The U.S. South has taken a beating from Mother Nature lately, including record-breaking snow, rain, tornadoes and now floods. While parts of the Southern Plains and Southwest remain gripped by drought, the Gulf Coast and Southeast have been plagued for months by unusually heavy storms, including hundreds of tornadoes in April and historic flooding in May. "We're waiting for the locusts," Kim Fritz, director of the Mississippi Casino Operators Association, tells CNN. "At a certain point, you have to go, 'What else?'"

Unfortunately, forecasters know what else is coming, at least for the next three weeks: More flooding, especially in the Mississippi River Delta. After swamping swaths of Missouri farmland and lapping into downtown Memphis, the Big River is still getting bigger, and taking its massive crest south through Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. The river crested just below its record level in Memphis Tuesday, and on Wednesday it surpassed its record height in Natchez, Miss., topping 58 feet. The flood stage in Natchez is just 48 feet, and forecasters expect the river to crest there at a suffocating 64 feet on May 21. Throughout the Delta, the flooding will likely rival the Great Flood of 1927, which inundated some 27,000 square miles of land and killed nearly 250 people. The region's network of levees and spillways should prevent a repeat of that devastation, but as the Washington Post reports, the barriers also cause problems of their own. As already seen in Missouri, the presence of unnatural levees in a natural floodplain forces the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make some tough decisions, with farms often intentionally flooded to save cities. And now a similar situation is surfacing across the Delta.

The Mississippi's historic crest is rolling toward Baton Rouge and New Orleans, leaving the Corps to either open spillways that would devastate farmers and fishermen in central Louisiana, or let the river rage onward, hoping to save the state's two biggest cities by stacking sandbags along 200 miles of levees. If nothing is done to stop it, the swollen river could bury some districts of New Orleans under 25 feet of dirty water, the Post reports, causing an even worse flood than Hurricane Katrina. And speaking of that 2005 disaster, CNN points out that trees knocked down six years ago by Katrina are still languishing along the Mississippi, potentially linking a long chain of disasters in the South. The flooding will likely dislodge much of that dead timber, and "it's going to act as 10,000-pound battering rams floating down the river," says Stephen Minvielle, director of the Louisiana Crawfish Farmers Association.

(Sources: CNN, Washington Post, Baton Rouge Advocate)


Ever since news broke that one of the Navy SEALs who raided Osama bin Laden's compound earlier this month was a dog, a wave of interest in U.S. military dogs has been sweeping the Internet. And as the New York Times reports, canine commandos are an increasingly important part of America's long-running war in Afghanistan. The Marines launched a pilot program for nine bomb-sniffing dogs in that country in 2007, a group that has since grown to 350 and is expected to reach 650 by 2012. There are around 2,700 dogs on active duty in the U.S. military overall, up from 1,800 a decade ago.

"Most of the public isn't aware of what these dogs add to national security," a spokesman for the Military Working Dog School in Texas tells the Times. While the SEAL dog used for the bin Laden raid was most likely either a German or Belgian shepherd, the Times reports that Marines often use Labrador retrievers in Afghanistan, since the dogs have a good sense of smell but also nonaggressive personalities that help them win over civilians as they perform foot patrols in populated areas. The Times relays the story of a Marine commander who shot and killed a local dog in Marja, Afghanistan, last fall when the unlucky stray made the mistake of attacking the unit's on-duty Labrador. Capt. Manuel Zepeda is unapologetic, the Times reports, since an injury to his dog would have compromised the unit's best hope for detecting roadside bombs — and would have required calling in a medevac helicopter, just as if a human solider had been hurt. "We consider the dog another Marine," Zepeda tells the Times.

Military dogs are a rare breed, typically having been through years of intense training that can cost up to $40,000 per dog. But that training pays off, and not just with bomb detection. Dogs help soldiers in a wide variety of ways, from protection and pursuit to tracking and search-and-rescue. They wear tactical vests that repel both knives and bullets, carry night-vision cameras and other high-tech gear, and some even have titanium teeth to repair dental damage sustained in combat. As the U.S. tries to shrink its human footprint in Afghanistan, its pawprint is poised to grow larger, the Times reports, something Gen. David Petraeus has advocated for years. "The capability they bring to the fight cannot be replicated by man or machine," Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said in 2008. "By all measures of performance, their yield outperforms any asset we have in our industry."

(Sources: New York Times, MNN)


As Japan marked the two-month anniversary Wednesday of a magnitude-9.1 earthquake that rocked the country in March, a new pair of quakes struck southern Spain, the BBC reports, killing at least 10 people. The first quake measured magnitude 4.4 on the Richter scale, followed about two hours later by another, more powerful tremor measured at a magnitude of 5.2. The earthquakes both struck about half a mile deep 75 miles southwest of Alicante, reportedly toppling several buildings in the town of Lorca (pictured at right before the quakes), which has a population of about 85,000 people.

The preliminary count of 10 casualties already gives the twin tremors Spain's highest earthquake-related death toll in 50 years, the Associated Press reports, while the number of injured people remains unclear. Spanish media have reported dozens of injuries, while the Murcia regional government tells the AP that 270 people were evacuated by ambulance from a hospital after the building sustained minor damage. Spanish TV showed images of a church-bell tower crashing to the ground near a cameraman, the BBC reports. As is often the case after earthquakes, many Lorca residents were reluctant to go back indoors Wednesday night, with some opting to sleep outside. "The whole of the center of Lorca has been seriously damaged," a Murcia government delegate told national radio. "There are thousands of very disorientated people." The death toll could rise, Lorca Mayor Francisco Jodar tells the BBC: "We are trying to find out if there are people inside the collapsed houses."

Spain endures hundreds of earthquakes every year, most too small to be noticed, but Murcia is the country's most seismically active area. It's near a major fault line formed where the European and African continents meet in the Mediterranean Sea, and also suffered damaging quakes in 2005 and 1999.

(Sources: BBC News, Associated Press


Japan is scrapping plans to expand its nuclear power industry, the Guardian reports, and will embrace renewable energy instead, potentially paving the way for a global recalculation of sustainable electricity generation. Before an earthquake and tsunami triggered a months-long nuclear crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant, the global nuclear industry had been on the cusp of a comeback, finally allaying fears born from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. But now that Japan's catastrophes have disrupted that comeback, the country is also in a unique position to model some alternatives.

Japan's 54 nuclear reactors currently provide 30 percent of its electricity, slightly more than the 20 percent of U.S. electricity that comes from splitting atoms. Japan had planned to build at least 14 new reactors over the next 20 years, but politicians now realize that's all but impossible in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi crisis, the Guardian reports. Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who has vowed not to accept his salary until the nuclear crisis ends, said Wednesday he would "start from scratch" in developing an energy policy that had aimed to generate more than half of Japan's power from nuclear fission by 2030. Instead, he said, "I think it is necessary to move in the direction of promoting natural energy and renewable energy such as wind, solar and biomass." Still, he added, the country can't afford to abandon nuclear power entirely: "We need to make nuclear energy safer and do more to promote renewable energy."

Wednesday marked the two-month anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that began Japan's nuclear crisis, which has forced about 80,000 people to evacuate a 12-mile radius around the Fukushima Daiichi plant — on top of the thousands already displaced by the original disasters. On Wednesday, plant owner Tokyo Electric Power Co. said it will accept conditions for government support of a large compensation payout for people affected by the nuclear crisis. The conditions include removal of any upper limit on the company's financial liability for the disaster, which could reach 10 trillion yen (about $12.4 million), the Guardian reports.

(Source: Guardian)


Dust Bowl clouds reach Washington, D.C., deadly earthquake hits China, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (flooded Mississippi River casinos in Tunica, Miss., on May 10): ZUMA Press

Photo (dog, solider jumping from helicopter): Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez/U.S. Air Force

Photo (landscape of Lorca, Spain, in 2009): timeyres/Flickr

Photo (sunrise by Mt. Fuji, Japan, in 2007): hogeasdf/Flickr

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Daily Briefing: Thurs. 5/12/2011
Weather wallops U.S. South, killer quakes hit Spain, Japan embraces renewables, and U.S. military dogs have the spotlight.