Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Abandoned Houses Are Keeping Contractors Busy

Jimmy Lyons, with LandWise Inspection Servies in Lake City, Fla., checks the condition of a pool behind a house in Keystone Heights, Fla.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The house on East 24th Street was the worst of the six that David Law and Trey McCallister worked on the other day here. The front door had been kicked in so many times that the dead bolt was exposed and bent. Trash littered the front and back yards. A copper pipe was gone.

“Somebody has been trying to destroy this place,” said Mr. McCallister, eyeing the door.

But the two men have seen far worse as they go from one deserted house to another in northern Florida, where the foreclosure crisis has struck particularly hard. Mortgage companies hire contractors like these men to inspect and maintain houses that once-proud owners can no longer afford and no one else wants. These days, business is brisk.

These contractors and thousands like them see first hand the detritus of the subprime era: peeling paint, gutted interiors, family dogs left behind to starve, overgrown lawns infested with snakes.

In Florida, the crisis can seem overwhelming at times. It can take months, even years, for some homes to wind through foreclosure in the backlogged local courts. The longer a home sits vacant, the more vulnerable it becomes. After a few months, the Florida weather starts to takes a toll. Mold and mildew creep. Algae chokes forsaken swimming pools. Sometimes vandals strike. And sometimes wiring or plumbing just give out.

The home on East 24th Street has been vacant for several years, said Gloria Roberts, a next-door neighbor. Another home that Mr. McCallister and Mr. Law visited in the affluent Sawgrass golf community in the oceanside city of Ponte Vedra Beach was last occupied in December 2006, according to a neighbor there.

Local and state governments have become concerned about the upkeep of foreclosed homes, which can drag down real estate values in neighborhoods and provide havens for drug users and gangs. Over the last year, localities have stepped up code enforcement by levying fines on mortgage companies for the degradation of homes they are repossessing.

The problem of vacant homes is all the more striking when considered against predictions by economists that a couple of million more homes will enter foreclosure in the next two years, said Cheryl Lang, president of Integrated Mortgage Solutions, a company based in Houston that contracts with Mr. McCallister and Mr. Law on behalf of mortgage companies.

“We still have two million more people that need to go through this process,” she said. “That’s like the entire town of Tampa going through foreclosure.”

Nearly 3 percent of homes that were once occupied by their owners in the country were vacant in March. That is up from less than 2 percent three years ago and is the highest since the Census bureau began publishing the number in 1956.

For people like Mr. McCallister and Mr. Law, the surge in foreclosure has been good for business. Tim Doehner, executive director of the National Association of Mortgage Field Services, a trade association based in Ohio, estimates that most of his members have doubled their revenue in the last year. Individual contractors can bill as much as $5,000 every two weeks, said Jimmy Lyons, one of the partners in the firm, Landwise Inspection Services of Lake City, Fla., that Mr. McCallister and Mr. Law work for.

But the rising price of diesel fuel, wood and other supplies cuts sharply into their earnings. Mr. Law said he often spent $140 a day filling his pickup truck, which tows a large trailer that carries a riding lawnmower and other supplies. The contractors cannot easily pass rising costs to lenders because they work under contracts or, in the case of some loans, at rates set by federal agencies.

Still, business is growing and drawing in newcomers.

Mr. Lyons, a former deputy sheriff, entered the home inspection business years ago but branched out into field service work for mortgage companies two years ago when a friend suggested the housing boom would soon give way to a housing bust.

Back then, “I just couldn’t see it,” Mr. Lyons, 56, said. “It fell exactly like he said it would.”

After a quarter century in law enforcement, he still looks and plays the part of the easygoing rural county sheriff and is a reserve officer in Columbia County west of Jacksonville. At one home this month, he scrambled through an open window when the door was bolted while his younger colleagues looked on in amazement.

Mr. Law left a field sales job with the Kellogg Company, the cereal maker, to join Landwise, because he said he was tired of the corporate world. He said taking care of vacant houses could be grueling but also rewarding and allowed him to work by himself, which he said he enjoyed. He often works seven days a week because his employer is often flooded with orders.

“It occupies a lot of my time,” he said and added with a laugh, “I don’t have much of a life outside of this.”

When he arrives at houses, Mr. Law reaches for his digital camera and starts snapping pictures to document his presence and problems that need attention. Mortgage companies require before and after photos to be sent to them electronically before paying for work done to the home.

If it is their first visit to a vacant home, the contractors change the locks on at least one door so the mortgage company can have access. They use a locksmith’s tools to gain entry to the house, though on some occasions they use open windows, as Mr. Lyons recently did. The contractors board up broken windows, cut the grass and record significant damage. Depending on the extent of the destruction, mortgage companies will commission the contractors to repair the home.

At the home on 24th Street, Mr. McCallister, 39, who had worked in the timber business until last year, wedged open the back door with pliers and Mr. Law installed a new lock. The interior of the house was mostly empty and musty. The outside was another story. A large tree branch shared the back yard with an empty propane tank, Styrofoam containers and food wrappers.

After surveying the trash and photographing it, Mr. Law and Mr. McCallister concluded they could not cut the grass without cleaning up the yard. They would have to ask the mortgage company whether it wanted them to remove the trash and how much it would pay for the work.

Contractors say the damage at vacant homes can be significant, though it is not always clear who the culprit is. It could be an angry homeowner upset about losing a home, but it also could be vandals and thieves scouring homes for copper plumbing, which they can sell. To limit losses, a few mortgage companies are making offers called “cash for keys” to delinquent borrowers if they leave their homes quickly and in good shape.

Two of the six homes the contractors visited in the Jacksonville area appeared to be pristine. The two also had for-sale signs from real estate agents, suggesting the borrowers were trying to sell but could not find a buyer before they had to leave.

For the contractors, foreclosures can strike close to home. Mr. Law recently inspected a home across the street from his residence and Mr. McCallister was sent to a home formerly occupied by a family whose daughter was friends with one of his three daughters.

“I was fortunate that everyone was gone,” Mr. McCallister said, so he did not have to see his daughter’s friend.

In most cases, the contractors do not interact with the homeowners, but sometimes the contractors are present during evictions that are conducted by county sheriffs. Mr. McCallister recalled the eviction of a 60-year-old man who had misread his eviction notice and thought he had one more week to leave.

“He fell down on the floor and started crying,” Mr. McCallister said. “We gave him 24 hours and he had his stuff moved out and he found another place to live.”

In their work, the contractors come across the everyday debris of human life, from old microwave ovens to couches and a child’s cherry-red tricycle. Sometimes they discover abandoned pets. Mr. Law recently found three kittens that he took to a friend who is an animal lover.

Though homes were found for all three of the kittens, many other pets meet a worse fate. Ms. Lang, the president of Integrated Mortgage Solutions, has started a nonprofit group, No Paws Left Behind, to find homes for abandoned pets and to offer help with pets to homeowners in foreclosure. She said contractors working for her company had found abandoned animals from birds to horses.

While business may be good for firms like hers, Ms. Lang said it was difficult not to be disenchanted when the housing bust is seen from the street level, as many of her contractors do. Just a few years ago, policy makers and the mortgage industry were celebrating record home ownership rates in the country — a sign that the American dream was within reach for a large majority of the population.

Speaking on the phone two days after Mr. Law and Mr. McCallister’s visit to the home on 24th Street, she said the home’s condition stuck with her.

“Somewhere along the line someone wrote that property off,” she said. “There were birthdays celebrated there and anniversaries and there were lives that were lived there. And now the door is bolted shut.”

Original here

Amnesty International condemns US, China in report

LONDON (AP) — The United States is shirking its duty to provide the world with moral leadership and China is letting its business interests trump human rights concerns in Myanmar and Sudan, a human rights group said Wednesday.

Amnesty International's annual report on the state of the world's human rights accused the U.S. of failing to provide a moral compass for its international peers, a long-standing complaint the London-based group has against the North American superpower.

This year it also criticized the U.S. for supporting Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf last November when he imposed a state of emergency, clamped down on the media and sacked judges.

"As the world's most powerful state, the USA sets the standard for government behavior globally," the report said. It charged that the U.S. "had distinguished itself in recent years through its defiance of international law."

As in the past, the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay came in for criticism. Irene Khan, Amnesty's secretary-general, appealed for the American president elected in November to announce the jail's closure on Dec. 10, 2008, the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights.

The State Department had no immediate comment on the report, but said the U.S. was justified in detaining enemy combatants at Guantanamo to prevent them from returning to the battlefield. The State Department has previously said Amnesty uses the U.S. as "a convenient ideological punching bag."

Emerging power China came in for a few punches, too. The report said China had continued shipping weapons to Sudan in defiance of a U.N. arms embargo and traded with abusive governments like Myanmar and Zimbabwe. It said that China's media censorship remains in place and that the government continues to persecute rights activists.

The report also accused China of expanding its "re-education through labor" program, which allows the government to arrest people and sentence them to a manual labor without trial.

But Amnesty said it detected a shift in China's position: In 2007, China persuaded the Sudanese government to allow U.N. peacekeepers into the Darfur region and pressured Myanmar to accept the visit of a U.N. special envoy.

Khan told The Associated Press that it was much easier to grapple with human rights problems when the West and China worked together.

"China has the leverage to work with certain governments," she said ahead of the report's release. But she said China needed to use that leverage responsibly.

"China is clearly a global power. With that comes global responsibility for human rights. It needs to recognize that economic growth is not enough," Khan said.

The Chinese Embassy in London referred a query about the report to Beijing officials. A woman who answered the phone at the Foreign Ministry in Beijing said the ministry would look into the report. She refused to comment further or to give her name or position.

China has rejected previous such reports. It says its human rights record has improved in recent years.

Amnesty International said people are still tortured or ill-treated in at least 81 countries, face unfair trials in at least 54 and are denied free speech in at least 77.

But the report also highlighted an increase in mass demonstrations around the world, citing that as a positive sign of a growing willingness by people to fight for their rights.

"Black-suited lawyers in Pakistan, saffron-robed monks in Myanmar, 43.7 million individuals standing up on Oct. 17, 2007, to demand action against poverty, all were vibrant reminders last year of a global citizenry determined to stand up for human rights and hold their leaders to account," it said.

Original here

Environmentally Friendly Bombs Planned

New explosives could be more powerful and safer to handle than TNT and other conventional explosives and would also be more environmentally friendly.

TNT, RDX and other explosives commonly used in military and industrial applications often generate toxic gases upon detonation that pollute the environment. Moreover, the explosives themselves are toxic and can find their way into the environment due to incomplete detonation and as unexploded ordnance. They are also extremely dangerous to handle, as they are highly sensitive to physical shock, such as hard impacts and electric sparks.

To make safer, more environmentally friendly explosives, scientists in Germany turned to a recently explored class of materials called tetrazoles. These derive most of their explosive energy from nitrogen instead of carbon as TNT and others do.

Tiny bombs were made from two promising tetrazoles with the alphabet-soup names of HBT and G2ZT. These materials proved less apt to explode accidentally than conventional explosives.

After the bombs were detonated in the laboratory, G2ZT also proved as powerful than TNT, and HBT more powerful than TNT and comparable to RDX, said researcher Thomas Klapötke, a chemist at the University of Munich in Germany.

In initial experiments, G2ZT and HBT produced fewer toxic byproducts than common explosives. Still, they did generate some dangerous hydrogen cyanide gas. But mixing these compounds with oxidizers not only avoids making hydrogen cyanide, but also improved performance, Klapötke said.

These compounds have great potential, "especially for large caliber naval and tank guns," Klapötke added.

Klapötke and his colleague Carles Miró Sabate are scheduled to detail their findings in the June 24 issue of the journal Chemistry of Materials.

The research was financially supported by the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich, the Fonds der Chemischen Industrie, the European Research Office of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, the U.S. Army's Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, and the Bundeswehr Research Institute for Materials, Explosives, Fuels and Lubricants.

Original here

Optimism Grows as Marines Push Against Taliban

Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Members of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit watched for Taliban fighters last week from a forward outpost in southern Afghanistan. The unit pushed the Taliban out of a town in the south in four days, bolstering the optimism of residents.

GARMSER, Afghanistan — For two years British troops staked out a presence in this small district center in southern Afghanistan and fended off attacks from the Taliban. The constant firefights left it a ghost town, its bazaar broken and empty but for one baker, its houses and orchards reduced to rubble and weeds.

But it took the Marines, specifically the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, about 96 hours to clear out the Taliban in a fierce battle in the past month and push them back about 6 miles.

It was their first major combat operation since landing in March, and it stood in stark contrast to the events of a year earlier, when a Marine unit was removed in disgrace within weeks of arriving because its members shot and killed 19 civilians after a suicide bombing attack.

This time, the performance of the latest unit of marines, here in Afghanistan for seven months to help bolster NATO forces, will be under particular scrutiny. The NATO-led campaign against the Taliban has not only come under increasing pressure for its slow progress in curbing the insurgency, but it has also been widely criticized for the high numbers of civilian casualties in the fighting.

The marines’ drive against the Taliban in this large farming region is certainly not finished, and the Taliban have often been pushed out of areas in Afghanistan only to return in force later. But for the British forces and Afghan residents here, the result of the recent operation has been palpable.

The district chief returned to his job from his refuge in the provincial capital within days of the battle and 200 people — including 100 elders of the community — gathered for a meeting with him and the British to plan the regeneration of the town.

“They have disrupted the Taliban’s freedom of movement and pushed them south, and that has created the grounds for us to develop the hospital and set the conditions for the government to come back,” said Maj. Neil Den-McKay, the officer commanding a company of the Royal Regiment of Scotland based here. People have already started coming back to villages north of the town, he said, adding, “There has been huge optimism from the people.”

For the marines, it was a chance to hit the enemy with the full panoply of their firepower in places where they were confident there were few civilians. The Taliban put up a tenacious fight, rushing in reinforcements in cars and vans from the south and returning repeatedly to the attack, but they were beaten back in four days by three companies of marines, two of which were dropped in by helicopter to the southeast.

In the days after the assault began, hundreds of families, their belongings packed high on tractor-trailers, fled north from villages in the southern part of the battle zone, according to marines staffing a checkpoint. The Taliban told them to leave as the fighting began, they said. Hospital officials in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, reported receiving eight civilian casualties as a result of the fighting, including a 14-year-old boy who died from his injuries. The marines did not sustain any casualties, but one was killed and two were wounded in subsequent clashes.

Marines from the unit’s Company C said the reaction from the returning civilians, mostly farmers, had been favorable. “Everyone says they don’t like the Taliban,” said Capt. John Moder, 34, the commander of the company. People had complained that the Taliban stole food, clothes and vehicles from them, he said.

There are about 34,000 American troops in Afghanistan, with more than 3,000 marines having been sent into the country after NATO requested additional help in the south, where the Taliban are particularly strong.

The deployment occurred almost a year after up to 19 unarmed civilians were killed and 50 people wounded on March 4, 2007, when a Marine convoy opened fire after a suicide car bomb wounded one marine. On Friday, the Marine Corps said it would not bring charges against two of the commanding officers from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit for the episode, a decision that was greeted with dismay in Afghanistan.

The commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Dan K. McNeill, had a checklist of tasks around the country for 3,200 marines when they arrived in March. But the majority of them have spent a month in Garmser after changing their original plan, which was to secure a single road here, when they realized how important the area was to the Taliban as an infiltration and supply route to fighters in northern part of Helmand Province.

“This is an artery, and we did not realize that when we squeezed that artery, it would have such an effect,” said First Lt. Mark Matzke, the executive officer of Company C.

They also realized it was worth exploiting their initial success. The whole area was unexpectedly welcoming to the American forces and eager for security and development, Captain Moder said. “Us pushing the Taliban out allows the Afghan National Army to come in,” he said. “This is a real breadbasket here. There’s a lot of potential here.”

This southern part of Helmand Province, along the Helmand River valley, is prime agricultural land and still benefits from the large-scale irrigation plan kicked off by American government assistance in the 1950s and 1960s. It has traditionally been the main producer of wheat and other crops for the country. During the last 30 years of war, however, the area has given way to poppy production, providing a large percentage of the crop that has made Afghanistan the producer of 98 percent of the world’s opium.

The region has long been an infiltration route for insurgents coming across the southern border with Pakistan, crossing from Baluchistan Province in Pakistan via an Afghan refugee camp known as Girdi Jungle. The Taliban, and the drug runners, then race across a region known ominously as the desert of death until they reach the river valley, which provides the ideal cover of villages and greenery.

With such a large area under their control, the Taliban were able to gather in numbers, stockpile weapons and provide a logistics route to send fighters and weapons into northern Helmand and the provinces of Kandahar and Oruzgan beyond.

The Taliban, who kicked out villagers and took over their farmhouses, were also mixed with an unusual proportion of Arabs and Pakistanis, Major Den-McKay said.

“The majority of elements in this area are Arab and Pakistani, and the locals detest them,” he said. The insurgent commanders were from Iran, which shares a border with Afghanistan to the southwest, as well as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, he said.

Afghan villagers confirmed that there were local Afghan Taliban fighting, too. But they also said that there were Pakistanis, ethnic Baluchis from southern Iran and Arabs fighting as well.

Locals complained that the Taliban taxed them heavily on the opium harvest. They demanded up to about 30 pounds of opium from every farmer, which was more than the entire harvest of some, so they were forced to go and buy opium to meet the demand, said Abdul Taher, a 45-year-old farmer.

“We had a lot of trouble these last two years,” said Sher Ahmad, 32. “We are very grateful for the security,” said his father, Abdul Nabi, the elder of a small hamlet in the village of Hazarjoft, a few miles south of Garmser. “We don’t need your help, just security,” he said.

Villagers were refusing humanitarian aid offered by the marines because the Taliban were already infiltrating back and threatening anyone who took it, Lieutenant Matzke said.

After a month in the region, the marines have secured only half of a roughly six-square-mile area south of Garmser. Taliban forces operating out of two villages are still attacking the southern flank of the marines and are even creeping up to fire at British positions on the edge of the town.

But the bigger test will come in the next few weeks as the marines move on and the Afghans, supported by the British, take over. The concern here is that the Taliban will try to blend in among the returning villagers and orchestrate attacks.

Major Den-McKay said they were ready. “The threat will migrate from direct attacks to suicide attacks” and roadside bombs, he said.

Now on his fourth tour in Afghanistan, Major Den-McKay said he had seen considerable progress in the confidence and ability of the Afghan security forces. Reinforcements of the police, trained and mentored by the British and Americans, have already moved in and are working well with border police and intelligence service personnel, he said.

The marines, meanwhile, prepare for their next move. To the south are miles upon miles of uncontrolled territory where the Taliban still operate freely, as well as a dozen other districts around the country demanding their attention.

Original here

Woman 'married' to Berlin Wall for 29 years

A woman with a bizarre fetish for inaninimate objects has revealed she has been married to the Berlin Wall for 29 years.

Eija-Riitta Berliner-Mauer, 54, whose surname means Berlin Wall in German, wed the concrete structure in 1979 after being diagnosed with a condition called Objectum-Sexuality.

Mrs Berliner-Mauer, whose fetish is said to have its roots in childhood, claimed she fell in love with the structure when she first saw it on television when she was seven.

She began collecting "his" pictures and saving up for visits. On her sixth trip in 1979 they tied the knot before a handful of guests.

While she remains a virgin with humans, she insists she has a full, loving relationship with the wall.

Mrs Berliner-Mauer, who lives in Liden, northern Sweden, said: "I find long, slim things with horizontal lines very sexy.

"The Great Wall of China's attractive, but he’s too thick – my husband is sexier."

While the rest of mankind rejoiced when the Wall, erected by the Soviets in 1961 to halt an exodus from East to West Berlin, was largely torn down in 1989, its "wife" was horrified.

She's never been back and now keeps models depicting "his" former glory.

She said: “What they did was awful. They mutilated my husband."

She is said to have shifted her affections to a nearby garden fence.

Objectum-Sexual or objectophilia is feelings of love, attraction, arousal, and commitment for a particular object.

The mere thought of a relationship with an actual human being seems ludicrous.

Original here