Nothing Pols Can Do About Bad Weather

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - January 12, 2011

Politicians are, by nature, an optimistic lot. Despite mortgage foreclosures, high unemployment rates, extreme political polarization, mounting debt and insufficient revenues, legislators meet from Albany to Honolulu and from St. Paul to Austin secure in their faith that, by adherence to the politics of ideological purity - or by the art of the political deal, i.e., compromise - they can legislate their states’ problems away.

Such faith. Such naivete. Such hubris. To be sure, laws can solve problems. But they also can exacerbate them or - at best - only ameliorate the condition. That’s enough, however, to leave me in awe. In an age of cynicism, war, pestilence and greed as a national creed, our politicians - whatever their political persuasion - remain, in the core of their being, true believers.

Until they confront snow. Too much snow can leave even a billionaire politician with an ego bigger than the highest snowdrift sniveling in frustration. Poor Mayor Bloomberg of New York. Piles of the white stuff can run a tough-talking ideologue right out of town. Poor Gov. Christie. New Jersey’s conservative chief executive can cancel a costly construction project, but he can’t face a snowstorm. “Pack up the kids, honey. We’re off to Disney World.”

Nature conquers the most powerful of pols, even presidents. Hurricane Katrina made an even bigger fool out of George W. Bush. Oil gushing from the bottom of the sea left Barack Obama speechless in the face of his daughter’s question: “Daddy, have you plugged the hole yet?” What can a father, even a presidential father, say to that? Gnash a tooth or two, that’s all.

Then there’s vog: Hawaii’s leak from the bottom of the earth, its snow that hasn’t melted for the past 27 years, its gentle hurricane that leaves people gasping for breath, teary of eye, achy of head, sore of throat and desperate to find an air-conditioned room and a mask to keep the brownish-yellow stuff out of eyes and lungs. It’s particularly tough on smokers, former smokers, asthma sufferers - anyone with a chronic respiratory disorder.

Currently two vents in Kilauea are spewing sulphur dioxide - SO2 - vog: the Pu’u O’o vent that has been erupting since 1983 and, since 2008, a vent near the Halemaumau Crater at Kilauea’s summit. Trade winds blowing from the Northeast take the vog from Pu’u O’o out to sea, but that from Halemaumau tends to hang around the Ka’u communities from Pahala to Ocean View. SO2 from both vents reach the Kona coast. When the trades give way to kona winds, East Hawaii and islands up the Hawaiian chain get a dose of the stuff. How bad can it get? Ka’u residents with respiratory disorders have sometimes been told by their physicians to move away. Two years ago, UH-West Oahu hired an education professor away from UH-Hilo. I asked him why he’d left a well-developed campus like Hilo for the shanty-housed West Oahu. His one-word answer: “Vog.”

I understand. There are mornings I’ll rise from my Pearl City bed feeling light-headed, teary-eyed, breathless and uncertain what planet I’m on. A glance out the front windows tells the story: Illuminated against the mountains is vog, riding the day’s kona winds.

Vog hurts more than lungs and eyes. Bob Herkes, the veteran state representative from Ka’u, cited “significant agricultural losses,” including a total wipeout of Hawaii Island’s protea crop. But he also points to ranch fences and gates being eaten up by SO2 in the rain, stunted growth of grass, bees that won’t pollinate in vog and the resulting hit on the cut-flower farmers.

So what can a politician do about it? Not much. Herkes introduces bills, but none can stop the vents from emitting their gases. It’s a volcano. Amelioration is all that Herkes can hope for.

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