Marvin Thompson knew he faced a difficult task when he was hired last year as principal at John McDonogh High School in New Orleans.
"The day that I pulled up to this building, I thought it was condemned," Thompson says.
The structure, built in 1898, was sagging and leaky and missing entire window panes. Inside, students were underperforming academically.
And then, there were the rats. Thompson and his two children didn't even finish unpacking his office before they discovered that problem.
"They were in here 10 minutes, and I hear this big crash," he says. "My daughter ... is laying on the floor. My son is hiding behind the file cabinet laughing at her as I watch this big, giant rat crawl from that pipe up into the ceiling."
For a while, Thompson avoided his office. And then, when he couldn't do that anymore, he developed a system for at least avoiding the rat.
"Literally every morning, I would put my key in my door, knock on the door, just to let him know I'm about to come in because there were days where he'd be on my desk or wherever," Thompson says.
Dozens of rats were inside the school. And Thompson didn't know what to do about them — until the city showed up with a plan.
Small Fixes With Big Results
Claudia Riegel talks about rats a lot. She's director of the New Orleans Mosquito, Termite and Rodent Control Board, so pests are her job, and it's a job made harder after Hurricane Katrina.
Rats are a problem in any city. But post-Katrina New Orleans offered an especially friendly habitat for the hated rodents: piles of trash, blighted homes and fewer predators. The rat population spiked.
In 2007, her staff received almost 2,900 rodent complaints. That's more than seven calls a day.
The staff would bait the storm drains of an entire ZIP code, Riegel says, but it wasn't enough. So city officials decided to change their approach and jump on a hot industry trend called "integrated pest management."
In short: Forget the rats; fix the problems.
It's a more methodical approach to rat control. City officials aren't just baiting traps; they're attacking the problems that invite the rats — and they're winning.
"Vegetation management, sanitation, some building construction," Riegel says. "A lot of it is just minor: closing up holes, taking the trash out before the last person left for the day. And from 2006 to today ... it's been amazing."
Even as the population of New Orleans has increased, rodent complaints have fallen nearly 70 percent. So when Riegel's agency landed a federal grant last year, she used the money to apply the same proactive approach at John McDonogh High School.
"We wanted to show that if you can close and deal with the problems in this type of building, you can do it anywhere," she says.
'They Took Our Bait'
It didn't take long to identify, at least, where the rats were living.
They were behind a padlocked door, in a brick-walled refuge that once housed an old toilet. "And right behind that is the cafeteria," Thompson says. "So they had food and they had water. Claudia's folks figured this out."
The city removed the toilet last summer, so the rats' primary water source was gone. And before even thinking about poison or traps, Riegel's team came with caulk guns and plaster. The goal: seal the building — every crack, every hole.
"The technique of going out and just putting bait, and bait, and bait, and walking away wasn't working. And so we closed the envelope of the school," she says. "That started stressing out the animals. They took our bait. We did trapping. And all of a sudden, that school is rat-free."
Riegel's team is doing the same thing in city buildings and other schools. They've pushed for better trash cans in parks and public spaces.
Their work is hardly over, though, and Thompson still has his problems at John McDonogh. The school has a massive budget shortfall and declining enrollment.
But it's been months since Thompson has seen a rat. And recently, staffers decorated the front office with the school colors. They dressed it up it in a nice, fresh coat of green paint.
In Russia, organizers of the 2014 Winter Olympics have called on dozens of shaman to pray for snow. But the centerpiece of the Olympic snow strategy is man-made: a massive system that features more than 550 snowmaking machines.
Sochi, Russia, which is hosting the Olympics, is a resort town on the relatively warm Black Sea. There are beaches and palm trees. The Alpine events will be held on a mountain just 30 minutes away, where last February it was raining, not snowing.
But while snow is necessary for skiing and snowboarding, it doesn't necessarily have to fall from the sky, says Rick Kahl, editor of Ski Area Management magazine, a trade publication for resorts.
"The whole technology of snowmaking has reached a point where it's possible to hold an event like this at Sochi and not have to really worry too much about whether or not there's a lot of natural snow," Kahl says.
People first started trying to make snow commercially in the 1950s, by spraying cold water into cold air and hoping the water droplets would freeze on the way down. The snowmaking industry didn't really get going until the early 1970s — and even then it was still pretty hit and miss. It was a discovery in an unexpected place that kicked artificial snowmaking into high gear.
In 1975, Steve Lindow, a graduate student in plant pathology, was studying a bacteria that causes frost damage in plants. Lindow found that the bacteria gave the water a catalyst, something for the molecules to attach to and form ice crystals.
Now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Lindow demonstrates how this common bacteria helps ice form. He has a test tube with super-cooled water in it, but it doesn't turn to ice — until he drops in the bacteria. When added to the test tube, the water seems to magically form ice.
And it works every time, like something out of a Kurt Vonnegut novel, instantly turning the water to ice. For the purposes of snowmaking, adding the bacteria to water means snow can be made more efficiently and at relatively warmer — though still freezing — temperatures. And resorts all over the world started doing just that.
Still, snowmaking was an imprecise art.
Barrett Burghard, the director of snow services at Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe, has been making snow for 26 years.
"When I started, we'd go up on the hill with a thermometer and we'd go around on a truck or snowmobiles and see where it was cold enough to make snow," Burghard recalls.
Burghard chuckles when he thinks back on those early days, because now he oversees a state-of-the-art automated snowmaking system.
Each of his resort's latest, greatest fan guns monitors the temperature and humidity around it and can start up automatically when a snowmaking sweet spot strikes. No bacteria added here. The machines break the water up into droplets that become artificial snowflakes.
Burghard demonstrates how one of the fan guns works, firing it up with his smartphone. But when it comes time for the water to turn on, the snow machine refuses to cooperate because it's warm outside. The machine is too smart. So, Burghard walks up to do a manual override.
"You can see now the snow is blowing out of the gun out onto the run," he says. Then he concedes: "It would be snow if it wasn't 60 degrees."
Water rains down on the ground below in a fine mist. Machines like these dot the mountainside at Rosa Khutor in Russia, which will host many of the snow sports at the Winter Games.
"There is a significantly powerful snowmaking system there," says Joe VanderKelen, president of SMI Snowmakers in Midland, Mich.
SMI Snowmakers was one of the companies that built the Rosa Khutor snowmaking system from scratch, including two manmade lakes used to pump water. VanderKelen says the system constantly adjusts to weather conditions.
"If they do see a cold snap coming in, even if it's only for a few hours, they can go ahead and start more than 100 machines and get the pumping plant going all within, say, a matter of minutes," VanderKelen says.
And if all of that fails, Olympics organizers have stockpiled massive amounts snow from last winter, stored under insulated blankets and ready to spread on mountainsides like frosting.