Nation roundup for April 22


Crests approaching in several towns in Midwest

CLARKSVILLE, Mo. (AP) — An all-too-familiar springtime ritual played out around the nation’s heartland this weekend as volunteers, National Guardsmen and even prison inmates joined together in an effort to ward off fast-rising floodwaters.

Dangerously high waters dotted at least six Midwestern states following torrential rains this past week that dumped up to 7 inches in some locations. Record flooding was possible in some places as dozens of rivers overflowed their banks.

The water levels forced evacuations, closed roads, swamped hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and shut down much of the upper Mississippi River to barge traffic. Even two Mississippi River bridges were closed. Several Mississippi River towns north of St. Louis were expected to see crests sometime Sunday, including Clarksville, Mo.

Volunteers in the tiny community have worked endlessly since Wednesday to build a makeshift sandbag levee that seemed to be holding as the crest— expected to be 11 feet above flood stage — approached. Even prisoners from far-away Jefferson City were brought in to help.

After four 12-hour days of sandbagging, Trish Connelly, 57, was exhausted but optimistic the town would beat back the river. Her plan to open a new fine arts gallery downtown this weekend were on hold “until we know what the river is going to do,” she said.

“This is frustrating for people,” Connelly said. “This isn’t as bad as 2008, but thank God it stopped raining.”

Gov. Jay Nixon on Saturday toured the unprotected-by-choice town that was also flooded in 2008, 2001, 1998, 1995 and many times before that.

“The water is continuing to rise but it is our full hope and expectation that these walls will hold,” Nixon said of the sandbag levees. Clarksville has a flood protection system in which a temporary levee — aluminum slats filled with sand — can be built if the river rises, but the Mississippi was too quick this time.

Mississippi River levels vary greatly but are typically highest in the spring, so minor flooding is not uncommon. But when river levels exceed flood stage by several feet, serious problems can occur.

Travel was at a standstill on most of the Mississippi between the Quad Cities and St. Louis. The Army Corps of Engineers closed several locks, halting barge traffic. Recreational traffic was halted, too, including the Mark Twain Riverboat that offers excursions at scenic Hannibal, Mo. Owner and pilot Steve Terry has moored the ship since Thursday, with no end in sight.

Even crossing the river was difficult. One of two bridges at Quincy, Ill., closed Friday, and the narrow two-lane bridge at the Missouri town of Louisiana was shut down Saturday. To get across, people in the Louisiana, Mo., area either had to drive 35 miles north to Hannibal, Mo., or 50-plus miles south to suburban St. Louis.

Penny Scranton’s normal 13-minute commute from Rockport, Ill., to the BP convenience store in Louisiana turned into an hour and a half.

“There are others worse off,” she shrugged.

Among those worse off was Louisiana resident Erica Campbell, whose rented home in a low-lying area of town was flooded for the second time in three years. She’s had enough. Campbell, her husband and their eight kids are packing up.

“We’re planning to move to the country — as far away from water as I can get,” Campbell, 35, said.

Smaller rivers across the Midwest were swelling, too. In Illinois, heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar will shut down its East Peoria, Ill., factory Sunday as the Illinois River approaches an expected 30-foot crest early next week.

Several Indiana towns were threatened by high water, forcing hundreds of evacuations. The Wabash River in Tippecanoe County reached more than 14 feet above flood stage on Saturday, the highest level since 1958. Indiana Gov. Mitch Pence took a helicopter tour Saturday of damage in Kokomo, Tipton and Elwood.

The mayor of Grand Rapids, Mich., declared a state of emergency Saturday, the same day high water forced the evacuation of the Courtyard Marriott Hotel and an apartment building.

FAA approves resumption of Boeing 787 flights

WASHINGTON (AP) — Boeing’s beleaguered 787 could be flying again within a week after federal officials approved a fix for its batteries, even though the root cause of a fire on one plane and smoke on another still isn’t known.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Friday it would send airlines instructions and publish a notice next week lifting the 3-month-old grounding order that day. Airlines will be able to begin flying the planes again as soon as the new systems are installed and they have approval from safety regulators in their own countries. Dreamliner flights could resume within a week, the agency told members of Congress.

Boeing is eager to get the planes flying. It has stationed 300 workers on 10 teams around the world to do the work, some of it beginning on Friday, 787 chief engineer Mike Sinnett said on a call with reporters. It will take about five days to install the revamped lithium-ion battery system on each plane, he said.

The FAA gave Boeing permission last month to test the revamped system, which includes additional insulation around each of the battery’s eight cells to prevent a short circuit or fire in one of the cells from spreading to the others. The new system also includes enhanced venting of smoke and gas from inside the battery to outside the plane. A strengthened box to hold the battery is an effort to ensure that if a fire were to occur, it wouldn’t escape to the rest of the plane.

Boeing has completed 20 separate tests of the new system, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told Congress earlier this week.

The system involved in the emergencies in January had been extensively tested, too.

“We always learn more as we dig deeper into things,” Sinnett said. “We have learned a lot about how to test batteries, and to be conservative” in testing.

Boeing had delivered 50 planes to eight airlines in seven countries when a fire erupted in a battery aboard a Japan Airlines 787 parked at Boston’s Logan International Airport on Jan. 7. Nine days later another incident forced an emergency landing in Japan by an All Nippon Airways 787. That prompted the FAA and other authorities to ground the entire fleet.

Boeing said new batteries and kits with the parts for the new battery systems have been shipped to Boeing supply centers around the world and are ready to be installed. The 787s will get the fix in approximately the order they were delivered, Boeing said.

The FAA’s action directly affects the six 787s flown by United Airlines, the only U.S. airline with the plane. But aviation authorities in other countries are expected to follow suit swiftly. Boeing deferred questions about approval in other countries to those aviation authorities.

United Airlines already has domestic 787 flights scheduled for May 31. Spokeswoman Christen David said no other schedule changes have been made yet. Its launch of Denver-to-Tokyo Narita flights is still planned for June 10, but that will depend on installing the battery fix by then, she said.

“We are mapping out a return-to-service plan, and we look forward to getting our 787s back in the air,” she said by e-mail.

LOT Polish Airlines spokesman Marek Klucinski noted that they need permission from the European Aviation Safety Agency to resume flights. He said they hope that a decision on Friday would mean they can resume flights in the middle of next week. LOT has two planes, one in Warsaw and one that was stranded in Chicago by the grounding.

Boeing has orders for 840 of the planes from airlines around the globe. The grounding halted deliveries, which were expected to resume “in the weeks ahead,” after it installs the changes on planes at the two factories where they’re assembled, Boeing said. It still expects to hit its target of delivering at least 60 787s this year, and that the battery issue “will have no significant impact” on its financial guidance for the year, the company said.

Boeing shares rose $1.84, or 2 percent, to close at $87.96 on Friday.

The plane’s grounding on Jan. 16, an enormous black eye for Boeing, marked the first time since 1979 that FAA had ordered every plane of a particular type to stay out of the air for safety reasons.

The 787 is Boeing’s newest and most technologically advanced plane. It is the world’s first airliner made mostly from lightweight composite materials. It also relies on electronic systems rather than hydraulic or mechanical systems to a greater degree than any other airliner. And it is the first airliner to make extensive use of lithium ion batteries, which are lighter, recharge faster and can hold more energy than other types of batteries.

The 787 has two identical lithium-ion batteries: One near the front of the plane, which powers cockpit electrical systems, the other toward the rear and used to start an auxiliary power unit while the plane is on the ground, among other functions. The rear battery was involved in the fire and gushed smoke on the plane in Boston, which had recently landed after an overseas flight. It was the front battery that failed on the plane in Japan.

Every item that is part of an airplane, down to its nuts and bolts, must be certified as safe before FAA approves that type of plane as safe for flight. The two events have raised questions about why the FAA and Boeing didn’t uncover problems with the batteries before the FAA certified the plane as safe for flight in 2011. In recent years, the FAA has relied to a greater extent on designated employees of aircraft makers to conduct the safety testing necessary of certification. Some aviation safety experts have questioned whether FAA has the in-house expertise to oversee the safety of cutting-edge technologies that haven’t been in planes before.

Lithium batteries are much more likely to experience uncontrolled high temperatures that can lead to fires if they are damaged, exposed to excessive heat, overcharged or have manufacturing flaws. Despite their safety risks, they are increasingly attractive to aircraft makers as a way to cut weight and thus improve fuel efficiency.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the Boston battery fire and the process by which the FAA certified the 787’s batteries were certified as safe. The board has scheduled a two-day hearing beginning Tuesday at which FAA and Boeing officials are slated to testify.

NTSB officials have said the Boston battery fire began with a short circuit in one of the battery’s eight cells, leading to uncontrolled temperatures and short-circuits in the rest of the battery’s cells. Firefighters who responded to the incident reported dense clouds of white smoke and two small flames on the outside of the box that contained the battery cells.

Judges’ lawsuit: Disability system ‘in crisis’

WASHINGTON (AP) — Social Security’s disability program is overwhelmed by so many claims that judges sometimes award benefits they might otherwise deny just to keep up with the flow of cases, according to a lawsuit filed by the judges themselves.

The Social Security Administration says the agency’s administrative law judges should decide 500 to 700 disability cases a year. The agency calls the standard a productivity goal, but the lawsuit claims it is an illegal quota that requires judges to decide an average of more than two cases per workday.

“When the goals are too high, the easy way out is to pay the case,” said Randall Frye, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges and a judge in Charlotte, N.C. “Paying the case is a decision that might be three pages long. When you deny benefits, it’s usually a 15- or 20-page denial that takes a lot more time and effort.”

The lawsuit raises serious questions about the integrity of the disability hearing process by the very people in charge of running it. It comes as the disability program faces serious financial problems.

The disability program’s trust fund will run out of money in 2016, according to projections by Social Security’s trustees. At that point, the system will collect only enough money in payroll taxes to pay 79 percent of benefits. That would trigger an automatic 21 percent cut in benefits.

Congress could redirect money from Social Security’s much bigger retirement program to shore up the disability program, as it did in 1994. But that would worsen the finances of the retirement program, which is facing its own long-term financial problems.

The lawsuit was filed by the judges’ union and three judges on Thursday in federal court in Chicago. It names the agency and Acting Social Security Commissioner Carolyn Colvin as defendants. Colvin took over in February after Commissioner Michael Astrue’s six-year term expired.

The union announced the lawsuit at a press conference Friday in Washington. A Social Security spokesman declined to comment. In an interview, Astrue disputed the union’s claims.

“What’s really happening here is that the judges’ union doesn’t want accountability of its members and it’s been trying to sell this story to the media and to the Congress and to the agency for a very long time,” Astrue said. “And no one’s buying it because it’s not true, and no federal judge is going to buy this story, either.”

“There are a very small number of malcontents who want to litigate or put political pressure on the agency rather than do their work,” Astrue said.

The union represents 1,400 administrative law judges. The judges are hired by the agency but are supposed to act independently when they decide cases. More than 30 federal agencies employ administrative law judges, mainly to settle disputes between the agencies and people who are affected by agency decisions.

The Social Security Administration employs the most judges, about 1,500. The lawsuit filed by their union describes the disability program as “a system in crisis.”

About 3.2 million people applied for disability benefits last year, a 25 percent increase from a decade before. Claims have increased in part because of aging baby boomers. As people get older, they become more prone to disabilities.

Disability claims also typically increase when the economy sours. Some people who manage to work despite their disabilities get laid off and apply for benefits, while others apply out of economic desperation.

When people apply for Social Security disability benefits, their cases are initially reviewed by state offices, which reject most claims. If your claim is rejected, you can appeal to an administrative law judge. But the hearing process takes an average of 373 days — a little more than a year — according to agency statistics.

Astrue said the average processing time for a hearing peaked at 542 days shortly after he took over the agency. He said public outcry over the backlog led him to adopt productivity standards in 2007, which helped reduce the wait time.

The hearing process, which is closed to the public, is different from a civil lawsuit or a criminal trial. There is no lawyer for the government. Instead, judges are expected to be impartial decision-makers while protecting the interest of taxpayers and ensuring that applicants get fair hearings. Most applicants have legal representation by the time their claim results in a hearing, the lawsuit says.

Frye said he has never awarded benefits just to clear a case faster, and he couldn’t name any judges who have.

“It’s hard for anyone to say a judge is willingly deciding cases incorrectly just to meet the quota,” Frye said. “What they have told us is they are not reviewing all of the evidence, they are not developing the case as they should, and from that I think you can clearly see that the case may not be or could not be correctly decided.”

The lawsuit says case quotes violate judges’ independence and deny due process rights to applicants.

“Some ALJs respond by tending to grant more claims,” the lawsuit says. “For other ALJs, the quota impedes their ability to render carefully reasoned, impartial decisions based on a fully developed factual record.”

The lawsuit says judges are expected to meet their quotas, regardless of how complicated their cases are, even though many case files exceed 500 pages. Judges have been disciplined for missing the quota, including receiving formal reprimands and facing removal proceedings, according to the lawsuit.

Nearly 11 million disabled workers, spouses and children get Social Security disability benefits. That’s up from 7.6 million a decade ago. The average monthly benefit for a disabled worker is $1,130.

In 2011, Social Security disability paid about $129 billion in benefits.

Kardashian-Humphries divorce settlement approved

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The marriage of Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, which began with a storybook wedding, ended Friday in a grim courtroom with a judge approving a divorce settlement after a protracted legal battle between the former couple.

“I think this is a reasonable way to resolve this case,” said Superior Court Judge Hank Goldberg, who did not disclose terms of the settlement.

Humphries sent his lawyer but did not appear in court. Kardashian, who is pregnant with a child by her boyfriend Kanye West, appeared in a black silk puffy sleeveless maternity dress embellished with sequins on the skirt.

“Ms. Kardashian, is this your signature?” the judge asked her as he perused a three-page settlement agreement.

“Yes,” she replied. She continued to answer yes when asked if she had discussed the matter with her attorney and understood that there would be no trial.

“During your marriage did irreconcilable differences occur?” the judge asked.

“Yes,” said Kardashian.

“Is there any way your marriage can be saved?” he asked.

“No,” said Kardashian.

She married the NBA player in a high-profile wedding in August 2011. She filed for divorce later that year.

He sought an annulment claiming their marriage in an elaborate wedding ceremony was a fraud staged for her reality show, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”

She denied the allegations and insisted on a traditional divorce. She apparently won.

“The court is going to grant dissolution of marriage,” the judge said, advising that the divorce would not be final until papers are drawn up and signed.

Humphries did not attend the brief hearing. His lawyer, Benjamin Johnson, said he agreed to the settlement. The judge dropped an order for the Brooklyn Nets power forward to appear and explain why he failed to attend a previous hearing.

Kardashian was hustled into court by sheriff’s deputies through a back entrance and no photos were allowed.

The judge congratulated Johnson and Kardashian’s attorney, Laura Wasser, for achieving the settlement.

“I wish both parties the best of luck as they move forward with their lives,” he said.

Fans sink into Cruise’s ‘Oblivion’ in $38.2M debut

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Movie fans slipped into “Oblivion” as the Tom Cruise sci-fi thriller led Hollywood with a $38.2 million debut, according to studio estimates Sunday.

That domestic haul comes on top of $33.7 million “Oblivion” added in overseas markets, where the film began rolling out a week earlier. “Oblivion” raised its overseas total to $112 million and its worldwide receipts to $150.2 million.

Though many people Friday were caught up in coverage of the manhunt for the suspect in the Boston Marathon explosions, it seems to have had little effect on how the film fared.

“Oblivion” took in $13.3 million on opening day Friday and $14.9 million on Saturday. That 12 percent increase is not unusual for big new releases, which typically do better business on Saturday than Friday.

While Boston was on lockdown much of Friday, that market only accounts for about 1 percent of the nationwide box office, said Nikki Rocco, head of distribution for Universal, which released “Oblivion.” The manhunt mainly affected matinee business, with theaters reopening Friday night, when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was taken into custody.

“Once the guy was arrested, I think people got back into their regular routine,” Rocco said.

The previous weekend’s top film, the Warner Bros. baseball drama “42,” held up well, slipping to second-place with $18 million in its second weekend. The Jackie Robinson biography starring Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford raised its domestic total to $54.1 million and is on its way to the $100 million mark, said Dan Fellman, Warner’s head of distribution.

Overseas, Paramount’s “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” got a lift with $40 million, most of it coming from a $33 million debut in China. The action sequel has topped $200 million internationally and $300 million worldwide.

“Oblivion” came in a bit higher than industry expectations. But despite its strong opening, Hollywood’s 2013 revenue funk continued, with overall domestic receipts at $109 million, down 19.4 percent from the same weekend last year, according to box-office tracker Hollywood.com.

A year ago, two new romances — the comedy “Think Like a Man” and the drama “The Lucky One” — combined for $56 million that weekend, while the blockbuster “The Hunger Games” remained strong with nearly $15 million.

“Even Tom Cruise was unable to beat the strength of two really strong newcomers that were devoid of stars anywhere near in his league,” said Hollywood.com analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “That tells you the difference between last year and this year. Even when we have a good weekend like this in 2013, generally these weekends, they pale by comparison to what happened last year.”

Domestic revenues in 2013 total $2.76 billion, down 11.2 percent from where business was at last year, when Hollywood took in record cash.

Business slumped a bit in summer 2012 with some high-profile duds, so studios have a shot at gaining ground over last year with this season’s upcoming blockbusters, which include “Iron Man 3,” ”Star Trek Into Darkness,” ”The Hangover Part III” and “Man of Steel.”

Still, the gap almost certainly will continue to rise in the early part of the summer season.

Disney’s Marvel Studios sequel “Iron Man 3” is expected to open with a whopping $125 million-plus domestically over the first weekend in May, Dergarabedian said. But that would fall far short of the record-breaking $207.4 million debut for the Marvel ensemble smash “The Avengers” over the same weekend last year.

Even so, Cruise’s “Oblivion” provides a solid action lead-in to summer. The film stars Cruise as a repairman fixing machines in the wastelands of Earth after an alien attack.

Despite upheavals and odd behavior in Cruise’s personal life in the last six or seven years, he remains one of Hollywood’s surest box-office draws. Universal reported that in exit polls, fans cited Cruise as the No. 1 reason they saw the film.

“He’s a global star,” Rocco said. “People love Tom Cruise. If you put him in the right vehicle, they love him even better.”

In narrower release, Rob Zombie’s latest horror tale “The Lords of Salem” flopped with $622,000 in 355 theaters, for a dismal average of $1,752 a cinema. That compared to an average of $10,085 in 3,783 theaters for “Oblivion.”

The low-budget hip-hop drama “Filly Brown” opened solidly with $1.4 million in 188 theaters, for an average of $7,250. The film stars Gina Rodriguez and the late Jenni Rivera in the story of a young talent with a shot at stardom on Los Angeles’ hip-hop scene.

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Hollywood.com. Where available, latest international numbers are also included. Final domestic figures will be released Monday

 

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