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Development and Disasters — A Deadly Combination Well Beyond Houston

08 September, 2017
Andrew Revkin (ProPublica)

The consequences of Houston’s historic inundation, in deaths and dollars, are nowhere near fully tallied. Indeed, the economic costs will take months to calculate, and years to overcome.

The consequences of Houston’s historic inundation, in deaths and dollars, are nowhere near fully tallied. Indeed, the economic costs — which will include everything from thousands of ruined and uninsured homes to higher national gasoline prices to lost business activity in the country’s fourth-largest city — will take months to calculate, and years to overcome, said Kevin Simmons, an economist at Austin College focused on storm impacts. “In the Houston metro area alone, there is more than $325 billion in residential value at risk,” Simmons said in an interview. “Most damage to residential property will be flooding and if people don't have flood insurance they are on their own.” (Most don’t, in part because the floodwaters reached so far beyond established danger zones.) Add in damaged cars, commercial property, lost business and the damage outside of Houston, “The bottom line will likely exceed Katrina,” he said. Other economists surveyed by The New York Times earlier this week projected somewhat lower losses, but it is still early days.

While some aspects of Houston’s agony are likely anomalous, a similar set of risk factors threatens hundreds of communities from coast to coast and in between. The natural hazards and geography vary, but the dominant dynamic leading to unnatural disasters is the same everywhere: growth and development continue to put people and property at risk, from overdeveloped inland floodplains to fire-prone Western woodlands to crowding coastlines to homes and businesses built in America’s Tornado Alley. Some of the meteorological threats, like extreme downpours and heat waves, are sure to worsen in a human-heated climate, with warming from elevated levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases seen by many climate scientists as already contributing to the severity of rains like those over Texas in recent days and Louisiana last year.

“What gets lost in climate change debates is that society is changing, too”

But some scientists worry that squabbles over the evolving field of “attribution” science, parsing what portion of some storm is due to global warming, distract attention from the utter clarity around the role of on-the-ground decisions, or indecision, in worsening damage when bad weather strikes. “What gets lost in climate change debates is that society is changing, too,” said Stephen M. Strader, an assistant professor of geography and environment at Villanova University. Strader has done a series of analyses and visualizations with Walker S. Ashley, a geographer and atmospheric scientist at Northern Illinois University, showing vividly how development, over time, creates an “expanding bull’s-eye effect” that exacerbates losses even if a storm’s parameters are not changed. They have done such assessments for floods, fires, and tornadoes, and each holds the same lesson: hazards are natural, but disasters are unnatural. One of their studies, published in 2015, examined how population growth and development amplify exposure to tornadoes, using as their template the devastating tornado that struck Moore, Oklahoma, in 2013. That tornado was the third deadly twister to strike that unlucky community since 1999.

It took that third blow to prompt the municipality in 2014 to bolster its building codes, said Simmons, the Austin College professor, who has extensively studied tornado damage. With Paul Kovacs of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, Simmons studied whether the tougher code hurt Moore’s competitiveness with the neighboring community of Norman, Oklahoma. Their paper found that the slight added costs and complexities of having the tougher standard “had no effect on either home sales or price per square foot for new homes in Moore.” Norman still has no such building code, even though it is home to the federal National Severe Storms Laboratory — the leading center for tornado research.

Tornadoes, to be sure, remain an enigma. One 2016 study found signs of a relationship between clusters of tornadoes in violent outbreaks and climate change. But broader reviews have shown no clear relationship to global warming, with the frequency of the destructive categories of twisters in the U.S. unchanged or slightly declining since the 1950s, according to federal climate scientists. In regions prone to wildfire, the same dynamics and tensions are in play. A comprehensive 2015 federal report found that, as of 2010, the vulnerable “wildland-urban interface” of the lower 48 states includes about 44 million houses — one in every three houses in the country, with the highest concentrations of houses in California, Texas and Florida. The growth rate in these combustible zones is similar to that in Gulf Coast floodplains, even as climate change, invasive species and other factors boost fire risk. As the land management group Headwaters Economics has shown in detailed maps, there is a vast amount of developable land that, without new policies, will greatly expand a disaster’s bull’s-eye. But only 18 communities — out of thousands in fire-prone regions — have signed up with a planning assistance program for living with wildfire developed in 2015 by the group with several partners.

As for the dangers posed by rare, but inevitable, floods of the sort swamping Texas, they have been more discounted than other storm threats like wind, said J. Marshall Shepherd, director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia and a past president of the American Meteorological Society. This is the case even though flooding causes far more deaths and damage, Shepherd said. The discounting of flood risk in favor of development continues even after disasters, said Craig E. Colten, the Carl O. Sauer Professor of Geography at Louisiana State University. People have a discouragingly predictable tendency to forget a disaster’s lessons — sometimes within months of a cleanup. Colten has been studying the impact of heavy rain events across states abutting the Gulf of Mexico, but particularly the August 2016 deluge that damaged or wrecked some 60,000 homes in or around Baton Rouge and killed 13 people. He said that Houston’s flood is a chart-busting anomaly that will be studied for many years, but noted that rains approaching that scope — 48 inches accumulating over a few days — were within the realm of what is possible almost anywhere along the central Gulf Coast. More such disasters are inevitable.

“We’re still seeing municipalities resisting safe planning in the interest of economic development and a more robust tax base.”

For any big urban areas in regions prone to such rains, whether Houston with 4 million people or Baton Rouge with 300,000, he said: “If you have one of these exceptional rainfalls that become a new record, you really have to take that into account in development plans.” In practice, even around Baton Rouge, which was so devastated just a year ago, that’s not the case, he said. “Across the Gulf Coast in areas of low topography, we have completely built beyond what’s reasonable in terms of rain events of this scale,” Colten said. “We’re still seeing municipalities resisting safe planning in the interest of economic development and a more robust tax base.”

While several organizations around Baton Rouge are pursuing a “Rebuilding with Resilience” initiative, some local governments appear to be headed in the opposite direction, Colten said. “The remarkable thing here since the floods,” he said, “is that three parishes in the Baton Rouge area hit hardest have all backed off” on policies related to flood resilience. “Baton Rouge has already approved a couple of subdivisions in the footprint of flood from last year,” he said, adding that city officials also rejected making the most recent, and most severe, flooding event the threshold from which minimum elevations for various classes of buildings are calculated.

Frank Duke, the Baton Rouge planning director, disputed whether explosive suburban growth everywhere amplified the flood damage, according to an article on Nola.com last fall. In that article, one local mayor said if everyone had to build new homes and businesses to new standards of elevation the community would become a ghost town. Colten said he could sympathize, to a point. “The compulsion was to rebuild on site,” he said. “They want to rebuild their schools at the size they were. They didn’t want people to leave. But safety needs to at least be on a par with economic development.”

At the national scale, the tensions over balancing development, safety and environmental quality were on display earlier this month when President Donald Trump, in the name of accelerating infrastructure improvements, revoked a 2015 executive order from President Barack Obama establishing reviews of flood risks before the approval of federal funding for housing or other construction projects. The move was widely criticized as threatening the very infrastructure the president claimed to be trying to revive, including by the R Street Institute, an organization pursuing Reagan-era approaches to cutting disaster risk and preserving the environment. The most vocal group cheering Trump’s decision was the National Association of Home Builders, which had fought the Obama plan.

R.J. Lehmann, a senior fellow at R Street Institute, noted that when Harvey came ashore northeast of Corpus Christi, Texas, on Aug. 25, as a Category 4 hurricane, it first struck barrier islands that are part of a 273-million-acre zone established under the Coastal Barrier Resources Act, signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1982. That law, later expanded in 1990, forbade federal subsidies for new development in relatively undeveloped coastal regions along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and Great Lakes, including for roads, housing and discounted flood insurance. He said private interests could still build there but at their own risk. His organization has estimated the law has saved taxpayers more than $1 billion and is trying to expand it, as well as reform state laws in similar ways. “Where this storm made landfall, that area was protected and didn’t have federal subsidies,” he said. “That is a conservative approach to conservation.”

The challenges vary from region to region, with New York City facing risks from both coastal and rainfall-driven flooding, and having a much older and denser layout, said Daniel A. Zarrilli, who is the city's chief resilience officer and, no surprise, has been closely tracking Houston’s plight. New York City has been pursuing targeted purchases and acquisitions in some of the city’s most flood-prone spots, building on similar buyouts undertaken by the state. The purchases include the entire community of Oakwood Beach, a Staten Island coastal neighborhood submerged by Hurricane Sandy’s surge in October, 2012. For the city, impacts go beyond flooding. Other risks could be compounded by climate change, with projections of more heavy downpours in a warming climate increasing the odds of the city’s vital Catskills reservoirs being muddied more frequently — a condition that could require the construction of billions of dollars in filtration equipment that the city had avoided through environmental cleanups around the watersheds feeding into the system.

Zarrilli was on an advisory committee set up by the United States Global Change Research Program under Obama to improve the usefulness of federal climate change risks assessments as communities around the country confront emerging perils. The committee was disbanded on August 18 by the Trump administration. “The point was to help convert climate science into more actionable sustained policy support,” he said. “This wildly changing climate is making mincemeat of what we thought of as normal.”

BlogA New Climate for Peace
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Tags climate change; early warning & risk analysis; environment & migration; north america;

Topics

Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Co-Benefits

Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Development

Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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Energy

The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Finance

Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.

Forests

Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender

Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Security

Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.

Water

The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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Regions

Asia

The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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Europe

As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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