Trump deregulated railways and banks. He blames Biden for the fallout
David Smith in Washington – March 18, 2023
When a fiery train derailment took place on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border last month, Donald Trump saw an opportunity. The former US president visited East Palestine, accused Joe Biden of ignoring the community – “Get over here!” – and distributed self-branded water before dropping in at a local McDonald’s.
Then, when the Silicon Valley Bank last week became the second biggest bank to fail in US history, Trump again lost no time in making political capital. He predicted that Biden would go down as “the Herbert Hoover of the modrrn [sic] age” and predicted a worse economic crash than the Great Depression.
Yet it was Trump himself who, as US president, rolled back regulations intended to make railways safer and banks more secure. Critics said his attacks on the Biden administration offered a preview of a disingenuous presidential election campaign to come and, not for the first time in Trump’s career, displayed a shameless double standard.
“Hypocrisy, thy name is Donald Trump and he sets new standards in a whole bunch of regrettable ways,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “For his true believers, they’re going to take Trump’s word for it and, even if they don’t, it doesn’t affect their support of him.”
The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank on 10 March and of New York’s Signature Bank two days later sent shockwaves through the global banking industry and revived bitter memories of the financial crisis that plunged the US into recession about 15 years ago.
Fearing contagion in the banking sector, the government moved to protect all the banks’ deposits, even those that exceeded the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation $250,000 limit for each individual account. The cost ran into hundreds of billions of dollars.
The drama reverberated in Washington, where Trump’s criticism was followed by that of Republicans and conservative media, seeking to blame Biden-driven inflation or, improbably, to Silicon Valley Bank’s socially aware “woke” agenda. Opponents saw this as a crude attempt to deflect from the bank’s risky investments in the bond market and more systemic problems in the sector.
The 2008 financial crisis, triggered by reckless lending in the housing market, led to tough bank regulations during Barack Obama’s presidency. The 2010 Dodd-Frank Act aimed to ensure that Americans’ money was safe, in part by setting up annual “stress tests” that examine how banks would perform under future economic downturns.
But when Trump won election in 2016, the writing was on the wall. Biden, then outgoing vice-president, warned against efforts to undo banking regulations, telling an audience at Georgetown University: “We can’t go back to the days when financial companies take massive risks with the knowledge that a taxpayer bailout is around the corner when they fail.”
But in 2018, with Trump in the White House, Congress slashed some of those protections. Republicans – and some Democrats – voted to raise the minimum threshold for banks subject to the stress tests: those with less than $250bn in assets were no longer required to take part. Many big lenders, including Silicon Valley Bank, were freed from the tightest regulatory scrutiny.
Sabato commented: “The worst example is the bank situation because that is directly tied to Trump and his administration and changes made in bank regulations in 2018. Yes, some Democrats voted for it, but it was overwhelmingly supported by Republicans and by Trump who heralded it as the real solution to future bank woes.”
The minority of Democrats who supported the 2018 law have denied that it can be directly tied to this month’s bank failures, although Bernie Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont, was adamant: “Let’s be clear. The failure of Silicon Valley Bank is a direct result of an absurd 2018 bank deregulation bill signed by Donald Trump that I strongly opposed.”
You do need government to regulate finance … but that point cannot be made if you’ve got Donald Trump inventing reality
Sherrod Brown, a Democratic senator for Ohio who introduced bipartisan legislation to improve rail safety protocols, drew a parallel between the banks’ collapse to rail industry deregulation lobbying that contributed to the East Palestine train disaster. “We see aggressive lobbying like this from banks as well,” he said.
Trump repealed several Barack Obama-era US Department of Transportation rules meant to improve rail safety, including one that required high-hazard cargo trains to use electronically controlled pneumatic brake technology by 2023. This rule would not have applied to the Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine – where roughly 5,000 residents had to evacuate for days – as it was not classified as a high-hazard cargo train.
But the debate around the railway accident and bank failures points to a perennial divide between Democrats, who insist that some regulation is vital to a functioning capitalism, and Republicans, who have long claimed to believe in small government. Steve Bannon, an influential far-right podcaster and former White House chief strategist, framed the Trump agenda as “the deconstruction of the administrative state”.
Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist, said: “The Republican party has gotten by for many years on this idea that less is better. However, we’re now learning in this country that, as America continues to mature, in some cases more is better, and more has to be how we get to better. Otherwise the mistakes can spin out of control and cause generations of people long-term damage.”
Biden called on Congress to allow regulators to impose tougher penalties on the executives of failed banks while Warren and other Democrats introduced legislation to undo the 2018 law and restore the Dodd-Frank regulations. It is likely to meet stiff opposition from the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and even some moderate Democrats.
Biden has also insisted that no taxpayer money will be used to resolve the current crisis, keen to avoid any perception that average Americans are “bailing out” the two banks in a way similar to the unpopular bailouts of the biggest financial firms in 2008.
But Republicans running for the 2024 presidential nomination are already contending that customers will ultimately bear the costs of the government’s actions even if taxpayer funds were not directly used. Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, said: “Joe Biden is pretending this isn’t a bailout. It is.”
Another potential 2024 contender, Senator Tim Scott, the top Republican on the Senate banking committee, also criticised what he called a “culture of government intervention”, arguing that it incentivises banks to continue risky behavior if they know federal agencies will ultimately rescue them.
Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said: “This is familiar ideological territory. The battle lines between liberalism and a fake conservatism appear to be playing out here. But the tragedy of the situation is that the liberals are right.
It’s not new that the Republicans will deregulate an industry and then it collapses … look at American political and economic history of the last 50 years
“You do need government to regulate finance and, when you don’t, you get mischief making and bank failures but that point cannot be made if you’ve got Donald Trump inventing reality. He’s demonstrated that facts and position taking don’t matter. It’s an extraordinary political strategy but it’s even more devastating to our whole political system and our media that this could be allowed.”
This poses a huge messaging challenge for Democrats, who after the 2008 financial crisis came up against the Tea Party, a populist movement feeding off economic and racial resentments. Long and winding explanations about the negative impacts of Trump era deregulation are a hard sell compared to the former president’s sloganeering in East Palestine.
Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, said: “Once again we see that Trump is taking advantage of the Achilles’ heel of the Democratic party by telling voters that the Democrats like big government because it bails out industries and it never provides a bailout for the little guy.”
Democrats’ efforts to point out that Trump was responsible for deregulation are unlikely to cut through, Schiller added.
“Any time it takes more than 10 seconds to explain something, you’re done in politics. This is why Trump has catchy phrases, sound bytes. He understands that all voters see is that rich people made a bad investment and then more rich people are making sure that their money’s available to them within three days, coming off the heels of all the closures during Covid, lost business, lost income, people struggling, inflation.
“Democrats don’t want to call it a bailout but it is a bailout. The high visibility of this bailout smothers anything else the Democrats are doing for the average voter. It’s a perfect issue for the Republicans. It’s not new that the Republicans will deregulate an industry and then it collapses and the Democrats have to save it. Look at American political and economic history of the last 50 years: this is exactly what happens.”
U.S. grapples with forces unleashed by Iraq invasion 20 years later
Arshad Mohammed and Jonathan Landay – March 16, 2023
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – From an empowered Iran and eroded U.S. influence to the cost of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria to combat Islamic State fighters, the United States still contends with the consequences of invading Iraq 20 years ago, current and former officials say.
Then-U.S. President George W. Bush’s 2003 decision to oust Saddam Hussein by force, the way limited U.S. troop numbers enabled ethnic strife and the eventual 2011 U.S. pullout have all greatly complicated U.S. policy in the Middle East, they said.
The end of Saddam’s minority Sunni rule and replacement with a Shi’ite majority government in Iraq freed Iran to deepen its influence across the Levant, especially in Syria, where Iranian forces and Shi’ite militias helped Bashar al-Assad crush a Sunni uprising and stay in power.
The 2011 withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Iraq left a vacuum that Islamic State (ISIS) militants filled, seizing roughly a third of Iraq and Syria and fanning fears among Gulf Arab states that they could not rely on the United States.
Having withdrawn, former U.S. President Barack Obama in 2014 sent troops back to Iraq, where about 2,500 remain, and in 2015 he deployed to Syria, where about 900 troops are on the ground. U.S. forces in both countries combat Islamic State militants, who are also active from North Africa to Afghanistan.
“Our inability, unwillingness, to put the hammer down in terms of security in the country allowed chaos to ensue, which gave rise to ISIS,” said former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, faulting the U.S. failure to secure Iraq.
Armitage, who served under Republican Bush when the United States invaded Iraq, said the U.S. invasion “might be as big a strategic error” as Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, which helped bring about Germany’s World War Two defeat.
The costs of U.S. involvement in Iraq and Syria are massive.
According to estimates published this week by the “Costs of War” project at Brown University, the U.S. price tag to date for the wars in Iraq and Syria comes to $1.79 trillion, including Pentagon and State Department spending, veterans’ care and the interest on debt financing the conflicts. Including projected veterans’ care through 2050, this rises to $2.89 trillion.
The project puts U.S. military deaths in Iraq and Syria over the past 20 years at 4,599 and estimates total deaths, including Iraqi and Syrian civilians, military, police, opposition fighters, media and others at 550,000 to 584,000. This includes only those killed as a direct result of war but not estimated indirect deaths from disease, displacement or starvation.
U.S. credibility also suffered from Bush’s decision to invade based on bogus, exaggerated and ultimately erroneous intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
John Bolton, a war advocate who served under Bush, said even though Washington made mistakes – by failing to deploy enough troops and administering Iraq instead of quickly handing over to Iraqis – he believed removing Saddam justified the costs.
“It was worth it because the decision was not simply: ‘Does Saddam pose a WMD threat in 2003?'” he said. “Another question was: ‘Would he pose a WMD threat five years later?’ To which I think the answer clearly was ‘yes.'”
“The worst mistake made after the overthrow of Saddam … was withdrawing in 2011,” he added, saying he believed Obama wanted to pull out and used the inability to get guarantees of immunity for U.S. forces from Iraq’s parliament “as an excuse.”
‘ALARM BELLS RINGING … IN THE GULF’
Ryan Crocker, who served as U.S. ambassador in Iraq, said the 2003 invasion did not immediately undermine U.S. influence in the Gulf but the 2011 withdrawal helped push Arab states to start hedging their bets.
In the latest example of waning U.S. influence, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed on Friday to re-establish relations after years of hostility in a deal brokered by China.
“We just decided we didn’t want to do this stuff anymore,” Crocker said, referring to the U.S. unwillingness to keep spending blood and treasure securing Iraq. “That began … with President Obama declaring … he was going to pull all forces out.”
“These were U.S. decisions not forced by a collapsing economy, not forced by demonstrators in the street,” he said. “Our leadership just decided we didn’t want to do it any more. And that started the alarm bells ringing … in the Gulf.”
Jim Steinberg, a deputy secretary of state under Obama, said the war raised deep questions about Washington’s willingness to act unilaterally and its steadfastness as a partner.
“The net result … has been bad for U.S. leverage, bad for U.S. influence, bad for our ability to partner with countries in the region,” he said.
A debate still rages among former officials over Obama’s decision to withdraw, tracking a timeline laid out by the Bush administration and reflecting a U.S. inability to secure immunities for U.S. troops backed by the Iraqi parliament.
Bolton’s belief that removing Saddam was worth the eventual cost is not held by many current and former officials.
Asked the first word that came to mind about the invasion and its aftermath, Armitage replied “FUBAR,” a military acronym which, politely, stands for “Fouled up beyond all recognition.”
“Disaster,” said Larry Wilkerson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff.
“Unnecessary,” said Steinberg.
(This story has been refiled to fix the spelling of former U.S. President Barack Obama’s name in paragraph 5)
(Reporting By Arshad Mohammed and Jonathan Landay; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by William Maclean)
Sargassum, a naturally occurring type of macroalgae, has grown at an alarming rate this winter. The belt stretches across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to Florida and the Yucatan Peninsula and is as much as 200 to 300 miles wide.
“This year could be the biggest year yet,” even bigger than previous growths, said Brian Lapointe, an algae specialist and research professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.
The belt is already beginning to wash up in the Florida Keys and Barbados and elsewhere in the region, but researchers don’t know where the bulk of it could wind up.
The monstrous seaweed bloom is just one more example of a growing global invasion of macro and microscopic algal blooms thriving on an increasing supply of nutrients such as nitrogen in freshwater and marine ecosystems.
What is causing the algal blooms?
In addition to the unsightly piles of sargassum along the coast, some species produce toxins that affect the food chain or deplete the oxygen in the water when they start to decay, causing fish kills and the die-off of other marine species.
Key quote: “These nutrients are the common thread that ties all the algal blooms together,” whether it’s sargassum, red tide, or blue green algae, Lapointe said. It’s also linked to the “brown tide” bloom in Florida’s Indian River Lagoon that has been blamed for killing thousands of acres of seagrass, leading to the starving deaths of hundreds of manatees.
Yes. Christopher Columbus wrote about floating mats of it in the Atlantic Ocean.
“It’s not a bad thing to have the sargassum in the ocean,” said Brian Barnes, an assistant research professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Sea turtle hatchlings swim from Florida beaches to the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic, where they spend their early lives floating and foraging in the grass.
“If it all stays offshore, we wouldn’t really have a problem,” Barnes said. But the macroalgae has mushroomed in size over the past 12 years or so, which makes it more likely to see large piles of seaweed that make it difficult to walk, sit or play on beaches.
The trend was first documented on satellite in 2011.
In some cases, there’s so much seaweed that local governments must use heavy equipment and dump trucks to haul it away, LaPointe said.
He has linked the surge in sargassum to flow from the Mississippi River, extreme flooding in the Amazon basin, and the mouth of the Congo, where upwelling and vertical mixing of the ocean can bring up nutrients that feed the blooms. He said deforestation and burning also may contribute.
Phytoplankton blooms increasing in size and frequency
Blooms of much smaller algae – a microscopic species known as phytoplankton – increased in size and frequency around the world from 2003 to 2020, the researchers concluded in the Nature study.
“We’ve seen something pretty similar in a lot of the things we study,” Barnes said. “We’re seeing such massive blooms now.”
The coastal phytoplankton study, by Lian Feng at the Southern University of Science and Technology in China and other researchers, used images from NASA’s Aqua satellite. They found:
Blooms affected more than 8% of the global ocean area in 2020, a 13.2% increase from 2003.
Bloom frequency increased globally at a rate of nearly 60%.
Europe and North America had the largest bloom areas.
Africa and South America saw the most frequent blooms, more than 6.3 a year.
Australia had the lowest frequency and smallest affected area.
Is climate change affecting algae blooms?
Blooms have been at least indirectly linked to climate change in several ways, but especially to the warming temperatures that bring more extreme rainfall that washes silt and pollutants into waterways.
The authors of the coastal phytoplankton study, Lapointe and other researchers have found:
A correlation in some regions between changes in sea surface temperatures and ocean circulation.
Warmer temperatures coincided with blooms in high latitude regions such as Alaska and the Baltic Sea.
Climate change can affect ocean circulation and the movement of nutrients that feed phytoplankton blooms.
Global climate events, such as El Nino, also show connections to bloom frequency and movement.
Algal-bloom-favorable seasons in temperate seas have increased with warmer temperatures.
Where will the sargassum pile up this year?
“We can’t really say which particular beach at which particular time,” Barnes said. The university publishes a regular update on the status of the bloom.
“We can get an idea of when it will be fairly close,” he said. “In general, everything flows west. It will come across the Central Atlantic and into the Caribbean, and into the Gulf of Mexico through the straits of Florida.”
Winds, currents and even small storms can influence where the sargassum moves.
Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands could get hit hard, Barnes said. But the floating mats also wind up on beaches in Jamaica and all around the coast of Florida.
Texas Lawmakers Have a New Scheme to Punish Renewables and Prop Up Fossil Fuels
Molly Taft – March 14, 2023
Texas Republicans are at it again. Last week, Republican politicians in the state legislature introduced a package of bills intended to punish renewable energy and boost fossil fuels, despite the fact that Texas is currently one of the nation’s top generators of renewable power.
On Thursday, Texas state senators Charles Schwertner and Phil King introduced nine bills that they said would help solve issues with Texas’s beleaguered power grid. According to the Dallas Morning News, the bills include one that would create up to 10,000 megawatts of natural gas-fueled generation; one to smooth out what Schwertner said were pro-wind and solar “market distortions” that federal tax breaks create; one to get rid of any remaining state tax credits for renewables; and one that would limit new renewable energy facilities being built based on how much natural gas facilities are also being built, in an attempt to keep natural gas competitive.
As the Dallas Morning News reported, Texas leadership are all for these types of measures. Earlier this month, Governor Greg Abbott said he would not allow wind and solar companies to get corporate tax breaks under a new state program. Meanwhile, last week Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick praised the bills at the press conference, saying in a release that they will “fix the Texas power grid once and for all.” Patrick said that he has designated two of the bills—the one to create the new natural gas generation and one dealing with the “market distortions”—as part of his hand-picked suite of 30 priority bills that he would be pushing during this legislative session.
What’s truly wild about this set of possible laws is just how well renewable energy is doing in Texas. Last year, the state was the number one producer of wind energy in the country and the number two producer of solar. The International Energy Agency predicted last year that renewables’ work on the grid could grow even more in 2023, pushing natural gas use down.
“These bills will subsidize those dirty energy sources at a big cost to consumers and the environment,” Luke Metzger, executive director at Environment Texas, told Earther in an email. “Folks at the Texas Legislature used to speak of the importance of not picking winners and losers in the energy marketplace. Well, that’s exactly what these bills do. The state of Texas is dispensing with the free market to subsidize polluting power plants and discriminating against wind and solar energy.”
The Texas power grid’s issues are a hell of a lot more complex than ‘renewables bad, fossil fuels good.’ It’s going to take more uncomfortable reforms to iron out what actually is going to work for the state, but we can count on Republicans to take any opportunity to use renewable energy as a political punching bag.
Las Vegas water agency seeks power to limit residential use
Gabe Stern – March 13, 2023
CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Ornamental lawns are banned in Las Vegas, the size of new swimming pools is capped and much of the water used in homes is sent down a wash to be recycled, but Nevada is looking at another significant step to ensure the water supply for one of the driest major metropolitan areas in the U.S.
State lawmakers on Monday are scheduled to discuss granting the power to limit what comes out of residents’ taps to the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the agency managing the Colorado River supply to the city.
If lawmakers approve the bill, Nevada would be the first state to give a water agency permanent jurisdiction over the amount of residential use.
The sweeping omnibus bill is one of the most significant to go before lawmakers this year in Nevada, one of seven states that rely on the Colorado River. Deepening drought, climate change and demand have sunk key Colorado River reservoirs that depend on melting snow to their lowest levels on record.
“It’s a worst case scenario plan,” said the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Assemblyman Howard Watts of Las Vegas. “It makes sure that we prioritize the must-haves for a home. Your drinking water, your basic health and safety needs.”
The bill would give the water authority leeway to limit water usage in single-family homes to 160,000 gallons annually, incorporate homes with septic systems into the city’s sewer system and provide funding for the effort.
The average home uses about 130,000 gallons of water per year, meaning the largest water users would feel the pinch, according to the agency.
The authority hasn’t yet decided how it would implement or enforce the proposed limits, which would not automatically go into effect, spokesperson Bronson Mack said.
Water from the Colorado River largely is used for agriculture in other basin states: Arizona, California, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado.
Las Vegas relies on the Colorado River for 90% of its water supply. Already, Nevada has lost about 8% of that supply because of mandatory cuts implemented as the river dwindles further. Most residents haven’t felt the effects because Southern Nevada Water Authority recycles a majority of water used indoors and doesn’t use the full allocation.
Nevada lawmakers banned ornamental grass at office parks, in street medians and entrances to housing developments two years ago. This past summer, Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, capped the size of new swimming pools at single-family residential homes to about the size of a three-car garage.
A state edict carries greater weight than city ordinances and more force in messaging, said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, which monitors western water policy.
Watts said he is hopeful other municipalities that have been hesitant to clamp down on residential water use will follow suit as “good stewards of the river” with even deeper cuts to the Colorado River supply looming.
Snow that has inundated northern Nevada and parts of California serves as only a temporary reprieve from dry conditions. Some states in the Colorado River basin have gridlocked on how to cut water usage, with many of them looking toward agriculture to shoulder the burden.
Municipal water is a relatively small percentage of overall Colorado River use. As populations grow and climate change leaves future supplies uncertain, policymakers are paying close attention to all available options to manage water supplies.
Santa Fe, New Mexico, uses a tiered cost structure where rates rise sharply when residents reach 10,000 gallons during the summer months.
Scottsdale, Arizona, recently told residents in an community outside city limits that it no longer could provide a water source for them. Scottsdale argued action was required under a drought management plan to guarantee enough water for its own residents.
Elsewhere in metro Phoenix, water agencies aren’t currently discussing capping residential use, Sheri Trap of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association said in an email. But cities like Phoenix, Glendale and Tempe have said they will cut down on usage overall.
AP writer Susan Montoya Bryan contributed reporting from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Stern is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.
Confirmed: Global floods, droughts worsening with warming
Isabella O’Malley – March 13, 2023
The intensity of extreme drought and rainfall has “sharply” increased over the past 20 years, according to a study published Monday in the journal Nature Water. These aren’t merely tough weather events, they are leading to extremes such as crop failure, infrastructure damage, even humanitarian crises and conflict.
The big picture on water comes from data from a pair of satellites known as GRACE, or Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, that were used to measure changes in Earth’s water storage — the sum of all the water on and in the land, including groundwater, surface water, ice, and snow.
“It’s incredible that we can now monitor the pulse of continental water from outer space,” said Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at the University of California, Los Angeles who was not involved with the study.
“I have a feeling when future generations look back and try to determine when humanity really began understanding the planet as a whole, this will be one of the studies highlighted,” he said.
The researchers say the data confirms that both frequency and intensity of rainfall and droughts are increasing due to burning fossil fuels and other human activity that releases greenhouse gases.
“I was surprised to see how well correlated the global intensity was with global mean temperatures,” said Matthew Rodell, study author and deputy director of Earth sciences for hydrosphere, biosphere, and geophysics at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
The strong link between these climate extremes and rising global average temperatures means continued global warming will mean more drought and rainstorms that are worse by many measures — more frequent, more severe, longer and larger.
Researchers looked at 1,056 events from 2002-2021 using a novel algorithm that identifies where the land is much wetter or drier than normal.
That showed the most extreme rains keep happening in sub-Saharan Africa, at least through December 2021, the end of the data. The rainfall extremes also took place in central and eastern North America from 2018-2021, and Australia during 2011-2012.
The most intense droughts were a record-breaking one in northeastern South America from 2015-2016; an event in the Cerrado region of Brazil that began in 2019 and continues; and the ongoing drought in the American Southwest that has caused dangerously low water levels in two of the biggest U.S. reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell. Those remain low despite heavy rains this year.
Drought events outnumbered heavy rain events by 10%. Their geographic extents and how long they lasted were similar.
A warmer atmosphere increases the rate at which water evaporates during dry periods. It also holds more water vapor, which fuels heavy rainfall events.
The study noted that infrastructure like airports and sewage treatment plants that were designed to withstand once-in-a-100-year events are becoming more challenged as these extremes happen more often and with more intensity.
“Looking forward into the future, in terms of managing water resources and flood control, we should be anticipating that the wetter extremes will be wetter and the dry extremes will get drier,” said Richard Seager, a climate scientist at the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, who was not involved with the study.
Seager said it’s a mistake to assume that future wet and dry extremes can be managed the same as in the past because “everything’s going to get amplified on both ends of the dry-wet spectrum.”
According to the U.S. National Integrated Drought Information System, 20% of the annual economic losses from extreme weather events in the U.S. are from floods and droughts.
A drastic swing between extreme drought and unprecedented flooding, dubbed “weather whiplash,” is becoming common in some regions.
Water stress is expected to significantly affect poor, disenfranchised communities as well as ecosystems that have been underfunded and exploited.
For example, the United Nations has said that Somalia is experiencing its longest and most severe drought, an event that has caused the deaths of millions of livestock and widespread hunger. Venezuela, a country that has faced years of political and economic crises, resorted to nationwide power cuts during April 2016 as a result of the drought conditions affecting water levels of the Guri Dam.
As for solutions, using floodwaters to replenish depleted aquifers and improving the health of agricultural soil so it can absorb water better and store more carbon are just a few methods that could improve water resiliency in a warming world, the study says.
Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
California cancels salmon fishing season: “It’s devastating”
Emily Mae Czachor – March 13, 2023
Officials in California have issued a ban on salmon fishing anywhere along the state’s coast for the remainder of the season, as the state’s yearslong drought is still taking its toll on the once-abundant fish population.
In a recent announcement, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said salmon fisheries that were originally scheduled to open on April 1 would remain closed through May 15. The decision came as part of a broader effort, involving state agencies in Oregon as well as the National Marine Fisheries Service, to cancel ocean salmon fishing along much of the coast — from Cape Falcon, Oregon, to the U.S.-Mexico border.
For California, the ban aims to protect the Chinook species of salmon, which previously inhabited several of the state’s largest rivers and in recent years have been seen in dwindling numbers.
Thanks to multiple atmospheric river storms in California, rivers on land are roaring but the effects of years of drought are now being seen on the salmon population, CBS Bay Area reported. Last year, just 60,000 of the adult fish returned to the Sacramento River to spawn, officials said. This was a small fraction of the 196,000 fish expected there, and approached a record annual low for the area, according to the fish and wildlife department. Officials are also hoping that the fishing ban will prevent the Chinook population from decreasing further in the Klamath River, which is also threatened.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council has proposed additional policies to regulate salmon fishing off the coast of California through the spring of 2024, wildlife officials said. The proposals, which would ban commercial and ocean salmon sport fishing until April of next year, were approved by the council for public review at the end of last week.
This is the second time in history that California has canceled fishing season, CBS Bay Area reported, with the last ban taking place between 2008 and 2009 in response to another prolonged drought period.
“Fishery managers have determined that there simply aren’t enough salmon in the ocean right now to comfortably get a return of adult salmon to reproduce for 2023,” said John McManus, president of the Golden State Salmon Association, in comments to CBS Bay Area.
Jared Davis, who operates a charter boat for sport fishermen, told the station his entire summer has been wiped out.
“It’s devastating,” he told the station. “This is more than just an income issue for me. It’s an inability to do what I love. So, on a financial level and on a personal level, it’s devastating.”
Dwindling marine life populations prompted wildlife officials in Alaska to cancel the winter snow crab season in the Bering Sea near the end of last year. It was a first in the state’s history.
Giant blob of seaweed twice the width of US taking aim at Florida, scientists say
Bradford Betz – March 12, 2023
A giant seaweed bloom – so large it can be seen from outer space – may be headed towards Florida’s Gulf Coast.
The sargassum bloom, at around 5,000 miles wide, is twice the width of the United States and is believed to be the largest in history.
Drifting between the Atlantic coast of Africa and the Gulf of Mexico, the thick mat of algae can provide a habitat for marine life and absorb carbon dioxide.
However, the giant bloom can have disastrous consequences as it gets closer to the shore. Coral, for instance, can be deprived of sunlight. As the seaweed decomposes it can release hydrogen sulfide, negatively impact the air and water and causing respiratory problems for people in the surrounding area.
“What we’re seeing in the satellite imagery does not bode well for a clean beach year,” Brian LaPointe, a research professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute told NBC News.
Brian Barnes, an assistant research professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science, told the outlet that the sargassum can still threaten critical infrastructure if it remains in coast waters.
“[I]t can block intake valves for things like power plants or desalination plants. Marinas can get completely inundated and boats can’t navigate through,” Barnes said.
The impending seaweed comes as Floridians along the state’s southwest coast have complained about burning eyes and breathing problems. Dead fish have washed up on beaches. A beachside festival has been canceled, even though it wasn’t scheduled for another month.
Florida’s southwest coast experienced a flare-up of the toxic red tide algae this week, setting off concerns that it could continue to stick around for a while. The current bloom started in October.
Red tide, a toxic algae bloom that occurs naturally in the Gulf of Mexico, is worsened by the presence of nutrients such as nitrogen in the water. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission warns people to not swim in or around red tide waters over the possibility of skin irritation, rashes and burning and sore eyes. People with asthma or lung disease should avoid beaches affected by the toxic algae.
Red tide brings 3.5 tons of dead fish to Bradenton beaches. What to expect this weekend
Ryan Ballogg – March 10, 2023
Red tide’s presence remains strong this week on the Southwest Florida coast, including around Anna Maria Island and Manatee County.
On Tuesday, dead fish littered the waterline at Bradenton Beach, and frequent coughs could be heard from visitors who braved the sands.
The harmful algae bloom has persisted in area waters since fall, but it intensified in recent weeks with increased reports of respiratory irritation and dead fish from Pinellas County south to Monroe County.
Karenia brevis, the organism that causes red tide, was detected in 123 water samples along Florida’s west coast over the past week, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said in a mid-week update.
Eight of those samples were collected in Manatee County waters, where red tide levels ranged from low to high.
Medium levels of K. brevis were detected at five points on and around Anna Maria Island on Monday. At levels of medium and above, red tide is more likely to cause fish kills and breathing irritation.
Dead fish by the ton
County staff who clean beaches and waterways for red tide debris have seen a major increase in dead fish washing ashore over the past two weeks, according to Manatee County Parks operations manager Carmine DeMilio.
“It started getting intense,” said DeMilio, who leads the county’s red tide cleanup efforts.
The county began responding to the red tide bloom in November; between that time and mid-February, about a ton of dead fish were collected from area beaches.
Over the past two weeks alone, around 3.5 tons were collected, DeMilio estimates.
The county cleans beaches daily with beach rake tractors, and skimmer boats collect dead fish from the water.
“We start at 5 in the morning and go til around 11:30,” DeMilio said. “By that time, the beachgoers are on the beach and it’s hard to maneuver.”
DeMilio said a strong west wind began pushing more dead marine life ashore last weekend. The fallout has mostly been bait fish, he said, but some larger species like grouper and snook were mixed in.
“That was our battle — trying to keep the accumulation of fish coming to shore under control,” DeMilio said. “So when our visitors show up to our beaches, it’s clean and safe for them. That’s our goal daily.”
So far, DeMilio said this year’s bloom is mild compared to the extreme red tide that hit Southwest Florida in 2018. During the peak of that event, crews worked for 64 straight days to remove over 200 tons of dead fish.
“If we can handle that and we were successful with that, handling a smaller version is much easier,” DeMilio said. “It’s just like any maintenance that you do at your house. If you stay on it, it’s not going to accumulate.”
County staff said that conditions were beginning to improve on Wednesday as winds shifted.
Local red tide conditions
Tampa Bay area: Red tide conditions remained intense along Pinellas County’s shoreline this week, where medium and high concentrations were detected at multiple beaches from Honeymoon Island south to Mullet Key. Dead fish and respiratory irritation were reported along the coast.
Manatee County and Anna Maria Island: Medium levels of K. brevis were detected around Anna Maria Island in state water samples collected on Monday — an increase from last week. Dead fish and respiratory irritation were reported at all major public beaches.
Sarasota County: Along Sarasota County’s coast, red tide levels ranged from low to high this week, with the strongest concentrations around Longboat Key and Lido Key. Dead fish and respiratory irritation were reported at public beaches.
Southwest Florida: Red tide algae was also found at high levels offshore of Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties this week, as well as medium levels off of Monroe County.
Red tide forecast
University of South Florida’s short-term red tide forecast predicts that red tide’s presence on the coast will continue over the weekend. Very low to high levels are predicted for the entire coast line, including areas of intensity in Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties.
NOAA warns of a moderate to high risk of respiratory irritation over the next 36 hours in Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte, Lee and Collier. Chances increase when wind is blowing on or along the shore.
Red tide safety tips
The Florida Department of Health offers the following safety tips for when red tide is present:
Look for informational signage posted at most beaches.
Stay away from the water.
Do not swim in waters with dead fish.
Those with chronic respiratory problems should be especially cautious and stay away from these locations as red tide can affect your breathing.
Do not harvest or eat mollusk and shellfish or distressed or dead fish from these locations. If caught live and healthy, finfish are safe to eat as long as they are filleted and the guts are discarded. Rinse fillets with tap or bottled water.
Wash your skin and clothing with soap and fresh water if you have had recent contact with red tide.
Keep pets and livestock away and out of the water, sea foam and dead sea life. If your pet swims in waters with red tide, wash your pet as soon as possible.
Residents living in beach areas are advised to close windows and run the air conditioner, making sure that the A/C filter is maintained according to manufacturer’s specifications.
If outdoors near an affected location, residents may choose to wear masks, especially if onshore winds are blowing.
They bought their dream homes from the ‘King of Coconut Grove.’ They still can’t move in
Linda Robertson – March 12, 2023
Twelve new townhouses line a block of Coconut Avenue. Lushly landscaped, outfitted with high-end appliances and spacious closets, they’re in move-in condition. Yet the Coconut City Villas are empty, as empty as their backyard swimming pools and unsullied trash bins sitting in unoccupied driveways.
Instead of “For Sale” signs, house hunters see “No Trespassing” notices posted along the street and “Do Not Enter” decals stuck to the front doors, a curious contrast in Coconut Grove, one of the most hotly desired neighborhoods in the country, where housing prices have nearly doubled over the past three years.
The lack of residents can’t be explained by lack of demand. The 4,000-square-foot townhouses, originally priced from $1.2 million to $1.8 million, are under contract to buyers who put down as much as $500,000 starting as far back as 2018. They were told by developer Doug Cox their homes would be ready in 45 to 90 days, or at the latest six months.
They’ve been waiting ever since. Their plans have been perpetually postponed by Cox, owner of Drive Development, who has not closed a house sale in four years despite a booming market. His completion dates teased buyers as the houses beckoned. But their dreams of a dream home have gone bust.
They have been locked out and led into a dead end darkened by threats, lawsuits, non-disclosure agreements and unsavory lenders, buyers say.
The delays have turned buyers and their families into nomads — moving from one expensive rental to another, cramming in with relatives while living out of suitcases — draining their finances and testing their marriages. When they go past their houses they are tantalized by memories not made — cooking in the kitchen, playing in the pool, celebrating birthdays, hosting block parties.
“We’ve spent three Christmases in limbo,” said Alan Lombardi, who signed a contract three years ago with the assurance that he, his husband and their newborn twin daughters would move in by summer 2020. The twins are now age 3. “The developer has kept us hanging on his hook, ruining people’s lives by deceiving us with false promises, just like Bernie Madoff.”
Lombardi has asked the FBI to investigate Cox for running a Ponzi scheme.
The buyers can’t move in because Cox has failed to complete inspections and get certificates of occupancy from city of Miami building department officials, whose lack of oversight enabled Cox to ignore expired permits and a Stop Work order and avoid applying finishing touches on houses for years. The city, which has ceased responding to buyers’ calls and emails, says it can’t intervene in a private dispute.
The buyers got caught in the fallout from Miami’s COVID-driven housing gold rush. Some are transplants from New York, Chicago and California who were eager to sign purchase agreements for new homes that looked — outside and inside — like they were ready to sleep in, missing only a mirror, some paint, a fence. They want their plight to serve as a warning: Don’t make one-sided deals with developers.
Cox is deliberately stalling to frustrate them into canceling their contracts so he can flip each house for an additional $1 million or more, buyers allege. They feel trapped: As time passed, the market skyrocketed, and in 2023 they will never find comparable homes in the neighborhood for the price they planned to pay and the mortgage rate they had secured.
On Wednesday, Drive Realty listed 2986 Coconut Ave. for $2.495 million. Original sales price in July 2020 was $1.385 million, a difference of $1.11 million. One catch: It doesn’t have a certificate of occupancy so anyone who buys it can’t move in.
“Seems like a shell game,” said Andy Parrish, a longtime Miami developer who lives in Coconut Grove. “He’s put these people through hell by stonewalling them with excuses.”
One weary buyer confided in Parrish, cried on his shoulder.
“She said, ‘I can’t believe people lie to other people like this,’ ” Parrish said. “I told her, ‘Welcome to Miami! A sunny place for shady people.’ ”
Cox, 52, initially agreed to an interview with the Miami Herald, then changed his mind and asked for emailed questions. He didn’t respond to questions sent twice or attempts to talk to him over the past two weeks.
Nicole Pearl, 37, who is Cox’s business partner and mother of their three children, declined to talk to the Herald. Her law firm, Pearl & Associates, is the registered agent of companies connected to the properties, Florida corporate records show. She is a licensed real estate agent who lists homes for Drive Realty.
The Herald spoke to 16 buyers — many did not want their names published, fearing retaliation by Cox — and examined lawsuits, mortgages, purchase agreements, property records and Miami building department reports, which substantiated buyers’ chorus of complaints.
No sales closed since 2019
Cox calls himself the “King of Coconut Grove.” His clients call him less flattering nicknames. What his gambit is no one can say for certain because he has not sold a home since August 2019 when he and Pearl closed on a Bridgeport Avenue townhouse for $1.15 million. Closing on the new homes should be a mutual goal but there are no signs of progress. He offers clients refunds of their deposits and says he’s got a line of backup buyers.
“It’s a strange way to run a real estate development company,” Lombardi said. “It’s really an anti-development company. Why doesn’t he want to deliver? How can he afford to operate?”
Cox has told buyers he wants to get them into their special houses, but he’s been delayed by factors beyond his control: the pandemic, supply-chain problems, manpower shortages, rising construction costs, subcontractor snafus and now bureaucratic red tape in the building department tangling his efforts to finish inspections.
Double contracts on homes
Is Cox playing musical chairs? At least three of the townhouses have double contracts on them. The legal descriptions correspond to 2955, 2960 and 2990 Coconut Ave.
Some buyers discovered through Miami-Dade Clerk of Court records that near the end of 2022 Cox signed a “memorandum of contract” on their houses with Chris Paciello, the former South Beach nightclub impresario, and his business partner, Mio Danilovic. Before he became famous for hosting parties at Liquid and dating Madonna, Sofia Vergara and Jennifer Lopez, Paciello was a Mafia henchman and thief in New York City.
Once Paciello’s past caught up with him in 2000, he became an FBI informant, pleaded guilty to racketeering and served six years in prison for robbing $300,000 from a New York bank and driving the getaway car in a home invasion during which a Staten Island housewife was shot in the face and killed.
Paciello, the owner of four Anatomy Fitness deluxe gyms in South Florida, has ventured into real estate investment since the pandemic and flipped houses for $9 million and $14 million in Miami Beach. It’s unclear how much of a deposit Paciello and Danilovic put down in their backup contract deal with Cox. Backup contracts are not illegal.
When contacted by the Herald, Paciello, 51, declined to comment.
In another complication that has alarmed buyers, Cox took out a $350,000 loan in December from DC Fund based in Sunny Isles Beach, whose associates include men who were sued for racketeering in an alleged loansharking scheme that disguised “criminally usurious loans” as cash advances that had to be repaid with 430 percent interest, according to a lawsuit filed in Brooklyn. Cox put up eight properties as collateral. If he defaults on the loan, he could lose them.
Buyers have observed Cox showing their houses to prospective buyers on multiple occasions. He says he is merely displaying his handiwork, and not offering those particular houses for sale. But contract holders have heard from acquaintances whose names are on a list of backup buyers Cox has compiled. One is upset he’s only No. 3 on the list.
If Cox is flipping the townhouses, for how much? Miami real estate agent Randi Connell, who identifies herself as a Drive Development sales associate, recently texted a prospective buyer about two off-market Coconut Avenue houses available for $2.7 million and $3 million, which is $1.5 million and $1.2 million more than the original sales prices.
Pearl listed 2986 Coconut Ave. for sale for $2.495 million on Wednesday morning. The house first went under contract for $1.385 million on July 8, 2020, to Jonathan Schonfeld and Aviva Auslander, with a completion date of Sept. 1, 2020, or at the latest, March 1, 2021. They waited two years. Disgusted, they gave up.
If Cox and Pearl land a buyer for 2986, they could collect at least a $500,000 deposit and “utilize” it as they please, according to two Send Enterprises contracts the Herald reviewed. Contrary to realty ethics rules, Pearl did not disclose in the listing that the house doesn’t have a certificate of occupancy, and its building permit expired Feb. 15.
“If the delays are indeed outside their control, how can they list a property if they don’t know when or if they can close?” Lombardi asked.
South Florida real estate lawyer Dennis Eisinger said home buyers can get “boxed in” by contracts that typically favor the developer and waive buyers’ rights.
“It appears this developer is bullying the buyers to get the financial advantage,” he said. “We saw this situation before the recession in 2003-2006 when defiant and unscrupulous developers tried to get buyers to rescind contracts so they could resell at higher prices.”
Lawsuits, ‘worst decision of my life’
At least three buyers, including Schonfeld and Auslander, sued Send Enterprises, alleging fraud and breach of contract. The cases were assigned to mediation, as required in the contracts; buyers cannot seek a jury trial. They had to sign non-disclosure agreements. At least four others have taken Cox up on his offer to refund their deposits and walk away; they also signed NDAs.
Catherine and Andrew Prescott of Miami Beach signed a $1.82 million purchase agreement on May 25, 2021, and paid a $455,000 deposit for 2960 Coconut Ave. The contract stipulated a completion date of Aug. 1, 2021, and an “outside” closing date within six months.
The Prescotts sued Send Enterprises in January 2022 for its alleged failure to achieve specific performance of its obligations, fraudulent inducement, unfair trade practices, negligent misrepresentation and unjust enrichment.
In their lawsuit, which also named Cox, Schonfeld and Auslander asserted that Cox “repeatedly lied” about “fabricated dates.” The Prescotts said the developer made promises “without any intention of performing, or with the positive intention to not perform” to entice them to sign and pay a deposit. The cases went to mediation and everyone signed NDAs.
Three months after the Prescotts sued, a real estate agent who works with Cox offered the house for $2.4 million, about $600,000 more than the original sales price.
Other buyers are determined to stick it out. They can’t afford to hire a lawyer. They’re not ready to abandon the houses they’ve invested in, emotionally and financially. And they don’t want to let Cox win.
“If I could rewind time — this was the worst decision of my life,” said Kevin Ware, who owns an insurance brokerage firm. He moved his family from Chicago in March of 2021, walked through a Coconut Avenue townhouse that was weeks from completion and fell in love with it. They’ve lived in three rentals since. “We cannot let Doug keep scamming more people. We don’t want anyone else to get caught in this predicament. Buyer beware.”
Strung along by Cox, buyers acquired mortgages with 2 percent rates that have since tripled.
“It must be exhausting to be Doug Cox. He lives in 15-minute increments. Think of all the lies he has to keep track of,” Ware said. “We have paid a high price for dealing with him. From the sheer expense of living in short-term housing to the financial damage of losing our mortgage rate locks to the strain on our relationships and mental health, Doug has constantly and cruelly put his greed above our well-being.”
‘Cautionary tale for other home buyers’
For Lombardi and his family, it’s been a three-year ordeal, first sharing his mother’s small Hollywood condo with his partner and infant twins, now in a $5,000-per-month Midtown apartment.
“We thought it would be a three-month wait because the house was 80 percent done, so we sold our Brickell condo, put everything, including baby equipment, in a sealed storage pod, packed four suitcases and moved in with my mom — for two years,” said Lombardi, a real estate agent.
The twins never had the nursery Lombardi envisioned.
One buyer described himself and his wife as “40-year-old couch surfers.” They’ve lived in seven different places.
New York transplants Michael Coyne and his wife, Oksana, have 1-year-old twin daughters and a 3-year-old son, and expected to share 2978 Coconut Ave. with her parents, who fled Ukraine after Russia attacked. Among the six places they have lived since their closing date evaporated was a one-bedroom apartment.
Coyne said they moved to a rental in Rhode Island to wait it out because they couldn’t afford “insane” rents in Miami. Fueled by inflation that’s made housing unaffordable for many and the influx of remote workers and newcomers moving to a no-income tax state, Miami has become the most competitive rental market in the country with prices 76 percent higher than the national median, a Zillow study showed.
Coyne, an investment banker, wanted to open an office with two of his business associates in Miami but he’s told them not to come. Oksana, a registered nurse, was scheduled to do her clinical work to become a nurse practitioner; she’s postponed her career plans. The chaos has been difficult for the children and Oksana’s Ukrainian parents, who speak limited English.
“Doug and Nicole either lie to you or ignore you,” Coyne said. “You work really hard for your family to buy the most important asset of your life and you get caught in a calculated, malicious, exploitative scheme by a flimflam developer.
“I’m not letting him get away with it. Let this be a cautionary tale for other homebuyers.”
One family has suffered the longest. They chose a four-bedroom model four and a half years ago so their 12-year-old daughter would have her own room and so her grandmother, recovering from cancer, could live with them. Now, the daughter is a high school senior heading to college in the fall. The grandmother never got to move in with her family.
City of Miami should be ‘embarrassed’
Cox brags about his chummy connections to the city’s building department and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez.
Cox’s customers recount the exact same comments he’s made to all of them — that he can remove any obstacle by “having a cafecito” with officials. Drive Development contributed $50,000 to Suarez’s re-election campaign in 2020 and $100,000 to Suarez’s 2018 initiative to create a strong mayor position (voters rejected it), campaign finance records show.
Buyers who have sought relief from the city have gotten nowhere: Emails, phone calls and meetings have prompted no corrective action.
Buyers acknowledge they signed contracts that gave lots of leeway to the developer but decided to sign because they were shown nearly completed houses by a persuasive seller who had previously built fine houses. What could go wrong?
The Herald asked to speak to three City of Miami building department officials about inspection delays and an audit of Drive Development plans. The city’s reply: “The Building Department takes this matter seriously and is tasked with enforcement of the building code and other technical standards, as well as City ordinances. The Building Department has no authority over the pace of construction, nor any contractual matters between the buyers and the developer.”
The city does have authority over permitting and inspections, but wouldn’t explain why it has taken years for Cox to receive city approvals and certificates of occupancy. Nor would officials answer questions about penalties for permit violations or prolonging the inspection process.
“The city should be embarrassed,” Lombardi said.
When the Coynes asked Pearl for an update three weeks ago, she told them inspectors can’t work during an audit. The city said that’s not true; inspectors are allowed to carry on.
Developers like Cox can hire “private providers” to conduct inspections and submit the results to the city. Cox hired MEP Consulting Engineers of Coral Gables. He’s told buyers he blames MEP for bungling reports. MEP blames Cox for not giving inspectors the information they need to finish the job.
MEP President Katrina Meneses said that the city’s audit is done and in the hands of Cox.
“What we’re waiting on is paperwork from the owner, our client,” she said. “We love to finish projects so we can move on to the next one. Anything that takes over a year, it’s difficult to continue and slows us down. Yes, if I was a customer, I’d feel upset.”
The city is notorious for its lack of transparency and accountability, said Parrish, the Miami developer who lives in the Grove.
“We’re in a pro-development city, county and state where everything is driven by developers and their money. Florida is a creation of developers,” he said. “Developers control elections, elections control politicians and politicians control building and zoning. The city of Miami is one of the worst examples of how the gravy train works. It’s an absolute mess.”
Buyers have asked for help from the city, ex-Miami commissioner Ken Russell, Mayor Suarez, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation and the FBI. The response: If Cox isn’t doing anything illegal, we can’t get involved.
Ware’s experiences illustrate the relationship between Cox and the city.
Cox was allowed to work through a Stop Work order for more than a year. The city issued the order because Cox failed to submit plans for the five three-story townhouses he was building on Coconut Avenue; he only submitted plans for the two-story units. His reason: Plans were proprietary and he didn’t want his design stolen.
Ware discovered there was a Stop Work order and expired permit on his house when he checked the city website iBuild in summer 2021.
According to Ware, Cox told him not to worry, the order wasn’t being enforced and he’d have a cafecito with officials to smooth things over. Five months later, after repeated requests for an update, Cox told Ware he had submitted a substantial number of reports to the city after giving MEP engineers a $50,000 bonus each to expedite inspections, and promised Ware “we’re almost there.”
A month later, Ware met with city inspector Perla Mutter. She told him Cox had submitted nothing, and that because of the expired permit, nothing could be submitted until Cox and his contractor Eric Myers met with the building department.
A month after that, on April 26, 2022, Ware went to the meeting at city offices expecting to talk to Cox, Myers and Miami building department assistant director Luis Torres. But Cox met with Torres privately first. And there was no sign of Myers.
“Doug comes out of the office and admits he met with Torres early so that, ‘Everything would be taken care of,’ ” Ware said. ”The following week Doug paid a $100 fine and reopened his permit.
“The city can try to cleanse its hands but it is enabling this developer to abuse the system,’’ Ware said.
The permits for 2984 and 2986 Coconut Ave. expired last month. Cox must sign onto iBuild and pay $100 to re-activate the permits for six months. It’s part of a years-long pattern: His permits expire, he reactivates them months later, then doesn’t enter documentation in time for the city to complete reviews before they expire again, records show.
Permits for the other townhouses on Coconut Avenue are scheduled to expire March 12, April 30 and July 4. Buyers check iBuild and see a vicious cycle: Submit, Pending, Review, Deny, repeat.
To fix the slow and complicated permitting process that has stranded buyers, they advocate new laws with strict 120-day deadlines for the review and approval of applications and harsh penalties for breaking them.
There’s a cost to the city as well. Cox has been paying property taxes of $10,000 per lot, or $60,000 per year on the Coconut Avenue townhouses. Homeowners would pay about $20,000 per unit, or a total of $240,000 per year.
‘House of Rumors’
Then there’s the seven-year saga of 4010 Park Ave.
The two-story South Grove house still has plywood for a front door and a Porta Potty in the front yard.
On realtor.com, it’s listed as a 5-bedroom, 6-bathroom home “active with contract” for $2.95 million.
In 2019, Steven Salm bought the home for $2.55 million. He sued Send Enterprises in November 2020; the lawsuit went to mediation and NDAs were signed. The house was re-listed in February 2021 for $2.95 million.
Marcos Junges has lived next door for 27 years. He said the building of 4010 Park began back in 2016.
“Goes in fits and starts, with long hiatus periods,” he said.
He and his neighbors — who paused to chat during one of their evening walks — call it the “House of Rumors.” They’ve heard it’s been under contract for five years with a succession of buyers. Junges said Cox bought the modest house that used to be there from his elderly neighbor’s family when she died.
At 2050 Secoffee St., majestic oak trees shade a vacant lot. Secoffee is a quintessential Grove street in the rapidly transforming North Grove, where developers capitalize on the neighborhood’s expansive lots by tearing down old houses and the jungle that surrounds them and building new ones with much larger footprints. Price-per-square-foot in the Grove’s 33133 ZIP code rose to a record $874 last year.
Drive Development’s website shows a gorgeous rendering of a 5,302-square-foot house with atrium, listed for $4.85 million in July 2021, then removed in January 2022. A description currently on movoto.com includes three different wishful details: Under construction! Expected completion Q3 2022 and Year built 2021.
No ground has been broken.
Cox tells buyers he’s finishing his own dream townhouse at 3167 Shipping Ave. in central Coconut Grove. The adjacent one is under contract with a buyer from New York City who is growing more impatient. Both look ready for move in. Around the corner on Gifford Lane, a buyer from southern California awaits a townhouse that was supposed to be done in November. Other than grass growing, nothing’s happening on the lot.
Cox’s companies have taken out at least $59 million in loans, for which he put up 20 properties as collateral, according to public records.
But it’s his most recent loan that has buyers concerned about the fate of their houses. Cox borrowed $350,000 from DC Fund on Dec. 30, 2022, soon after three buyers decided to cancel and get their deposits back. Around the same time, Pearl signed the double contracts with Paciello and Danilovic. And now Cox and Pearl have listed a house for which they could pocket $500,000 or more in deposit money.
Cox put up eight properties as collateral on the DC Fund loan. If he defaults, lenders get first dibs.
DC Fund’s registered agent is Ariel Peretz, principal of Diverse Capital, a lender that advertises “we say yes when others say no” and urges customers to get in touch “if you’re in search of desperately-needed money.”
Peretz and DC Fund members run firms in the merchant cash advance business, mostly based in Brooklyn, which attempt to skirt state usury laws by saying they are not lending quick money at exorbitant rates but are buying the future earnings of their borrowers.
Peretz and DC Fund associates Yoel Getter and Jonathan Allayev and their companies were sued in 2021 by a Texas businessman who accused them of collaborating in a “criminal enterprise that profits by making and collecting on illegal loans.”
The businessman took out a $150,000 loan for which he agreed to repay $224,850 at 215 percent interest via $3,748 daily debits from his bank account. Two weeks later, the businessman borrowed $350,000 — in part to repay the first one — at 430 percent interest, for which he owed $524,650 via $17,488 daily debits.
The businessman dropped the case.
Peretz didn’t return messages left by the Herald.
“We are very worried,” Coyne said. “If Doug gets in trouble with these high-risk loans and debts, we may be left with nothing.”
Cox boasts to buyers that he and Pearl are independently wealthy with $70 million in savings, but if his cash flow has dried up, they fear he can’t pay off mortgages, can’t obtain the clean title necessary to close and could declare bankruptcy.
“He may have thought, ‘I sold these too cheap and I can make more money if I resell,’ but that makes less sense every day because the market is cooling,” Parrish said. “Maybe he got in too deep and has problems paying lenders. He can’t close so he’s kicking the can down the road.”
The two sides of Doug Cox
Cox can be a charming salesman.
Or a belligerent bully.
Michael Coyne has seen both sides. But as a U.S. Army combat veteran, he is not intimidated.
“The last time I saw him he ran up to my car, leans in and says he’s hired a former CIA operative to tail me because my wife made disparaging comments on social media,” Coyne said. “Another time he told me, ‘Bring it!’ I deal with plenty of nasty lawyers on Wall Street and none of them have ever challenged me to a street fight.”
Lombardi has felt Cox’s wrath. Cox terminated Lombardi’s 3-year-old contract last month, accusing him of trespassing at his house at 2984 Coconut Ave. and making derogatory comments. Cox prohibits buyers from going on their properties and has installed surveillance cameras. But he allowed Lombardi to go inside last May with his family.
Eight months later, when Cox heard Lombardi called the FBI, Lombardi said, Cox canceled his contract. They are in mediation. Lombardi wants his deposit back, and believes Cox wants him out so he can list 2984 at a higher price and collect another $500,000 deposit.
Buyers are also wary of Cox because they’ve read a graphic police report from Sept. 6, 2020, when Cox and Pearl got into an argument.
Pearl, who describes Cox in the report as her “live-in boyfriend,” told police Cox began texting her with insulting names from the master bedroom where he was with their daughter as she put their 3-year-old son to bed in his room. Cox stormed in and hit her, choked her, pulled her hair and spit on her as their son watched, “terrified and screaming.” She wrote this description for police:
“He has a pattern of domestic violence and extreme childhood abuse and trauma which has left him with deep unresolved issues and anger problems. This has culminated into a cycle of violence with me since 2014. … He has repeatedly threatened that if I report it, it will destroy his life and in turn he will destroy mine and that of my family.”
Pearl also checked boxes asserting he has “threatened to conceal, kidnap or harm” their children and “intentionally injured or killed a family pet.”
Cox was charged with battery and domestic violence by strangulation and spent the night in jail, Miami-Dade Corrections records show. He was given a restraining order. Pearl dropped the charges.
Cox has perfected the art of evasion.
“I call it the Doug Cox two-step,” Coyne said.
When buyers are able to chase him down on the phone — he avoids putting anything in writing — he swears he’s pushing against the forces obstructing him. He wants them living in their dream homes as ardently as they do.
A vacant lot on Woodridge, a sweet little street in the South Grove next to Merrie Christmas Park and its towering banyan trees, has been overtaken by vegetation. As people in Miami clamor for more housing, this spot where a cottage once stood has grown wild. Vines climb the trees instead of children. The scraping racket of a bulldozer echoes down the block.
On this patch, owned by the King of Coconut Grove, all is still. The ripe land, taking revenge, has reclaimed itself.
Miami Herald Director of Research Monika Leal contributed to this report.