Interstellar visitors open new window to the cosmos

Comet Borisov is hurtling toward our sun, on track for its nearest approach on Dec. 8. But this isn’t an ordinary comet. Borisov hails from another star system. And it’s only the second time scientists have observed such an interstellar visitor. 

The first was a peculiar asteroid dubbed ‘Oumuamua that zoomed through the sky in October 2017. Taken together, these visitors herald a new frontier in astronomy – one where the universe is coming to us, rock by rock, providing clues about our neighbors in the Milky Way. The presence of these interstellar travelers in our solar system also adds a new dimension to our understanding of the cosmos.

These envoys from another solar system present many puzzles: Where do they come from? How many have we missed? Could they carry aliens from the other side of the galaxy? 

“Now that we know they’re there, there’s going to be a much more active search to find them and study them,” says Robert Weryk, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii at Monoa, who discovered ‘Oumuamua. “Pretty much every candidate we get now, it’s like, oh, maybe this could be the next one.”

Cambridge, Mass.

All eyes are on Comet Borisov. But this isn’t just any comet.

The cosmic block of ice, rock, and gas hurtling toward our sun came from another solar system. It’s only the second of its kind ever spotted. 

The first interstellar visitor, a peculiar object dubbed ‘Oumuamua, flashed through the night sky in October 2017. Scientists didn’t expect to see another until after 2022. But Borisov is here now, burning bright in a cloud of dust and cyanogen gas that makes it closely resemble our solar system’s comets. 

Together, these visitors herald a new frontier in astronomy – one where the universe is coming to us, rock by rock, providing clues about our neighbors in the Milky Way. The presence of these interstellar travelers in our solar system also adds a new dimension to our understanding of the cosmos. 

NASA, ESA, D. Jewitt (UCLA)/AP

The comet Borisov, seen by the Hubble Space Telescope Oct. 12, 2019. It’s the second known interstellar visitor to swoop through our backyard. An amateur astronomer from Crimea, Gennady Borisov, discovered the comet in August, two years after the first alien guest, a cigar-shaped rock, popped up.

“It shows right away that these objects are probably a lot more common than people had thought they were,” says Robert Weryk, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, who discovered ‘Oumuamua. “And now that we know they’re there, there’s going to be a much more active search to find them and study them.”

What happened when we stopped looking

These interstellar visitors are generating a lot of buzz among 21st-century scientists. But if you went back about 400 years, “no one would have batted an eye,” says Sara Schechner, a historian of astronomy at Harvard University. 

Philosophers at the time conceptualized comets and asteroids as objects that hurtled around the galaxy, not necessarily bounded by fixed star systems. But as modern notions of a vast and orderly universe emerged, interstellar traffic fell out of fashion.

In the 20th century, a new barrier for where a comet could go was introduced: the Oort cloud, a theoretical shell of icy objects that surrounds our solar system. A collision within the cloud could send an object flying deeper into the solar system, but it’s much harder to push an object outward, against the sun’s gravity. If the same structure exists around other star systems, scientists surmised, it would be very difficult for a comet to escape a star system, let alone travel the unfathomable distances and survive a trip through our Oort cloud. 

In short, says Dr. Schechner, interstellar comets became so unlikely, we stopped looking.

Lindsey McGinnis/The Christian Science Monitor

Sara Schechner, the David P. Wheatland Curator of the collection of historical scientific instruments at Harvard University, in her office, on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019.

Scientists have probably seen objects like Borisov or ‘Oumuamua before but dismissed them as observational errors, says Javier Licandro, a planetary scientist at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias in the Canary Islands. 

But Borisov was no mistake. 

A new window into the cosmos 

An amateur astronomer in Crimea first spotted Borisov on Aug. 30. Other astronomers around the world quickly began tracking its trajectory, eager to determine if it was a second interstellar visitor. After several days, the International Astronomical Union confirmed that the comet did indeed come from another star system.

While ‘Oumuamua hung around for about a week, Borisov is projected to be observable well into 2020. Its path is projected to take it closest to our sun on Dec. 8, though comets can behave unpredictably in heat as gases inside it burn, creating high-pressure jet streams that can push the comet off course. The sun’s heat could also disintegrate Borisov altogether. 

Whatever happens, scientists are tracking the comet closely. Dr. Licandro is particularly focused on capturing Borisov’s journey. His lab was one of the first to capture high-resolution images of our guest, and they will continue to observe as it exits our neighborhood. “This is a unique opportunity to see how an object forms around another star,” he says. 

The first two interstellar visitors present many puzzles: Where do they come from? How frequently do such objects fly through our solar system? And, how many have we missed? 

European Southern Observatory / M. Kornmesser

An artist’s concept of interstellar asteroid ‘Oumuamua as it passed through the solar system after its discovery in October 2017. Observations of ‘Oumuamua indicate that it must be very elongated because of its dramatic variations in brightness as it tumbled through space.

The differences between Borisov and ‘Oumuamua make things even more interesting. While Borisov has an aura and tail familiar to comet scientists, ‘Oumuamua appeared as a dim, oblong rock that tumbled end over end. “Being able to contrast the two really tells you something about these objects,” Dr. Weryk says – and these objects are one of the few ways we can connect with the world beyond our solar system. 

Some scientists suggest the interstellar objects – and this is completely serious – might be alien sent. Even without aliens aboard or sending them as envoys, space rocks flying between solar systems offer another possibility for exchange: Could comets carry cosmic material from one side of the galaxy to another, like dandelion seeds? Scientists have pondered whether these interstellar visitors might influence the development of solar systems, define the chemistry of young planets, or even seed life across the universe. 

Fascinated by these mysteries, and inspired by Borisov’s early detection, many scientists are already thinking about future guests. One tool in development that could help comb the starscape for interstellar objects is the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in Chile, which, if all goes according to plan, will take nightly wide-angle snapshots of the sky starting in the next few years. Other organizations, like the European Space Agency, are working on comet interceptors that may one day visit an interstellar guest. 

For Dr. Weryk, future visitors are definitely on the mind. ‘Oumuamua caught him by surprise when he discovered it in 2017. But now, every time he spots a new space rock, he wonders: Is this from interstellar space, too? 

“That’s something I never would have considered before we knew they existed for sure,” he says. “Pretty much every candidate we get now, it’s like, oh, maybe this could be the next one.”

Tunisia as a hub for LGBTQ rights? Democracy is making it happen.

Less than a decade after its popular revolution transformed Tunisia from a closed dictatorship to a hub of democracy and political activism, the country is emerging as a center for LGBTQ rights advocacy in the region. The first openly gay presidential candidate in the Arab world vied for votes here this fall. 

Yet the country’s arcane legal code and police tactics make it fall short of an actual haven. After all, same-sex relations are still illegal in Tunisia.

LGBTQ advocates pin their hopes on a central strategy: vigorous activism. There are now five licensed organizations specifically advocating for LGBTQ rights, lobbying politicians, and partnering with other NGOs, lawyers, and the media to raise awareness of the community’s cause.

The face of the new generation of LGBTQ Tunisians who came of age during the 2011 revolution can be seen in Mawjoudin. Arabic for “We Exist,” the organization was built from a Facebook group of fellow LGBTQ-identifying Tunisians sharing their experiences. Its bare office in downtown Tunis is made up of 20-somethings who are bubbling with energy and ideas. 

Hana Jemly, a Mawjoudin community manager, says, “We have safe spaces, but now we want the laws to feel safe anywhere.”

TUNIS, Tunisia

An openly gay man running for president. An annual “We Exist” queer film festival. LGBTQ-friendly certification for restaurants and bars. Rights organizations that lobby politicians and advocate in the media.

This isn’t the United States. It’s Tunisia.

Less than a decade after its popular revolution transformed Tunisia from a closed dictatorship to a hub of democracy and political activism, the country is emerging as a center for LGBTQ rights activism in North Africa and the Arab world.

Yet as remarkable as it is to see public LGBTQ activism in this socially conservative region, the country’s arcane legal code and police tactics make it fall short of an actual haven.

Same-sex relations are still illegal in Tunisia, and members of the LGBTQ community who are utilizing Tunisians’ hard-fought freedoms of association, speech, and assembly to abolish these laws still risk arrest.

With Tunisia’s modern, liberal constitution at odds with entrenched conservative social norms and century-old laws, the country’s LGBTQ advocates are pinning their hopes on a central strategy: vigorous activism.

“These LGBT associations have crafted for themselves a space for action, raising awareness, and advocacy in Tunisia, which is very important,” says Amna Guellali, senior Tunisia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“They have created a vibrant space for the discussion of these issues and [to] normalize the existence of the LGBT community in the country.”

Article 230

During the dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, LGBTQ persons in Tunisia faced a line in the 1913 Penal Code – Article 230 – criminalizing same-sex relations and providing for prison terms of up to three years.

That article is still on the books today, but then, with no nongovernmental organizations or free speech, the LGBTQ community was underground, unseen, and unheard.

“In those days, we had no voice; people had to hide their identities,” says Mounir Baatour, a leading LGBTQ activist who as a lawyer defended Tunisians charged with same-sex relations during the Ben Ali era in the early 2000s.

With the fall of Mr. Ben Ali and his one-party rule in 2011, a burgeoning civil society emerged with organizations representing all causes; LGBTQ rights was no exception.

There are now five licensed organizations specifically advocating for LGBTQ rights, lobbying politicians, and partnering with other NGOs, lawyers, and members of the media to raise awareness of the community’s cause.

Mr. Baatour’s organization, Shams, publishes a monthly magazine and runs an online radio station; a youth-oriented group, Mawjoudin, educates lawmakers and provides community outreach.

Activists hold public protests and organize boycotts of companies and public figures who make homophobic comments or voice support for discrimination.

More visibility, more arrests

Paradoxically, as LGBTQ civil society and public awareness grows, so too have arrests.

In 2018, Tunisian courts handed down 128 convictions of same-sex relations, a 60% increase from the year before and double the average during the Ben Ali era, according to Shams.

Worse still, police and judges – many of whom served under Mr. Ben Ali – confiscate mobile phones for “proof” of homosexual acts. Courts continue to order men to undergo invasive physical exams that have been discredited by forensic experts and denounced by rights advocates and politicians here as “torture.”

These acts and the 1913 laws are in violation of Tunisia’s progressive constitution, but with politicians divided and the constitutional court yet to be established, the policies have so far gone unchallenged legally.

Tunisian NGOs are carrying on the fight.

“We are not like activists in the West; we are not demanding the right to marry or adopt children – we just don’t want to live under the threat of being sent to prison,” Mr. Baatour says. 

“We are only defending ourselves, and in terms of human rights, that is the least we can do; to push back.”

Prized image of tolerance

And push back, they have.

With each arrest, LGBTQ rights groups and their partners have alerted the foreign press and lobbied European and North American rights organizations – pressuring a government that prizes Tunisia’s tolerant image and tourism-driven economy.

Activists have put the issue of the penal code and invasive police tactics front and center, making it a litmus test of whether politicians will uphold the constitution and its articles against discrimination, torture, and enshrining the right to privacy.

Article 230 became a talking point on the campaign trail in this year’s presidential elections. And Mr. Baatour threw his own hat in the ring, becoming the first openly gay presidential candidate in the Arab world.

Although ultimately unsuccessful, the veteran lawyer claims victory.

“As the first openly gay presidential candidate in the Arab world, there were over 650 articles written across the world on my candidacy, the LGBT community in Tunisia, and Tunisians being jailed for their sexual identity,” Mr. Baatour says at his office in a leafy Tunis suburb.

“I will run again and again if it means I can bring our cause to the world’s attention,” he says with a sly smile, “and embarrass the government into action.”

Recently elected President Kais Saied, who referred to homosexuals as “deviants” on the campaign trail while courting conservative voters, has since met with LGBTQ organizations to offer them reassurances.

“We exist”

The face of the new generation of LGBTQ Tunisians who came of age during the revolution can be seen in Mawjoudin.

The organization based in a bare office in downtown Tunis is made up of 20-somethings who are bubbling with energy and ideas and have none of the baggage of their predecessors, who lived in fear for decades.

More than just rights, they are pushing for their needs as a healthy and vibrant community.

Arabic for “We Exist,” Mawjoudin was built from a Facebook group of fellow LGBTQ-identifying Tunisians sharing their experiences.

The organization now acts as a support network, lobbying arm, and meeting point for LGBTQ persons to discuss their concerns, share their interests, explore their identities, and provide legal help.

“It has changed a lot since the revolution,” says Hana Jemly, a Mawjoudin community manager. “Having licensed organizations allows us to seek support and partner with lawyers, other NGOs, politicians, the media, and international organizations.”

Mawjoudin is looking to push further.

“We have safe spaces, but now we want the laws to feel safe anywhere,” says Ms. Jemly.

In addition to trainings for politicians, this year Mawjoudin began providing certificates to “LGBTQ-friendly” bars, restaurants, and cafes in the capital, a certification that is given after sensitivity training for staff and that can be revoked.

Last year, Mawjoudin launched an annual Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival celebrating non-Western LGBTQ identities, featuring more than 30 films and documentaries from Tunisia, Kenya, Pakistan, China, and Latin America.

It is the first queer film festival in North Africa and the only one in the Arab world. 

Regional epicenter

Civil society has also allowed Tunisia to become a focal point for LGBTQ activism and community outreach in North Africa and the Arab world. International organizations go through Tunisia to access individuals and launch initiatives in the wider region.

And the safe space created by Tunisia’s constitution and licensed organizations has attracted LGBTQ refugees and migrants from across the continent and around the region, including those from Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, sub-Saharan Africa, and even the Levant, many of whom are fleeing less tolerant societies and threats of violence at home.

People such as Ahmed.

The 30-year-old from Libya came to Tunisia three years ago after he received death threats from a militia because, he believes, of his sexual identity.

“Here you have a support network and a community,” says Ahmed, who declined to use his real name or home town in order to protect his family from reprisals. He says others from North Africa have come to settle in Tunis to live and work, and in some cases, apply for asylum in the West through Tunisian organizations.

“When we have the chance to stand together, not only do you realize that you are not alone, but that we are stronger than we believe.”


Tunisia’s LGBTQ activists have made significant progress in less than nine years.

No speech or homophobic comment in public goes unchallenged.

In 2018, a government-appointed Individual Freedoms and Equality Committee – tasked by the president to ensure that laws were in line with the post-revolution constitution and its guarantees of equality and personal freedoms – issued recommendations calling for the abolishment of Article 230.

In addition, the committee called for ending century-old laws criminalizing “public indecency” and “public offense to morals” that also have been used to target the LGBTQ community. And it urged a ban on court-ordered physical tests.

A draft law to abolish these laws sits in parliament, and LGBTQ organizations are pressuring the recently elected lawmakers to follow through on the committee’s recommendations.

“We are alert, and we will make sure the world’s eyes are on you,” says Mr. Baatour.

Why NATO at 70 is as young as ever

Ever since losing its original purpose in 1991 – the collective defense of the West against Soviet aggression – NATO has somehow survived as a military alliance. At a 70th anniversary summit this week, this club of democracies showed why.

Despite serious squabbles and huffy encounters, its renewal of purpose and its workable compromises proved that NATO is more than a guardian of territory. It also serves as a reminder that the best binding agent among countries is a guiding set of principles that help them rise above base national self-interests.

To the 29 states in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, those principles seem obvious: free elections, civilian control of the military, individual rights, rule of law, and so on. Yet to Russia and China, dictators, or Islamic terrorists, such universal principles are seen as threats to their exercise of raw power or their intolerant ideology. NATO’s beacon of ideals is also the reason for its continuing collective defense. Threats may change but core purpose does not.

Other regional bodies, such as those in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, still have far to go to emulate NATO’s success.

The summit’s biggest concern was whether the United States, starting with the Obama administration, has been drifting away from NATO. President Donald Trump, despite his former skepticism about the bloc and his upsets during the gathering in England, seemed to allay much of that concern. He helped resolve a NATO dispute with Turkey. He expressed gratitude for increased defense spending by European allies to relieve the burden on the U.S. And much to the delight of Washington, the transatlantic alliance acknowledged for the first time the “challenge” posed by China’s security encroachments in various parts of the world.

In a statement, NATO leaders said: “To stay secure we must look to the future together.” Much of that future relies on NATO’s ability to reach a democratic consensus on new threats and then be agile enough to devote resources to them. The bloc, for example, decided to shore up its military presence in the Baltic States and Poland after Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine.

NATO’s European members need not worry about U.S. support for the alliance. In a 2019 survey of Americans by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the largest majority yet (73%) said that NATO is essential to U.S. security. Such sentiments seem long-lasting. The bloc is built on self-reinforcing ideals. They inspire a solidarity across borders.

A city’s ambitions, measured in skyscrapers

For Johannesburg, a scrappy gold mining camp that grew into a metropolis of millions, skyscrapers have long been a way of announcing that it too belongs among the world’s powers. It is no coincidence then, that Africa’s tallest tower – and a new one vying for that title – both took shape here, at moments when South Africa had a lot to prove.

“A very tall skyscraper is a brand of optimism,” says Melinda Silverman, an architectural historian.

As the 1970s crested on a continent of newly independent black nations, South Africa’s brutal white government was increasingly out of sync. And the more backward its politics appeared to the outside world, the more imposing and audacious the country’s architecture became – like the iconic Carlton Centre. Yet Johannesburg was splintering apart.

Today, construction is wrapping up on a luxury building 11 meters taller than the Carlton. South Africa’s economy is struggling to come out from under the shadow of repeated corruption scandals, which have emptied government coffers and spooked international investment. But the Leonardo, with its infinity pools and marble floors, sends a message, says development director Jamie Hendry. “This building is proof of our faith in this country. We see it as a huge beacon of hope for South Africa.”

Johannesburg, South Africa

For 46 years, Africa’s tallest building, the Carlton Centre, cut a blocky silhouette in the skyline of downtown Johannesburg. 

The 50-story concrete tower stood like an anchor as the city around it churned. On the streets below, apartheid rose and fell. The European immigrants who once set up shop across the city center, selling tiny Italian coffees and handmade leather shoes, were replaced by immigrants from across Africa, selling tiny Ethiopian coffees and boldly printed African dress shirts. The city center emptied and filled, crumbled and gentrified. 

And through it all, like a hangover from another era, the Carlton stood unchallenged as Africa’s tallest building. 

Not that no one else tried. Every year or two for the past decade or so, another developer somewhere on the continent has promised that they were preparing to build something taller than the Carlton. Would it be the 70-story glass tower in Nairobi? The glowing orb at the center of a private city in Ghana? The “Dubai-style mega-project” near Cairo? 

Ultimately, the first successful challenge to the Carlton’s reign came from much closer to home. In September, a developer announced that Africa officially had a new tallest building, a luxury tower called the Leonardo, just 11 miles to the Carlton’s north. At 234 meters, the Leonardo stands 11 meters taller than its rival downtown – enough to squeak into the record books (though technically, that record is still pending).

All around the world, skyscrapers have a way of holding a mirror to a society’s ambitions. They show a place as it wants to be seen, a projection of its dreams literally stretching toward the sky. 

“A very tall skyscraper is a brand of optimism,” says Melinda Silverman, an architectural historian at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Building one is an announcement of stature, she says, a way of saying this city has arrived. Think New York and Chicago in the 20th century; Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, and Dubai in the 21st . For Johannesburg, a scrappy gold mining camp that grew into a metropolis of millions, a place still self-conscious about its place in the global pecking order, skyscrapers have also been a way of announcing that it too belongs among the world’s powers.

“This building is proof of our faith in this country,” says Jamie Hendry, development director for the Legacy Group, which built the Leonardo. “We see it as a huge beacon of hope for South Africa.”

It is no coincidence, Dr. Silverman says, that both the Carlton and the Leonardo took shape at moments when South Africa had a lot to prove.

Building through boycotts 

The Carlton – along with a host of other bleak concrete skyscrapers built around the same time – was part of a distinctive moment in the history of both South Africa and its architecture. As the 1970s crested on a continent of newly independent black nations, South Africa’s brutal white government was increasingly out of sync.

But it was a rich outcast – the world’s leading gold producer with cash to spare. And the more backward its politics appeared to the outside world, the more imposing and audacious the country’s architecture became.

Themba Hadebe/AP/File

For more than four decades, the Carlton Centre (far right) in downtown Johannesburg was the tallest building in Africa.

Between 1965 and 1977, more than 60 tall buildings crowded their way onto Johannesburg’s skyline. Wilfrid Mallows, a prominent city planning scholar, announced that the Carlton, with its five-star hotel and glittering shopping mall, projected on Johannesburg “the image of an international city” for the first time. 

Ironically, however, even as the final slabs were being laid on those skyscrapers, the city around them was splintering apart. In June 1976, visitors facing southwest from Carlton’s observation deck could probably see smoke rising from behind the yellow mine dumps that marked the edge of the city. Just beyond, the townships of Soweto, home to much of the city’s black population, had erupted in protest.

By the 1980s, frustrated by the apartheid government’s refusal to reform, major global businesses pulled out of the country in droves. And as they did, the inner city around them buckled. The Carlton, once surrounded by the opulent optimism of apartheid’s best years, was soon encased in the rot of the same system’s decay.

Turning the page

Fast forward 30 years and South Africa has once again got a lot to prove. The country’s economy is struggling to come out from under the shadow of repeated corruption scandals, which have emptied government coffers and spooked international investment. Its currency, the rand, has lost half its value against the U.S. dollar over the past seven years.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor

Jamie Hendry, development director for the Legacy Group, stands in the Leonardo skyscraper his company constructed, September 2019. The building is “a huge beacon of hope for South Africa,” he says.

The Leonardo, with its infinity pools and marble floors, sends a message, Mr. Hendry says.

“We must put our stamp on the continent, and tell everyone that this is still the strongest economy in Africa,” he says. “The Leonardo is the jewel in our crown.” 

On a recent afternoon, he stood on the building’s unfinished viewing deck, looking out over the smog-glazed district of glass-faced office blocks and shopping malls below. The Leonardo sits in the center of Sandton, a sleek and sterile business district dubbed the “richest square mile in Africa,” which sprung up as downtown’s fortunes began to buckle. 

Below, construction whirred on the building’s sleek angular apartments, its luxury hotel, and its spas, restaurants, nursery, and shops. Most of the building’s 250-odd apartments are already sold, with prices ranging from R5 million ($340,000) for a boxy one bedroom to R250 million ($17,200,000) for the triple-floor penthouse with a private pool and outdoor garden.

Across town at the Carlton meanwhile, visitors queued to pay R30 ($2) to catch a lift to the 50th floor viewing deck, which still describes itself as the “Top of Africa.” It was just possible to make out the Leonardo’s outline through the scuffed windows. Nearby, displays faded to sepia-tone droned about the Carlton’s construction. Meanwhile, two teenage boys scratched their names into the wood walls, covered in the names of rule-breaking visitors. 

Outside, the Carlton and the Leonardo faced each other across the skyline, bookends to a city and its history.

NYC team helps immigrant runners realize US race dreams

New York

A no-name entrant at this month’s New York City Marathon – literally, he didn’t even qualify to have his name printed on his bib –Girma Bekele Gebre crashed the elite field and finished third in the largest 26.2-mile race in the world.

A week later, the Ethiopian runner sat in Bill Staab’s Upper West Side apartment, smiling and nodding while Mr. Staab recounted details from his stunning podium finish.

“It’s a life-changer,” Mr. Staab said.

Mr. Staab, the 80-year-old president of the West Side Runners’ Club, has helped numerous careers during his 42-year term, making the American dream possible for immigrants from all over. A longtime running enthusiast who is retired from his career in steel sales and administration, Mr. Staab has become an indispensable organizer for runners from South America and Africa. He’s written hundreds of letters to support visa-seeking athletes, and he says he’s spent nearly $1 million of his own money on entry fees and memberships for West Side runners like Mr. Girma.

He doesn’t pocket the winnings – like the $61,000 earned by Mr. Girma, or the $10,000 that countryman Diriba Degefa Yigezu got for winning last weekend’s Philadelphia Marathon. Mr. Staab helps the athletes cash those checks and use the money to fund their travels or support others back home.

“When I came here, I didn’t have any family,” Mr. Diriba said. “This person helped me. That’s why I run for him.”

Mr. Girma’s success is a new level for West Side Runners. Prior to his breakthrough, he was “just another one of our runners,” Mr. Staab said – one of his “basically minor league racers.” Mr. Girma came to the U.S for three to four months at a time, and Mr. Staab would arrange near-weekly races for him across the country. He’d make $500 here, $1,000 there – his biggest payday was $8,000 – and he would send some of that back to his family, which is helping raise his 4-year-old daughter on their farm.

The routine was interrupted this year when one of Mr. Girma’s six brothers died. He cut short his spring U.S. trip and returned to Ethiopia. Instead of grinding through half-marathons and 10Ks, he trained at altitude in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.

New York was Mr. Girma’s first race back in the U.S., and he posted a stunning time of 2 hours, 8 minutes, 38 seconds – more than five minutes faster than his previous personal best.

“If he had said, ‘I’m going to run 2:08,’ I would have said, ‘That’s crazy,'” Mr. Staab said.

Mr. Girma is thinking about putting the prize money into a house in Ethiopia. He’s been contacted by agents and sponsors about potential deals, and Mr. Staab is hopeful Mr. Girma will be approved for a green card – an important step up from his P1 athlete visa that will make living and competing in the United States easier. He’s eyeing the Boston Marathon for his next race, although it’s uncertain if he’ll crack the smaller field there. For now, he plans to spend time back home weighing his options. Among his goals: He wants to shave another few minutes off his personal best marathon time.

“Maybe 2:03,” he said.

Mr. Staab hardly envisioned a success story like that when he took over West Side Runners. Originally a small club of local athletes from the West Side YMCA, the team first went international in 1980 when Mr. Staab helped three Colombian runners enter the NYC Marathon. Word spread that Mr. Staab could connect international runners to U.S. races, and athletes from Ecuador, Brazil, Mexico, and other Latin American countries followed. West Side Runners became a powerhouse at local competitions – and a strikingly diverse one racing against mostly white teams stocked with post-collegiate runners.

“The other teams laughed at us,” Mr. Staab said. “And then we began to beat them. Then they didn’t laugh quite so much.”

Mr. Staab, a former Peace Corps volunteer, turned managing West Side Runners into a full-time endeavor after retiring a decade ago. His commitment and capability struck some Ethiopian runners seeking a new team around that time, and now Ethiopians make up roughly a third of the club’s roughly 350 members. Some come to the U.S. for a few months at a time, and some longer. Mr. Staab used to let runners stay in his apartment, but his co-op board recently outlawed that. Many runners have friends to stay with elsewhere in the city, and some share small apartments in the Bronx.

They’re almost all full-time runners, with athlete visas that preclude them from taking on other jobs. Although they aren’t world-renowned, they can earn enough to cover expenses and send money home, mostly because Mr. Staab can get them into nearly any mid-tier race in the country.

It’s not a luxurious lifestyle. Mr. Diriba will end up running about 20 races this season – he might have completed more if not for an injury over the summer – and estimates he’ll make about $26,000. Barely enough to make rent in his shared Bronx apartment, but in Ethiopia, he says, “it’s a lot of money.”

Mr. Staab also uses the club to help runners get visas, estimating he writes about 100 letters per year to immigration vouching for potential racers.

One of those runners is Nuhamin Bogale Ashame. Formerly a junior world champion at 1,500 meters, Ms. Nuhamin fell off the international competitive scene due to injury but is trying to make her way back at longer distances. With Mr. Staab’s help, she’s raced everything from one mile to half-marathons in her first year in the U.S. The 26-year-old heard good things from other athletes about West Side Runners while she was in Ethiopia, and she hasn’t been disappointed by Mr. Staab.

“For Ethiopian runners, he’s like a father,” she said. “We love him.”

That much became clear to Mr. Staab last year, when 15 Ethiopian runners accompanied him to the hospital when he had to have surgery. Mr. Staab doesn’t have any family in New York, so his runners remained with him overnight.
“When I went back for another operation, the nurses didn’t remember me, but they remembered the Ethiopians,” he said.

Mr. Staab bemoans that the immigration process has become more difficult since President Donald Trump’s election. He’s stopped trying to get visas for Mexican runners “because you’re not going to get them.” Even for the Ethiopians, Mr. Staab has had a harder time since Mr. Girma got his P1 visa in 2013.

Still, most of Mr. Staab’s team members are immigrants. Their success is on display at his apartment, where dozens of trophies sit on a table in the entry. Runners often leave those prizes for him – they’d rather save room in their luggage for clothes, shoes, and souvenirs, anyway.

“We’ve done well, but it’s a lot of work,” Mr. Staab said. “I’m kind of obsessed with it.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

Should terrorists be held indefinitely? London Bridge attack renews debate.


UK counterterrorism police on Saturday searched for clues into how a man imprisoned for terrorism offenses before his release last year managed to stab several people before being tackled by bystanders and shot dead by officers on London Bridge. Two people were killed and three wounded.

Neil Basu, London’s police counterterrorism chief, said Usman Khan was attending a program that works to educate prisoners when he launched Friday’s attack just yards from the site of a deadly 2017 van and knife rampage.

Mr. Basu said the suspect appeared to be wearing a bomb vest but it turned out to be “a hoax explosive device.” Police said they were treating the stabbings as a terrorist attack and were not actively looking for other suspects.

Health officials said one of the wounded was in critical but stable condition, one was stable, and the third had less serious injuries. Police have not named the two who died.

The attack raises difficult questions for Britain’s government and security services. Police said Khan was convicted in 2012 of terrorism offenses and released in December 2018 “on license,” which means he had to meet certain conditions or face recall to prison. Several British media outlets reported that he was wearing an electronic ankle bracelet at the time of the attack.

The former head of Britain’s National Counter Terrorism Security Office, Chris Phillips, said it is wrong to ask police and security services to keep the country safe while letting people out of prison when they are still a threat.

“We’re playing Russian roulette with people’s lives, letting convicted, known, radicalized jihadi criminals walk about our streets,” he said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who visited the scene Saturday, said he had “long argued” that it was a “mistake to allow serious and violent criminals to come out of prison early.” He said extra police patrols on the streets would be added “for reassurance purposes.”

Mr. Khan had been convicted as part of a group that denied plotting to target major sites including Parliament, the U.S. Embassy and individuals including Johnson, then the mayor of London, the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and two rabbis.

Mr. Khan admitted to a lesser charge of engaging in conduct for the preparation of acts of terrorism. He had been secretly taped plotting attacks and talking about martyrdom as a possibility.

Mr. Khan and his accomplices had links to radical preacher Anjem Choudary. A mobile phone seized at the time contained material related to the banned group that Mr. Choudary founded. The preacher was released from prison in 2018 but is under heavy surveillance and a curfew.

Mr. Choudary for years has been one of the highest-profile faces of radical Islam in Britain, leading groups including al-Muhajiroun, Islam4UK, and Muslims Against Crusades. Several people who attended his rallies have been convicted of attacks, including the two Al-Qaeda-inspired killers who ran over British soldier Lee Rigby and stabbed him to death in 2013.

Police on Saturday were searching an apartment block in Stafford, 150 miles northwest of London, for clues. Mr. Khan was believed to have lived in the area after his release from prison.

Britain’s Parole Board said in a statement it had no role in releasing Khan, who “appears to have been released automatically on license (as required by law), without ever being referred to the board,” it said.

The violence erupted less than two weeks before Britain holds a national election Dec. 12. The main political parties suspended campaigning in London as a mark of respect.

Metropolitan Police Chief Cressida Dick said officers were called just before 2 p.m. Friday to Fishmongers’ Hall, a conference venue at the north end of London Bridge.

Learning Together, a Cambridge University-backed prison education program, was holding a conference at the hall. Cambridge Vice Chancellor Stephen Toope said he was “devastated” to learn that the attack may have targeted people attending an event organized by the university’s Institute of Criminology.

Minutes after the stabbings, witnesses saw a man with a knife being wrestled to the ground by members of the public on the bridge before officers shot him dead.

One video posted on social media showed two men struggling on the bridge before police pulled a man in civilian clothes off a black-clad man on the ground. Gunshots followed. Another depicted a man in a suit holding a long knife that apparently had been taken from the attacker.

Karen Bosch, who was on a bus crossing the bridge, said she saw police “wrestling with one tall, bearded man” and then heard “gunshots, two loud pops.”

She said the man “pulled his coat back which showed that he had some sort of vest underneath, whether it’s a stab vest, or some sort of explosive vest, the police then really quickly moved backwards, away.”

Footage from the attack showed several passers-by – including one armed with a narwhal tusk apparently taken from the hall and another with a fire extinguisher – fighting with the suspect before police arrived.

Queen Elizabeth II said in a statement that she and her husband, Prince Philip, were sending their thoughts to everyone affected by the “terrible violence.” She thanked police and emergency services “as well as the brave individuals who put their own lives at risk to selflessly help and protect others.”

Mayor Sadiq Khan praised the “breathtaking heroism of members of the public who literally ran towards danger not knowing what confronted him.”

Security officials earlier this month had downgraded Britain’s terrorism threat level from “severe” to “substantial,” which means an attack is seen as “likely” rather than “highly likely.” The assessment was made by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, an independent expert body that evaluates intelligence, terrorist capability and intentions.

It was based in part on a judgment that the threat of extremists returning from Syria to launch attacks in Britain had been slightly reduced.

The U.K.’s terror threat was last listed as “substantial” in August 2014; since then it has held steady at “severe,” briefly rising to “critical” in May and September 2017.

This story was produced by The Associated Press.

Readers write: Magazine changes, the Second Amendment, and more

Magazine changes

I had to write in to say that as I was looking through the Oct. 21 Monitor Weekly, I noticed the double-page “Points of Progress” with the world map! I love it. Thank you.

In that issue, there was also a longer crossword and no sudoku puzzle; I was glad to see sudoku will return. I rarely do the sudoku and never do the crossword. However, I know many people who do both and am glad they are there for when I share the Monitor with non-Christian Scientists.

In addition to reading the full print Monitor, I have started listening to the Monitor Daily as well as “A Christian Science Perspective,” which is such fun! So many thanks for the blessing of the Monitor.

Sancy Nason
Tathra, Australia

The Second Amendment

Regarding “Readers Write” in the Nov. 4 Monitor Weekly: Two people wondered why some Americans fiercely defend the part of the Second Amendment that states “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

I believe the point of that part of the Second Amendment – and why it should be interpreted to mean that private citizens should be armed outside a government-run militia – is so that Americans themselves can defend the U.S. Constitution in case the government falls to a corrupt politician or group of politicians. Many nations have fallen this way throughout history. 

Allison Eggers
St. Louis

Healing the divide

The editorial “Friendship across political lines” in the Nov. 4 Monitor Weekly reminds me of a statement I love. It’s credited to the Methodist founder John Wesley and says “We need not think alike to love alike.”

Harry R. W. Sullivan
Santa Rosa, California

Sports talk

The editorial “A springbok in their steps” in the Nov. 18 Monitor Weekly rightly celebrates South Africa’s success in the recent rugby World Cup in Japan. The writer failed to acknowledge, however, the second team that competed on Nov. 2: England. 

England’s rugby squad contributed much to the World Cup tournament, and the editorial should have recognized their achievement in reaching the final. The team’s semifinal victory over New Zealand was considered by many to be the most outstanding match of the six-week tournament.

Alistair Budd
Newport, Wales

Iraqi prime minister set to resign: Will protesters be satisfied?


Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi announced his resignation on Friday after the country’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric urged lawmakers to reconsider their support for a government rocked by weeks of deadly anti-establishment unrest.

The move was the latest twist in an unprecedented crisis for war-weary Iraq, which has struggled to recover from decades of conflict, civil unrest, and sanctions.

Young, unemployed, and unarmed protesters have led calls for an overhaul of a political system they say is endemically corrupt and serves foreign powers, especially Baghdad’s ally Tehran.

The departure of Mr. Abdul Mahdi could be a blow for Iranian influence after Iran’s militia allies and its own commanders intervened last month to keep the premier in place despite mass anti-government unrest.

Iraq’s biggest unrest for years pits protesters from Shi’ite heartlands in Baghdad and the south against a corrupt Shi’ite-dominated ruling elite seen as pawns of Iran.

Iraq’s current political class is drawn mainly from powerful Shi’ite politicians, clerics, and paramilitary leaders including many who lived in exile before a U.S.-led invasion overthrew Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 – including Mr. Abdul Mahdi.

“In response to this (the cleric’s) call, and in order to facilitate it as quickly as possible, I will present to parliament a demand (to accept) my resignation from the leadership of the current government,” a statement signed by Mr. Abdul Mahdi said.

The statement did not say when he would resign. Parliament is to convene an emergency session on Sunday to discuss the crisis.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani earlier urged parliament to considering withdrawing its support for Mr. Abdul Mahdi‘s government to stem spiraling violence.

Iraqi protesters celebrated the imminent departure of Mr. Abdul Mahdi, but said they would not stop their demonstrations until the whole of the political class was removed. Violence continued in southern Iraq.

“Abdul Mahdi‘s resignation is just the beginning. We’ll stay in the streets until the entire government has gone, and all the rest of the corrupt politicians,” said Mustafa Hafidh, a protester at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square.

“It’s not enough,” said Ali al-Sayeda, another demonstrator. “We need them all out, root and branch. We can’t let up the pressure.”

Violence unabated

Security forces meanwhile shot dead at least three people in the southern city of Nassiriya as clashes continued. In Najaf, unidentified armed men shot live rounds at demonstrators sending dozens scattering.

Iraqi forces have killed nearly 400 mostly young, unarmed demonstrators since mass anti-government protests broke out on Oct. 1. More than a dozen members of the security forces have also died in clashes.

The burning of Iran’s consulate in the holy city of Najaf on Wednesday escalated violence and drew a brutal response from security forces who shot dead more than 60 people nationwide on Thursday.

Mr. al-Sistani, who only weighs in on politics in times of crisis and wields huge influence over public opinion, on Friday warned against an explosion of civil strife and tyranny. He urged government forces to stop killing protests and protesters themselves to reject all violence.

The government “appears to have been unable to deal with the events of the past two months … parliament, from which the current government emerged, must reconsider its choices and do what’s in the interest of Iraq,” a representative of Mr. al-Sistani said in a televised sermon.

Protesters “must not allow peaceful demonstrations to be turned into attacks on property or people,” he said.

Wednesday’s attack on the Iranian consulate in Najaf set off a sharp escalation of violence.

On Thursday, security forces shot dead 46 people in another southern city, Nassiriya, 18 in Najaf and four in Baghdad bringing the death toll from weeks of unrest to at least 417, most of them unarmed protesters, according to a Reuters tally from medical and police sources.

Clashes between protesters and security forces broke out early on Friday in Nassiriya killing three people and wounding several others, hospital sources said.

Iraq’s “enemies and their apparatuses are trying to sow chaos and infighting to return the country to the age of dictatorship … everyone must work together to thwart that opportunity,” Mr. al-Sistani said, without elaborating.

This story was reported by Reuters.

Points of Progress: Women are entering the Latin American workforce, and more

Latin America

More women are entering the workforce across Latin America. New data from the United Nations shows an 11% increase of women working in the region over the past 30 years. Despite this rise, however, the report highlights women’s earnings remain on average 17% below those of men with the same education and economic status. In both Peru and Bolivia, more than 60% of women age 15 and older hold jobs. One of the factors underpinning the growth is access to higher education, according to the study. (U.N. News)


Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

Farmers walk next to solar panels at a farmland near Sanaa, Yemen, on Oct. 28, 2019.

Solar panels have increased energy and water production in and around the capital, Sanaa. After Houthi insurgents captured Sanaa in 2014, a series of attacks on its power lines left the country without reliable electricity. But now solar panels are providing an alternative power source for some residents. South of the capital in Dhamar, solar-powered pumps have helped to restore water production, which has plummeted since the civil war began. “People used to get water every 10 to 12 days,” said Muhammad Ali al-Habshi of Dhamar’s water authority. “Now it is every three days.” (Reuters, Al Jazeera)


Italy will become the first country in the world to make sustainable development and climate change studies compulsory in its education system. Education Minister Lorenzo Fioramonti said beginning in September 2020 all state schools will dedicate an hour per week to climate change issues. The pilot program plans to incorporate the United Nations climate agenda into the entire curriculum. Younger students will be taught stories from different cultures that emphasize a connection to the environment. More technical information will be introduced in the middle school curriculum, and the U.N.’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will be taught at the high school level. “The 21st century citizen must be a sustainable citizen,” said Mr. Fioramonti. (The New York Times, Reuters)


A new school has opened in Dakar that teaches people how to use artificial intelligence to find agricultural solutions. In September, the Dakar Institute of Technology partnered with French AI school Vividata to begin educating farmers on how to use AI to increase crop yields. With temperature, soil pH, and moisture level data processed by AI, farmers can learn more specifically where and when to add fertilizer and water, a scarce resource in the region. The school plans to launch a bachelor’s degree in big data and a master’s degree in AI in 2020. (Reuters)


Eduardo Munoz/Reuters/File

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta approved a new data protection law to regulate how personal information is handled and shared by companies and the government. The law complies with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation law passed in 2018. The GDPR includes the right to access one’s data, to request one’s data be removed, and to be notified about a data breach. Amazon Web Services, part of the Amazon group, said it is encouraged by the new law and will be setting up part of its cloud infrastructure in Kenya. There is no single federal data protection law in the United States, but California’s new data protection law takes effect Jan. 1, 2020. (Qz Africa, Reuters)


India has banned the use of electronic cigarettes, according to court documents. The government told a federal court that a recent ban on the import, manufacture, sale, advertisement, storage, and distribution of e-cigarettes implies their use is also prohibited. Enforcement of the new ban, in a country with 106 million adult smokers, will be difficult, observers say. India’s population of smokers is second only to China in e-cigarette use, where seven top companies recently agreed to stop online e-cigarette sales. The nationwide action came after nearly a dozen Indian states banned sales of the product. The country’s finance minister said the devices pose a health risk, especially to young people. (CNN, Reuters)

Mississippi’s forgotten flood: When nation looks away, locals unite

Anderson Jones Sr. had lived through floods before, but he says, “2019 outdid all of them.”

More than half a million acres of land in Mississippi went underwater in late February, and remained submerged for more than six months. Two people drowned, hundreds of homes were affected, and about 220,000 acres of farmland went unplanted. Beyond the black mold, destroyed homes, and empty fields, the flood also left its mark on how residents see themselves and their place in the nation.

Locals dubbed this year’s flood the forgotten flood, as the wet months garnered little national attention amid flooding and other natural disasters elsewhere. The phrase also echoes many residents’ complaints that the federal government broke a promise of flood protection.

“I don’t like politics,” says Victoria Darden, a farmer in Onward, Mississippi, who mostly kept her opinions to herself before the flood. “But I know that it matters and if you want change, you’ve got to speak up, you’ve got to be involved in it. That’s the only way.”

Fitler, Miss.

His house had become an island. A ring of sandbags protected it from the stagnant water that filled the surrounding fields and covered the dirt road. But it didn’t keep out invaders. 

Marooned at his Fitler, Mississippi, home for days at a time, Anderson Jones Sr. had to mount a defense. So he set up a metal folding chair under the carport, grabbed his shotgun, and waited.

It didn’t take long for them to come. Enticed by the dry land, snakes – usually cottonmouths – slithered over the sandbags. Crack, crack, the shots rang out. On one day, Mr. Jones says, he shot 12.

When the flood began in February, Mr. Jones’s family escaped to higher ground. But he was determined to defend his home. 

That wasn’t a simple task. Mr. Jones has diabetes and was in a car accident in 1990 that left him walking with a cane and a brace on his leg. With his car parked on high ground a couple of miles away, a trip to the store for food or medication became an ordeal. He’d wade, boat, and sometimes drive a four-wheeler through the water. 

But come mid-May, snakes were the least of his worries. The water was rising again, quickly this time, and threatening to breach the sandbag levee. Mr. Jones had lived through floods before, but he says, “2019 outdid all of them.”

More than half a million acres across several counties in Mississippi went underwater in late February, and remained submerged for more than six months. Two people drowned, hundreds of homes were affected, and about 220,000 acres of farmland went unplanted. 

“It felt like it was never going to end,” says Victoria Darden, a farmer in Onward, Mississippi. “This has probably been the toughest year of my life.”

The floodwaters didn’t recede until early August, making the length of the flood one for the history books. But the flood left behind more than destroyed homes, empty fields, and black mold. It also left its mark on how residents see themselves and their place in the nation.

Eva Botkin-Kowacki/The Christian Science Monitor

Victoria Darden, a farmer in Onward, Mississippi, stands on a small levee that shielded her parents’ house from floodwaters. The fields are dry on Oct. 2, 2019, but months of flooding prevented the Dardens from planting any crops this year.

“Ain’t no place like home”

The Mississippi River holds a special place in American lore – both historical and fictional. It practically bisects the country and is the main route to the sea for American agricultural exports. 

The river also drains 41% of precipitation that falls across the contiguous United States. That makes it the largest drainage basin in the world, covering more than 1,245,000 square miles across 31 states. 

That’s a lot of water flowing through the more southerly states. Every second, approximately 3.7 million gallons of water rush by Vicksburg, Mississippi. That’s on an average day. When the river is above flood stage, that volume can more than triple.

Vicksburg’s elevation places it well out of the flood zone, but the wedge of land to the north between the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers is flat and low-lying. Today, tall levees line both rivers, constraining them to their channels. Floodgates drain rainwater out of that wedge of land, dubbed the Yazoo Backwater Area. 

SOURCE: US Army Corps of Engineers


Jacob Turcotte/Staff

The stage was set for the extended backwater flooding long before Mr. Jones sloshed to his car. The 12-month period from July 2018 to June 2019 was the wettest the nation has ever experienced on record, swelling the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers above flood stage even before 2019 began. With the rivers already above capacity, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed the floodgates. So when rain fell in the backwater area, there was nowhere for it to go. 

“It just kept pushing up, kept coming,” Mr. Jones says. “By then it was too late to get anything out – I lost everything in the house.”

Mr. Jones and his son made a daring escape through the floodwaters at 2 a.m. on May 19. Water was rushing into the house, and Mr. Jones worried what might happen if it reached the electrical sockets. So in the dark and drizzle, father and son waded to the little boat, leaving their family home and everything remaining in it behind. 

Mr. Jones walks through the house on a steamy October day, using his cane to point out a watermark about a foot above the floor on the beams that remain. The house has been stripped of its mold-infested contents. The interior walls are just frames. While many residents are tearing down their destroyed homes and starting fresh, Mr. Jones is determined to keep his childhood home.

“Ain’t no place like home,” he says. 

Top of mind

Even after the land is dry, remnants of the flood linger in residents’ yards – and minds. 

“A month ago when it started raining after it dried up, I was on edge,” Ms. Darden says. “How much is it going to rain? What is going to happen from here? We’d just dried out. It’s very nerve-wracking.”

The most obvious reminder comes from an intentional display. Handmade yard signs, bumper stickers, and spray-painted rooftops scheduled for demolition declare #FINISHTHEPUMPS. The hashtag refers to a pumping station that was part of a federal plan hatched in response to devastating flooding along the Mississippi River in 1927. 

The plan included a system of levees, floodgates, pumps, and reservoirs to manage flood risk along the river and its tributaries. Bordered by levees keeping both the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers from overflowing into the land, the Yazoo Backwater Area came into being. There’s also a set of floodgates. They can be closed to keep river water from backing up into that wedge of land, or opened to drain rainwater from the land into the rivers. 

The floodgates rely on gravity: The land will only drain if the river is lower than the water levels in the backwater area. So when the gates are closed and a lot of rain falls behind the levees, the water has nowhere to go. (That’s what happened this year.) The original plan included a pumping station that would drain some rainwater from the backwater area into the swollen rivers when the floodgates were closed. 

But the pumps were never installed.  

“They built us a bathtub and never built the drain,” says Redwood resident Stormy Deere, who boated to her elevated home for months.

Eva Botkin-Kowacki/The Christian Science Monitor

Stormy Deere holds her cat Zoom on the porch of her home in Redwood, Mississippi, on Oct. 3, 2019. During the height of the flood, she shot snakes from her bathroom window so they wouldn’t find their way into the house through vents.

The 2019 flood renewed calls for the pumps. Disgruntled residents like Ms. Deere formed a nonprofit organization called Finish the Pumps. They’ve also dubbed the natural disaster “The Forgotten Backwater Flood” to illustrate their sentiment of feeling left behind among national priorities.

Following decades of delays, the Environmental Protection Agency under the George W. Bush administration vetoed the project in 2008, citing environmental concerns. That veto is challenging to overturn, but it appears advocates for the pumps are gaining some traction now. On Oct. 21, the EPA broke from its long-kept distance and joined residents in a listening session

“We have an ongoing dialogue with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) regarding potential options for providing flood protection,” the EPA said in a statement provided to the Monitor. “We remain committed to working actively and cooperatively with the Corps concerning our Clean Water Act programs to support a long-term viable solution.”

Eva Botkin-Kowacki/The Christian Science Monitor

On April 27, 2019, visitors to Stormy Deere’s home wave at reporters from the porch. Friends had waded and boated to bring her company while she recovered from an emergency surgery. Floodwaters had receded some, but they rose again in mid-May.

A cropless year

The field in front of Clay Adcock’s house in Holly Bluff should be a sea of white puffs. Cotton should have been ready for harvest in October. Instead, the only crop the land is producing is dust devils. This year was the first time in 33 years that commercial farmer Mr. Adcock didn’t plant anything. 

The flood was a massive financial hit for the 6,000-acre operation, but Mr. Adcock says he’ll be alright. He built a levee around his home and much of his farm equipment that kept the water from causing extensive damage. 

“I’m fortunate, I’ve got room enough to build a levee and I’ve got the money to do it, and so I could do it,” he says, estimating that he spent about $30,000 building the levee. “But there’s a world of people out there that cannot do that.”

Agricultural losses account for much of the financial hit of the flooding. As such, environmentalists like Louie Miller, state director of the Mississippi Chapter of the Sierra Club, have expressed concern that spending federal money to install the pumps would be catering too much to the economic interests of a select few.

Eva Botkin-Kowacki/The Christian Science Monitor

Clay Adcock stands in a field that was supposed to be filled with cotton ready for picking on Oct. 3, 2019.

Every dollar spent operating the pumps would yield $1.40 savings in flooding damage, according to 2007 Army Corps estimates. But that’s only after installation – which was priced at $200 million in 2008. That figure would likely be higher today.

A project of that scale would have to be federally funded. And getting approval for federal funds is tricky for such a sparsely populated area. It raises broader questions about our national infrastructure priorities, that resonate beyond the riverbanks of the Mississippi to coastal areas facing rising seas and intensifying hurricanes

“That’s kind of a question for America writ large: Should people be able to live anywhere they want and be protected, or at least have the feeling of being protected from floods?” says Martin Doyle, a professor of river science and policy at Duke University who grew up in the Mississippi Delta. 

“You wouldn’t want to be anywhere else”

For renters, a devastating flood can be especially destabilizing. Kenneth Parker had been saving up money to buy the land and the trailer home where he lived with his wife and their four children. But when water swept through his neighborhood in Eagle Lake, the trailer was destroyed and his landlady sold the plot to someone else. 

“I had nothing to fall back on,” Mr. Parker says. “We lost everything.”

Eva Botkin-Kowacki/The Christian Science Monitor

Kenneth Parker rented a trailer home in Eagle Lake, Mississippi, before flooding drove him and his family out. On Oct. 2, 2019, he sits at The Beechwood Restaurant after work before driving two hours to the temporary rental where he and his family still live.

The family found a temporary place to stay in another county, but Mr. Parker now drives two hours each way to work while his wife home-schools their children. But Warren County is home for Mr. Parker, and he hopes to return.

There’s a silver lining to this year’s flood, says Ms. Darden. Neighbors have become closer friends and teammates, piling sandbags together and organizing calls to elected officials.

“In an average year, you couldn’t ask for a better place to live. The community is wonderful, the people are very caring … everybody helps everybody. It’s just tightknit, small-town USA,” Ms. Darden says. “I personally had not seen this community come together like this. It was very moving, very emotional – but you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

The flood also left its mark on Ms. Darden. 

Before, she wasn’t one to rock the boat. As a young female farmer, she was shy and kept her thoughts to herself. But as the flood wore on, she attended many community meetings. Older residents like Mr. Jones and Mr. Adcock spoke about the pumps, and she began to do some research about the history of flood control in the region. That’s when something changed in her.

“I don’t like politics,” Ms. Darden says. “But I know that it matters and if you want change, you’ve got to speak up, you’ve got to be involved in it. That’s the only way.” She now serves on the board of Finish the Pumps. 

This story was produced with support from the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources and from an Energy Foundation grant to cover the environment.