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Real ID accord remains elusive

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SANTA FE Two top legislative leaders met Thursday to discuss the pending crackdown on New Mexico s driver s licenses but didn t come to any agreement on a letter to federal officials in an effort to avert it. It remained unclear whether anything would be done before Monday s scheduled enforcement of the federal Real ID law, which would make New Mexico licenses insufficient as identification at some federal installations. Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez of Belen, a Democrat, has been pushing for state leaders to write the Department of Homeland Security assuring the agency that the Legislature will pass a bill in the coming session to bring New Mexico into compliance with the Real ID law, and asking for an enforcement delay.

He met Thursday with House Speaker Don Tripp of Socorro, a Republican, to discuss such a letter. But Tripp said after the meeting, which they both described as brief and cordial, that the letter wouldn t be enough for DHS.

Homeland Security wants it to be a commitment from all three legs of the stool, including the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez, Tripp told the Journal. He also said DHS wants to see a bill, or at least an extensive framework for one, before it would agree to another extension. Tripp said he recommended further talks that would include representatives of the Senate, House, and Governor s Office.

It was a simple request, and for whatever reason, he didn t think he could do it or the administration would do it, Sanchez told the Journal after the meeting. I was disappointed.

It was clear Thursday that significant differences remain over legislation to make the state s licenses compliant with Real ID.

The House and the Governor s Office are pretty much committed to suspending the practice of giving driver s licenses to illegals, and that s the main focus, Tripp said. A plan backed by House Republicans and Martinez would create a two-tiered system: Real ID-compliant licenses, and driving privilege cards available only to immigrants who can t prove they re here legally. It would effectively halt the issuance of driver s licenses to those who are in the U.S. illegally, which is allowed under a 2003 law. Martinez has been trying to get that state law repealed since she was first elected in 2010.

Immigrants rights advocates said the GOP plan is discriminatory, that it singles out and stigmatizes immigrants.

Taking away drivers licenses from 90,000 New Mexicans, immigrants who have lived, worked and paid taxes here, and then force them to carry a driver s permit marked with their immigration status goes against everything New Mexico stands for, said Marcela Diaz, executive director of Somos Un Pueblo Unido. Sanchez and the Legislature s other top Democrats Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces and House Minority Leader Brian Egolf of Santa Fe said Thursday that New Mexicans with privacy concerns should be able to choose whether they get Real ID-compliant licenses. In a letter to Tripp separate from the meeting they said the second tier of driver s licenses should be available not only to immigrants who can t prove they re here legally, but also to those who are worried about the implications of Real ID. That s essentially what the Democratic-dominated state Senate passed last year, with strong Republican support.

The Real ID Act requires U.S. citizens to present documentation such as birth certificates and Social Security cards when they apply for licenses. Because the information would be available to other states, many people, including conservative Republicans, have serious concerns about the risks to privacy and civil liberties, the letter said.

Federal officials warn of Atchafalaya Basin flooding; opening of Morganza …

Federal officials warned people living in the Atchafalaya Basin Thursday that rising Mississippi River waters may force them to open the Morganza Spillway to protect levees downriver in the Baton Rouge area. But Col. Richard Hansen, head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans, cautioned St. Mary Parish residents that they could flood[1] even if the spillway isn t opened. Officials throughout Thursday said no final decision had been made whether or when to open the flood control structure that diverts water from the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya River, but Hansen during a night meeting in St. Martin Parish said it could happen as early as Tuesday. The Corps did announce that river levels would force the opening of the Bonnet Carre[2] Spillway on Sunday, channeling the high water in the Mississippi into Lake Pontchartrain to relieve pressure on the levees in New Orleans.

Corps and parish officials said the Atchafalaya River, which flows between Morgan City and Berwick, could reach flood levels in a few weeks, especially if the corps opens Morganza.

Now is the time to take temporary flooding measures, Hansen said before a crowd of more than 300 people at the Morgan City Auditorium, one of several flood-preparation meetings being held this week across south Louisiana. Mississippi River water levels are rising because of heavy December rain up north, which already caused flooding in the Midwest, swamping a number of communities. The Morganza Spillway, designed to protect down-river levees[3] on the Mississippi, has only been opened twice since construction finished in 1954. The spillway was operated in 1973 and, more recently, in 2011.

The trigger for opening the spillway in northern Pointe Coupee Parish occurs when the river level reaches 57 feet at the structure and there is a 10-day forecast that shows the river will be flowing 1.5 million cubic feet per second. The forecast fluctuates, so the Corps is currently looking at how the new forecasts changes the projections for the river flow, said Ricky Boyett, chief, public affairs of the Corps New Orleans District. Despite more water coming down river during the 2011 flood, officials said different conditions in the basin this year could mean the flooding people see on the ground should match up pretty closely with what happened almost five years ago.

Less flow on the Mississippi River, but yet you re getting very close if not higher elevation (of flooding) in the basin, Boyett said.

While some communities flooded in 2011, the expected deluge didn t arrive in other areas in the basin. Before the spillway was opened in May 2011, the Corps released a number of maps showing potential flooding of five to 10 feet in and around areas like Krotz Springs and Butte La Rose. Those warnings prompted St. Martin Parish, St. Landry Parish and other officials to issues mandatory evacuations for places like Happy Town, an area of camps and homes along the Atchafalaya River, and the small residential community of Butte La Rose. Although Happy Town was isolated by flood waters, flooding in Butte La Rose and elsewhere in the basin was much more limited than expected because extensive drought meant the ground absorbed much more water than expected. At a Corps meeting in Butte La Rose on Thursday night, officials told the approximately 400 people present that if they remained dry in 2011 they probably won t flood this year. There is no planned evacuation at this time.

This is basically going to be a 2011 repeat, St. Martin Parish President Guy Cormier said.

But some experts cautioned that conditions are different this year than in 2011. There currently is no drought of any kind in the basin to mitigate flooding, which could mean areas that didn t flood in 2011 might see water this year.

What that means is I think the models will be more accurate, said Robert Twilley, executive director of the Louisiana Sea Grant College Program at LSU, referring to Corps models that again show possible flooding throughout the basin. Those water stages are going to be very different than what we saw in 2011. Richard Keim, associate professor with the School of Renewable Natural Resources at LSU who researches forested wetlands like the Atchafalaya River basin, agreed that the levels of 2011 can t be used to prepare for this flood.

Every flood is different. The conditions in the basin and channel aren t always predictable, Keim said. Officials said they are concerned people in the basin may base their current preparations on what they experienced in 2011 instead of listening if they are warned about potential flooding in their areas.

The conditions are totally different from what we saw back then, said Mike Steele, spokesman for the Governor s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. We hope there s not a sense of apathy based on what happened in 2011 because this situation is different.

In St. Mary Parish, Corps officials and parish employees have been monitoring[4] parish levees for sand boils, Hansen said. Sand boils form on the dry side of levee when water seeps under the structure and up through the other side. Although it doesn t mean the levee is damaged, these sand boils do need to be watched to make sure not dirt or sand is making its way through indicating a potential levee problem. Officials also are looking for cracks in the levees, he said, and are watching big boat traffic on the area s many waterways for signs that they may be passing too close to the levees. About 130 National Guard troops from the 256th Infantry Brigade and the 225th Engineering Brigade were due Thursday evening at the Amelia recreation center on the east end of the parish to set up a command center.

Guardsmen on Friday will unload earth moving equipment for flood diversion work on Avoca Island, Guard Maj. John Williams Jr. said. Avoca Island lies about three miles southeast of Morgan City near Lake Palourde. The Coast Guard will close Bayou Chene, located north of Morgan City, on Saturday to install a flood protection structure, a barge that will be sunk in the waterway to divert water away from low-lying communities and into adjacent marshes. The barge project, which was also executed in 2011, was credited with preventing damage to several communities. Advocate staff writer Richard Burgess contributed to this story.

Follow Amy Wold on Twitter @awold10.

References

  1. ^ flood (www.srh.noaa.gov)
  2. ^ Bonnet Carre (theadvocate.com)
  3. ^ down-river levees (theadvocate.com)
  4. ^ monitoring (www.mvn.usace.army.mil)

Defending our shores


January 07, 2016 – Brandon Twp.- Coast Guard Ensign Jamel Chokr has assisted in the rescue of fishermen and pilot whales, intercepted migrants and drug smugglers bound for the U.S., and provided protection for President Barack Obama.

Day-to-day operations depends on intelligence received, said the 28-year-old recently while visiting family in Brandon Township.

“We could be chasing down a ‘go-fast,’ which is a drug smuggling vessel, or conducting a search and rescue, or showing law enforcment presence in a specific area,” Chokr said. “The migrant piece is especially interesting… They will try any and all means they can to get here. We’ve stopped people on chugs, homemade vessels, pallets, pieces of wood with tarp and foam and using rice bags as sails.”

He recalls one 39-foot vessel with more than 130 Haitian migrants ranging from infants to the elderly.

“What a lot of people don’t understand is these are search and rescue these people are not going to make it and we find them in open ocean under the worst conditions you can possible imagine. You definitely feel for the people you know why they’re doing what they’re doing, but they’re not doing it in the right way. You feel compassion and empathy for these people, but you are charged with enforcing our laws.”

A desire to find a career in law enforcement steered Chokr into the Coast Guard. After earning his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and sociology in 2010 from the University of Michigan-Flint, he sought a position that would lead him to doing large scale law enforcement and making a difference in people’s lives. In early 2012, he entered the Coast Guard, the only branch of the military that can enforce law over civilians. The Coast Guard is unique, he explains, in that it falls under Homeland Security rather than the Department of Defense and as such, has the ability to conduct law enforcement missions. During time of war, the Coast Guard can operate under the Navy, in the Department of Defense. Following basic training, Chokr was stationed on the Coast Guard Cutter Confidence, out of Cape Canaveral, Fla. It was on the Confidence, a 210-foot medium-endurance ship, whose main mission is law enforcement, that he soon learned he had made the right decision in joining the Coast Guard. Chokr would be involved in the seizures of more than $20 million in drugs, and countless migrant operations and search and rescue cases. He served as a fireman in the engineering division on board Confidence and explains that in the Coast Guard, all shipmates have collateral duties to make the boats run. The U.S. Coast Guard patrols over 95,000 miles of coastline and performs 11 critical missions essential to safety and security of the U.S. with a workforce Chokr said is roughly the size of the New York Police Department, about 35,000 people. The Coast Guard has units and missions all over the world.

On the Confidence, Chokr served with about 100 crewmates, alternating two months in port and two months out to sea, covering hundreds of miles of ocean during missions that changed as quickly as the wind. Chokr recalls his most memorable search and rescue, when the Confidence was diverted from another mission to find five Dominican Republic fishermen whose boat had caught fire. A good Samaritan came across the sinking wreckage and the fishermen were nowhere to be found. The Coast Guard, which measures current and wind and can calculate set and drift taking into account the general tides of an area and a debris field, was called in to assist. All hands were on deck, the entire crew looking for the lost men in a seemingly endless sea. After hours of searching, the crew spotted an orange Gatorade cooler with three fishermen clinging to it and dropped a small boat from the cutter to pick them up. The fourth and fifth fishermen were soon found as well, surviving due to flotation devices.

“We rescued all five and they had been in the water 14 hours, so they were on the verge of death,” said Chokr. “Everything you work for to make that cutter run, all the tedious work in a 120-degree engine room that moment of rescue makes it all worth it and reminds us of why we do what we do.”

All of the fishermen were conscious. One had a severely injured back. The crew got them dry clothes and wrapped them in blankets while the ship’s medical expert treated them to the best of his capabilities before a helicopter arrived to take them off the ship. Survival of such individuals depends on factors including time and water temperature, Chokr said. The water the fishermen was in was 77 degrees, but that is still 20 degrees cooler than the average body temperature. Fourteen hours in the water was pushing the upper limits of endurance. He notes that without the cooler or the life vests, the story would have ended much differently. The desperation of some individuals being plucked from the sea can also endanger the lives of those trying to save them. Chokr has encountered migrants found in open water who want nothing more than to be out of terrible conditions of their own vessel and into the Coast Guard boats.

“We have to be cautious how we approach,” he said. “They crowd to one side and can capsize… A lot of times they want to jump. They have been out at sea for days, they are starving, there is feces everywhere, they want nothing more than to be off of whatever they are on. We have to take a systematic approach so it doesn’t turn into chaos. It’s a very tense situation.”

He and his colleagues have also encountered smaller vessels with migrants who are unhappy to see the Coast Guard, upset, thinking they could have made it to U.S. shores. They are often the people with backgrounds that U.S. citizens wouldn’t want in this country, said Chokr.

“It’s crazy how you can go from rescue to law enforcement in the flip of a switch,” he said. “It can turn into law enforcement quickly where the use of force may have to be used.”

The reverse can be true, too. Chokr has been on law enforcement missions when drug smugglers have fallen overboard and then have to be rescued.

“It’s a cat and mouse game trying to catch drug smugglers,” he adds. “We take one step forward and they take a step. Their methods are everything from cargo ships to go-fasts and now they’ve started with semi-submersible vessels, like submarines, hanging a few feet below the surface of the water. They don’t dive completely down, but are incredibly difficult to detect.”

When they are located and cornered, Chokr said it is just as one would imagine in the movies with law enforcement coming in with guns drawn and taking every precaution, but with one major exception. When police officers are involved in a shootout on land, backup is typically minutes away. In the middle of the ocean, the Coast Guard has no backup to come to the rescue. Luckily, there are typically no gunfights.

“We come in with overwhelming force and they know already they are in trouble for what they did,” notes Chokr. “If they tried to escalate it by getting into a shootout, it would worsen their own situation. One of the cases we had, there were two vessels transporting guns and money and they got into a shootout with each other.”

The Coast Guard has seized many of these vessels in the past decade, as well as millions of dollars worth of cocaine and marijuana. The Coast Guard, which has many bi-lateral and multi-lateral agreements with other nations, is responsible for more than 50 percent of the annual U.S. cocaine seizures. In the summer of 2013, Chokr left the Cutter Confidence and joined an anti-terrorism, deployable specialized forces unit for the Coast Guard the Maritime Safety and Security Team Miami. The specialized law enforcement team is comprised of six 25-foot small boats and was created after Sept. 11 to prevent terrorist acts. The team does high-risk, high-profile security missions, including deploying anytime President Obama is waterside, whether he is playing golf or attending a United Nations meeting.

“When you thinking of the large scale protection of someone, it doesn’t get larger than that,” said Chokr.

While Miami is the homebase of the team, they can deploy anywhere in the world. Chokr and the Maritime Safety and Security Team Miami offered their services as well at Super Bowl XLVIII played at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. The team patrolled the Hudson River, doing sweeps of bridges and critical infrastructure. Events like the Super Bowl can become terrorist targets due to the sheer amount of people in attendance. Team Miami was assigned to establish a security zone around a cruise ship on the Hudson River, ensuring no one could drive a boat of explosives to it. While the team’s primary mission was to prevent humans from harming other humans, they also were called on to assist another species.

In December 2013, pods of pilot whales were beaching themselves near the Florida Everglades. Chokr and his tactical law enforcement unit responded to keep people away from the whales. Many of the animals had died on shore, while others were stranded in 8 to 10 feet of water. The team brought marine biologists out in their boat and remained in the area until eventually the whales migrated back out to sea.

This past July, Chokr reported to officer candidate school in New London, Ct. Only five percent of applicants are accepted. After a 17-week intensive program, Chokr graduated first in his class Nov. 24. He is now stationed in Sector Mobile, Ala., where he will set up operations and law enforcement missions from Mississippi down to Panama City and Pensacola, Fla. He is looking forward to a long-term career in the Coast Guard. While it is difficult being out to sea and away from family, which includes wife, Bailee, and parents, Vikki and Dimitrie Toth of Brandon Township and Hassan Chokr of Sarasota, Fla., he enjoys sharing stories with them of how he helped rescue people or stopped the smuggling of drugs into this country.

“Those tangible large scale differences, when you make a drug seizure or save someone’s life that makes the sacrifice well worth it.”