A tornado story – Part 1

The Long Road – Prelude: April 27, 2014

I was flying home from the annual spring meeting of the Society of Professional Journalists board of directors in Indianapolis.

I was supposed to arrive in Little Rock some time after 6 p.m., but my connecting flight out of Chicago had been delayed.

I’d called my wife Linda from O’Hare to let her know I’d be late, but didn’t know how late.

She had already left our home in west Pulaski County, headed to Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport. She mentioned that she might turn around and go back home. I suggested that she not do that because the delay might not be that long. So she continued on and ran some errands before heading to the airport.

As it turned out, the delay wasn’t that long – no more than half an hour, and the plane took off not much later.

The flight to Little Rock was a little bumpy, but nothing out of the ordinary.

The trip did take longer than usual, though, as the pilot took a wide swing to the west before heading east again to avoid significant thunderstorms that were passing through Arkansas.

We landed behind the storms a little before 8 p.m.

Linda and I got in the car, and I drove on wet streets to P.F. Chang’s, a favorite Sunday dinner stop.

We had just ordered our food when Linda started getting email from neighbors asking where she was and whether she was OK.

Neighbors knew I was out of town and that she would likely be home.

I got a phone call from a colleague at the newspaper office who also asked if Linda and I were OK and said that a neighbor and suburban police chief was looking for us because our house had “incurred extensive damage” from a tornado that had passed through the area around 7 p.m.

The police chief and a neighbor who is a volunteer firefighter wanted to be sure Linda had not been at home when the tornado ripped it apart. They’d worked their way uphill through downed trees and power lines to the house and worried that they could not find her.

We assured our friends and neighbors that we were OK, but expressed concerns about our cats.

One of the neighbors said he’d seen a gray-and-white cat lying on the foot of our bed in the master bedroom, which he said appeared to be the only intact room in the house.

That left three cats unaccounted for.

Linda had the restaurant staff put our food in to-go containers, and we dashed off toward home, about 15 miles from the restaurant.

We got as far as the intersection of Kanis and Ferndale Cutoff roads, where sheriff’s deputies blocked all from traveling further except for first-responders, power company trucks and tree-cutting crews.

While parked in a restaurant parking lot at the intersection, we learned that three members of a family that lived in the valley just below our ridge-top home had died in the storm.

We could learn little more – not even whether our nearest neighbors had made it through the twister – so we turned back toward Little Rock in search of a place to stay that night.

Linda slept very little, anxious about the cats: geriatric, female Pretty Face, the bed-dweller; Foots, a 19-pound orange male tabby; Mycroft, a 12-pound gray male and the youngest of the clabber; and Spot, a sleek but crabby white female with orange splotches.

My own anxieties about the house, and its contents, kept me up for a while, but exhaustion from the trip finally won out and I slept fitfully in the hotel room we’d found.

Hotels would become our home for the next month.

(To be continued)





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A missed opportunity

Last Friday night, I muffed an opportunity to extol the need for strong public records and open meetings laws.

The occasion was the Arkansas Press Association’s annual convention, where I received the APA’s Freedom of Information Award, which is given each year to someone who fights to keep publicly funded organizations transparent and accountable to the public. The award can be given for specific actions or for a body of work.

My membership on the Arkansas Freedom of Information Coalition and the FOI committees of both the Society of Professional Journalists and the Associated Press Media Editors and my term as SPJ president in 2012-2013 likely played a part in the APA’s decision to recognize me.

The plaque – a gold-colored, topographically accurate outline of Arkansas against a red background – was presented after several APA members received awards for outstanding service or for 50 years of service in the newspaper business and gave strong, and sometimes funny, acceptance speeches.

I was totally unprepared to speak, and my usual gift for improvisation seemed to desert me.

I told a disjointed and mercifully truncated story of how I came to be an accidental journalist and spoke about an indelible image from my early career when I covered the Terrebonne Parish Police Jury in Louisiana.

The police jurors (think county commissioners, only worse) met at a large table facing each other in an old courtroom. Citizens who had business before the jury or simply wanted to observe democracy in action sat several feet away, separated from the police jurors by the courtroom’s bar.

No microphones insured that the white guys gathered around the table could hold private discussions about the agenda items. Any documents in their meeting packets were not routinely shared with the public or the reporters in attendance.

I told my audience last weekend that my passion for openness in government can be traced to that scene: “Twelve guys sitting around a table making decisions about other people’s lives” with no concern about letting the public in on the decision-making.

And then I shut up, said thank you again and returned to my seat.

But I could and should have said a few more things.

I could have said that keeping government open and public officials accountable requires constant action as well as vigilance.

I should have said that open records and open meetings laws routinely come under attack, especially during legislative sessions and especially since Sept. 11, 2001. The creeping militarization of our police forces and the spreading excuse of “security” to support secrecy at all levels of government are especially troubling.

I could have said that public officials and corporate bosses who boast about their “transparency” usually are using double-speak and more than likely are opaque when it comes to keeping the public informed.

I should have mentioned specifically the battle the Democrat-Gazette waged last year to force openness on the self-proclaimed transparent administration of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

The issue itself – millions of dollars in overspending by the university’s fundraising arm – was minor in the larger scheme of public corruption, police misconduct and life-threatening official secrecy.

But the university’s obstinacy in not releasing a treasurer’s report on the overspending and its refusals in the past to simply comply with the state Freedom of Information Act bred distrust of its motives.

The newspaper sued for access to the treasurer’s report. The university relented after a couple of days but never backed off its contention that the report comprised a personnel evaluation that was exempt from the FOIA. Instead it claimed that the employees mentioned in the report

I could have said the newspapers as institutions often are less than transparent when dealing with their readers and customers.

I should have said that my work on behalf of freedom of information would not be possible if not for the unwavering support of the Democrat-Gazette’s leadership team, specifically Managing Editor David Bailey, WEHCO Media president Nat Lea and Publisher Walter E. Hussman Jr.

But I digress. The important message I needed to impart to the audience was this:

Democracy dies when secrecy reigns. And right now I fear secrecy has the upper hand.



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Orwell would understand

This story appeared in June 18, 2014, edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Publication: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette; Date: Jun 18, 2014; Section: Front Section; Page: 1  

Private option enrollees to chip in under proposal ANDY DAVIS ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE
    A proposal being designed by Arkansas Medicaid officials would require many people covered under the state’s so-called private option to make monthly contributions, ranging from $5 to $25, to help pay the cost of their medical care.
    In return, participants in the expanded Medicaid program will be able to accumulate up to $200 in an “independence account” that they could use to pay the premium for private coverage if they leave the private option, the officials told state lawmakers Tuesday.
    Robin Arnold-Williams, a partner with the Leavitt Partners consulting firm, told legislators with the Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace Oversight Committee that the proposal is designed to educate participants about health care costs and insurance, promote personal responsibility and reduce the potential “cliff” of reduced benefits that participants could face upon switching from the private option to another form of coverage.
    Enrollees in the private option do not pay premiums now, and those earning less than the poverty level are not required to contribute any money toward the cost of their medical care.
    Enrollees with incomes of 100 percent to 138 percent of the poverty level are charged copayments — $8 for a doctor’s visit or $10 for a visit to a specialist’s office, for instance.

    Those out-of-pocket charges are capped at $604 for the year.
    Although other states are pursuing similar initiatives, Arkansas Surgeon General Joe Thompson said the independence account program would be the first of its kind in the country.
    “I think we’re pushing the envelope on testing different strategies that other states have not done,” Thompson said.
    Act 1498 of 2013, which created the private option, requires the state Department of Human Services to put such a program into operation next year.
    Special language included during this year’s fiscal session in legislation that authorized funding for the state’s expanded Medicaid program, including the private option, requires the state to submit drafts of the independence account program for public comment by Aug. 1 of this year.
    The legislation requires the state to apply to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for approval of the program by Sept. 15.
    The legislation prohibits the state from continuing the private option after Feb. 1, 2015, if the independence account program is not in operation by then.
    Thompson said he expects the state to apply for federal approval of the program next month.
    The initiative could help reduce the cost of providing coverage under the Medicaid program, although that is not the goal, he said.
    “It’s an educational opportunity,” Thompson said.
    Approved by the Legislature last year, the expansion of the state’s Medicaid program extended eligibility to adults with incomes of up to 138 percent of the poverty level: $16,105 for an individual or $32,913 for a family of four.
    As of May 31, more than 187,000 Arkansans had been approved for coverage under the expanded Medicaid program, including more than 152,000 who had enrolled in the private option.
    Under the private option, most people who qualify for coverage under the expanded program receive coverage through private plans on the state’s federally run insurance exchange, with the Medicaid program paying the premium.
    Those whose health needs are considered exceptional are assigned to the traditional Medicaid program.
    For those in the private option, the Medicaid program also makes additional payments to reduce or eliminate any required out-of-pocket spending for medical care.
    The independence account program, which will be required for private option enrollees with incomes of at least 50 percent of the poverty level, will charge copayments for the first time to enrollees with incomes of 50 percent to 100 percent of the poverty level, Thompson said.
    Those with incomes in that range will be expected to contribute $5 a month toward their accounts, while those with higher incomes will be expected to contribute $10 to $15, depending on their incomes.
    The state will match each monthly contribution with a $15 contribution into the account. Enrollees will be allowed to accumulate up to $200 of the state contributions in their accounts, which can be used to pay a premium for a non-Medicaid plan on the health insurance exchange when the enrollee leaves the private option.
    Enrollees who leave the private option and gain coverage through an employer can also use the account balance to pay the premium for an employer-sponsored plan.
    Making a contribution will also earn participants an additional benefit: They will not have to pay out of pocket for medical care as long as they pay their contributions on time for a given month.
    Those with incomes above the poverty level who fail to contribute to their independence accounts will have to pay any required copayments, as they are now required, if they seek medical care.
    Those with incomes below the poverty level who fail to make contributions into the accounts will still not be required to make copayments in order to receive care.
    However, the company hired to administer the program will bill the individual for the copayment, and it will be deducted from any balance in the independence account the person has accumulated. If the account does not have a balance, the participant would owe the amount of the unpaid copayment to the state.
    That was troubling to Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock.
    “You run the risk of criminalizing … the inability to pay what they probably can’t pay in the first place,” Chesterfield said.
    Arnold-Williams said it will be up to the Legislature to decide whether the state attempts to collect the money.
    Thompson said participants also will receive account statements with information about their coverage.
    Educating the participants about the initiative will be crucial, he said.
    “For most of these people, the only place they’ve been able to access care is the emergency room,” Thompson said.
    As of May 31, 81 percent of those who had been approved for coverage under the expanded Medicaid program had incomes below the poverty level, according to the Human Services Department.
    Thompson said he didn’t have information Tuesday on how many enrollees had incomes between 50 percent and 100 percent of the poverty level.

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A lot of you know what happened to Linda and me at the end of April — and since. I’ve told the tale in spurts and spots, but haven’t kept an ongoing record of events.

I’m a journalist, but a horrible keeper of journals. I’ve attempted over the years to keep daily journals, knowing that journals are good writing exercises and important for maintaining memory. But inevitably, the journals get fewer and fewer updates, languish, then cease. Like a lot of blogs, I know.

Anyway, over beer and sandwiches the other night, a friend and local SPJ leader asked if I’d been keeping a journal of events since the April 27 tornado exploded our home of nearly seven years.

You know the answer, right?

So, this will be my attempt to keep the record of Linda and Sonny’s Excellent Adventure, 2014 version. Look for the next chapter later this week.



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Hello world!

This is an attempt to keep a semi-regular journal of the adventures of BYUBOY50, a Cajun expat from Thibodaux, LA, who has traveled far and wide, but not far or wide enough.


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