A Forgotten Catastrophe

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful lake…

Once upon a time, in the state of Louisiana, there was a beautiful freshwater lake called Lake Peigneur. It was about 10 feet deep, and covered about 10 square miles. It was a popular place to go fishing, and there was a botanical garden called Live Oak on its shores.

Unfortunately, humans, being what they are, couldn’t leave well enough alone. There was also a salt dome beneath the lake, and therefore the Diamond Crystal Salt Company created a salt mine there in 1919. Well, there’s no question that we all need salt to survive. But we’ve gotten it into our heads that we need oil to survive as well. That mistaken idea is what caused the Lake Peigneur disaster in 1980.

You see, Texaco had decided that drilling for oil on Lake Peigneur would be a financial boon to that company, because, you know, “drill, baby, drill.” And so they did. But due to a foolish miscalculation, they accidentally drilled right into the salt dome itself.

It’s really rather astonishing what happens when you drill a 14 inch wide hole through the floor of a lake and into a huge empty cavern below. Check out this history channel video that tells you all about it. The first thing that happened was that the drilling platform tilted, and the Texaco employees barely escaped with their lives. Then the salt mine began to fill with water, but thanks to an excellent evacuation plan, all 55 miners managed to escape as well.

Soon, that hole had turned into a whirlpool, and the entire drilling platform disappeared into what had been just 10 feet of water only moments before. Soon to follow were 11 barges and a tugboat that had been floating nearby. With them went trees, and 65 acres of land, including the botanical garden.

A fisherman who had been enjoying a tranquil day on the water only managed to survive because one of the barges temporarily blocked the hole and gave him just enough time to motor away and scramble to shore, only to watch his boat disappear along with, one assumes, the catch of the day.

Oh, but it gets worse. This maelstrom caused the Delcambre Canal, which usually drains out of the lake, to reverse course and empty brackish water into the void. For about a day, the lake was the site of Louisiana’s highest waterfall, measuring 164 feet. In addition, 400 foot geysers erupted, as the trapped air from the salt mine escaped.

It took two days for the water to stop rushing into the void. Once the pressure was equalized, 9 of the barges popped back up to the surface. The rest of what had been sucked in was never seen again.

Today, Lake Peigneur, once a 10 foot deep, fresh water lake, is now a 200 foot deep saltwater lake, with all the resulting ecological changes that that implies. You can still see a chimney sticking up from what remains of a house that sank below the waves, but other than that, you might never know there once was an environmental catastrophe here.

Oh, but it gets better. Texaco had to pay 32 million dollars to Diamond Crystal, and 12.8 million to Live Oak Gardens, which is a mere hand slap to such a large company. In exchange, they got to wait patiently for the news cycle to churn on so that their little oops would be forgotten and they could continue to rape mother nature in other locations. Because humans suck.

The salt mine, oddly enough, was able to continue operating until 1986, creating yet another cavern. There are several oil drilling operations nearby. And now, guess what? That cavern is being used as a storage facility for pressurized natural gas.

What could possibly go wrong?

Rip Van Winkle Gardens
Lake Peigneur

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Microinsurance Could Transform the Face of Disaster Recovery

An innovative idea that could change the world.

I absolutely love being in awe of friends. Recently, my friend Areiel Wolanow did a presentation before British Parliament, so you can imagine how proud I am to know this man. Actually, no you probably can’t, because my pride is off the charts.

Areiel is the Managing Director of Finserv Experts, a consulting firm that applies its expertise in technology to help transform businesses. One such area of expertise is in blockchain services. This is where things start getting completely over my head.

It seems that blockchain can take out the intermediators between producers and consumers, thus saving both of them time, effort, and money. (This makes me think of travel agents. Who uses them anymore? Now we can search for our plane tickets over the phone. I’ll let Areiel explain if I’m getting the gist of it below.)

But Areiel has put an even more humanitarian spin on the blockchain idea, by working toward using it to make insurance available to those who couldn’t otherwise access or afford it. Imagine, having your whole life wiped out by a tsunami, for example, and because you got some microinsurance from a phone app, you can now use another phone to get a payout that will help support you for a year while you get back on your feet. I don’t know about you, but I think the world could use fewer FEMA trailers! This could make that happen.

But I’ll let Areiel explain it in more detail.

The View from a Drawbridge: Please explain in layman’s terms, what microinsurance is.

Areiel Wolonow: In the most simple terms, microinsurance is simply insurance for small amounts.  But beneath this simple idea are some very powerful effects.  For instance, less than 9% of people in the world have health insurance, and unplanned health spending is one of the leading causes of people going into poverty.

Historically, it has not been possible to provide insurance to people in most parts of the world.  There are two main reasons for this:

  • The cost of administering an insurance policy isn’t that much different regardless of whether the policy covers two hundred dollars or two million dollars. As a result, insurance companies cannot afford to provide policies for smaller amounts without charging premiums that would be exorbitantly high.

  • When it comes time to pay a claim, the costs of paying the claim can often exceed the claim itself. For instance, when a tsunami Indonesia or flooding in Bangladesh occurs, the only way insurance companies could pay claims was to literally send someone out in a helicopter with a briefcase full of cash.  This is a very slow, unsafe, and expensive way of doing business, and adds even more cost to the premium.  Even the most socially responsible insurers could not avoid a pricing policy that was deeply regressive, charging the highest percentage premium to the people who could afford it the least.

What’s happening now, however, is that technology has ways of addressing both of these problems.  A combination of blockchain and mobile technology makes it possible to originate and service insurance with a minimum of human intervention.  Machine learning and integration to weather satellites makes it possible to pay claims immediately when a tsunami, flooding, or other natural disaster happens without the time and expense of having humans investigate the claim.  In the insurance industry, this is called parametric insurance, and it’s a game changer because everyone wins – the company saves huge amounts of cost investigating claims and the customer gets paid right away rather than going through the long and sometimes confusing claims adjustment process.

Technology also helps when it comes to paying the claims.  Most parts of the world now have reliable mobile wallets  (in fact the penetration of mobile payments in Indonesia and Bangladesh, even amongst the poor, far outpaces the US; this is one of many areas in technology where we are falling further behind).  This makes it possible to pay claims directly into people’s mobile wallets.  No more helicopters and suitcases of cash.

Can you tell me more about how your company, Finserv Experts, is working with blockchain to provide microinsurance solutions for natural disasters in Indonesia?

Finserv Experts is a small consultancy that I founded about 2.5 years ago, after being with IBM for nearly 12 years.  We provide both advisory and solution delivery services for transformational financial services.  For almost that entire time we have been supporting one of our clients, a regional insurer,  on a project to provide microinsurance in Indonesia.  The pilot for this program has been successfully running for two years now, and as a result our client and we have been asked to consider building a platform for scaling our solution nationally.

How will this transform the way that communities recover from natural disasters?

It is actually quite difficult to comprehend the enormity of impact that availability of insurance can have on a community.  The first impact is the effect of the insurance itself.  In our pilot program, the insurance policy is bundled with small business loans.  If a natural disaster occurs, the policy pays off the loan as well as providing the policy holder an equivalent of one year’s income to help them get back on their feet.  This is a meaningful change all by itself, but the follow-on impacts are even greater

  • The existence of the policy makes these small businesses much more creditworthy. Tsunamis, flooding, and the like are common enough that investors will often demand huge price premiums in exchange for providing loan capital; in many cases they won’t be willing at all.  The existence of this policy makes others more willing to lend money, and at more reasonable rates

  • In the same way, the existence of these policies makes it much easier for people to start new businesses. A study in Tanzania showed that of all one-person businesses in the country, only 2% would ever grow to the point that they had ten employees, but that 2% was the source of over 25% of all new jobs created.  Imagine what a difference we could make if, by making it possible for more people to start businesses, we could move that to 3%.   A small change in the success rate would have a huge impact

  • The biggest change of all, however, is land reform. A surprising fact is that even in some of the poorer regions of the world, there are many people who could afford to buy a home, but are unable to obtain a mortgage because banks will not provide one without insurance.  Access to locally insured mortgages could quite literally be a path out of serfdom for millions of people.

As the threat of global warming increases, the world will experience even more natural disasters. Are you planning to branch out to other countries?

Absolutely.  We are already working on plans to scale our solution beyond Indonesia, but we still have to focus on making Indonesia successful first.  Also, our plan calls for working with local partners in each country.  Enabling local success is the right way to go for both social and commercial reasons.  The whole reason I got into financial inclusion in the first place was the realization was that all the monetary aid in the world, however well intentioned, wasn’t even making a dent in world poverty – there is too much corruption, and aid isn’t sustainable – even the most charitable people in the world can’t keep giving and giving and giving.  Sustainable eradication of poverty only comes through local success.

Have you considered making it possible for people to microinvest in providing microinsurance to people in third world countries? Perhaps something along the lines of the microloans people like me can provide to participants in Kiva.org, only with some sort of minimal return on the investment? I know a lot of people who would like to be investors but don’t have the huge sums of money that investing usually requires. Do you think blockchain could also be used in that way?

I think about this a lot actually, but have been leery of doing anything because of how hard it is to provide a level of transparency that I would find satisfactory if I were an investor myself.  A good number of the world’s microfinance are simply scams, while others charge their lenders rates that are regressive if not outright extortionate.  Blockchain may indeed be very useful in providing the necessary transparency, as well as enabling a business model that allowed for much lower rates, both for loans and insurance premiums.  The initial results look very promising, but I want to see them proven a bit more before making any grandiose claims about what might be possible.

Is there anyplace where people can read and/or hear your presentation to Parliament?

These sessions are filmed, but it normally takes 6-8 weeks before they are published.  I will let you know as soon as the video is up on the site.

Thank you, Areiel! I’ll post the link here when it comes available. And I have to say, I’m even more in awe of you after this interview than I was before it. Keep up the good work!

A village near the coast of Sumatra lays in ruin after the Tsunami that struck South East Asia

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Anticipatory Stress

Fight or flight should be reserved for the moment when you spot the mountain lion, not for when you’ve heard that there might be one within a 10 mile radius.

The 4th of July is the worst day to be an American bridgetender. Drunken boaters and pedestrians are out in force. There’s plenty of stress and aggravation, and a lot of people to avoid injuring due to their own foolishness. While you are out enjoying your fireworks, we bridgetenders are trying to avoid nervous breakdowns.

And yes, I got to work the 4th of July this year. Lucky me. I spent a lot of time politely bellowing at people through the bullhorn. It may not sound like it, but I do it because I care. I’d really rather not kill anyone if I can avoid it.

At a certain point, I realized that a great deal of my tension was purely anticipatory. I knew the night was going to suck. And sure enough, it did. But stressing out over things that have yet to happen is counterproductive at best. Fight or flight should be reserved for the moment when you spot the mountain lion, not for when you’ve heard that there might be one within a 10 mile radius. Caution is great, but becoming adrenalized before the fact does nothing but make you feel exhausted and sick to your stomach.

So I spent a great deal of the night checking in with myself. What is happening now? What are my rational concerns at this moment in time? Breathe…

This takes practice. I never really thought about how much time I waste anticipating disaster. All the more reason to try to stay centered in time.

Hope you had a better 4th than I did!

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Saving the Animals of Fukushima

On March 11, 2011, an earthquake struck off the coast of Japan near Honshu Island. This quake set off a tsunami of 45 foot high waves crashing into the Japanese coast, at the very site of a very badly built and poorly situated nuclear power plant in Fukushima. As you can well imagine, things went rapidly downhill from there.

You can read about the nuclear meltdown in great detail on its Wikipedia page, but the final result was that approximately 500,000 people had to be evacuated from the 12.5 mile exclusion zone, never to return. Well… except for one man.

Naoto Matsumura could not bear the thought that in his rush to evacuate, he had to leave his pets behind, so he went back. And upon arriving he quickly discovered that all his neighbors had left their pets and farm animals behind as well. Thousands of dogs, cats, pigs, cows, even at least two ostriches had been left to fend for themselves, and many of them were locked up or chained, and would likely have died horrible deaths if not for this man’s intervention.

He freed them all, and has been living in the exclusion zone and caring for these animals ever since. The government has ordered him to leave, but he remains, despite the risk to his health. Here is a man who truly gives his life to do what he feels is right. While the world has moved happily onward, he struggles to feed these animals every day. He needs our help.

If you want to read an inspiring and yet heartbreaking blog about this man’s noble sacrifice, you can find it here. Naturally it isn’t in English, but I know that if you pull it up on Google Chrome, you can click the translate option. He also says this:

We’ll be very happy if you all support us. [Donations] ① The Toho Bank, Azumi branch, 644 994 (Futsu), Ganbaru Fukushima ② Japan Post Bank Company, Kigo-10270 , Bango-10419771, Ganbaru Fukushima ③ My Friends made ​​A Donation page for me.Http://Kizunafornaoto.Com/ Please push the yellow button on the left side of the top page. It IS in French. Thank you and look forward to Hearing from you!

-Naoto Matsumura

I donated, but it wasn’t easy. First of all, the pages aren’t in English and have to be translated. Next, you have to donate in euros instead of dollars, which is a pain. (Make sure your credit card doesn’t sock you with a harsh foreign currency fee.)

So yeah, helping this great man isn’t as simple as it ought to be, but think of all the effort he has to put forth on a daily basis, and you’ll realize that jumping through a few extra hoops for this cause is really not that big of a sacrifice. Please help all these animals that the world seems to have conveniently forgotten.

What follows are a couple inspiring photos from the boredpanda article about this fine man. Check it out to see more!

fukushima-radioactive-disaster-abandoned-animal-guardian-naoto-matsumura-2 fukushima-radioactive-disaster-abandoned-animal-guardian-naoto-matsumura-14

On Peaking Early

I always kind of feel sorry for super successful young athletes and actors. It’s wonderful when someone prospers in life, but when it happens at an early age, before one has the social and emotional skills to deal with all the complications that come with it, that high achievement can and does often lead to disaster.

When you become a millionaire at 16, it’s a safe bet that the sharks will be circling. And if you don’t have competent and morally apt advisors, at that age you are probably not thinking about wise investments for your future. When you are young you think you’ll always have what you have at that moment. (If only.)

Also, think of the pressure this puts on the future you. How do you top the amazing victories of your youth? What must it be like to know, deep down, that it’s all downhill from here? Granted, you can peak more than once in life, but the odds were long even the first time.

Nah, I’ll take my youthful mediocrity any day. At least that allowed me to have hope for the future.

Oksana Baiul, 1994, age 16.  Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell/ALLSPORT
Oksana Baiul, 1994, age 16. Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell/ALLSPORT

Bring It On

Without going into the gory details, let’s establish that I no longer have heat or defrost in my car, and after several reputable quotes, it would cost about 900 dollars to fix. Well, the vehicle isn’t worth 500 dollars, so that seems like a rather silly investment. Dandy.

So I’m buying a portable defroster and keeping towels on hand, and I thought I’d get a battery heated coat or blanket or something until I saw how much they cost, so a rechargeable headband and a basic blanket will just have to suffice. When you grow up poor, you learn to make do. A rich person couldn’t cope with this situation. But then a rich person wouldn’t be in this situation.

I’ve seen more than one rich person crumble on the rare occasion that they are faced with adversity. Take away their smart phones, for example, and they’re all but rendered helpless. My cheap, featureless pay by the minute phone would be completely out of the question for them. And several times I’ve been looked upon with utter horror when I’ve confessed that I don’t have cable TV. In fact, I don’t have a TV, period. How does one cope?

And I’m always amused when I see rich people traveling in third world countries. Take away their steak and potatoes and their towel warmers and their reliable internet access and they nearly self-destruct. Heaven forfend they have to use a squat toilet.

Poor people learn to adapt. Rich people expect the world to adapt to them.

Which brings me to my theory that if there ever was a major worldwide disaster that took out the electricity and rendered the monetary system inert, it is the poor folk that would survive and even thrive. Sure, I’ll break up my furniture to build a fire. Most of it was found on the side of the road anyway, so what have I got to lose? And I could hunt and gather if I had to. Somehow I don’t picture Paris Hilton getting her hands dirty like that. I already have callouses. I’m not going to miss a manicure when I’ve never had one.

So yeah, send me some warm thoughts as I shiver down the road. But don’t worry about me. I can take it.


[Image credit: autoillusions.com]

Calling on the Youth of the World

I look at the state of the world these days and I think that there’s quite a bit out there for people, especially young people, to be angry about. The economy is horrible. The environment is even worse. Politicians are increasingly corrupt and I think there’s a lot of reason to lose hope. The future looks pretty bleak. Is there any wonder why violence is increasing and people are becoming more radicalized?

But there’s good news. You don’t have to sit back and let the disaster that my generation has visited upon you simply wash over you like a tidal wave. You can make a difference. Rather than resort to violence, despair or radicalization, you can make another choice.

If you are in a group, whether it be a church youth group or a club or organization of any kind, suggest that you do the two things that fly in the face of all this negativity: educate yourself, and then educate others.

How can you do this? That’s the beauty of it. Your movement can take many forms. Perhaps you should start by reaching out to another youth group that is so completely different from yours (or so you may think at first) that you can’t imagine socializing with them under normal circumstances. If yours is a Christian group, reach out to an Islamic group or a Jewish group. If you’re a dance troupe, reach out to the disabled. You get the idea. Offer to do things with the other group to get to know them. Socialize with them. Attend events together. Do team building exercises. As you get to know each other, you’ll soon discover that life isn’t a matter of “us” versus “them”. We’re all in this together.

Once you’ve become a cohesive team, take what you’ve learned and direct it outward. Speak at schools. Perform at festivals. Talk to the media. Tell them what you used to believe and then what you’ve come to realize. No group of people is uniformly evil or bad. We can work together for positive change. It’s going to be your planet long after we fools who are messing everything up are dead and buried. Create this world in your image, not in ours.

For a better world, explode stereotypes rather than pressure cookers. The future is your marathon.


(Photo credit: http://www.wilderdom.com)

Washington Slept Here and Other Informational Tidbits

The Clara Barton House Marker

Unless you’re the most unobservant American on the planet, chances are you’ve seen at least one of these historical markers in your lifetime. They’ll usually sneak up on you while you’re playing tourist. Often they’ll be on a street corner or in front of a house in some historic neighborhood, telling you that someone famous did something or other that was special, right here on this very spot, or that some battle was fought or some disaster occurred. Sometimes they’re quite interesting. Just as often they’re deadly dull. I’ve noticed that for some reason the interest factor seems to be in inverse proportion to the length of the text.

It’s fun to spot the spelling or grammatical errors in these signs. There almost always is at least one. I suppose that if a government has gone to the expense of creating and erecting one of these markers, they’re hesitant to start over. But it always makes me wonder if some fact is incorrect as well. Was it really 1863, or was it, perhaps, 1868? I’d never take one of these markers as a source of fact without a second opinion.

But markers that fascinate me the most are the poorly placed ones. Some are on lonely stretches of highway, often half covered by vines, in a location where it’s impossible to park your car. The text is so small you can’t read it from a moving vehicle, and if you come to a stop you’re likely to be rear ended by a semi truck. I once saw one in the median of a particularly busy stretch of a state highway. Seriously? How many people are willing to die for historical knowledge?

These badly positioned markers are historical teases. Driving past them on a daily basis and never knowing what they say is an odd form of torture. I mean, for all I know, I’m driving over the spot where the Ark of the Covenant was last seen, and I’m being deprived of this insight! Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad people are taking the time to preserve history. But for the love of Mike, can’t you put some thought into our ability to bear witness without causing a 10 car pileup?

I want to see the historical marker that says, “On this spot, the very first historical marker was made” because without a doubt, they have been the source of many an unexpected travel detour since their inception, and that, after all, is what makes the acquisition of knowledge the adventure that it is.

Come the Apocalypse, I Want to be with my Dog.

I have a new theory. The best possible thing that can happen when you are searching for a mate is a horrible first date, because then you can see how that person reacts under pressure. Stress separates the men from the boys. It cuts through all the surface bs and shows you what someone is truly made of. There are all sorts of ways of dealing with negativity, as evidenced by nature. All of these ways are legitimate, but only a few of them are viable in terms of a life partner in this modern world. Here are a few examples.


The Shark. In times of great tension, the shark will not only attack the source of the problem, but will also turn on anyone and anything that happens to be in his vicinity, even members of its own family. When in the midst of this feeding frenzy, the shark has absolutely no regard for loyalty, and does not care about who is on his side. When in the presence of this type of fury, there is nothing you can do except prepare to be eaten. Frankly, I find the shark to be tragic and self-destructive. And the most depressing thing about the shark is he cannot see why this type of behavior is a problem. Somehow being eaten will become your fault. You’ll never feel completely safe with a shark.


The Fainting Goat. Also known as the Myotonic Goat, this poor creature freezes in times of panic and keels over, thus rendering him utterly useless to himself or anyone else. I used to date one of these. Don’t ask me why.


The Turtle. When the sh*t comes down and you’re with a turtle, you are on your own. He will pull himself into his shell and wait for the boogeyman to go away. Oh, he’ll protect himself all right, but he won’t confront anyone or anything and prefers to live in a state of denial. He’s completely resistant to change, which makes improvement impossible. Also, if you come by his house and he doesn’t feel like talking, he simply won’t come to the door. Who needs that?


The Badger. No need to wait for a crisis situation when on a date with a badger. He’s going to be in a foul mood regardless, even if you could potentially be the best thing that ever happened to him. He’s never going to see it.


The Porcupine. Now, here’s a guy who is prepared. He doesn’t want to be messed with, and has made sure that he won’t be. The problem is, since all he wants is to be left alone, he’ll never let you in.


The Octopus. I have to admire this guy’s ability to avoid conflict. I like his stealth and intelligence. But if none of that works, he shoots ink. Do you want someone who’s going to throw stuff at you? No. That, and he tends to be clingy.


Frilled Lizard. You’ve probably seen one of these guys on the National Geographic channel. When you piss one of them off, the frill on their neck expands and they’ll chase you on two feet. Yes, they look intimidating and they get the job done for the most part, but honestly, what would happen if you stood your ground with them? Not too much, I suspect. I think you’d win that confrontation. These guys are all sizzle and no steak.


The Rattlesnake. The rattler is sort of a first strike kind of guy. He prefers to be the aggressor in anticipation of any possible antagonism you may or may not have in mind. Don’t hang out with the rattlesnake if you’re hoping for cozy get togethers with groups of friends.


The Praying Mantis. Honestly? Do you really want to hang out with a guy who is so desperate for sex that he’s willing to go there with you even though he knows he’s going to get his head bitten off for his troubles? This guy is so focused on what he wants that he has no concept of the consequences.


The Meerkat. I have to admit that I have a certain fondness for meerkats. They’re loyal. They’re family oriented, they’re protective, they’re cautious. But they’re also an emotional drain. They’re constantly anticipating trouble. They’re always on the lookout. Their watchword is paranoia. They never seem to relax.


The Benobo. Scientists have dedicated their lives to studying benobos, because these cousins of ours seem to be totally devoid of aggression. They’re the hippies of the primate world. They’re all about free love and live and let live. I could see myself getting caught up in this lifestyle, but I suspect I’d get fat and complacent, and years would go by without my realizing it.


The Dog. Dogs don’t seek fights, and in fact try to avoid them, but if you eff with them, they’ll take you out. I can respect that. They tend to restrict their aggression to those that deserve it. They’re loyal and protective, and usually generous and kind unless they’ve been abused. They’d much rather cuddle with you than argue, but they’ll do what they have to in order to protect themselves and the ones they love. A dog will always have your back. They also know how to heave a heavy sigh and release all tension. This, to me, is a very healthy and well-balanced approach to life. Yup, I’ll take a dog every time.

So next time you’re thrust into the dating world, pray for a flash flood or an earthquake or an armed robbery, because then you’ll know exactly what you’ve got on your hands. Disaster can save you a lot of time and heartache.