Miami Faces Future of Rising Seas

Sue Brogan’s street is barely above sea level on a good day.

During autumn’s “king tides,” when the sun and moon align to create the highest tides of the year, Biscayne Bay backs up through storm drains and flows into Brogan’s street, in Miami’s low-lying Shorecrest neighborhood.

Roads flood. The salt water rusts cars and kills greenery. For now, it’s mostly a nuisance several days a year. But Brogan knows it’s only going to get worse.

“It’s more of a warning situation. Where is it going to go from this?” she asks.

Climate change is expected to raise sea levels a minimum of three-quarters of a meter by the end of the century, according to the estimates that regional planners use. That puts most of Shorecrest underwater year-round, along with other low-lying waterfront neighborhoods. And higher seas mean increased risk of tidal flooding and storm surges across this hurricane-prone city.

The planners’ high-end estimate is two meters of sea level rise. That would submerge most of the glitzy city of Miami Beach, across the bay.

And scientists say three to three-and-a-half meters is extreme but plausible. In that scenario, Miami Beach is gone and Miami is an archipelago.

Planning for this future is difficult, expensive and often controversial. But the Miami region has little choice.

“Sea level rise is an existential threat,” said City of Miami Chief Resilience Officer Jane Gilbert. “But it is not an imminent existential threat … We have time to plan.”

Miami Beach leads way

As a barrier island with some of the most expensive real estate in the region, Miami Beach is quite literally on the front lines of climate change. The city has the motivation, and the resources, to take some of the most aggressive action in the region.

Residents are paying for roughly half a billion dollars’ worth of seawalls, raised streets, sewer pumps and more.

“Thankfully, our residents — the folks that are footing the bill for this work — realize that the cost of doing nothing is much greater,” said Public Works Director Eric Carpenter.

There have been some hiccups. Raising roads put adjacent properties below street level. At least one flood-damage insurance claim has been denied as a result, and residents and businesses are worried there will be more.

Miami Beach is working to resolve the dispute.

“I think there are inherent risks with being first,” Carpenter said.

But the city gets credit for moving forward despite the challenges.

“It’s not working perfectly. But they’re at least doing the experimentation,” said Zelalem Adefris with the advocacy group Catalyst Miami.

Redesigning Shorecrest

Across the bay, she added, the City of Miami has been slower to act. But there are signs of progress.

Just this November, city voters approved a $400 million “Miami Forever” bond issue, half of which is earmarked for sea-level rise adaptation.

Shorecrest will likely see some of that money to upgrade sewers and raise roads.

More controversial proposals are on the table, too, like buying up some of the most flood-prone homes and turning the land into a flood-absorbing park. Residents could move to higher-density housing to be built on higher ground.

Brogan’s building would be demolished. But she doesn’t mind.

“With climate change, with rising water, we’re going to have to abandon certain property,” she admitted.

But like many in the mixed-income neighborhood, Brogan rents her apartment. Others are skeptical of the idea.

“I don’t think the homeowners are going to be very happy about that,” said Daisy Torres, president of the Shorecrest homeowners’ association.

Objections come not only from residents whose houses would be torn down. Some people living near the areas where the city proposes building that higher-density housing don’t like the idea, either, she added.

Jane Gilbert stresses that there are no immediate plans to rearrange Shorecrest. “They have a good amount of time to still be in that area,” she said. “It’s really much more long-term.”

“We feel the more we are having those conversations now, the easier it is for everyone to adapt over time,” she added.

High and (not) dry in Highland Village

Meanwhile, in another flood-prone low-lying community just a short drive north, those conversations are further behind.

Frank Burrola lives in a trailer in Highland Village, a mostly low-income neighborhood of homes and trailers on small plots in the city of North Miami Beach. Fall high-tide flooding is a virtual certainty on his street. And a storm several years ago left his yard with knee-high water.

“Right now, we’ve got a real serious problem,” Burrola said. “I don’t know if we’re still going to be around in five years if this keeps up.”

While the cities of Miami and Miami Beach are beginning to prepare, “there are other areas that really don’t have the funding, and they’re the ones that are really suffering,” said climate analyst Keren Bolter with the South Florida Regional Planning Council.

North Miami Beach is considering putting homes on stilts, and replacing trailers that flood with “tiny” homes that meet building codes, according to community development director Richard Lorber. But he doesn’t know where the funding will come from.

“My little city can’t stop king tide,” Lorber said, using the term for the fall high tides.

North Miami Beach officials say Miami-Dade County will have to take the lead. The county says the city is in charge. Neither has immediate plans for Highland Village.

It may take a disaster before major changes happen.

“It’s ironic, but in our way of doing emergency management, it’s tough to get the money before the storm. And after the storm there’s a lot of money,” said Miami-Dade County Chief Resilience Officer Jim Murley.

Barring a disaster, Murley said, “it’s easier to find the money” if a community comes to a collective decision on what it wants to do.

However, “most of the time, you just sort-of continue getting by,” he added. “And people make a decision on their own accord if they want to stay or leave.”

Engineering or retreat?

In the long run, the fate of Miami and many of the world’s coastal cities depend largely on how much, and how fast, the oceans rise. Scientists still have a lot to learn before they can make accurate predictions. But, they warn, the pace of sea level rise is increasing.

For many, retreat from the coast is inevitable.

“We’re going to have to leave sooner or later,” said Caroline Lewis, founder of the climate advocacy group the CLEO Institute. “But if we can have a planned retreat, and we could implement some of our ideas about keeping people as safe as possible for as long as possible, then we would have accomplished a great deal that the whole world could learn from.”

But in a city that carved itself out of a swampy wilderness, optimists abound.

“There’s an engineering solution to every problem,” Carpenter said. “It just comes down to, is there the political will to go through whatever pain may be associated with that solution, and the will to try and fund it.”


Virtual Reality As a Mental Health Tool

It is a simple, but startling, statistic: one in four people around the world will have a mental or neurological disorder at some point in their lives. But dealing with mental health issues is so much easier if they are caught early. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports that is the thinking behind a new method using virtual reality to gauge mental health.


EU’s Top Court Orders Poland to Stop Logging in Ancient Forest

The European Union’s top court Monday ordered Poland to stop logging in the ancient Bialowieza Forest, or pay an $118,000 daily fine.

“Poland must immediately cease its active forest management operations in the Bialowieza Forest, except in exceptional cases where they are strictly necessary to ensure public safety,” the European Court of Justice wrote.

The forest is home to rare plants, birds and mammals and is one of Europe’s last remaining primeval habitats. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The court first warned Poland against logging in July.

Poland says the trees are weak and damaged by a beetle outbreak. It says cutting them down is necessary to prevent people foraging for mushrooms from getting hurt if the trees fall.

The logging argument is another in a series of a war of words between the European Union and the right-wing Polish government, which accuses the EU of infringing on its sovereignty.

The EU has said it is worried about the decline of democratic values in Poland.


Roche Win Boosts Case for Adding Chemo to Cancer Immunotherapy

Cancer doctors struggling to work out the best way to use modern immunotherapy drugs now have further evidence of the benefits of adding them to chemotherapy, despite earlier skepticism.

News that Roche’s immune system-boosting drug Tecentriq delayed lung cancer progression when given alongside chemo and its older drug Avastin validates the approach for the first time in a large Phase III clinical trial.

It is a significant milestone for physicians, patients and investors, who are trying to assess the competitive landscape as drugmakers race to develop better ways to fight tumors in previously untreated lung cancer.

Lung cancer is by far the biggest oncology market and first-line treatment provides access to the most patients, opening up potential annual sales forecast by some analysts at $20 billion.

Roche and Merck & Co have led the way in pioneering so-called “chemo-combo” treatment, while AstraZeneca and Bristol-Myers are betting primarily on mixing two immunotherapies. AstraZeneca notably failed to show a similar

benefit in a high-profile clinical trial in July.

Stefan Zimmermann, an oncologist at Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland, said the Roche data would help scotch concerns that chemo might hamper the new class of immuno-oncology medicines.

“Many experts in the field will be relieved because there has been uncertainty … I think this will really encourage many of us to use this combination upfront,” he told Reuters. “For now, the only positive data that we have is for chemo combination.”

Merck, in fact, already has U.S. approval to add chemo to its immunotherapy drug Keytruda – but this was based on a small trial and the company withdrew a similar European application last month, knocking confidence in its strategy.

Since Keytruda, Bristol’s Opdivo, Roche’s Tecentriq and AstraZeneca’s Imfinzi are all rival inhibitors of biological switches known as PD-1 or PD-L1, the market is “largely a zero-sum game,” according to Bernstein analyst Tim Anderson.

“Roche’s good fortune means there is less to go around for other companies,” he said.

In the case of Merck, the U.S. drugmaker now faces a rival with a different and perhaps superior drug combination. Roche believes adding Avastin in addition to chemo can further help restore anti-cancer immunity.

For AstraZeneca and Bristol, the bar has just been raised for two other key clinical trials sponsored by the drugmakers that are expected to report results in 2018.

Roche itself will present full results on the ability of its new combination to delay the worsening of lung cancer at a European Society for Medical Oncology meeting in Geneva on December 7. Data on whether it also helps patients live longer is expected in the first half of next year.

Overall survival is the gold standard in cancer care but proving a treatment extends the time before disease progresses is an important marker on the way.

“If there is positive progression-free survival then I think it is very, very likely this will also translate into an overall survival benefit over time,” said Zimmermann.

Reporting by Ben Hirschler; Editing by Mark Potter.


Miami Responds to Threat of Rising Seas

Preparing for a century of steadily higher tides is a central challenge for city officials from Boston to Bangkok. The U.S. city of Miami, Florida, and its neighbors are home to nearly 3 million people and billions of dollars of real estate development. VOA’s Steve Baragona has a look at what rising seas mean for one of the most vulnerable cities in the United States.


White House: Opioid Crisis Cost US Economy $504 Billion in 2015

Opioid drug abuse, which has ravaged parts of the United States in recent years, cost the economy as much as $504 billion in 2015, White House economists said in a report made public on Sunday.

The White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) said the toll from the opioid crisis represented 2.8 percent of gross domestic product that year.

President Donald Trump last month declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. While Republican lawmakers said that was an important step in fighting opioid abuse, some critics, including Democrats, said the move was meaningless without additional funding.

The report could be used by the Trump White House to urge Republicans in Congress – who historically have opposed increasing government spending – to provide more funding for fighting the opioid crisis by arguing that the economic losses far outweigh the cost of additional government funding.

Using a combination of statistical models, the CEA said the lost economic output stemming from 33,000 opioid-related deaths in 2015 could be between $221 billion and $431 billion, depending on the methodology used.

In addition, the report looked at the cost of non-fatal opioid usage, estimating a total of $72 billion for 2.4 million people with opioid addictions in 2015. Those costs included medical treatment, criminal justice system expenses and the decreased economic productivity of addicts.

The CEA said its estimate was larger than those of some prior studies because it took a broad look at the value of lives lost to overdoses. The CEA also said its methodology incorporated an adjustment to reflect the fact that opioids were underreported on death certificates.

“The crisis has worsened, especially in terms of overdose deaths which have doubled in the past ten years,” the CEA said.

“While previous studies have focused exclusively on prescription opioids, we consider illicit opioids including heroin as well.”

Opioids, primarily prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl, are fueling the drug overdoses. More than 100 Americans die daily from related overdoses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Defector’s Condition Indicates Serious Health Issues in North Korea

Parasitic worms found in a North Korean soldier, critically injured during a desperate defection, highlight nutrition and hygiene problems that experts say have plagued the isolated country for decades.

At a briefing Wednesday, lead surgeon Lee Cook-jong displayed photos showing dozens of flesh-colored parasites, including one 27 cm (10.6 in) long, removed from the wounded soldier’s digestive tract during a series of surgeries to save his life.

“In my over 20 year-long career as a surgeon, I have only seen something like this in a textbook,” Lee said.

The parasites, along with kernels of corn in his stomach, may confirm what many experts and previous defectors have described about the food and hygiene situation for many North Koreans.

“Although we do not have solid figures showing health conditions of North Korea, medical experts assume that parasite infection problems and serious health issues have been prevalent in the country,” said Choi Min-Ho, a professor at Seoul National University College of Medicine who specializes in parasites.

The soldier’s condition was “not surprising at all considering the North’s hygiene and parasite problems,” he said.

​Hail of bullets

The soldier was flown by helicopter to hospital Monday after his dramatic escape to South Korea in a hail of bullets fired by North Korean soldiers.

He is believed to be an army staff sergeant in his mid-20s who was stationed in the Joint Security Area in the United Nations truce village of Panmunjom, according to Kim Byung-kee, a lawmaker of South Korea’s ruling party, briefed by the National Intelligence Service.

North Korea has not commented on the defection.

While the contents of the soldier’s stomach don’t necessarily reflect the population as a whole, his status as a soldier with an elite assignment would indicate he would at least be as well nourished as an average North Korean.

He was shot in his buttocks, armpit, back shoulder and knee among other wounds, according to the hospital where the soldier is being treated.

‘The best fertilizer’

Parasitic worms were also once common in South Korea 40 to 50 years ago, Lee noted during his briefing, but have all but disappeared as economic conditions greatly improved.

Other doctors have also described removing various types of worms and parasites from North Korean defectors.

Their continued prevalence north of the heavily fortified border that divides the two Koreas could be in part tied to the use of human excrement, often called “night soil.”

“Chemical fertilizer was supplied by the state until the 1970s, but from the early 1980s, production started to decrease,” said Lee Min-bok, a North Korean agriculture expert who defected to South Korea in 1995. “By the 1990s, the state could not supply it anymore, so farmers started to use a lot of night soil instead.”

In 2014, supreme leader Kim Jong Un personally urged farmers to use human waste, along with animal waste and organic compost, to fertilize their fields. A lack of livestock, however, made it difficult to find animal waste, said Lee, the agriculture expert.

Even harder to overcome, he said, is the view of night soil as the “best fertilizer in North Korea,” despite the risk of worms and parasites.

“Vegetables grown in it are considered more delicious than others,” Lee said.

​Limited diets

The medical briefing described the wounded soldier as being 170 cm (5 feet 5 inches) and 60 kg (132 pounds) with his stomach containing corn. It’s a staple grain that more North Koreans may be relying on in the wake of what the United Nations has called the worst drought since 2001.

Imported corn, which is less preferred but cheaper to obtain than rice, has tended to increase in years when North Koreans are more worried about their seasonal harvests.

Between January and September this year, China exported nearly 49,000 tons of corn to North Korea, compared with 3,125 tons in all of 2016, according to data released by Beijing.

Despite the drought and international sanctions over Pyongyang’s nuclear program, the cost of corn and rice has remained relatively stable, according to a Reuters analysis of market data collected by the defector-run Daily NK website.

Since the 1990s, when government rations failed to prevent a famine, North Koreans have gradually turned to markets and other private means to feed themselves.

The World Food Program says a quarter of North Korean children 6-59 months old, who attend nurseries that the organization assists, suffer from chronic malnutrition.

On average North Koreans are less nourished than their southern neighbors. The WFP says around 1 in 4 children have grown less tall than their South Korean counterparts. A study from 2009 said pre-school children in the North were up to 13 cm (5 inches) shorter and up to 7 kg (15 pounds) lighter than those brought up in the South.

“The main issue in DPRK is a monotonous diet — mainly rice/maize, kimchi and bean paste — lacking in essential fats and protein,” the WFP told Reuters in a statement last month.



Kafatos, Distinguished Greek Biologist, Malaria Researcher, Dies at 77

Fotis Kafatos, a Greek molecular biologist who had a distinguished academic career in both the United States and Europe and became the founding president of the European Research Council, has died. He was 77.

His family announced his death in Heraklion, Crete, on Saturday “after a long illness.”

Born in Crete in 1940, Kafatos was known for his research on malaria and for sequencing the genome of the mosquito that transmits the disease.

He was a professor at Harvard University from 1969 to 1994, where he also served as chairman of the Cellular and Developmental Biology Department, and at Imperial College in London since 2005. He had been an adjunct professor at the Harvard School of Public Health since 2007.

Kafatos was also a part-time professor at the University of Crete in his hometown since 1982. He also was the third director of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, a life sciences research organization funded by multiple countries, from 1993 to 2005.

Kafatos considered the 2007 founding of the European Research Council under the auspices of the European Commission as his crowning achievement. The council funds and promotes projects driven by researchers. He stepped down as president in 2010.

He came to be disillusioned by the heavily bureaucratic rules that, in his mind, hampered research.

“We continuously had to spend energy, time and effort on busting bureaucracy roadblocks that kept appearing in our way,” Kafatos told scientific journal Nature soon after he left the post. But, he added, “We delivered to Europe what we promised.”