Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Floods in deserts



At the start of Flood: Nature and Culture (Reaktion Books), I wrote about how floods could happen almost anywhere – even in deserts, and included the picture above to prove it. It was taken in a desert in Arizona.

The latest proof has come in one of the driest places in the world, the Atacama Desert in Chile (a fascinating place to visit). Last week, torrential rains brought flash floods there that left two people dead and 24 missing. One was said to have been killed in a mudslide and the other electrocuted.

As the river Copiapo burst its banks, the government declared a state of emergency. 38,000 have been without electricity, nearly 50,000 without drinking water, and the government has been rescuing people by helicopter because roads have been blocked.


For the story of another deadly desert flood, in Antelope Canyon, Arizona, see my blog of 6 October 2012.

Picture by Anne Clements.  http://www.anneclements.com/

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Air crashes in the Alps



It has been clear from the start that there would be no survivors from the Germanwings Airbus A320 that came down in a remote area of the French Alps. We know that it lost altitude for eight minutes before hitting the ground. One flight recorder has been found, but it is damaged.

There have been a number of other serious air crashes in the Alps. On 3 November 1950, an Air India Lockheed Constellation flew into Mont Blanc, killing all 48 people on board. Storms delayed the rescue operation, and it was not until four days after the accident that search parties were able to reach the aircraft.

Less than 3 years later, on 1 September, 1953, another Constellation, this time operated by Air France, crashed into the Pelat Massif in the French Alps near Barcelonnette, killing the 42 people on board. Shortly before the crash, the pilot had reported violent storms.

On 24 January, 1966, another Air India aircraft, a Boeing 707, crashed close to the site of the 1950 accident, while en route from Beirut to Geneva, killing all 117 passengers and crew. An investigation concluded that the pilot had miscalculated his position, and had also misunderstood an instruction from air traffic control. There is still debris in the area, and only last year, a passenger’s camera was found by a mountaineer.


Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Hillsborough - at last the truth?





Nearly 26 years after it claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool football supporters, the police officer in charge on the day has finally admitted the Hillsborough disaster was his fault. David Duckenfield made his admission to new inquests into the deaths.

In fact, Mr Duckenfield made a whole series of admissions, among them: that he had lied about the events of the day, that he was ignorant of the layout of the ground, that he was not equipped to be in command of the operation, and that his response when the fatal crush happened was ‘hopeless’.

But counsel for 22 of the families accused him of making a ‘politician’s apology’, and tried to probe him on why it had taken more than a quarter of a century, noting that as late as March last year, he was still denying responsibility.


Mr Duckenfield and another senior officer were charged with manslaughter in a private prosecution in 2000. The other officer was acquitted, while the jury could not agree on Mr Duckenfield. The judge refused a retrial on the grounds that it would be impossible for it to be fair.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Tokyo - 70 years on from one of history's deadliest air raids



Seventy years ago this week, Tokyo and other Japanese cities were laid waste in a series of devastating air raids. On the night of March 9 and 10, 1945, more than 300 bombers dropped incendiaries on the Japanese capital for over two hours.

This resulted in what was said to be the worst man-made fire in history. Many of Tokyo's citizens lived in tightly packed, flimsy wooden buildings, and for the loss of just 15 aircraft, the Americans were able to destroy more than a quarter of a million structures. 


Fires raged for four days, and the death toll may have been as high as 140,000 - a similar number to the Atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima, and nearly twice as many as the one on Nagasaki. Over the next few days, Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe all suffered similar fates to Tokyo.


While last month's 70th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden was marked across Europe, in Tokyo, there is little today to commemorate the devastating raid of 1945, apart from a memorial (pictured) and a charnel house in a park. For more, see A Disastrous History of the World. 





Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Painting the frozen North



At the moment, I'm writing a book about storms, so I was lured into London's National Gallery to see an exhibition of paintings by the 19th century Norwegian artist, Peder Balke, of his country's wild and windy Arctic regions.

In the spring of 1832, Balke sailed along the coast of Norway, right up to the North Cape, and drew on what he saw there for inspiration and subject matter for the rest of his life. He was not particularly successful, and soon turned away from painting to property development and left-wing politics.


Still the exhibition, which is free, is an interesting portrayal of places seldom seen in paintings. Personally, I felt his moonlight scenes worked better than his daylight works, though he had a disconcerting habit of putting a rowing boat in an identical position in a number of his compositions. The exhibition also has some atmospheric depictions of mountains looming out of mist.


Many of the pictures have never been exhibited before in the UK, and the exhibition runs until April 12.


*This article on heatwaves quotes from my Disastrous History of the World.  http://roadtoinsure.com/heat-record-setting-heat-waves-history/  


Sunday, 1 March 2015

'Homeland' comes true! How Pakistan handles top terror suspects



It sounds like a plot line out of Homeland. One of the main suspects alleged to be behind the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008 which killed more than 160 people, is said to be living a life of luxury in a Pakistan prison, with internet and mobile phone access, and dozens of visitors popping in and out every day, without anyone bothering to check who they are.

Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi is being held with six of his comrades at the Adyala Jail in Rawalpindi. After being named by Indian officials, he was arrested at what was said to be a training camp for the militant, some would say terrorist, group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

In 2014, after doubts were raised over the Indian evidence, he was released on bail – embarrassingly, barely a day after the worst terrorist outrage in Pakistan’s history when Islamic fanatics murdered 145 people, including 132 children, at a school in Peshawar. The Pakistan military and civilian authorities had responded by calling for a crackdown on ‘all shades of terrorism’.


India protested, while the US and China are also said to have put on pressure, and the Pakistan government detained Lakhvi again under the Maintenance of Public Order law. But if the authorities believe he is a threat, the ‘anything goes’ prison regime seems an odd way of trying to protect Pakistanis.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

97 years ago - a dreadful racecourse disaster



On this day……..97 years ago, about 670 people were killed in a disastrous fire at Hongkong's Happy Valley racecourse. The track had been opened in 1846 to provide entertainment for British people in the colony, but had become even more popular with the Chinese.

On 26 February, 1918, thousands of people had flocked to the course, but just as the runners and riders were lining up for the first race, a huge fire broke out in highly inflammable temporary stands made of rattan and bamboo.

A reporter wrote that ‘awful confusion ensued’, and that the stands collapsed in a few seconds, with a sound like the ‘rasping of a saw’. A survivor recounted how he had at first urged people to stay calm, but that the structure had collapsed and he had found himself pinned under debris. He managed to cut himself out with a pocket knife.


An official inquiry declared that most of the dead were Chinese women and children. The cause of the fire has never been established, though it may have been an overturned cooking pot. Among the factors that turned it into a disaster were that too many people had been admitted to the stands, and that the inadequate water supply prevented the fire brigade from getting the flames under control until it was too late.