Archive for April 2011
Written by : BROCK VERGAKIS and EMERY P. DALESIO
The Associated Press
SANFORD, N.C. — Lowe’s store manager Michael Hollowell had heard the tornado warnings but his first clue that the danger was outside his front door came when he saw his staff running toward the back of the home improvement store.
More than 100 employees and customers screamed in near unison when the steel roof curled off overhead Saturday. The store was becoming part of the wreckage left by a ferocious storm system bristling with killer twisters that ripped through the South.
“You could hear all the steel ripping. People screaming in fear for their lives,” Hollowell told The Associated Press on Sunday.
Those in the store did not become part of the death toll that totaled at least 45 across six states, and officials said quick action by Hollowell and his employees helped them all make it out alive in Sanford, about 40 miles south of Raleigh.
In all of Lee County, where Sanford is located, officials said there was just one confirmed fatality during the storm, which claimed at least 21 lives statewide, damaged hundreds of homes and left a swath of destruction unmatched by any spring storm since the mid-1980s.
In Raleigh early today, authorities were blocking access to a mobile home park of about 200 homes where three children were killed. Officials planned to assess conditions after sunrise before deciding whether to allow residents to return home.
Power lines and trees still covered nearby roads. Where roads were clear, there were massive piles of debris that had been pushed to the side of the street.
Survivors were left to recall miraculous escapes.
In the Bladen County community of Ammon, about 70 miles south of Raleigh, Audrey McKoy and her husband Milton saw a tornado bearing down on them over the tops of the pine trees that surround the seven or eight mobile homes that make up their neighborhood. He glanced at a nearby farm and saw the winds lifting pigs and other animals in the sky.
“It looked just like ‘The Wizard of Oz,'” Audrey said.
They took shelter in their laundry room, and after emerging once the storm had passed, were disoriented for a moment. The twister had turned their mobile home around and they were standing in their backyard.
Milton found three bodies in their neighborhood, including 92-year-old Marchester Avery and his 50-year-old son, Tony, who died in adjacent mobile homes. He stopped his wife from coming over to see.
“You don’t want to look at this,” he told her.
The storms crushed trailer parks and brought life in the center of the state’s second-largest city to a virtual standstill. It was the worst outbreak in the state since 22 twisters in 1984 killed 42 people.
Gov. Beverly Perdue planned to tour hard-hit areas in three counties today. The devastation she saw Sunday left her near tears, she said. The storm pummeled bustling cities and remote rural communities. One of Perdue’s stops was downtown Raleigh, where fallen trees blocked major thoroughfares and damage to the Shaw University campus forced it to cancel the remainder of its spring semester.
Perdue said she’d been in contact with President Barack Obama, who pledged his support, and that federal emergency management workers were already on the ground.
“We have in North Carolina a tremendous relationship with our federal partners, and have been through this so many times,” she said. “That’s not a good thing. That’s a bad thing.”
One place Perdue was scheduled to visit was Bertie County, where storms were deadliest. At least 11 residents died, Bertie County Manager Zee Lamb said, including three members of the same family.
Jean Burkett lived near Roy and Barbara Lafferty and Barbara’s mother, Helen White, in Colerain. Burkett and Barbara Lafferty graduated from high school together in 1964 and had always been neighbors. On Sunday, at her relatively untouched home, Burkett pointed out a row of four or five about 400 yards away that had been demolished. The Laffertys and Helen White died in their home.
“The neighborhood has lost some mighty fine neighbors,” Burkett said. “It’s the worst thing we’ve ever seen.”
The violent weather began Thursday in Oklahoma, where two people died, before cutting across the Deep South on Friday and hitting North Carolina and Virginia on Saturday. Authorities said seven people died in Arkansas; seven in Alabama; seven in Virginia; and one in Mississippi.
More than 240 tornadoes were reported from the storm system, including 62 in North Carolina, but the National Weather Service’s final numbers could be lower because some tornadoes may have been reported more than once.
The state emergency management agency said it had reports of 23 fatalities from Saturday’s storms, but local officials confirmed only 21 deaths to The Associated Press.
The conditions that allowed for the storm occur on the Great Plains maybe twice a year, but they almost never happen in North Carolina, according to Scott Sharp, a weather service meteorologist in Raleigh.
The atmosphere was unstable Saturday, which allows air to rise and fall quickly, creating winds of hurricane strength or greater. There was also plenty of moisture in the air, which fuels violent storms. Shear winds at different heights, moving in different directions, created the spin needed to create tornadoes, Sharp said.
Many of the deaths across the state occurred in mobile homes like the ones in Ammon. The three deaths in Raleigh were in a mobile home park about five miles north of downtown, which was still closed off to residents early Monday.
Census data from 2007, the latest available, estimates 14.5 percent of residences in North Carolina are mobile homes, the seventh highest percentage in the nation and well over the U.S. average of 6.7 percent.
North Carolina officials tallied more than 130 serious injuries, 65 homes destroyed and another 600 significantly damaged by Sunday evening, according to state public safety spokeswoman Julia Jarema. Officials expect those totals to climb as damage assessments continue.
Back at the Lowe’s store, Joseph Rosser and his 13-year-old daughter, Hannah, had pulled their Chevrolet Colorado pickup off the road Saturday, seeking shelter. Instead, the store’s exterior concrete toppled, crushing the truck’s cab with both inside.
“I really didn’t see much because I had a pillow over my face to protect my head and I heard my dad tell me it was going to be OK,” Hannah said. “And then all of a sudden, I just heard a loud boom.
“My dad was lying there, telling me he was going to die,” said Hannah, her midsection wrapped in a back brace. “He sounded very hoarse like he couldn’t breathe. He was crying and was hurt really bad.”
She crawled out the truck’s shattered back window and ran around the parking lot calling for help, because her cell phone wouldn’t work. Both Rossers are recovering from their injuries.
While the death toll may climb and while it will be weeks before final damage assessments are completed, residents and officials alike are looking to make repairs and start building what was lost.
Aleta Tootle and four other people sheltered in a closet in her Bertie County home, emerging with only a few scratches after the rest of the building was ripped to shreds. Surveying the wreckage Sunday, she said there was only one thing left to do.
“All we can do is start over,” she said. “We don’t have a choice.”
Vergakis reported from Colerain. Associated Press writers Mitch Weiss in Ammon, Tom Breen, Mike Baker and Tom Foreman Jr. in Raleigh and Jeffrey S. Collins in Columbia, S.C. contributed to this report.
Written by : Mike Hasten
BATON ROUGE — For political science professors, the recently completed legislative session to draw new election lines presented the opportunity for students to see politics at its best and worst.
For public policy and good government advocates, it was an ordeal.
“Any way you look at it, the special session on redistricting was rancorous, contentious and downright ugly,” said Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana. “The sad thing is that no one really expected anything different.”
Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council, said the session provided plenty of evidence that a new system for drawing lines, possibly an independent panel, should be implemented to draw voting district lines.
“It was a naked display of political power,” said Pearson Cross, head of the Political Science Department at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “It was a snapshot of where we are today in Louisiana politics.
“We saw the Republican majority flexing its power, the Black Caucus showing its organized opposition and we saw the power of regional politics shaped by sweeping demographic changes,” Cross said. “Lastly, we saw the continuing power of Louisiana’s governor.
“It was a fantastic session for a political scientist,” he said. It also gave a great opportunity show his students how decisions are made because not much was concealed.
“We saw them arguing over plans, the bad blood between (Senate President Joel) Chaisson and (Speaker of the House Jim) Tucker and wondered whether Bobby Jindal would get involved,” Cross said.
“Somewhere in this was representing the people but it was pretty hard to find the people’s agenda amid all the party and personal ambition, partisanship and incumbency protection in the session,” he said. “The people’s agenda was pretty far down the list.”
When legislators did talk about how the plans affected people, “it was usually double-speak for ‘my base is being disabled,'” Cross said. “They were wearing a cloak of ambition and it was equally as covering as the emperor’s new clothes. You could see right through it.”
Written by: Bret H. McCormick
During the fourth and final budget meeting of the Alexandria City Council’s Finance Committee, Mayor Jacques M. Roy and council members sat at the same table on Wednesday to discuss the city’s proposed budget for 2011-12.
Roy was joined at the table by his budget director, David Johnson, and utilities director, Michael Marcotte. The three members of the administration discussed budget items with council members during a meeting that lasted more than three hours.
It wasn’t always smooth, but it was at times lighthearted and certainly productive for taxpayers to see the city’s top officials communicating in person.
Ed Larvadain III, Finance Committee chairman, said at one point that everyone will “be here all day” when Roy started addressing questions that had been asked by council members at the three previous meetings.
On several occasions, Larvadain said it would have been easier had the mayor attended the earlier meetings, prompting Roy to say he would leave the meeting if Larvadain continued.
There were a few testy exchanges between the mayor and District 2 Councilwoman Mitzi Gibson, but as the meeting progressed, the mood lightened. Roy addressed a number of questions and shared insight into how and why certain decisions were made in the proposed budget.
The mayor reiterated his priority list for re-funding the budget should additional money become available. He also de-emphasized repaying the Utility Fund transfers that helped balance the budget and instead said emphasis should be placed on overtime for public safety and public works employees.
Roy also stressed the importance of maintaining the city’s more than $12 million surplus, despite the 2011-12 budget requiring 32-hour furloughs for all of the city’s classified employees.
“It’s not raining as hard for Alexandria as it may rain next fiscal year,” Roy said.
Furloughs and increased health insurance premiums will pose challenges, he said, but the proposed budget avoids layoffs.
“Furloughs are a last resort,” Roy said. “It’s not something I would ever wake up and want, but furloughs are better than layoffs.”
Written by : Greg Hilburn
Ouachita Parish will remain the hub of a northeastern Louisiana congressional district in a map approved during the final hours of the Louisiana Legislature’s special session on redistricting Wednesday.
Sen. Neil Riser amended House Bill 6 in the Senate to restore the northeastern Louisiana district and make Ouachita Parish whole after a previous version had split the parish into two congressional districts. The House concurred just after 3 p.m., less than three hours before the session had to end by law.
Had the Legislature not approved a map, it would have been back to the drawing board in a future session.
“I can’t believe it; I’m so tired I can barely talk,” said Riser, R-Columbia. “Our entire region should be pleased. We kept Ouachita Parish and Rapides Parish whole, and this map provides the best overall representation for the entire state.”
Riser’s map, which restored most of House Bill 6 author Rep. Erich Ponti’s original plan, created two vertical northern Louisiana districts anchored by Ouachita Parish in the east and Shreveport in the West.
Gov. Bobby Jindal, a consistent proponent of two vertical northern Louisiana districts, said he will sign the bill into law.
The Legislature had to reduce Louisiana’s congressional districts from seven to six because of slow population growth.
Ouachita and the Delta parishes will remain together in the new 5th Congressional District, which is represented by U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman. The district will run vertically from the Arkansas state line before turning east at the top of the Louisiana boot and taking in East and West Feliciana, St. Helena, the northern part of Tangipahoa and Washington parishes. One casualty of the current 5th District is Union Parish, which will join the 4th District.
“We’re absolutely pleased,” Alexander said. “It keeps most of the 5th District intact. These are all our people, and we’re excited about the additions and the chance to represent them.”
Sen. Bob Kostelka, R-Monroe, who was criticized by some colleagues and local business leaders when he cast the deciding vote to send Ponti’s bill to the Senate floor with the amendment that split Ouachita Parish, felt redeemed after the final vote.
Written by : Associated Press
BATON ROUGE — The Louisiana House voted 65-34 Wednesday for a final redesign of the state’s congressional districts after three weeks of debate with the Senate over different versions of the map. A look at the vote:
Voting Yes (65)
Speaker Tucker, Abramson, Anders, Armes, Arnold, B.Badon, Billiot, Burford, H.Burns, T.Burns, Carmody, Carter, Chandler, Chaney, Cortez, Cromer, Danahay, Doerge, Downs, Ellington, Fannin, Foil, Franklin, Geymann, Greene, Guinn, Hazel, Henry, Hill, Hoffmann, Howard, Hutter, Johnson, S.Jones, Katz, Kleckley, LaBruzzo, Lambert, Landry, Ligi, Little, Lopinto, Lorusso, Montoucet, Morris, Norton, Nowlin, Pearson, Ponti, Pope, Pugh, Richardson, Ritchie, Robideaux, Roy, Schroder, Seabaugh, Simon, Smiley, J.Smith, St. Germain, Talbot, Thibaut, White and Willmott.
Voting No (34)
Aubert, A.Badon, Baldone, Barras, Barrow, Bishop, Brossett, Burrell, Champagne, Connick, Dixon, Dove, Edwards, Gallot, Gisclair, Guillory, Hardy, Harrison, Henderson, Honore, G.Jackson, M.Jackson, R.Jones, LaFonta, LeBas, Leger, Moreno, Richard, G.Smith, P.Smith, Stiaes, Templet, Thierry and Wooton.
Absent or Not Voting (4)
Hines, McVea, Monica and Williams
Written by :Melinda Deslatte,
NEW ORLEANS — Tasers, brand-new SUVs, a top-of-the-line iPad and a fully loaded laptop. In the year since the Gulf oil spill, officials along the coast have gone on a spending spree with BP money, dropping tens of millions of dollars on gadgets and other gear — much of which had little to do with the cleanup, an Associated Press investigation shows.
The oil giant opened its checkbook while the crisis was still unfolding last spring and poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Gulf Coast communities with few strings attached.
In sleepy Ocean Springs, Miss., reserve police officers got Tasers. The sewer department in nearby Gulfport bought a $300,000 vacuum truck that never sucked up a drop of oil. Biloxi, Miss., bought a dozen SUVS. A parish president in Louisiana got herself a deluxe iPad, her spokesman a $3,100 laptop. And a county in Florida spent $560,000 on rock concerts to promote its oil-free beaches.
In every case, communities said the new, more powerful equipment was needed to deal at least indirectly with the spill.
In many instances, though, the connection between the spill and the expenditures was remote, and lots of money wound up in cities and towns little touched by the goo that washed up on shore, the AP found in records requested from more than 150 communities and dozens of interviews.
Florida’s tourism agency sent chunks of a $32 million BP grant as far away as Miami-Dade and Broward counties on the state’s east coast, which never saw oil from the disaster.
Some officials also lavished lucrative contracts on campaign donors and others.
A Florida county commissioner’s girlfriend, for instance, opened a public relations firm a few weeks after the spill and soon landed more than $14,000 of the tiny county’s $236,000 cut of BP cash for a month’s work.
The April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers and spawned the nation’s worst offshore oil spill. As BP spent months trying to cap the well and contain the spill, cities and towns along the coast from Louisiana to Florida worried about the toll on their economies — primarily tourism and the fishing industry — as well as the environmental impact.
All told, BP PLC says it has paid state and local governments more than $754 million as of March 31, and has reimbursed the federal government an additional $694 million.
BP set few conditions on how states could use the money, stating only that it should go to mitigate the effects of the spill.
The contracts require states to provide the company with at least an annual report on how the money has been used, BP spokeswoman Hejdi Feick said. But it’s unclear what consequences, if any, the states could face if they didn’t comply.
Some of the money BP doled out to states and municipalities hasn’t been spent yet, but the AP’s review accounts for more than $550 million of it. More than $400 million went toward clear needs like corralling the oil, propping up tourism and covering overtime.
Much of the remaining chunk consists of equally justifiable expenses, but it is also riddled with millions of dollars’ worth of contracts and purchases with no clear connection to the spill, the AP found.
William Walker, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, said it is clear now that communities bought more equipment than they wound up needing. But he doesn’t regret handing out BP’s money freely.
“At the time we were making these decisions, there were millions of gallons of oil going into the Gulf of Mexico with no clear idea when it would stop,” Walker said. “We didn’t wait. We tried to get (grant money) into circulation as quickly as possible. We didn’t have any extra time. We needed to move when we moved.”
Written by : Vickie Welborn
STONEWALL — Stonewall residents are encouraged to have their say today as town leaders consider the possible extension of the corporate limits.
The Town Council meets at 6:30 p.m., and a portion of the meeting will be dedicated to a discussion about the annexation idea. “It’s costly to do; so if a bunch says no, then we won’t do it,” Mayor Charles Waldon said.
How far will it go?
Town officials are considering pushing the corporate limits from the Baker Road intersection at Highway 3276 to 288 feet east of the Interstate 49 overpass. That also would take in 600 feet to the north and south of the Highway 3276 centerline. Fifty-three landowners would be affected.
Explain the numbers
Waldon set on 288 feet because just beyond that sits multiple property owners and “we don’t want to take in all of that. One reason is because of the upkeep of the roads and police protection.”
The 600 feet boundary will put the homes, businesses and empty lots bordering Highway 3276 into the town. But it would mean whole subdivisions, such as Bakers Acres, would not be included.
Letters were sent to all residents of Bakers Acres notifying them of today’s meeting. “If a lot show up and want to be in town, then we’ll consider adding them,” Waldon said. “We don’t want to, but if they voice their concern that they want to because of the zoning and ordinances then we will.”
The main objective: “To keep the approach to Stonewall looking good,” Waldon said.
Stonewall has ordinances governing property development and appearance while the DeSoto Police Jury does not. And although Stonewall still has its rural feel, the mayor is concerned the rushed growth of the parish could open the door to a business setting up shop next to residential neighborhoods that would be unsightly or cause safety concerns.
“That will keep stuff out of there we don’t want. In other words when you come from I-49 you won’t see junk yards and such,” Waldon said. “We want people to see nice subdivisions or nice businesses or what it is now — woods.”
What else is in the works?
Waldon has contacted two engineering firms about feasibility of studying costs associated with the installation of a sewer system. “It may not be doable, but we want to see. That would be another advantage for the residents of Stonewall and those who would be added.”