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March 16, 2006

The Weekly Wrap

What's up with this crazy weather?

The Weekly Wrap

ST. JOE FINANCES GRIM: St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka announced last Tuesday at a press conference that its coffers are empty and it must lay off the equivalent of 90 to 110 full-time workers by May. The hospital outlined the predicament in a bulleted fact sheet for the media entitled "Urgency of SJE's Financial Situation," wherein the layoffs were deemed "regrettable but absolutely necessary."

The memo states that the Catholic nonprofit hospital has no cash on hand and is currently living off a $10 million line of credit extended by its parent, St. Joseph Health System. In the last two months, $4 million has been spent, and the line of credit is expected to run out within six to eight months, at which point St. Joseph's will not be able to make payroll without additional funding. "At the current run rate, an annual improvement of $12.5 million will be required," to achieve a

4 percent operating margin and subsequently ensure St. Joseph's financial success, the memo reads. The fact sheet also states that 41.6 percent of the hospital's operating expenses go toward salary, wages and benefits and that "staffing productivity" has been declining at both the Eureka hospital and at Fortuna's Redwood Memorial Hospital, which is also owned by St. Joseph Health System.

Employee/administration forums were held at St. Joseph last week and were scheduled for Redwood Memorial this week. The memo ends on a mildly optimistic note: "We are all responsible to the citizens of Humboldt County to ensure that they continue to have access to efficient, high-quality health care services."

How that will be achievable after drastically reducing the hospital's workforce remains unclear. Pamela Haynes, an emergency room nurse at St. Joe's since 1997, said she is hopeful that her employer will make the "safest cut possible so as not to impact patient care greatly." She said the administration has been "absolutely civil" and straightforward regarding the hospital's financial predicament. Still, Haynes, who works an average of 24 hours a week, wonders how many jobs will actually be terminated when those FTEs ("full-time equivalents") are tallied. For instance, Haynes and another part-time nurse could add up to one full-time position, but two people would be laid off. Kathryn Donahue, another St. Joe's nurse, voiced the same concern: "It could add up to 180.5 [workers]. No one knows, they gave us no specifics."

FISHING OPTIONS: The Pacific Fishery Management Council last week was talking about the potential for a ban on commercial and sport salmon fishing on the West Coast this season, from Oregon's northern border to south of Carmel. And if not a ban, the season would at least be severely restricted.

The talk of a ban or a restricted season came after news of low returns of spawning Chinook in the Klamath River for the third year in a row. Last year the fishing season was curtailed to protect the Chinook, who mingle in the ocean with other salmon. It placed hardship on fishermen up and down the coast. The federally listed Coho salmon also is at risk on the Klamath.

The council will make a final recommendation in April to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which will make the final decision.

PROBLEM GAMBLING: March 6 through March 12 was National Problem Gambling Week, and by now you've been exposed to the ads on TV, in print, on radio. "When gambling is more than game, no one wins," says the one placed by Blue Lake Casino on the back of this paper. It ends with an 800 number that leads you to the private, non-profit California Council on Problem Gaming. So we phoned the council up to ask, "How many people respond to this sort of cry of proffered help?"

The switchboard operator sent us to the council's executive director Bruce Roberts, who had just finished compiling the stats for 2005. "Last year, we screened 18,470 calls in all of California," Roberts said. "And of those we counseled 3,868." He said 73.4 percent of the calls were from problem gamblers -- "preoccupation with gambling, gambling to escape, trying to cover up gambling," reads the ad -- and 9.6 percent came from the spouse of a problem gambler; 3.3. percent came from children of gamblers; 3.6 percent from parents; 4 percent from friends; and 2.6 percent from siblings. "The rest were miscellaneous," said Roberts. And, he added, 4.7 of the calls came from the 707 area code. Mom, was that you?

Seriously -- Roberts said calls do rise dramatically during the national awareness week, and stay high for a period of about three months. But his council gets calls all year round. He had other stats, as well: "Women gamble almost as much as men these days," he said. "They love machine gambling." He said problem gambling doubles within 50 mile of a gambling establishment. With poker's meteoric rise in popularity, problem gambling also is "reaching epidemic proportions" among young people, he said.

It's a serious addiction -- wrecking lives, pocketbooks and relationships just like any other addiction. That's why, on Roberts' group's hotline anyway, counseling is offered in 150 different languages, any time of day. The council is funded by donations from the corporate gambling industry. The state also has problem gambling counseling programs.

ANOTHER PEACE RALLY: Seems like they happen every month or so these days, but this is the big one: The annual, nationwide Communities for Peace Rally that's been happening since before the commencement of hostilities in Iraq in 2003. As always, the Humboldt County version of the march leaves the Eureka Muni building (1120 F St.) Saturday at 11:30 p.m., then proceeds to the Old Town Gazebo, where speeches from Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn and other will address the costs and consequences of the Iraq war. "We know that the majority of people in the country want this war to end as soon as possible," said Ellen Taylor, one of the event's organizers. "Who knows how much good rallies do, but we'd like to see lots and lots of people out there.


What's up with this crazy weather?

story and photo by HEIDI WALTERS

A cold front from Canada barged into Humboldt County late last week, bringing rain as well as bouts of hail and snow that piled haphazardly onto rooftops and streets of sea-level towns.

photo of fallen acacia tree and crushed carsAmid the intermittent ice-peltings, sometime in the early morning of Friday in Eureka, a graceful old black acacia with a full canopy of minnow-sized dark-green leaves toppled onto two empty cars in a parking lot just south of Has Beans coffee house on 2nd Street [left]. The cars were crushed and the sidewalk ruptured by the tree's wrenched-up roots. And, judging by its faint tilt south and the buckled sidewalk encasing it, another acacia a few yards away had budged closer toward oblivion in the morning's wind. By mid-morning, city crews were sawing up the downed acacia limb by limb. And by Tuesday, they were readying their saws to remove the leaning tree, whose tilt hinted at a crushing blow to a nearby house if left to the next storm's devices.

Elsewhere Friday, people slip-slided along roads and piled into each other, or drove gleefully for the foothills to frolic in the snow. Sheesh, ain't y'all ever seen snow in town before?

Actually, the last time it snowed at sea level here was in 2002, when a half-inch of snow accumulated in Eureka, says Mel Nordquist, science and operations officer at the National Weather Service's Eureka office on Woodley Island. Before that, a half-inch of snow was recorded in 1999. "But the real snow event was in February 1989, when four inches were recorded," said Nordquist Monday afternoon, leaving his desk to go sit before a bank of monitors in the weather office's main room to call up the old data.

Naturally, Nordquist loves to talk about the weather and with his wispy light brown hair and short auburn beard and moustache, he even looks a bit like a slighter, be-spectacled version of the statue at the tip of Woodley that stands in memory of fishermen lost to stormy seas. But though he'll start down intriguing tangential paths with lines like, "There's 27 major categories of clouds, and numerous subspecies of clouds within those categories," he's good at reigning the conversation back from the jungle of physics terminology to a more manageable scenario. The cloud type that gave us Friday's showers of hail, snow and rain was cumulonimbus.

But while the snow and hail was a rare occurrence, there wasn't anything "abnormal" about it, nor, for that matter, about the 30-degree temperature the following morning, a record-breaking low. (It broke a record for March 11 that was set in 1891 -- 31 degrees -- but Nordquist notes that the record's just for that day; surrounding days may have been as cold or colder in different years.) "It's somewhat unusual for it to happen at sea level, but it happens every five or 10 years," he said. "And it wasn't the coldest storm we've had. I've been here since 1994, and I've seen colder events."

Nordquist says the rain, crazy snow and hail and stretches of sunshine we've had this winter are typical of what happens during a weak La Niña event, which is what's happening this year. Nordquist explained: When the water temperature over the equatorial Pacific, east of the dateline, is warmer than normal, it's called an El Niño event -- and that causes a pattern of drier weather in the Northwest. When the water over the equatorial Pacific is colder than normal, we get a La Niña -- which, if it's a "strong" La Niña, tends to cause wetter weather in the Pacific Northwest. They run in three- to five-year cycles, Nordquist said. But this year we're experiencing a "weak" La Niña, which has no signature pattern. Anything goes.

"This is normal climatological variation," Nordquist said.

There was, however, one atypical weather event this year that will stick in everybody's minds way past the time it takes for all the sawdust to wash into the sea: The New Year's Eve freak wind event that downed whole pockets of forest and rows of town and highway trees, swept the bay up over Highway 101 and kept the power company busy for weeks. Now that was abnormal. In fact, Nordquist is part of team of researchers at the weather service studying that event. They're pretty sure they know what happened, but they may bring in a professor to help with the investigation into why it happened.

photo of hail on rooftops in EurekaNordquist brought up images and graphs showing the New Year's Eve weather event. The main culprit has a rather nice name: a bent-back occluded front. But first, the setup. The astronomical tides were high, and it had been raining steadily. "And so [with those characteristics] you fill the bay up to the brim," said Nordquist. "And then we get really strong west winds driving the bay waters to the east" and up over the railroad tracks and onto the highway. Trees were uprooted and many snapped -- including more than 200 in Sequoia Park in Eureka, says city parks supervisor Kurt Hufft. And it was the bent-back occluded front that produced the sudden strong winds.

"An occluded front is a combination of a warm front and a cold front," said Nordquist. What happens is, the cold front overtakes the warm front and they merge. Meanwhile, that New Year's Eve morning, Nordquist suspects some kind of "upper-level disturbance" in the atmosphere "interacted with the occluded front" and caused it to wrap back around the low-pressure system. On screen, the graph shows a line moving horizontally -- the occluded front -- and then suddenly diving downward. At the point that it dropped, between 9:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. New Year's Eve, is when the freakishly fast winds (clocked up to 97 miles per hour in Eureka) occurred. "What caused the winds was the extreme change in pressure along the bent-back occluded front," Nordquist said. "The air is just accelerated. One side is high pressure, the other side is low pressure." And the rest is history -- the winds pushed the already high tide over the edge and ravaged trees.

Nordquist said that weird event and the snowfall last Friday are not related. But the poor, fallen acacia and its doomed fellow over on 2nd Street in Eureka may have been weakened by the New Year's Eve storm, enough so that even a mild wind could knock them over, especially with the soil saturated as it was by rain. On Tuesday, city parks supervisor Hufft was out at the site, where the second tree was about to be cut down.

"They've matured all the way," Hufft said. So, their time was nearly up anyway. "The other [third] one, on the southwest corner of the parking lot, it's not going to be cut down." New trees will be planted, he said.

As for the crushed cars? Hufft said he's heard secondhand that one of the cars belongs to St. Vincent De Paul (a donation) and the other was abandoned there after its owner died. Confirmation of the cars' stories hadn't been made by press time, and even the police didn't know whose cars they were for sure, said spokesperson Suzie Owsley.

"I think the police should have moved them by now," Hufft said. "You're not supposed to just leave them there."



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