than they have witnessed in their lifetimes,” remarked Dr. Michael Medler, a former wildland firefighter and now a professor at Western Washington University, in 2007 congressional testimony. If fires are behaving in different ways than expected—if they’re larger, if they’re unusually severe—that’s an added risk. Longer fire seasons also expose more firefighters to more potential hazards in general. (For more on how wildfires are changing see our explainer here.)

That’s not to say that climate change is the only factor making wildfires worse or seemingly more destructive. Increased development in fire prone areas is also at play, as are questionable past “fire suppression” practices. But we can’t ignore the climate factor.

We can’t adequately mourn the dead, nor honor the efforts of their colleagues, while dismissing the firsthand knowledge they’re giving us. Otherwise, they died for nothing.

Related: Smoke drifting here from Canadian forest fires ‘perfectly normal’ .


But it was only metadata, the defenders of NSA snooping into the communications of Americans said when Edward Snowden began leaking the secrets of the extent of domestic spying on American citizens. What can you do with that? Now, MIT has come up with a method to let you spy on yourself, Planet Money reports today.

“It’s about self-reflection, art, privacy and strategy, MIT says about its immersion program. “It’s about providing users with a number of different perspectives by leveraging on the fact that the web, and emails, are now an important part of our past.”

“Once you confront it, can literally change your life,” the project’s Cesar Hidalgo tells the Boston Globe.

HIDALGO: It’s like the world is catching up to what a fringe group of academics was aware of in 2004 and 2005. Nobody liked [thinking about metadata], and nobody cared about us, and they all thought that working with mobile phone records or e-mails was sort of a curiosity or a stupidity. And we’ve come to a world where, now, it’s completely the opposite. Everybody’s chasing that. So, for me, I think it’s healthy that these kinds of [news stories] come out, because it helps everybody start having conversations that are rich, that are important.

IDEAS: Are there ethical or political lessons about metadata that immersion teaches?

HIDALGO: What I believe is, if you’re going to make platforms that deal with personal data, you have to develop ways of doing this in such a way that you can be transparent with the user about the data you have, about how you’re handling it, and about how the user can withdraw the data from your system. And I think we don’t have that [in society], because what happens is, all of these things are buried in these user agreements that are longer than the Constitution….Hopefully, [with our deletion policy], we can lead by example, by showing that, when it’s possible to build these platforms, it may be something that people appreciate. It’s a very simple feature on the platform, but it makes a very strong moral point about the way we should deal with data.

Give it a try. Let me know if it changes your life.

Related spying: Bolivian plane rerouted on Snowden suspicions.


One lesson from North Dakota’s Oil Patch boom is you can’t have an economic boom without the crime that comes with it.

Forum News’ Oil Patch Dispatch reports that police in the embattled area are getting access to money to improve crime fighting, but no money to hire more cops.

He said every agency in the Oil Patch has seen increases in arrests from 200 percent to 1,000 percent.

“We need this just to try and keep up,” Jurgens said.

The focus of the grants will be to reduce organized crime, drug trafficking, prostitution and other criminal activity that is now prevalent in oil-producing counties, Stenehjem said.

“The challenges out here in the Oil Patch have been huge,” Stenehjem told the officers. “And the kinds of issues that you’re seeing are things, for most of you who have been around awhile, never expected to see.”

Send your oil. Keep your crime, North Dakota.

Related: Your time has come and gone, farm country. (NY Times)

Bonus I: An evening on Lake Itasca (via St. Cloud Times)

Bonus II: 150 years later: The letters of Winona’s Company K. (Rochester Post Bulletin)

Bonus III: Had Homer Bailey not been pitching a no-hitter in the 9th inning last night in Cincinnati, I might have seen the end of the compelling story of the construction of Mount Rushmore. Don’t deny yourself the pleasure of the story. PBS’ The American Experience is a national treasure on its own.

Is it better to quit while you are at the top of your game, or to fade away slowly?


Daily Circuit (9-12 p.m.) – First hour: The wildfires in the Southwest.

Second hour: Journalist and author Stephen Rodrick and Joyce Raezer, executive director of National Military Family Association, talk about present and/or lingering challenges military families face. Dr. Pauline Boss, a pioneer in interdisciplinary study of family stress, will also join to discuss sense of loss in terms of “ambiguous loss”.

Third hour: How Immigrants become “American.”

MPR News Presents (12-1 pm): On the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg: Richard Moe, speaking at the Minnesota Historical Society about his book, “The Last Full Measure: The Life and Death of the First Minnesota Volunteers.”

The Takeaway (1-2 p.m.) – What’s next in Yarnell, Arizona?

All Things Considered (3-6:30 p.m.) – As July begins, the musicians, management, and audiences of the Minnesota Orchestra enter the 10th month of lockout with no end in sight. The Minnesota Public Radio Arts unit has been talking to observers near and far about what’s happened so far, and where they think this will end. The predictions are gloomy.

Zahra Aljabri is bringing Muslims, conservative Christians and Orthodox Jews together. And she’s doing it through fashion. The 29-year-old is the co-founder of Mode-sty, a Minneapolis-based company that caters to women, religious or not, who are looking to show less skin. In the past, says Aljabri, modest attire meant “dull, boxy and boring.” Her goal is to show people that clothes can be modest and stylish at the same time. MPR’s Nikki Tundel will have the story.

The University of Minnesota is underway with its first wave of the U’s free Massive Open Online Courses, and the verdict so far is this: It’s a lot of work. But professors are awed by the sheer reach their words have. More than 70,000 students have enrolled in the five courses — known as MOOCs — in the fields of science, health and medicine. MPR’s Alex Friedrich will report.

NPR, of course, is covering the days events in Egypt where an ultimatum from the military expires shortly.