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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Everybody Talks About the Weather…

But nobody does anything about it.” That old saying is about to be relegated to the dustbin of history, though, as we can do more and more about anticipated weather. At least, we know much more about it, and that in itself is hugely important. When my parents were young in Minnesota, no one knew if a blizzard was coming or how severe it might be. I grew up hearing about people who went out on a pleasant morning and froze to death in the afternoon. In a blind blanket of snow and wind, those caught outside can become disoriented and die just a few feet from shelter. Some lives were saved when the safe ones simply banged loudly on metal, and a wanderer could follow the sound. Farmers strung rope between the house and the barn, and they clung to it to prevent losing their way on this short walk.

By the time I was a child, radio had become the most important lifesaver. I clearly remember my parents staying tuned to the local station, which broadcast what it knew about approaching blizzards. Much of this information was called in by farmers before the telephone lines went down, and it often included specific instructions to families: “I won’t be able to get home from town, so put the calves in a pen together with plenty of straw to keep them warm.” Or from a mother when an afternoon blizzard blew in: “You kids know that you should stay with Grandma -- and be sure to help her with the extra work.”

If there was no grandma in town, every country schoolchild nonetheless had an assigned “town family,” a place to stay when rural roads were too dangerous to travel. We lived only a block from school, and my older sister had days-long slumber parties with her teenage friends who couldn’t get home because of ice or snowdrifts. When the roads finally were clear, their families would bring us eggs, milk, or meat to compensate mom for the mouths she fed. I looked forward to blizzards for that post-storm bounty, as well as fun with Sis’s friends.

Somehow I don’t remember the electricity going off. Maybe that was because the people who owned the local power plant lived a few doors away from us. “Central,” the phone operator, lived a few doors away from that, and I don’t remember losing phone service, either. But radio was the most important and certainly the most dramatic means of communication. Even after we had television, it came from Minneapolis, hundreds of miles away, and not local enough to provide the sort of information we needed. The same was true of the Weather Bureau in a time before meteorologists could provide much specificity.

Then, Now, and the Future

It’s a scientific miracle now to have color television capable of pinpointing exactly where storms are -- and where they are likely to go. Much of this change had its origin with World War II, when the federal government began spending money on weather prediction. In researching my books on WWII, I saw many photographs of women tending weather balloons with instruments attached, which provided information on what was happening aloft. Airplanes, too, made huge advances during the war, and afterwards, were used for weather observation. Flying into the eye of a hurricane became a horrific test of pilot skill.

Now we seem to be advancing beyond that dangerous technology, too. During our recent hurricane, there was little reporting from “the eye in the sky” compared with the computer data that came from weather buoys in the ocean. Hubby and I were especially pleased that our University of South Florida’s marine department in St. Petersburg is taking the lead on this. It is still another demonstration of the value of investing in education – and in the research professors who think through complex problems to find the future.

Remember also that it is the too-often maligned federal government, first with its Weather Bureau and now with NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) that has created this change. Hubby and I have a photograph of us with Al Gore, when the vice president came to MacDill to announce NOAA expansion there. Pronounced “Noah,” the name subliminally alludes to the great flood reported in the Bible -- and Noah’s preparation for it, while others scoffed. People scoffed at Al Gore, too, when he drew attention to new science in computerization, as well as climate change. He has turned out to be right on almost all points, however, and most of us now depend everyday on the “information superhighway” that he predicted more than two decades ago. That word usage may have been less than a good choice, but he envisioned the future long before most of us.

So don’t scoff. And please consider the point in its greater generality: in weather, in medicine, in space exploration and so much more, it is the government that historically has funded virtually all progress, especially in early, non-profitable stages. Please pay your taxes and stop falling for those who promise get-rich-quick privatization: the recent study on prisons showed that some things that are necessary simply cannot be profitable. Give up on that, and instead, support the folks who are personally and truly committed to seeking and sharing knowledge. That is the basis of everything good.

I Think We Are Getting Smarter

At least our local Republicans got smart enough to stop supporting that con man, Jim Norman. The results of the August 31 party primaries were pretty good -- and on the Republican ballot, much better than the presidential primary back in March. I think they may be thinking second thoughts.

Democrats, did you notice the oddity of the first three names on the ballot being a form of “Pat?” And all were winners: Patrick Murphy for the US Senate; Pat Frank for Clerk of the Circuit Court; and Pat Kemp for the Hillsborough County Commission. The latter two are well known locally, and so most voters understood that their form of “Pat” was “Patricia,” not “Patrick.”

I believe we are getting smarter about gender in politics, although it still varies by office. Florida has not yet elected a woman as governor, and it was back in 1986 that we elected one woman to one term in the US Senate. Republican Paula Hawkins lost in 1992, and we failed to elect Democrat Betty Castor in 2004. (Pause to think about who defeated her.) It was Mel Martinez, a Cuban native recruited and well funded by Dubya’s White House. You don’t remember him because he had so little commitment that he resigned before his term was over. He’s now making money as a Washington lobbyist.) And in the twelve years that have followed, neither party has nominated a woman for this top job.

School boards, which are considered the lowest ranking of elective offices, are different -- and it’s been decades since we had an all-male school board here or anywhere in Florida. Today’s voters clearly trust women with their kids’ education, but that wasn’t always the case. The first woman on our local board was Cecile Essrig in 1967. At her funeral, her daughters recalled how a neighbor had come to their home and given her a campaign contribution – but added that he would not vote for her because he thought that women shouldn’t hold public office.

A Way to Measure our Smartness

The second woman on the school board was Pat Frank, who won still another race in the election just past – but lost three before joining Essrig on the school board in 1972. That was the breakthrough year, when Betty Castor was elected to the County Commission; Catherine Barja had become the first woman on Tampa City Council the previous year. Helen Gordon Davis would be Hillsborough’s first female representative to the legislature in 1974. Another major milestone was in 1988, when women became a majority of the seven-member county commission: that year, Phyllis Busansky joined Jan Platt, Pam Iorio, and Haven Poe. But progress is not inevitable, and the current commission is down to just one woman, Sandy Murman. You’ll have a chance to double that number by electing Pat Kemp in November.

The school board, though, has continued to have lopsided representation from women – and voters repeated that choice in this election. Four races were on the ballot, a majority of the board’s seven seats. Susan Valdes won reelection in the West Tampa district (#1), defeating a man who had significant support from significant people. Two women, Cathy James and Lynn Gray, came out at the top of a long list that included men for a countywide seat (#7). That long list, by the way, included Randy Toler, whose wife, Alicia, also audaciously ran for the school board in District 3: she lost to qualified incumbent Cindy Stuart. The only race in which a man will be in the November runoff is #5, in which all five of the candidates were African-American. If he happens to win, he will join incumbents April Griffin, Sally Harris, and Melissa Snively on the currently all-female board. And I’m old enough to remember the reverse, when there was one woman among six men.

By the way, the current head of NOAA is Kathryn Sullivan – something I didn’t know until I fact-checked NOAA. I recognized her name immediately, as back in 1985, she was the first American woman to walk in space. I met her in 1995, when I represented the National Women’s History Project at NASA’s celebration for the first woman to command a spacecraft. That was Eileen Collins, and I can’t believe it’s already been more than twenty years. During that time, we have shown that we are getting smarter about using all of our available brainpower, including that of the half of the population born female. In November, I trust we will have the greatest milestone of all.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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