On the Bougainvillea and Mitigation

Bougainvillea bract

Mit-i-gate verb: make less severe, serious or painful.

Removing a dead bougainvillea is a slow deliberate process. It must be done carefully to prevent bloodshed. Vicious thorns found on every twig and branch attack with little provocation. My removal method is to work from the outside in, cutting small pieces of twigs that will fit easily into the large trash can. Then I cut short lengths of the larger branches. I learned that trick the last time I had to remove a bougainvillea. You see, this is not my first rodeo with the bougainvillea plant. This job is so distasteful to me that I even did my taxes first.

The bougainvillea is a beautiful thorny plant native to South America often used in landscaping along the Texas Gulf coast. It doesn’t need a lot of water and blooms without much attention at all. The flowers are really quite small, but the surrounding specialized leaves called “bracts” give the bougainvillea the vibrant shows of color. Thick hedges of bougainvillea are sometimes used as security fences around homes deterring unwanted intruders. The vine versions can easily grow four stories high. And that growth can occur in a short period of time. My bougainvilleas grew over seven feet tall and seven feet around in one year. They normally flourish in this area, but we have had two cold winters in a row. After the freezing weather of 2012 killed one vine, I foolishly replaced it with another. This winter was even colder than last winter. That replacement bougainvillea is the one I am removing now, very carefully one branch at a time.

Bougainvillea thorns

Bougainvillea thorns

If I was out in the country and were the plant not so close to my fence and garage, I would be tempted to take a flame thrower to it. There is no way to grab the plant without getting stuck by a thorn. I’m sure it would be satisfying to burn the thorny thing down. But I have this nagging fear that the thorns will become flame hardened and get me anyway. So here I am clipping one twig and branch at a time and then using the clippers as a claw to manipulate the cutting into the trash can much like Homer Simpson manipulates the radioactive capsules at the reactor. Care must also be taken to remove any cuttings that fall on the ground to prevent thorns from penetrating shoes and feet.

Yes, this is a hazardous assignment. Even after some close calls I am unscathed, although there is still half to go. I’ll keep the band-aids close at hand.

So what does this have to do with mitigation?

I am mitigating this situation by planting something different this spring. Exactly what will be planted hasn’t been decided. I do know that it will be something without thorns. And that new plant will have to form a screen. The bougainvillea was doing a great job of hiding a worn section of fence next to the garage. So in addition to planting something new in that spot, I’ll need to replace a section of fence. That will mitigate a painful letter from the homeowners’ association.

So, mitigation can take many forms. It might be something as complicated and expensive as making sure emergency generators are located in safe locations. Or it might be additional training so employees know what to do in an emergency. Or it might be as simple as planting a non-thorny shrub.

A Lesson for All of Us

Flooded New Orleans

Flooded New OrleansHurricane Katrina proved to be an epic lesson in preparedness. From the individual level all the way to the highest levels of the federal government, failures to plan and mitigate ended in disaster. We are still learning lessons from that terrible storm in August of 2005. A recent book, Five Days at Memorial by Sherri Fink, is one of the more gut wrenching efforts to document what can happen when disaster strikes. Health care professionals at New Orleans’ Memorial Medical Center faced the ultimate nightmare scenario. They were left to decide those they could help and those they could not help. The last remaining back-up electrical generator had failed. Emergency batteries providing the last hope for life support equipment had nothing left to give. There is no question that everyone involved in those terrible hours were heroes in their attempts to provide for the patients. Building maintenance personnel performed extremely dangerous procedures attempting to keep power going in the building. Doctors and nurses did everything possible to save their sickest patients. But it was not enough.

The word “mitigation” is thrown around a lot. But it is an important word and concept. So many of the problems seen at Memorial Medical Center could have been mitigated either by building design or by more effective management practices. With the number of flooding disasters in recent years, those involved with building design and operation should understand the folly of placing critical infrastructure below grade. Back-up electrical generators will not run underwater. Oh, but it has never flooded at that location. All that can be said is that it has not flooded there yet. Mitigation moves that critical infrastructure above flood levels. It is important to remember that floods are not always related to a storm event.

A different maintenance routine and generators designed for long term use could have delayed some of the problems. Running a generator for a short time once a month is not enough as they found out. Weekly start-ups and then, longer 24 hour runs under load once a month might have revealed problems with the system before it was needed. That is what mitigation is all about. Finding problems and solving them before a procedure or piece of equipment is needed.

Five Days at Memorial is not a light read. In fact it can be painful. But it is full of lessons for all of us who plan for disasters. I am mentioning the book only from the standpoint of emergency preparedness. A lot of the book delves into the ethics of euthanasia and the medical personnel involved in a controversial way.

New Approaches to Vivarium Disaster Planning Help Preserve Valuable Research

Natural disasters

There is a tendency to focus only on natural disasters.

Why does contingency and continuity planning seem to be a back burner issue?  You may not live in an earthquake or storm threatened area, but disasters take many forms.  Your plans should take into account all potential hazards  natural and human caused. Natural disasters capture the headlines, but a break in colony health is a catastrophe too.  And what about that critical data?  Only by assessing risk, developing and then testing your plans can you have the ability to protect assets and then get back to work as soon as possible.   To paraphrase General Eisenhower, it’s not the plan but the planning that is the key.

I contributed to a recent article on disaster planning in Tradeline Reports



Winter is still around..

A rare white Christmas in 2004.

A rare white Christmas in Houston, 2004

Many areas of the country have already had a pretty good dose of winter.  Blizzard conditions certainly spell winter to me down here on the third coast.  For those of us in warmer climes the worst of winter is still to come.

I know for my friends and relatives in the north, our excitement at any temperature approaching freezing must seem a bit silly.   Extreme cold in the southern US creates all sorts of problems. Our houses are not built to withstand long periods of below freezing weather.   Our plumbing is exposed in the attic, usually without insulation unless we have gone back after the house was built to add wrap to the pipes.  The last really deep freeze in Houston was Christmas week of 1989.  The temperature got down to 9°F.  There were several days where the temperature never got above freezing.  That is cold anywhere, but in Houston that is a disaster.  Pipes broke in attics all over town swamping plumbing companies with emergency calls.  Many people who left town for the holidays returned to water flowing out their front doors as  broken pipes thawed.

We happened to be visiting family in Oklahoma City that week.   It was colder there, but they are more equipped to deal with winter weather.  We were invited to drive down to Dallas to see the Cowboys play Green Bay at Texas Stadium on Christmas Eve.   It was a mess.  Almost all of the plumbing for the restrooms at the stadium had frozen.  A lot of pipes had burst so the carpets were wet everywhere.  The only restrooms working were in the club area at one end of the stadium.   Luckily a lot of people stayed home.   It was cold and miserable even though we were in a club box.  I don’t remember anything about the game itself except that Dallas lost.   That was loss number 15.  The Cowpokes only notched one win  for Jerry Jones’s first year of ownership of the Cowboys.

With the potential for some really cold weather on the horizon for us, we can take steps to mitigate potential damage and keep everything functioning.  Think hurricane preparation.   Actually a lot of our normal hurricane preparation can be brought into play with cold weather emergencies.

Pipe insulation with single degree temperatures in Houston homes will probably not give adequate protection.  The best step to take is to cut off the water to the house and drain the pipes by opening faucets on the lower levels.  That does require some preplanning for drinking and cooking water and for flushing toilets.  Some recommend leaving a faucet running at a trickle.  That could work, but if everyone in town does that, water pressure might be too low for emergencies like firefighting.

Plan for power outages, especially if frozen precipitation accompanies the cold weather.  What will you do for lights?  What will you do if you have no heat? Using candles for lights and stove tops for heat have had fatal results too many times.  Space heaters while helpful in an emergency can be very hazardous.   Use with care.   If you plan to use a generator, have you tested it recently?  Generators should be exercised regularly under load.  Can you run the generator safely?  Remember issues of electrical shock and carbon monoxide poisoning.      In some ways, freezing weather may be more dangerous than dealing with the heat after a hurricane.  Power outages will also shut down fuel services and grocery stores.  Keep your pantry and gas tanks full.

Does your house receive power from a line dropped from a power pole as opposed to underground?  If above ground are there any branches that could ice up then fall and knock the connection loose?  Take care of those now.

In Houston, our cars are our lifelines.   In addition to keeping fuel tanks topped off be sure to check other maintenance items.   The battery condition, tire inflation, belts and windshield washer fluid (with anti-freeze) are great places to start.  The worst possible time to break down is when the weather is freezing.  With so many of the newer cars filled with long interval cooling fluids, the radiator coolant level is often overlooked. Go ahead and make sure your coolant is at the correct level and that your anti-freeze is actually working properly.  If you still use a key to lock and unlock your car doors make sure the locks are well lubricated.  Those locks get wet and freeze up.  Better take care of it today instead of waiting out in the cold for the lock to thaw.   Another cold weather trick is to cover your windshield with a thick cloth, cardboard or other material to keep the ice off when you are not driving.  Make sure your windshield wiper arms are not frozen to the window before you try to use them.  Windshield wiper motors are expensive to replace.

After you have taken care of yourself, do you have an elderly neighbor or know a family with low resources?  This might be a good time to see what their plans look like in the event of a cold weather situation.

I have not mentioned cold weather precautions for pets, but they must be part of your preparedness equation.  Pets are always part of the three “P’s” of winter preparedness, pipes, pets and plants.

As is always the case, a few minutes of preparation today and tomorrow could save a lot of inconvenience or danger later.

Recommended reading:

Cold Weather Preparedness,  http://www.disastersrus.org/emtools/cold/cold.htm

Cold Weather Preparedness, http://mother-earth-journal.com/reader-resources/cold-


Cold Weather and Frozen Pipes, http://www.rmiia.org/Homeowners/Cold_Weather_Frozen_Pipes.asp

AAA Offers Cold Weather Car Care Advice, http://www.scnow.com/news/local


Extreme Cold, A Prevention Guide to Promote Your Personal Health and Safety, http://emergency.cdc.gov/disasters/winter/pdf/cold_guide.pdf