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'The worst street in town': See which road will get a $3.5 million makeover

Jones Street in the Old Market is a mess.

It’s supposed to be a brick street. But in many spots, the century-old road has just as much asphalt and concrete patching as it does exposed brick.

Holes dig deep scars along the stretch from 11th to 13th Streets. It looks as bad as it rides.

With the holes, the patches and the bumpy brick, Jones Street has developed an ugly reputation that the City of Omaha plans to remedy with an old-style renovation.

Mayor Jean Stothert says people call it “the worst street in town.”

“I’d probably agree with that,” said Jim Douglas, senior vice president of Warren Distribution, which until two years ago operated a block away on Leavenworth Street.

“I don’t disagree,” said Ryan Kuehl, a broker at Investors Realty, who worked with the Fairmont Creamery building that runs along Jones Street.

Jones Street has a long, rugged history. It was laid out as part of Omaha’s earliest plat maps, and Omaha’s first house was reportedly built in the area.

The brick street itself dates to somewhere from 1890 to the early 1900s, said Jamie Winterstein, design project manager with the Omaha Public Works Department.

Now, the worst street in town is about to get fixed.

The City of Omaha will undertake a $3.5 million project in 2020 to restore the brick street, improve sidewalks and realign parking along the street — all in a way that fits with the Old Market.

The city says it will salvage as much of the existing bricks as possible but will need to supplement those because many are worn and unusable.

The concept has been in the works for years, and officials have been talking through the plans with area establishments and property owners.

Related sewer work already is underway in the area, cutting off Jones between 12th and 13th Streets. The city plans to start street construction in the spring, possibly expanding the work up 12th Street.

Despite its scars, Jones Street has seen some notable redevelopment and investment thanks to the pull of the Old Market, one of Omaha’s most popular tourist attractions.

The block between 11th and 12th Streets runs along one side of the Bemis Bag Building, which is home to the Boiler Room restaurant and the office of civic group Omaha by Design.

Across the street, the Kaneko arts and cultural gallery has established its presence, even building its own decorative granite sidewalk along Jones Street.

Along the 12th Street block, the Fairmont Creamery building has changed owners, and the food processing plant has left the building, opening up a redevelopment opportunity.

“We’re really happy we’re going to have a Jones Street roadway that’s reflective of the investment going on in that south Old Market area,” said Kevin Andersen, Stothert’s deputy chief of staff for economic development and development services.

But people also know the street and its problems.

Samuel Bertino, Kaneko’s individual gifts and community engagement manager, said when he talks with people around Omaha about Kaneko and its location, they’ll say, “Oh, your street’s terrible.”

“Always,” he said.

Bertino said the organization believes the street’s condition and terrible on-street parking affect attendance. It’s hard to be as accessible as the organization wants, he said, if people don’t want to drive down the street and street parking is awful.

Kuehl said that with industrial users keeping up activity and heavy truck traffic until recently, “there’s just never been a lot of pedestrian traffic.”

But now, he said, the street is going to change.

“It’s time for improvements to take place and for the Old Market to extend.”

Ex-Army colonel from Omaha who helped set up talks with Taliban still bullish on peace in Afghanistan

Last month, President Donald Trump pulled the plug on peace talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban, the hard-line Islamist faction that controlled the country when al-Qaida orchestrated the 9/11 terror attacks from Afghan soil in 2001.

You might think that would disturb Christopher Kolenda, a retired Army colonel from Omaha whose under-the-radar meetings with Taliban leaders two years ago kick-started the latest round of talks. He also represented the Pentagon in discussions with the Taliban between 2010 and 2013, which ended in failure.

Kolenda has fought the Taliban, too, commanding a cavalry squadron that won over rebel fighters in a pioneering “armed diplomacy” strategy more than a decade ago.

Today, the 1983 Creighton Prep graduate, now 54, lives in Milwaukee with his wife, Nicole. He works as a leadership consultant and serves as an adjunct senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security, a defense-oriented think tank.

He said he is disappointed but not surprised by last month’s setback, when Trump declared negotiations with the Taliban to be “dead” after the Taliban launched an attack that killed a U.S. soldier.

Though Kolenda was not involved at that point, he saw the breakdown coming.

“I grew very concerned about the trajectory of the talks and the lack of any effort to build confidence in the process,” Kolenda told The World-Herald last week. “The scar tissue for Afghans and for Americans is simply too high for a deal made in secret to have any prospect of being viewed favorably.”

Sher Jan Ahmadzai

Sher Jan Ahmadzai, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said the latest talks were doomed because they excluded the elected Afghan government.

“To many, these talks with the Taliban looked like surrender,” said Ahmadzai, who worked as an aide to Afghan President Hamid Karzai before coming to the United States as a student in 2006. “It’s giving a perception that Afghanistan is being abandoned again, and thrown to the wolves.”

Sher Jan Ahmadzai, left, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, worked as an aide to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, right, before coming to the U.S. as a student in 2006.

Kolenda, though, believes talks will resume eventually. This is a long struggle for Americans, and even longer for Afghans.

“There’ll be a next time, ” he said. “The question is, how do we get there?”

Exactly 18 years ago, on Oct. 7, 2001, the U.S. and the United Kingdom launched what the Pentagon called Operation Enduring Freedom after the Taliban government refused a U.S. ultimatum to turn Osama bin Laden over for trial.

The two countries launched airstrikes against Taliban and al-Qaida targets across the country. Soon, U.S. special forces joined Afghan rebels in a ground invasion.

The effort had widespread support in the United States, though a few critics at the time pointed to historical failures of the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and other powers in Afghanistan. They warned of a Vietnam-style “quagmire.”

In the early months of the war, the U.S. and the Afghan Northern Alliance drove al-Qaida into hiding and ultimately ousted the Taliban from power. The Afghans approved a new Constitution, created a new democratic government and elected Karzai as president.

The quagmire would come later.

The Taliban launched an insurgency to undermine the Afghan government and drive the U.S. and NATO out of the country just as the United States shifted troops and attention to Iraq. At the same time, Kolenda said, Karzai presided over a government that was feckless and corrupt.

“You had officials who were robbing the Afghan people,” he said.

In the years since, the Taliban has maintained its grip on parts of the country, even after the U.S. boosted its troop strength as high as 100,000 in 2010 and 2011. Currently, about 14,000 U.S. troops remain in the country, and about 17,000 from U.S. allies.

To date, about 2,300 American troops have died in Afghanistan, and nearly 25,000 have been wounded. More than 62,000 Afghan forces have been killed, and a similar number of Taliban fighters.

Still, neither side has gained an advantage. Kolenda describes the situation as a “strategic stalemate.”

“We’re no closer to a military solution than we were before,” he said.

It’s likely there won’t be a military solution. Ahmadzai said there’s really no choice but to negotiate, and get past the political posturing.

“There is no doubt that the Afghan issue requires some sort of political settlement,” he said.

In the past decade, few Americans have expended more effort than Kolenda in trying to achieve that.

After high school, he sought an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy, hoping the Army would teach him how to protect people who were vulnerable.

He was commissioned as an armor (tank) officer after graduating from West Point in 1987.

In the first decade and a half of his career, Kolenda made a mark as an academic, earning a master’s degree in history and teaching at West Point between tours with armored cavalry units. He also qualified as an elite Army Ranger, one of the branch’s top physical challenges.

He earned renown within the Army with the 2001 publication of “Leadership: The Warrior’s Art,” a collection of essays he edited on military leadership, including several he penned himself.

Kolenda took command of a combat cavalry squadron in Germany in 2005. He was training the unit for a deployment to Iraq in 2007 when, six weeks before they were due to leave, his soldiers were ordered to Afghanistan instead.

His unit was assigned to Kunar and Nuristan, two mountainous provinces near the Pakistan border.

At the time, the prevailing U.S. strategy in both Iraq and Afghanistan was called counterterrorism — essentially, seeking out and destroying enemy troops.

Winning the “hearts and minds” of the civilian population wasn’t high on anyone’s list. It reminded many within the Army of failures a generation earlier, in Vietnam.

But Kolenda thought that was shortsighted. The real U.S. battle with the Taliban, he thought, was for the support of the people. He developed a strategy of meeting with and befriending the local citizenry, called counterinsurgency.

“You had to see people on their own terms, not just through our own lenses,” Kolenda said. “If you treat everybody as guilty until proven innocent, you’re going to hurt innocent people, and turn a lot of them against you.”

Soon after, Gen. David Petraeus would champion counterinsurgency at the highest levels of the Army. But Kolenda said his approach was considered “heresy” in Afghanistan in 2007.

“We got a lot of pushback, especially from the higher-ups,” Kolenda said.

But it worked. He took the groundbreaking step of drinking tea with influential tribal elders who were close to insurgent military leaders in Kunar and Nuristan. Following months of patient discussions, rebel soldiers in the district switched sides to support the government.

“Our unit was the only one to get a large insurgent group to stop fighting,” Kolenda said.


Army Col. Christopher Kolenda answers California high school seniors’ questions from the Pentagon during a video conference in May 2009.

Kolenda’s work in Afghanistan drew attention at the top levels of the Pentagon and the State Department. He was tapped as an adviser by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, an Afghanistan war commander, and Michèle Flournoy, a senior Pentagon policymaker during the Obama administration.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates selected him to be the top Pentagon observer in those first talks with the Taliban in late 2010.

The talks looked promising for a time — so much so that Kolenda turned down a plum military command and retired from the Army in 2011 to continue with the negotiations.

“I made a career sacrifice to help bring this war to a close,” Kolenda said.

But the negotiations foundered in 2013 following a series of disputes, the last one over a Taliban flag and other symbols being flown at a newly opened Taliban political office in Qatar.

“Karzai gets upset. He essentially blows it up,” Kolenda said.

Kolenda returned to civilian life, moving to London to work on a Ph.D. at King’s College.

Then, in 2017, an Italian physicist who had contacts with the Taliban reached out to Robin Raphel, a retired U.S. ambassador, about restarting negotiations. She asked Kolenda to join her in some ground-laying meetings in Doha.

He said the Taliban’s viewpoint seemed to have changed. They were concerned about the threat from the Islamic State, and the possibility of an even bloodier civil war.

“I was struck by the level of seriousness,” Kolenda said. “They told us, ‘We’re worried about our country becoming another Syria.’ ”

For months, he and Raphel shuttled between Doha and Washington as unofficial emissaries.

“Our whole endeavor there was just to get some sort of official process going,” Kolenda said.

It worked.

Last year, Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, took over the talks on an official basis.

The broad areas of discussion included the withdrawal of U.S. forces, the cutting of ties by the Taliban with the remnants of al-Qaida, an accord with the Afghan state and a cease-fire.

Kolenda said his approach to negotiations is to move forward in baby steps, with small, confidence-building deals.

“It’s a slower process that builds confidence over time,” he said. “People will see that peace is possible. Then you are able to go much faster.”

The Trump administration instead took what Kolenda called a “big deal” approach, offering significant concessions — such as limiting the participation of the Afghan government, reducing U.S. forces by 5,400 and inviting Taliban leaders to Camp David — to get key players together, with the hope of sealing a blockbuster agreement.

It’s a high-risk, high-reward strategy, he said. Secrecy is essential, but it can also undermine the deal. That’s apparently what happened last month.

“The problem with the big-deal approach is that it has a very low track record,” Kolenda said. “The more it’s kept secret, the more people are suspicious.”

Kolenda still thinks talks with the Taliban are worthwhile.

“They’re making statements about the importance of human rights, and women’s rights,” Kolenda said. “They seem to be willing to operate in a different way, but they have to be tested. If they’re going to have any legitimacy, they have to.”

Ahmadzai, though, has little confidence that the Taliban has changed.

“Their response is wishy-washy,” he said. “The practice must match the talk.”

Some critics have decried the long Afghanistan conflict as a waste of lives and money.

But Kolenda and Ahmadzai say the 18 years of war have nonetheless brought about positive changes.

“It’s probably the most singular achievement: Al-Qaida is no longer present in Afghanistan,” Kolenda said. “Second are the contributions of Afghan women.”

Ahmadzai notes the country is better off economically, is better educated and has a lower mortality rate.

“We have accomplished a country where women can work, and where girls can go to school,” he said. “We have accomplished a country that is not a sanctuary to terror. We have accomplished an ally in the region, the only place friendly to the United States.”

But the struggle isn’t over yet.

“The Afghans need to take over,” Ahmadzai added. “There’s a lot of work still to be done.”

Photos from The World-Herald's visit to Afghanistan in 2011

Scientists use weather radar to devise detailed insect maps

As meteorologists are all too aware, not everything that shows up on their radar is related to weather. Sometimes, it's a flock of geese or a traffic jam. In other instances, the suspicious storm turns out to be a mass migration of grasshoppers, millions of mayflies hatching at once or an angry horde of flying ants.

While forecasters normally try to remove the bugs from their data, a group of meteorologists is now joining forces with insect researchers to study them. The collaboration, called BioDAR, has an ambitious goal: monitor levels of flying insect activity in near real-time across the entire United Kingdom. If things go well, they hope to scale this effort up to other countries.

By bringing the observational powers of modern meteorology to bear on bugs, the researchers hope to create a new pipeline of data that can inform basic science, pest management, and conservation efforts.

The idea for the project came about in December 2016, when University of Leeds insect ecologist Christopher Hassall and atmospheric scientist Ryan Neely were chatting at a gathering for academics from different disciplines.

"I work on bees, and Neely said, 'I see bees in my radar data all the time and we throw that data out,' " Hassall recalled.

Neely agreed that it would be better to put the buggy radar data to use than to ignore it.

Three years later, the two have amassed a dozen collaborators and partners at institutions around the world. They've received nearly a million dollars in funding from the Natural Environment Research Council in the U.K. to spend the next three years creating algorithms that use radar data to characterize and track insect populations.

With some additional seed funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the researchers are also partnering with the national weather agencies of Rwanda, Mali and South Africa to try to use local radar data to track crop pests.

In your typical radar setup, an antenna is used to shoot invisible microwave radiation through the air. As those microwaves strike particles, they bounce, causing echoes that are picked up by the radar. Those echoes reveal information on the number and size of the particles and their speed, which is fed through algorithms that tell forecasters what type of weather event they're looking at.

As Neely puts it, it's not such a giant leap to go from algorithms that classify rain, sleet and snow to ones that can characterize different types of insectoid blobs.

The work to achieve that is proceeding along several tracks at once. Insects come in many shapes and sizes, and to get a better handle on what all that diversity looks like on a radar display, Hassall's Ph.D. student Thomas Dally is conducting micro-CT scans of dozens of different specimens housed at the Natural History Museum in London.

"That allows us to create a 3D map of the exoskeleton of the insect, which we can then use to inform the algorithm they're using to train the radar systems," Dally said.

The researchers are also planning to catch bugs in the wild with the aid of a Helikite, a hybrid of a kite and a weather balloon. The kite, which will be launched from various locations across the U.K., flies about 3,000 feet off the ground on a long tether.

A series of nets affixed along the length of the tether will catch insects from dawn to dusk. By matching what the Helikite ensnares with local radar scans, the researchers will be able to double-check their classifications and learn more about the types of insects present at different heights.

It's also crucial to understand what radar will see if a big insect swarm emerges. This is why, in what has been dubbed the "biblical apocalypse" stage of the project next summer, researchers will release about 100,000 flies into the air, training their radar instruments on the horde as it's unleashed.

"This is the key test of the method," Hassall said. "It'll allow us to see what the radar sees when a large number of animals enter the air column."

Hassall assured that 100,000 flies is really just "a few shoeboxes" full, and that the environmental impacts of the bug drop are expected to be negligible.

Neely's team will be feeding all of this field data into algorithms that tell insect researchers what their radar scans mean. While they're not going to be able to identify bugs down to the species level, Freya Addison, a weather radar Ph.D. student working with Neely, will be using the size and shape of insect clusters to estimate the total biomass buzzing through the air — a vital and understudied aspect of insect ecology.

"The ultimate aim is a U.K. bug map, a weather map of insects," Hassall said.

The stretch goal? Handing off their algorithms to other countries to make that map global.

The researchers hope that such maps can assist in monitoring insect declines, which have been tied to the overuse of pesticides, climate change and more.

Manu Saunders, an insect ecologist at the University of New England in Armidale, Australia, cautioned that there's no silver bullet when it comes to understanding insect declines, and that there's only so much insect diversity we can monitor from the air. Saunders is not involved in the project.

"So, this method is mostly useful for detecting highflying insects that fly in large groups," Saunders said in an email. "It won't tell us anything about very small insects, solitary, ground-dwelling, subterranean, or flightless insects."

But Saunders did think the project had the potential to "contribute more knowledge of spatial and ecological aspects of insect migration," which could help researchers understand the value of these ecosystems.

Ultimately, the collaboration might even help forecasters sleuth out the weird shapes that pop up on their radar screens. Neely is crowd sourcing the weather community for examples of various insect clusters so that he can start building a catalog.

"We have a meteorologists' handbook for hail, snow and rain," he said. "Hopefully we can now say if radar ranges are this, this is definitely butterflies, ants or bees."

Perhaps, this will even allow the National Weather Service to issue bug warnings so that people can take cover before a grasshopper storm descends.

High court takes first big abortion case with Kavanaugh, Gorsuch

WASHINGTON— The Supreme Court announced Friday that it will hear its first major abortion case with Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch on the bench, and decide whether states may enforce far stricter regulations on doctors who perform abortions.

The case does not call for overturning Roe v. Wade. But the election-year ruling will signal whether the court's conservative majority is ready to give states more leeway to regulate abortion, even if doing so has the effect of shutting down all or most of the clinics that perform abortions.

At issue is a Louisiana law that allows the state to close down clinics if their doctors do not have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.

Three years ago, the high court struck down a similar Texas law that would have shut down most abortion clinics outside the major cities because their doctors did not have the required admitting privileges at a local hospital.

In a 5-3 decision in 2016, the justices said the Texas admitting-privileges rule did more harm than good and put an undue burden on women in rural parts of Texas because it had the effect of closing all abortion providers outside major cities.

But Justice Anthony Kennedy was in the majority then, joining liberals to maintain abortion rights. Upon his retirement last year, Kennedy was replaced by Kavanaugh, who is seen by many as a potential fifth key vote on the court to overturn or restrict the landmark Roe ruling.

To the surprise of abortion rights lawyers, a conservative appeals court in New Orleans upheld the Louisiana law last year even though it was nearly identical to the Texas law that was struck down. Abortion rights advocates said the Louisiana law, if put into effect, would leave the state with only one doctor who may perform abortions. They allege that most hospitals avoid controversy by refusing to grant admitting privileges to doctors who perform abortions.

But the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals said the law would not put an undue burden on many women, asserting that doctors probably could obtain admitting privileges if they persisted.

Lawyers for the Louisiana clinics filed an emergency appeal at the Supreme Court. And in February, the justices issued a temporary order on a 5-4 vote blocking the Louisiana law from taking effect. Chief Justice John Roberts cast his vote with four liberal justices, while the four conservatives dissented.

Throughout his career, Roberts has regularly opposed abortion rights but has not said whether he would overturn Roe v. Wade if given the opportunity.

Abortion rights advocates called on the court to uphold its precedents.

Jennifer Dalven, director of the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project, said that just three years ago, the high court "held that a virtually identical law served no medical purpose and was unconstitutional. If the rule of law means anything, it means that the court cannot sit by and watch as the lower court thumbs its nose at the Supreme Court precedent and at the people's constitutional rights."

Welcoming the court's announcement, Catherine Glenn Foster, president of the anti-abortion group Americans United for Life, said the justices should uphold "the common-sense Louisiana admitting privileges law" because it will "protect women from flyby-night and dangerous" abortion providers.

She noted that the court will also consider a key procedural question about whether a doctor has standing to challenge a medical requirement, or if only a patient may do so.

In Friday's brief order, the court said it will rule on this issue of "third-party standing." If the justices were to rule for the state on this issue, it could make it much harder for abortion rights advocates to quickly challenge state abortion bans in federal court.

The Louisiana case has the potential to recast the legal standard set for abortion by the court in 1992. Led by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the court said at that time that states may regulate abortion so long as they did not put an "undue burden" on women who seek an abortion before the third trimester of a pregnancy.

But ever since, judges and states have been sharply divided over what that means and which regulations are permissible.

Oral arguments in June Medical Services v. Gee are likely to be held next year, with a decision by June, just months before the presidential election.

In a different abortion-related case in May, the court in a brief order upheld an Indiana law that required abortion facilities to bury or cremate the remains of a fetus. At the same time, the justices turned down the state's appeal of a law that would have prohibited abortions based on the race, sex or potential disability of the fetus.

The court has also been asked to hear a separate dispute over a state abortion law in Indiana, but it has not agreed to hear that case. The Indiana law in question requires women seeking an abortion to undergo an ultrasound exam the day before the procedure.

Judges blocked the law from taking effect because they said it would require some women to make two trips across the state to have a legal abortion.