A Different Kind of Storm: N.O.L.A.

Screen Shot 2020-03-26 at 8.17.14 AM.pngA deserted Bourbon Street in New Orleans, which has had more coronavirus cases than all but 15 states.Credit…William Widmer for The New York Times

 

 

By Katy Reckdahl, Campbell Robertson and

NEW ORLEANS — Yanti Turang, an emergency room nurse at a New Orleans hospital, walked out into the parking lot in full protective gear early this month to meet a woman with flulike symptoms who had just returned home after a layover in South Korea. The woman was immediately taken to an isolation room.

Around the same time, a man who had never left the country and had been in New Orleans throughout the just-concluded Mardi Gras season, showed up at the E.R. with a high fever and a dry cough. He was placed in a neighboring room, and cared for by hospital workers without any special gear.

To everyone’s relief, the woman who had traveled through Asia tested positive for the standard flu. The man, however, did not, Ms. Turang said. His symptoms improving but his diagnosis unclear, he was told to take Tylenol and get some rest. And he was sent back out into the city.

Ms. Turang does not know what became of that man, but he was on her mind two days later, when the first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus was announced in Louisiana — another person, at another hospital. Coronavirus had been in the city all along. Since then, the outbreak here has become one of the most explosive in the country.

According to one study, Louisiana, with nearly 1,800 cases as of Thursday morning, is experiencing the fastest growth in new cases in the world; Gov. John Bel Edwards said on Tuesday that the current trajectory of case growth in Louisiana was similar to those in Spain and Italy. This week, President Trump approved the governor’s request for a major disaster declaration, which unlocks additional federal funding to combat the outbreak.

The situation in and around New Orleans is particularly acute, with the city reporting 827 confirmed cases as of Wednesday night, more than the total number of cases in all but 15 states. Hospitals are overwhelmed and critical safety gear is running low.

Orleans Parish, which shares its borders with the city of New Orleans, has suffered the highest number of deaths per capita of any county in the nation. Of the parish’s 37 deaths — nearly three times the death toll of in Los Angeles County — 11 are from a single retirement home, where dozens more residents are infected.

In a grim irony, there is a rising suspicion among medical experts that the crisis may have been accelerated by Mardi Gras, the weekslong citywide celebration that unfolds in crowded living rooms, ballrooms and city streets, which this year culminated on Feb. 25.

It is the city’s trademark expression of joy — and an epidemiologist’s nightmare.

“I think it all boils down to Mardi Gras,” said Dr. F. Brobson Lutz Jr., a former health director of New Orleans and a specialist in infectious disease. “The greatest free party in the world was a perfect incubator at the perfect time.”

Mardi Gras revelers on Bourbon Street on Feb. 22, weeks before Louisiana’s first confirmed coronavirus case.
Credit…William Widmer

The feeling is at once familiar and distinct for a city whose history is punctuated with epic disasters, including the deadly yellow fever outbreaks of 1853 and 1905, and Hurricane Katrina a century later in 2005. Once again, New Orleanians are afraid they could be neglected by national leaders, only this time because the coronavirus is a worldwide calamity.

“This hurricane’s coming for everybody,” said Broderick Bagert, an organizer with the community organizing group Together Louisiana.

Mr. Edwards, who, like most other Louisiana governors, has extensive experience dealing with hurricanes, said the state was struggling to confront this new kind of disaster. “We don’t really have a playbook on this one,” he said.

“If you have a flood or a hurricane it’s only a small part of the country that’s affected, so you can get the full attention of the federal government and you can get a lot of help from sister states,” he said. “That’s not possible right now because this is in every state in our country.”

As a kind of ghostliness settles over a locked-down nation, the effect of social distancing feels particularly jarring in New Orleans, a city that runs on intimacy — from the deep webs of kinship and geography that connect families and neighborhoods to the fleeting threads that bind strangers and regulars in storied restaurants and packed, sweaty clubs.

Now the grand restaurants are offering takeout, if they are open at all. The clubs are silent. Bourbon Street is just another lonely street, its only crowds the hordes of rats that have become increasingly brazen in their hunt for food.

 

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What Are the Trump Administration’s New Plans for Utah Monuments? ~ Mother Jones

Tribal nations and conservation groups hope to dismantle the policies in court.

Rock formations and summit of Comb Ridge in Bears Ears National Monument, Utah. Mint Images/Zuma

 

This piece was originally published in High Country News and appears here as part of our Climate Desk Partnership.

Released in February, the Trump administration’s final management plans for Utah’s shrunken Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments caused a predictable amount of commotion. While monument foes like Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) praised the plans, environmental groups described them as a giveaway to oil, gas and mining.

Here’s what those plans do and do not contain:

Fewer protections

The plans apply only to the lands within the reduced monuments, not to the combined 2 million acres that President Donald Trump cut from them by executive fiat in 2017. For both monuments, the administration picked, out of a handful of alternatives, the plans that offer low protections.

Nothing that specifically incentivizes energy development

Oil, gas and mine leases remain banned with the monuments, but are now available in the excluded lands. Following the 2017 executive order, a number of new hardrock mining claims for uranium and other minerals appeared. But oil and uranium prices are currently low, so there’s little economic incentive to develop now. That could change: The president has talked of implementing a uranium quota to encourage domestic mining.

Even less input from tribes

Tribal members, who make up a majority of the county where Bears Ears is located, have long pushed for greater protection for the site, which is profoundly important to Southwestern tribes. Five of them—the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, Hopi Nation and Zuni Tribe—formed a coalition that informed the Obama administration’s monument creation.

Tribal representatives say they have been cut out of the Trump administration’s planning for the reduced Bears Ears, however. A recent meeting of the committee that makes management recommendations to the BLM did not have a single Indigenous representative present, local radio station KUER reported. “We’re seeing no meaningful engagement of the tribes by the agencies,” said Natalie Landreth, an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, which represents the Hopi, Zuni and Ute Mountain Ute tribes in a lawsuit.

No plan to handle Bears Ears’ growing popularity

The plan acknowledges a tourism spike for Bears Ears. For the still-protected monument lands, local advocates describe a lack of basic infrastructure to direct visitors, or ranger stations to educate them—even signs to tell them where they are, and not to disturb culturally important sites. Instead, the management plan recommends visitor “self-regulation.” “Bears Ears is being run by Google maps right now,” said Josh Ewing, director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, the nonprofit that—in the absence of federal infrastructure—runs the only visitor center.

The plan claims to maintain cultural resource protections, but it’s not clear the administration even knows what it is claiming to protect. An environmental impact statement from last summer admits that only 8 percent of the BLM-administered lands in the Shash Jáa unit—one of the two units that make up the reduced monument—have been surveyed for cultural resources. Within this small slice, an archaeological site was found every 8 acres, on average.

Federal presence on the ground is already minimal, and the plan wouldn’t add more right away. The agencies say they intend to develop recreation guidelines, but the plans do not specify when. And even if the plans were in place today, they would apply to the 1.1 million acres cut from the original monument.

Grand Staircase-Escalante’s boundaries aren’t well-marked, and the plan won’t improve that

Grand Staircase has been a monument for more than two decades. Now, with the size reductions, grazing and mineral development are allowed on lands that had been off-limits since 1996. Within the monument, and in addition to the possible chaining and under-regulated recreation, casual fossil collection is now permitted in one of the country’s richest paleontological areas. Uncertainty about the new boundaries encourages abuse: Stephen Bloch, legal director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a local nonprofit, said the complete lack of signage causes “so much confusion” between the monument’s boundaries and the excluded lands. Local members of his group report off-road trails spreading into illegal areas.

No free pass on the legal front for the Trump administration

Before 2017, the Antiquities Act had never been used except as a one-way use of executive branch power to designate national monuments. By claiming that the act works both ways—to both create and reduce monuments—Trump opened up a legal question. Several lawsuits, including Landreth’s, have been consolidated into one legal challenge, which argues that Trump unlawfully stripped monument status from Bears Ears and Grand Staircase.

Should the courts side with the administration, the Utah monuments would remain their reduced size, and the entire substance of the Antiquities Act would be called into question. If, however, the courts rule that the shrinkage was illegal, the original boundaries would be restored.

Navajo Nation, southeast Utah health officials urge tourists to stay home ~ Salt Lake City Tribune

Bluff • Confirmed coronavirus cases on the rural Navajo Nation rose to 14 on Thursday night as health care officials in southeast Utah brace for the arrival of the virus.

The majority of the cases were clustered on the northern Navajo Nation near where the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed on Tuesday after a patient from Chinchilbeto, Ariz., tested positive. The patient was examined at the health center in Kayenta, Ariz., where more cases were later discovered, according to a statement issued by the Navajo Nation on Thursday.

Confirmed cases were also discovered in patients who reported to — or who were transported to — the Chinle Health Care Facilityin Arizona and the Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock, N.M. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said health care officials were gathering more information and “working proactively to investigate each case to prevent the spread of the virus.”

“Everyone must remain home at this point and let the health care and emergency experts do their jobs,” Nez advised in a prepared statement. “Please be respectful and adhere to their directions as they are doing their best to protect our communities.”

The sudden outbreak of the virus in a remote area of the Navajo Nation has required a quick response from clinics and hospitals. The Northern Navajo Medical Center, for example, rearranged the flow of its clinic last week to create two separate wards, one for COVID-19 patients and one for other patients — no small feat for a rural facility run by the Indian Health Service (IHS).

As of Friday afternoon, there were no confirmed cases in southeast Utah.

Patients with respiratory symptoms reported being unable to get tested in San Juan County earlier this week, but Mike Jensen, CEO of the Utah Navajo Health System (UNHS) — which oversees clinics on the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation and in Blanding — said his network now has 45 sample kits to test patients for the novel coronavirus.

A couple of tests have been administered, but the results have not yet been returned, Jensen said.

In order to protect health care workers and others, UNHS is attempting to see as many patients as possible over the phone or with video conference technology. The Navajo Nation in Utah has no broadband infrastructure and coverage can be spotty at many residences. To address the issue, Jensen said his team is working to set up Wi-Fi hotspots in clinic parking lots to allow patients to speak to medical professionals from their vehicle.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) In order to protect health care workers from the spread of coronavirus, outdoor screening was being done at the Montezuma Creek Clinic on the northern Navajo Nation on Friday, March 20, 2020.
(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) In order to protect health care workers from the spread of coronavirus, outdoor screening was being done at the Montezuma Creek Clinic on the northern Navajo Nation on Friday, March 20, 2020.

The Southeast Utah Health Department, which oversees Grand, Emery and Carbon counties, issued an order earlier this week closing all hotels to visitors and closing campgrounds. Nez has released a similar order for the Navajo Nation, which closes tribal parks, resorts and discourages travel.

San Juan County has issued fewer restrictions. Hotels and campgrounds remained open as of Friday, though events have been canceled and restaurants are restricted to takeout orders.

“We fully anticipate that cases will continue to increase statewide, and we fully anticipate that we will not be escaping this without local cases,” said Kirk Benge, executive director of the San Juan Public Health Department.

“From a public health perspective, our primary concern is to slow down transmission so that this virus doesn’t hit us all at once like a tidal wave and overwhelm our health care infrastructure in the county,” he added. “All of the action that we’ve taken to date has been aimed to flatten the curve.”

Benge said Friday his department did not yet plan to close hotels, which have been suffering economically from the pandemic and have been forced to lay off workers during the season when hospitality hiring is usually ramping up. The department is discouraging tourism to the county, however. Benge said hospital administrators, economic development personnel and emergency management officials have spoken.

“We’re on a consistent message, which is, ‘Please, right now, everyone avoid leisure travel. Avoid unnecessarily travel. Stay home and come visit us when this is over.’”

Environmentalists urge delayed outings

Utah environmental groups Friends of Cedar Mesa and Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance both released statements on Thursday also encouraging people to save their visits to public lands for another time, using the hashtag #StayHomeSaveLives.

The advocacy organization Western Values Project issued a statement on Friday criticizing Interior Secretary David Bernhardt for waiving national park and BLM fees at at a time when Moab hospital administrators are asking that tourists stay away. And Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, made a similar point.

“While I understand the appeal of outdoor recreation during a difficult time, Interior Secretary Bernhardt needs to prioritize the health and safety of visitors to national parks and public lands during this crisis,” Grijalva said. “[Bernhardt] should revise his recommendations to better reflect the advice of public health experts.”

State Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, signed a letter to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert on Wednesday, making the opposite case. Lyman and a group of rural county commissioners said the seriousness of the disease “absolutely and in no way supports the levels of concern that have been raised and the panic that has spread.”

“I think a week from now people are going to say, ’What were we thinking with that coronavirus thing?’” Lyman, a former San Juan County commissioner, told The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday.

Limited capacity

But local public health officials were not so sanguine, noting there is a limited health care capacity to deal with a severe outbreak in southeast Utah. Hospital intensive care units in nearby cities like Farmington, N.M., and Grand Junction, Colo., where critical patients from rural areas are often transferred, could be overwhelmed, especially if restrictions on businesses are lifted and social distancing is not practiced by individuals.

The majority of the patients who become infected with the coronavirus will not require hospitalization, however. Many will be asked to stay in home quarantine, a prospect that could be difficult for families who may not have the luxury of a spare room and separate bathroom. Some physicians are requesting government funding that would allow people to stay in temporary lodging designated to hold infected people who don’t require hospitalization, such as motels or government housing.

“Flattening the curve is absolutely vital in this area,” said one IHS physician who asked not to be named. “Our referral hospitals don’t always have beds for us to transfer patients to, even in good times. If a lot of people are going to get sick, we need them to do it slowly over time. It’s critical that people stay at home right now because if everyone is out and gets sick at once, we simply won’t have the capacity to take care of them all.”

 

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.

Abnormally warm spring expected over entire U.S., according to NOAA and others

National Weather Service spring temperature forecast.
March 20 at 12:47 PM

After an unusually mild winter across the nation, forecasters are now calling for a substantially warmer-than-normal spring.

The National Weather Service, AccuWeather and the Weather Company, in rare lockstep agreement, are all predicting above-average temperatures into June.

“There is almost no part of the country that we are predicting to be below normal in any of the three months, which is unusual,” said AccuWeather chief executive Joel Myers in AccuWeather’s outlookpublished Thursday. “This may be a first.”


AccuWeather’s spring temperature forecast. (AccuWeather)

The National Weather Service’s outlook, released Thursday, conveyed the same message: “No part of the country is favored to experience below-average temperatures this spring.”

The Weather Company’s outlook for April through June, issued March 12, is headlined: “Widespread Warmth Across U.S.”


Weather Company spring temperature forecast (Weather.com)

Hues of orange, signaling various degrees of anomalous warmth, cover the maps released by these three organizations. While they agree most of the nation, if not its entirety, will be warmer than average, they do differ in region-to-region predictions.

The Weather Service and AccuWeather both forecast the strongest warm signal in the eastern United States and along the West Coast, with a weaker signal in the middle of the nation.

The Weather Company’s outlook, however, calls for the greatest chance of above-normal temperatures from the West Coast through the Midwest.

The forecast for a warm spring, the Weather Company’s outlook said, is in part due to the abnormally strong polar vortex, which has bottled up frigid air over the Arctic rather than allowing it to spill south. The vortex typically breaks down in early spring.

The Weather Company’s chief meteorologist, Todd Crawford, also noted in the outlook that cooling ocean temperatures in the tropical Pacific often support warmer-than-normal conditions heading into summer over the Lower 48 states.

Rogers also said there are signs the polar vortex is weakening, which could allow for some cooler weather in the central and eastern United States in the coming weeks.

“I agree with them [the other outlooks] in spirit overall, but I do need to think we need to watch for some cooler volatility during the front half of April,” Rogers said.

The forecast for warmer-than-average weather in the coming months follows a winter that ranked as the sixth-warmest on record for the Lower 48 and a premature start to spring in many areas. According to the USA National Phenology Network, which tracks the blooming of plants, leaves emerged on trees three to four weeks early in parts of the southern and eastern United States.

There is a relatively remote possibility that the warmer than average spring into the early summer could help slow the spread of coronavirus, if some preliminary analyses that have found or projected drops in virus transmission at higher temperatures, prove correct. However, these analyses have not been peer-reviewed, and the virus has been spreading in parts of the United States that have warm weather, including Florida, as well as warm international areas, including the Philippines. In recent days, the virus has also made inroads in South Africa and India, two countries with mild average temperatures.

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Greenland lost a near-record 600 billion tons of ice last summer, raising sea levels

An Arctic researcher sets out to retrieve oceanographic moorings and a weather station over meltwater topping sea ice in northwest Greenland during the 2019 melt season. (Steffen Olsen)

March 18 at 12:01 PM

Greenland’s unusually mild summer in 2019 caused the world’s largest island to lose 600 billion tons of ice in just two months, rivaling the summer of 2012 for the most ice mass lost in a single melt season, according to NASA data released Wednesday.

“We knew this past summer had been particularly warm in Greenland, melting every corner of the ice sheet, but the numbers are enormous,” said lead author Isabella Velicogna, an Earth science professor at the University of California at Irvine and a senior scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a news release.

The mass loss from Greenland alone was enough to raise global sea levels by 2.2 millimeters, the study found.

Study confirms new satellite mission is working

The data, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, also find measurements from a new satellite system, known as the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On mission (GRACE-FO), are consistent with the previous incarnation of gravity-sensing satellites, known simply as GRACE, which went out of service in 2017. This extends the satellite-based ice mass loss record to 17 years, beginning in March 2002 and including a minor gap in data sets.

The GRACE-FO satellites are able to sense tiny changes in Earth’s gravitational field caused by ice sheets gaining or losing mass and have proved useful in studying groundwater storage worldwide.

Between 2002 and 2019, across the full time series of both satellite missions, the study finds Greenland lost 4,550 billion tons of ice, or an average of about 261 billion tons per year.

In an interview, Velicogna said the data clearly show 2019 was a major melt year in Greenland, and what distinguishes it from previous big ice-loss years is the significant melting that occurred in glaciers in the northern and northeastern regions.

“There is a significant [melt] component also coming from the north and northeast of Greenland. And so, basically, we have the loss all around the ice sheet,” she said.

Yara Mohajerani, a study co-author from UC Irvine, said persistent high-pressure areas, as well as low cloud cover in northern Greenland, caused ice losses there to spike last year.

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Oil and gas companies want to drill within a half-mile of Utah’s best-known national parks ~ The Washington Post

An oil drilling rig operates outside Richfield, Utah. More than 230 lease requests have been received for land covering more than 150,000 acres in southern Utah.
An oil drilling rig operates outside Richfield, Utah. More than 230 lease requests have been received for land covering more than 150,000 acres in southern Utah. (George Frey/Getty Images)

Cold War

 

Screen Shot 2020-03-17 at 4.37.03 PM.png

One night earlier this winter, the only road out of Alta, Utah, was closed down. At ski lodges, signs warned guests to stay inside or face fines. Already that season, twenty-two feet of snow had fallen, and, the day before, a storm had dropped thirty-three inches; another foot was predicted by morning. The most dangerous time for avalanches is after a rapid snowfall, and three-quarters of the buildings in Alta are threatened by a known avalanche path. A standard measure for danger on roads, the Avalanche Hazard Index, computes risk according to the size and frequency of avalanches and the number of vehicles that are exposed to them. An A.H.I. of 10 is considered moderate; at 40, the road requires the attention of a full-time avalanche forecaster. State Highway 210, which runs down the mountain to Salt Lake City, if left unprotected, would have an A.H.I. of 1,045.

Just before 5 a.m., a small group of ski patrollers gathered at a base by the resort’s main lift. Dave Richards, the head of Alta’s avalanche program, sat in the control room. Maps and marked-up aerial photographs hung on the wall next to what looked like a large EKG—that season’s snowfall, wind speeds, and temperature data plotted by hand. Clipboards on hooks were filled with accounts of past avalanches.

Forty and bearded, with tattoos on his arms, Richards has the bearing of a Special Forces soldier. He wore a vest with a radio strapped to it and held a tin of dipping tobacco, spitting occasionally into the garbage can beneath his desk. He objects when people say that he works in avalanche control; he prefers the term “mitigation.” Sitting nearby was Jude, his English cream golden retriever, named for the patron saint of lost causes.

Jonathan Morgan, the lead avalanche forecaster for the day, described the snow. He wore a flat-brimmed cap and a hoodie. “Propagation propensity’s a question mark,” he said. “Not a lot of body in the slab. . . . Dry facets, two to three mils,” he continued. “It’s running the whole gamut of crystal types—wasn’t ice, by any means. Rimy, small grains.”

At ski resorts like Alta, large avalanches are avoided by setting off smaller ones with bombs. On the walls above the maps were dummy mortar rounds. Above Richards’s desk were binders marked “Old Explosives Inventory.” The idea, Morgan explained, was to “shoot the terrain we can’t get to.”

Richards started considering their targeting plan. The ski resort is cleared from the top down: first by artillery shells, then with hand charges. Before any shots are fired, paths leading to the mountains are closed. Because not all skiers keep to groomed trails—backcountry adventurers seek out remote areas—the Utah Department of Transportation also checks the roadside for tracks. Sometimes it scours the mountainside with infrared cameras before giving the all-clear.

“So we’ll go fourteen for Baldy?” Richards said. “Doesn’t include a shot seventeen.” Baldy was one of the resort’s mountain faces, at which they planned to fire fourteen shells; seventeen was a spot on its ridgeline.

“Seventeen wouldn’t be the worst idea,” Morgan concurred. “You got a seven in there?”

“When was Baldy shot last?” Richards asked. “Forty inches ago?”

“Open up for the cleaning crew.”

“Yeah, Friday morning.”

Richards and Morgan repaired to the mess hall—dark carpet, pool table, a deer head on the wall—for breakfast. At five-thirty, the ski lift opened. As Richards walked out the door, Liz Rocco, another ski patroller, mentioned that she had prepared some of the hand charges they would be using that morning. “And I will light them, and throw them into the darkness,” Richards said.

We rode the lift up in the moonlight. Snow was falling on the fir trees. Richards spent his childhood at Alta: his father was a ski patroller for thirty-three years, and his mother, who later became a university administrator, worked the front desk at the Rustler Lodge. Richards started his career as a professional skier, then worked as a heli-skiing guide, before joining the patrol full time. “The thing that makes it for me is the snow,” he said. “Working with a natural material that can be—” He paused. “It’s light and fluffy and soft and downy, and it’s everybody’s favorite thing in the world. It’s also one of the most destructive forces in nature. Under the right conditions, that soft, wonderful little snowflake can tear forests out of the ground, throw cars through the air, flatten buildings. And you get to watch that.”

At the top of the lift, we started hiking. A voice crackled over the radio. “Copy,” Richards said. “Just give me a holler when you pull the trigger.” A moment later, the radio crackled again; Richards ducked and covered his head, and an explosion went off somewhere nearby. We resumed hiking. After a few minutes, we arrived at a two-story shed. A garage door opened onto a pair of hundred-and-five-millimetre howitzer cannons, of Second World War vintage, installed on semicircular tracks. The gun barrels were pointed at the mountaintops. A crew was loading bags of gunpowder into the undersides of artillery shells—enormous bullets, six inches wide and two and a half feet long. Richards wrapped a rag around a large stick and jammed it into a gun barrel, to clean it. “One Sunday morning,” he began singing to himself. “As I went walking . . .”

The patrollers donned foam earplugs and large over-ear headphones; Richards and his co-gunner walked around one of the weapons, checking locks and bolts. They turned a crank, and the barrel swung toward its first target.

 

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