Huge Forest Fires Grow; Phoenix Faces Immediate Evacuation, Then Incineration; Bangladesh Hit By Worst-Ever Monsoon
By Saifuddeen Mujeeb, Katherine Murawcyk and Scott Wade
DHAKA, BANGLADESH AND PHOENIX, ARIZONA – “When I finally get out of here, I don’t know if I’ll have a home to go back to.” So says Eric Emmerling, 45, an Arizona businessman trapped in Dhaka, where he had come to buy muslin for his clothing factory in Phoenix. “We live in Scottsdale. My wife says she has herself and the kids packed, ready to flee.” Naju Rahman, a 24-year-old Bangladeshi studying for her Ph.D. in microbiology at Arizona State in Phoenix has similar fears for her family in Dhaka. Says Ms. Rahman, “The monsoons of the last few years were so bad, it’s hard to imagine anything worse. The one in 2060 put Dhaka – which used to be miles inland – right on the ocean. But this monsoon has brought the ocean in on top of everyone. So many people killed! So many missing! And there’s no place anyone can escapes to. At least, before Phoenix goes up in flames, I can go south.”
Fleeing to the Indian border, Bangladeshis Are Shot
Of course, the disasters facing the two cities are, at the moment, of different scale. The monstrous monsoon – called by most Bangladeshi the “nameless” monsoon in the hopes that not dignifying it with a name would diminish it – that hit the country last week has wreaked havoc. It flooded most of the already water-soaked land around Dhaka and, most significantly, breached the city’s ocean seawall. Deaths from drowning and collapsed buildings are said to be as high as 20,000 in Dhaka and environs. And the storm has forced an estimated 160,000 Bangladeshi to trek, many on foot, 50 miles north and east, hoping to cross to the border into India, to find shelter in the burgeoning refugee camps around Agartala.
But three days ago, the Indian government announced that these camps, already overflowing with refugees from floods of recent years, have been closed. In several places, Indian troops have fired into Bangladeshi crowds trying to breach the border. Unconfirmed reports put the number of dead in the hundreds if not the thousands. The Dhaka-Sylthet Highway, the route taken by nearly all current refugees, has become choked with people, many without food or water. Some are now calling it the Dhaka-to-Death Highway.
Many Flee; For Many Who Remain, Home Is a Cricket Stadium
This is just the latest disaster to hit this desperately poor South Asian country. Situated in the world’s largest river delta, with 80 percent of its land on a flood plain, in the last half century Bangladesh has seen the Bay of Bengal advance northward to consume one-fourth of its territory, including the southern half of Dhaka itself. Embankments, built at the cost of tens of billions of dollars have proved useless, as have “monsoon shelters.” Says Naju Rahman in the relative safety of Phoenix, Arizona, “I knew when I left that I probably wouldn’t return. There is no future there.” Reached at a Dhaka location he would not divulge, Eric Emmerling of Phoenix would say only that the U.S. embassy has attempted to help American citizens trapped in this city, which is Bangladesh’s capital. “Let’s just put it this way,” says Emmerling. “Right across from the embassy is the Sher-e-Bangla National Cricket Stadium. It’s been turned into a refugee camp, holding more than 100,000 people, in horrible conditions. Where I am, I’m better off. But for how much longer? I’ve got to get out of here.”
Too Much Water in Dhaka, Too Little In Phoenix
Meanwhile, Phoenix’s problems have been caused by too little water. In the past half century, the Salt and Verde River watersheds have been drying up, as have the region’s aquifers. And the 2.8 million acre-feet per year of water, which according to the Colorado River Compact, Arizona is supposed to receive, has in the last decade been cut in half. Rising drought and falling employment prospects have driven many Phoenix residents out. And by drying out the vast national forests north of the city, drought has put the city at increased risk of fire. So more homeowners have sold their homes, usually at a loss, and left.
“About the only people who’ve come in,” says Emmerling, “are the Chinese. And that’s sparked tensions.” Two big Chinese companies, Energy Prime and The Solar Consortium, have bought up most of the Southwest’s solar energy industry. Many Chinese executives, arriving to oversee their investments, have settled in a newly-built enclave in Scottsdale called Meadow Clover. Says Emmerling, “Long-time residents call it Middle Kingdom – after what the Chinese call China. And they accuse the Chinese of walling themselves in there, being unfriendly. Yeah, elsewhere in America there’s resentment of China’s growing power. But it’s particularly bad in Phoenix. You see a lot of those bumperstickers saying ‘Be nice to your banker” – the country we’re in debt to. My wife tells me the rumor is, the Meadow Clover fire was started by teenagers torching the home of one of the execs.”
Authorities say the Meadow Clover fire, which consumed a dozen homes, has been put out. As have the fires in three Christmas tree farms in south Phoenix, also rumored to have been started deliberately. But these are dwarfed millions-fold by the Tonto Fire advancing on Phoenix from the northeast and the Prescott Fire advancing from the northwest. The Tonto Fire, which has consumed most of that national forest’s 2.87 million acres, and the Prescott Fire, which has consumed most of that national forest’s 1.25 million acres, are both out of control. Within days, the two will probably converge. Soon after that, the single fire will probably hit Phoenix. Phoenix mayor Lourdes Avila says, “Everyone had better be ready to evacuate.” Arizona governor Jack Yeager says his office has prepared the evacuation order. “Lourdes and I and everyone else in government, from top to bottom, and the brave firefighters on the front lines, are still dedicated to saving Phoenix. But we have to face the real possibility…”
In her apartment near Arizona State University, Naju Rahman says she is packed and ready to go. “But,” she says, “all this was avoidable. The way the federal, state and local people have managed to not work together on this, to contain the Tonto and Prescott fires – it’s appalling. Like Americans say, they could screw up a two-car funeral. It’s just as bad back home. Lots of Bangladeshi say, if only the Chinese wanted Bangladesh the way they want Taiwan. If only they’d take over like how they’ve just about taken over Taiwan, maybe they could protect us from the sea and the monsoons. What good is our democracy? A bunch of Dhaka politicians lining their own pockets. And India, which surrounds us, is no better.”
“You Can Sleep Because We Never Do.”
As many Phoenix-area residents have already fled, security concerns mount. There has been looting, particularly of homes in expensive Scottsdale. Governor Yeager says he is prepared, if necessary, to move National Guard troops, now fighting the forest fires, into Phoenix and its suburbs. For now, security is in the hands of local and state police, who are showing signs of becoming overwhelmed. In some places, personnel with the Department of Homeland Security have set up checkpoints, scrutinizing I.D.s to make sure no “outsiders” come in.
But, says Naju Rahman, this too has fueled resentments. She says, “DOHS already has so many surv-cams and drones all over the place, I already felt I had no privacy. Now I’m getting stopped every few minutes by somebody in a DOHS uniform who’s suspicious of my looks; I don’t look either Anglo or Latina. Plus, the local Christian fundies are saying the Christmas-tree farm fires were set by Muslims. And I know there’s a big fundi-influence in the local DOHS. So when the DOHS people stop me and figure out I’m Muslim – not so good. The Homeland Security motto is, ‘You can sleep because we never do.’ Sometimes I wish they’d go take a long, long nap.”
In Dhaka, Eric Emmerling says he appreciates that, in the last decade, “Maybe America has traded some freedom for security. But right now, I’m in favor of security. The U.S. Embassy here has been fantastic for us. And my wife tells me that when she sees a government vehicle go past our house, she feels just a little bit better. Naturally, I’ll feel a lot better when she and the kids are out of there, beyond the fires – and when I’m back with them. I’m willing to lose my house and maybe some of my freedom, but not my family.”
Far Apart, Two Cities Are United in Fear
Dhaka and Phoenix remain two different worlds. In Dhaka, there are bodies floating in the flooded streets and, apparently, no functioning government (most national and local officials seem to have fled in the first few hours of the monsoon). In Phoenix, there are, as yet, no deaths, and there are many officials struggling – admittedly, sometimes at cross-purposes – to fight the approaching fires and protect local residents. But, while separated by much – by 8220 miles, by culture and by circumstances – the two cities are united in fear. Naju Rahman says, “One moment, I’m terrified for my family back home; I haven’t heard from them in a week. The next moment, I’m worried that my university, and all my work here, and my whole life here will be destroyed.” Eric Emmerling says, “I’ve flown over where New Orleans and Miami were. And I’ve been to New York City, to Wall Street, just before Wall Street pretty much moved to Toronto. Those places are flooded, but they’re either empty or more or less calm. Dhaka is full of people drowning in panic. And I’m beginning to hear just a hint of that in my wife’s voice