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With in-person and virtual options, annual summit makes radical return
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Sarah Rocker’s interest in social networks — especially systems that connect local food producers and markets — began about 14 years ago on a farm in the South Puget Sound region of Washington.

But in her keynote address at the Radically Rural summit Wednesday morning at the United Church of Christ in Keene, Rocker said her research since then applies to any sector and any part of the country. In her early work in Washington, Rocker said, she realized the key to engaging her local agricultural network lay in making real, human connections, which she characterized as “soft infrastructure.”

“I became aware of a different type of scaffolding that needed to be reconstructed, and that was in the form of knowledge and relationships and rapport and collaboration,” said Rocker, who now works as a researcher at Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development at Penn State. “Farmers needed to meet other farmers, chefs needed to meet other chefs — they all needed to meet each other.”

Julianna Dodson, director of Radically Rural — a joint project of the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship and The Keene Sentinel — said this year’s fourth annual summit provides valuable opportunities to build these sorts of relationships.

“These connections are important because, ultimately, soft infrastructure is like your connective tissue,” Dodson said. “You can have the whole skeleton, but if you don’t have the connective tissue to hold it all together, it falls apart. And this is so, so important that we don’t undervalue what connections bring us. They’re worth their weight in gold. It’s a commodity, and it’s extremely important as we come out of the pandemic that we maintain our soft infrastructure as much as possible.”

The Radically Rural summit, which continues today, offers both in-person and virtual attendance options, after the COVID-19 pandemic forced last year’s event to be held fully online. More than 400 people nationwide registered for this year’s event, according to Terrence Williams, The Sentinel’s president and chief operating officer. Throughout the two-day event, more than 70 speakers are presenting at five different locations in downtown Keene.

After Rocker’s keynote Wednesday morning, participants split into seven groups based on topics: arts and culture, clean energy, community journalism, entrepreneurship, land and community, Main Street and — new this year — health care.

Regardless of the specific focus, though, Rocker said in her address that building networks, especially in rural areas, starts with determining what common goals are shared by diverse groups of people and organizations.

“Networks, I believe, are most successful when they have a clear articulation of a shared goal or purpose,” Rocker said. “Naming the goal or purpose helps to catalyze and draw in those around you to participate in a meaningful way that is something bigger than just one’s day-to-day job responsibilities.”

The summit, she added, presents a platform for groups across the country to share their big ideas and seek solutions to shared problems.

“So as you consider that first question of your big purpose, you can use this opportunity at Radically Rural to share your big-tent idea, to meet others with similar goals and values and exchange resources that you have or you need,” Rocker said.

During a session in the entrepreneurship track Wednesday afternoon at the Hannah Grimes Center on Roxbury Street, six local business leaders discussed their visions for their companies as part of the Pitchfork Challenge. The competition, which grew out of a program at the Hannah Grimes Center that started in 2016, provides the winning business with $10,000 to assist with startup costs.

The six finalists for this year’s challenge were: Jack’s Crackers, a Keene-based handmade snack company; the Sullivan Country Store, which is set to reopen this fall under new ownership; Chesterfield-based EH&P, a zero-emission lawn-care company; Air Cleaners Inc., a Bristol company that makes portable air-filtration devices; Copper Cannon Distillery of West Chesterfield, which specializes in premium rum; and WayAround, a labeling system that uses a smartphone app to create “virtual sticky notes” for people with vision loss and whose chief operating officer lives in Temple.

The winner of the challenge, Jack’s Crackers, was announced at a networking event Tuesday evening at the Wyman Tavern on Main Street, one of several opportunities for attendees to mingle throughout the summit. Masks are required for all indoor Radically Rural events, as well as proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative coronavirus test within the past 72 hours.

And while the hybrid event differs from pre-pandemic iterations of the summit, Dodson, the director, said this year’s Radically Rural still provides opportunities for direct interactions, as well as making the programs accessible to a wider audience online.

“We absolutely want to preserve that energy and connection and kind of do-it-together spirit that comes from everyone being in person,” she said. “We also know that there are accessibility issues for folks getting here, whether it’s financial or physical or whatever it may be, so we love to be able to include everyone who wants to join.”

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Local Eversource workers helped Louisiana gets its power back
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Mark Christopherson was helping rebuild a power line along Route 308 in Raceland, La., earlier this month when the hydraulics on his Eversource truck’s boom lift broke.

Amid fields of sugarcane, the Keene resident radioed for a repair. The mechanic who showed up, more than 1,500 miles from the Eversource garage on Production Avenue in Keene: Jeff Freyenhagen of Hinsdale.

“They came right along within 10 minutes or so,” Christopherson, 57, said.

He and his colleague Brent Johnson of Ashburnham, Mass., were back to work in less than an hour, helping restore power to the community of 10,000.

The roadside reunion was anything but serendipitous: Christopherson, Johnson and Freyenhagen were among more than 200 workers whom Eversource dispatched to Louisiana last month to help that state recover from Hurricane Ida.

The Category 4 storm made landfall Aug. 29 and ripped through the Bayou State, causing at least 29 deaths there and an estimated $30 billion in damage on the Gulf Coast, before bringing heavy rain and flooding to the Northeast several days later.

Ida knocked out power in much of Louisiana, including the entire city of New Orleans, many of whose residents had evacuated before the storm hit. Approximately 15,000 people in the state remained without power as of Wednesday, according to the energy provider Entergy.

Electric utilities from across the country have scrambled in recent weeks to address those outages as part of the industry’s mutual assistance network, which helps restore power to grids heavily damaged in a natural disaster.

Eversource — the largest electric utility in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut — sent around 40 two-person repair crews, 30 support staff and more than 100 contracted crews to Louisiana on Aug. 30, according to spokeswoman Kaitlyn Woods.

Christopherson, who’s been with the company for 32 years, said he was on the restoration teams after several large storms hit Florida in 2004 and when Hurricane Ike pummeled Ohio four years later. His local work typically involves repairing power lines downed in a car crash or because a tree fell on them, he said.

Ida, however, snapped many of Raceland’s poles completely in half, requiring a full rebuild, according to Christopherson, who returned to Keene late last week. (The storm had sustained winds of 150 miles per hour, tied for the highest on record in Louisiana.)

“This looked like a tornado that hit everything, all around,” he said. “This was massive.”

Christopherson said he expected Eversource crews to be tapped for recovery work after seeing the storm’s strength. Driving to Louisiana, in the same yellow truck he operates locally, took four days.

Once there, he and other Eversource crews were responsible for erecting power lines in the Raceland area, often trailing behind other contractors who used a vacuum-like machine to clear holes along the road for the new poles.

Working at a disaster site requires more coordination than usual, according to Christopherson. Eversource crews are still bound by their own safety protocols but must also follow any rules set by the local utility — part of an effort to keep the power line from becoming energized while repairs are ongoing. (Among the hazards he said out-of-state workers were warned to look out for in Louisiana: alligators.)

“We do take a lot of measures to prevent [workers from being electrocuted], but where we’re not working with a home team, we all need to be on the same page,” he said. “It definitely is different for us.”

Entergy, which a group of Louisiana customers is now suing for allegedly neglecting its power-grid infrastructure, didn’t initially have enough materials for all the repairs, Christopherson said. He recalled using equipment stamped with a manufacturing date of just days earlier.

Despite the rapid deployment of people and materials, though, he said the mobile units where energy crews stayed in Louisiana were much better than some previous accommodations, including when he slept on a high-school floor. A U.S. Navy Construction Battalion veteran, Christopherson likened the hurricane-recovery efforts to a “military operation.”

Area residents, he said, were pleased to have the Eversource crews helping restore power and “surprised we came all the way from New Hampshire.” Many of those who’d opted to hunker down for Ida — including a man whose neighbors’ house was lifted off its foundation — told him they’d never ride out another hurricane at home.

The restoration work further illustrated how storms have become more frequent and more powerful, according to Christopherson, whose father, Dale, was an Eversource lineman in Keene for more than three decades.

Ida will require an even longer recovery than other recent storms, he said, noting that some people in Raceland still don’t have power. Eversource crews leaving the community recently were able to claim a tangible victory, though.

“We did see several streets come on the day we left,” he said. “We knew we were doing good the whole time we were down there, working towards the goal, but linemen love to see lights turn on.”

Older, at-risk Americans can receive Pfizer booster, FDA says

WASHINGTON — People over age 65 and those at high risk of severe COVID-19 can receive a booster dose of the Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech SE vaccine, the Food and Drug Administration said, opening a new and more controversial phase of the U.S. immunization campaign.

The emergency-use authorization also allows boosters for people 18 and older whose occupational exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus puts them at elevated risk of serious complications. Booster doses can be given any time at least six months after a person received their second shot, the FDA said in a statement.

Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock said the authorization would allow people such as teachers and day care staff, as well as health care and grocery workers, to get the third shot.

The authorization applies only to the Pfizer-BioNTech shot, the agency said.

The emergency clearance is line with a recommendation last week from FDA advisers but narrower than the full approval that Pfizer and its German partner had sought. It means that the Biden administration will have to move more slowly on its planned wider rollout of boosters proposed last month. Third doses were previously authorized for certain people with compromised immune systems.

“We believe boosters have an important role to play in addressing the continued threat of this disease, alongside efforts to increase global access and uptake among the unvaccinated,” Pfizer Chief Executive Officer Albert Bourla said in a statement. “Today’s FDA action is an important step in helping the most vulnerable among us remain protected from COVID-19.”

While less broad than some had hoped, the authorization leaves the door open for the FDA to consider broader use of boosters, including in younger adults, as more data on their safety and efficacy become available. And it assures that many of the older Americans who were first in line for the initial shots will be among the earliest to get additional protection.

A surge in virus infections caused by the delta variant has coincided with fears that vaccine potency will fade as the weather turns colder.

Scientists have been divided on the need for boosters. Real-world studies suggested that the efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine diminished somewhat this summer, especially in preventing mild breakthrough cases, though it is hard to distinguish waning immunity from the effects of the highly infectious delta variant.

But other data have suggested that the shot provides lasting protection against severe disease leading to hospitalization and death, and some researchers have said that boosters for most people could be put off for some time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is expected to meet Thursday to make its own recommendations about who should receive the additional dose.

The panel, made up of outside vaccine experts, met Wednesday for a general review of vaccine efficacy over time and booster-shot science.

Some members raised the question of whether people who had received a Moderna Inc. or Johnson & Johnson vaccine for their primary immunization should receive the Pfizer booster, or whether they should wait to match with a supplemental dose of the shot they first received.

FDA vaccine official Doran Fink told the panel Wednesday that the agency is “working as rapidly as possible” to review Moderna’s booster submission.

Since the FDA said Aug. 13 that people with weakened immune systems can receive a third shot, more than 2 million Americans have gotten one, according to CDC data.

Use of a third shot to protect vulnerable people was backed by recent evidence from other countries. An Israeli study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine can dramatically cut rates of COVID-related illness in people 60 and older.

Additionally, a Pfizer study suggested that the efficacy of its first two shots waned in a matter of months, and that booster doses are an effective way to combat the spread of the virus and new variants.

Some critics have said that booster shots should wait until immunizations are more widespread globally. World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has argued that uneven vaccine distribution will be the world’s biggest obstacle to ending the pandemic and recovering.

Prior to last week’s meeting of the vaccine advisory panel, top scientists and two FDA officials, in a review published in The Lancet, questioned the scientific support for a third shot, saying available doses would be better used to immunize the unvaccinated.

Report puts New Hampshire at 16th among states with deficient bridges

New Hampshire has the 16th-highest percentage of structurally deficient bridges among the 50 states, according to a recent report by 24/7 Wall St.

The website used data from the Federal Highway Administration to determine the condition of bridges in the various states. States were ranked on the share of total bridges classified as being in poor condition as of Dec. 31, 2020

According to the report, 215 of New Hampshire’s 2,514 bridges — or 8.6 percent — are in poor condition, a rate that’s the 16th highest in the nation.

While the state ranks high nationally, it’s in the middle of the pack among the New England states.

The state with by far the lowest percentage of bridges in poor condition is Vermont, where 2.3 percent of the bridges are rated poor, the 45th lowest rate in the country. Connecticut ranks 30th, at 5.7 percent. Massachusetts has the 12th highest percentage of poor bridges, at 9 percent. Maine ranks sixth, with 12.7 percent; Rhode Island ranks third, at 19 percent.

The state with the highest percentage of bridges in poor condition is West Virginia, where over one-fifth — 21.2 percent — are rated in poor shape. The state with the lowest percentage is Nevada, at 1.4 percent.

Of the 618,456 bridges in the U.S., 7.3 percent — 45,031 bridges — were classified in poor condition as of 2020. Another 294,992 bridges, 47.7 percent, were classified as fair and 278,433 bridges, 45.5 percent, as good, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Repair of deficient bridges is at the center of President Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure proposal, which also targets improvements to the nation’s roads, transit hubs, broadband networks and water systems.

The legislation is scheduled for a Sept. 27 vote in the U.S. House of Representatives, but there is some doubt about its fate.