Nation roundup for February 11


Northeast tries to get back on track after storm

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Emergency crews and residents struggled to clear roadways and sidewalks from a storm that rampaged through the Northeast, dumping up to 3 feet of snow and bringing howling winds that knocked out power to hundreds of thousands.

Municipal workers from New York to Boston labored through the night into Sunday in snow-bound communities, where some motorists had to be rescued after spending hours stuck in wet, heavy snow. President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency for Connecticut, allowing federal aid to be used in recovery, and utilities in some hard-hit New England states predicted that the storm could leave some customers in the dark for days.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said county official Steven Bellone of New York’s Long Island, which got more than 2 feet of snow.

More than 300,000 homes and businesses were without power Sunday, down from a peak of about 650,000. Some school districts announced they’d be closed Monday, complicating parents’ back to work schedules but giving kids another day for frolicking.

At least 11 deaths in the U.S. were blamed on the snowstorm, including an 11-year-old boy in Boston who was overcome by carbon monoxide as he sat in a running car to keep warm while his father shoveled Saturday morning. That death and the illnesses of several others exposed to carbon monoxide set off a flurry of safety warnings from public officials.

Roads across the Northeast were impassable and cars were entombed by snow drifts on Saturday. Some people found the snow packed so high against their homes they couldn’t get their doors open.

“It’s like lifting cement. They say it’s 2 feet, but I think it’s more like 3 feet,” said Michael Levesque, who was shoveling snow in Quincy, Mass., for a landscaping company.

In Providence, where the drifts were 5 feet high and telephone lines encrusted with ice and snow drooped under the weight, Jason Harrison labored for nearly three hours to clear his blocked driveway and front walk and still had more work to do.

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee cautioned that while the snow had stopped, the danger hadn’t passed: “People need to take this storm seriously, even after it’s over. If you have any kind of heart condition, be careful with the shoveling.”

Blowing with hurricane-force winds of more than 80 mph in places, the storm hit hard along the heavily populated Interstate 95 corridor between New York City and Maine. Milford., Conn., got 38 inches of snow, and Portland, Maine, recorded 31.9, shattering a 1979 record. Several communities in New York and across New England got more than 2 feet.

Still, the storm was not as bad as some of the forecasts led many to fear, and not as dire as the Blizzard of ‘78, used by longtime New Englanders as the benchmark by which all other winter storms are measured.

“Considering the severity, of the storm, the amount of snow and the wind, we’ve come though this pretty well,” Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Boston got up to 2 feet of snow, according to the National Weather Service. The 14.8 inches that fell Saturday alone broke the city’s record for of 12.4 inches in a single day, set in 1994. Bradley Airport near Hartford, Conn., got 22 inches, for the No. 2 spot in the record books there.

Concord, N.H., got 24 inches of snow, the second-highest amount on record and a few inches short of the reading from the great Blizzard of 1888.

In New York, where Central Park recorded 11 inches, not even enough to make the Top 10 list, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the city “dodged a bullet” and its streets were “in great shape.” The three major airports serving the city — LaGuardia, Kennedy and Newark, N.J. — were up and running by late morning after shutting down the evening before.

Most of the power outages were in Massachusetts, where at its peak more than 400,000 homes and businesses were in the dark. In Rhode Island, a high of around 180,000 customers lost power, or about one-third of the state.

Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island imposed travel bans to keep cars off the road and let plows do their work, and the National Guard helped clear highways in Connecticut, where more than 240 accidents were reported. The Guardsmen rescued about 90 people, including a few who had hypothermia and were taken to hospitals.

On Long Island, hundreds of drivers spent a cold and scary night stuck on the highways. Even snowplows got bogged down or were blocked by stuck cars, so emergency workers used snowmobiles to try to reach motorists, many of whom were still waiting to be rescued hours after the snow had stopped.

Richard Ebbrecht, a chiropractor, left his office in Brooklyn at 3 p.m. on Friday and headed for home in Middle Island, N.Y., but got stuck six or seven times on the Long Island Expressway and other roads.

“There was a bunch of us Long Islanders. We were all helping each other, shoveling, pushing,” he said. He finally gave up and settled in for the night in his car just two miles from his destination. At 8 a.m., when it was light out, he walked home.

“I could run my car and keep the heat on and listen to the radio a little bit,” he said. “It was very icy under my car. That’s why my car is still there.”

Local police said Sunday that all known abandoned cars were searched and no one needing medical help was found. But A 27-mile stretch of the expressway remained closed in both directions so crews could remove snow.

Around the New York metropolitan area, many victims of Superstorm Sandy were mercifully spared another round of flooding, property damage and power failures.

“I was very lucky and I never even lost power,” said Susan Kelly of Bayville. “We were dry as anything. My new roof was fantastic. Other than digging out, this storm was a nice storm.” As for the shoveling, “I got two hours of exercise.”

Across much of New England, streets were empty of cars and dotted instead with children who had never seen so much snow and were jumping into snow banks and making forts. Snow was waist-high in the streets of Boston. Plows made some thoroughfares passable but piled even more snow on cars parked on the city’s narrow streets.

Boston’s Logan Airport resumed operations Saturday, and limited train and bus service in the metro area started again Sunday. Authorities hoped to restore most service for Monday.

Life went on as usual for some. In Portland, Karen Willis Beal got her dream wedding on Saturday — complete with a snowstorm just like the one that hit before her parents married in December 1970.

“I have always wanted a snowstorm for my wedding, and my wish has come true to the max,” she said.

Some spots in Massachusetts had to be evacuated because of coastal flooding, including Salisbury Beach, where around 40 people were ordered out.

One concern going forward was a forecast for rain Monday in New England. While warmer temperatures might begin melting snow, the rain on top of snow already piled up on roofs could pose a danger of collapse.

“We are encouraging people as they can do so safely to use snow rakes and so forth to move the snow off of their roofs,” Patrick said.

Police: 4 wounded in Bourbon Street shooting

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Gunshots erupted in a crowd of bead-wearing, drink-carrying late-night revelers on Bourbon Street during the countdown to Mardi Gras, wounding four people and sending bystanders running and screaming. Hours later on Sunday, though, the same stretch was packed with partiers who said they weren’t letting the violence dampen their fun.

In a video taken by a witness Saturday night and released the next day, the shootings are preceded by footage of people standing shoulder to shoulder in New Orleans’ famed tourist district, with some holding green plastic cups and wearing gaudy hats or masks. A section of the frame highlighted by police shows people jostling and speaking with angry expressions.

Police said in an email that the video depicts an argument involving one of the shooting victims and the suspects. Two men are seen leaving the argument and returning with a third, then approaching the victim as at least one of the suspects begins shooting, according to police. Four shots are heard in rapid succession, followed by screams as some in the crowd stagger into one another and a nearby wall. A man whom police identified as one of the suspects is shown walking through the crowd with his arm extended as the gunshots are heard, though it’s difficult to make out a weapon.

Police said Sunday that they were seeking the three men.

The shootings wounded two males and two females. One male victim hit in the abdomen, thigh and pelvis was in guarded condition Sunday after surgery the previous night, New Orleans Police spokesman Frank B. Robertson said. The second male was shot in the buttocks, one female was shot on the chin and right foot, and the second female was shot on the toe, according to Robertson’s statement. Those three were in stable condition. No ages or names were released.

The shooting came on the last weekend of partying before Mardi Gras, the Fat Tuesday celebration that is the signature tourist event of the year in New Orleans. And for thousands, the partying continued despite the shooting. Parades rolled under cloudy skies Sunday before crowds of onlookers, though the shootings were on the minds of some revelers.

“It was very disappointing,” said New Orleans resident Carol Redmann-Bailey as she watched Thoth roll by. “I was disappointed and sad, but it seems like Bourbon Street stayed open. … Let the good times roll.”

New Orleans has been plagued for years by violent crime, including gun violence that has soared since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005.

In 2011, sixteen people were shot and at least two killed in Halloween shootings in New Orleans. One of the victims was slain near the Chris Owens nightclub, about a block away from Saturday’s incident.

Patrick Clay, a 21-year-old Louisiana State University student, told The Times-Picayune that he was standing on the corner of Bourbon Street on Saturday night when suddenly he saw a crowd running and people screaming that there had been a shooting.

“Everyone immediately started running and the cops immediately started running toward where people were running from,” Clay said. “I was with a group of about seven people and at that point, we all just kind of grasped hands and made our way through the crowd as soon as possible.”

Julia Rosenthal, a 19-year-old from Westchester, N.Y., had mixed feelings about hanging out in the French Quarter after the shooting. “It’s not an OK thing that happened, and it’s definitely scary. But I’m not going to let it affect my night,” she said.

Peter Manabani, an employee at the Rat’s Hole bar, said police had shut down a whole Bourbon Street block for an hour to investigate but allowed people to return to the area later.

Hours later on Sunday, there was little evidence that a shooting had occurred. Revelers were in full party mode, packing the block amid a heavy police presence.

Laura Gonzalez, 21, of Baytown, Texas, said it was her first Mardi Gras and she spent some time in the Fat Catz bar nearby as police investigated. She said the bar locked its doors quickly after the shots rang out and wouldn’t let anyone in or out while police went to the scene.

Asked if it was frightening, she responded: “Not really. We were just locked in a bar and we weren’t going to let this one incident wreck our party.”

Parades rolled all day Saturday but none on Bourbon Street because the streets are too narrow. One of the biggest Mardi Gras parades, the Krewe of Endymion, rolled down a major thoroughfare and just skirted Bourbon Street a few hours before the shooting. Typically, once the parades end, partygoers head to the French Quarter.

Cheney criticizes Obama nominees in Wyoming speech

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Former Vice President Dick Cheney said Saturday night that President Barack Obama has jeopardized U.S. national security by nominating substandard candidates for key cabinet posts and by degrading the U.S. military.

“The performance now of Barack Obama as he staffs up the national security team for the second term is dismal,” Cheney said in comments to about 300 members of the Wyoming Republican Party.

Cheney, a Wyoming native, said it was vital to the nation’s national security that “good folks” hold the positions of secretary of state, CIA director and secretary of defense.

“Frankly, what he has appointed are second-rate people,” he said.

John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, has been confirmed as secretary of state. CIA designate John Brennan and defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel are still awaiting U.S. Senate confirmation.

Wyoming’s two U.S. senators, Mike Enzi and John Barrasso, voted for Kerry’s confirmation. Both Enzi and Barrasso gave introductory speeches for Cheney Saturday night.

Cheney said Hagel, a former Nebraska U.S. senator, was chosen because Obama “wants to have a Republican that he can use to take the heat for what he plans to do to the Department of Defense.”

He said Obama’s plans are to allow severe cuts in U.S. defense spending, which would limit the capability of the U.S. military to respond to future foreign crises well after Obama has left office.

“He is today … establishing what limitations will be on future presidents,” Cheney said.

Cheney noted that the security situation in the Middle East and North Africa has worsened under Obama’s watch with Iran actively pursuing nuclear weapons and with turmoil in Egypt, Syria, Mali and elsewhere.

“That part of the world is as dangerous now as it has ever been,” he said.

The Obama administration’s response has been to pull back U.S. military presence and influence, resulting in rising mistrust of the U.S. from allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, he said.

Despite Obama’s re-election victory, Cheney said he hopes Republicans can revive their political fortunes by holding to conservative principles.

“I believe we’re all going to pull together, work hard, dig in and do what needs to be done,” he said.

Cheney, who received a heart transplant about a year ago, appeared fit, although his voice turned hoarse on occasion during his half-hour speech.

US growth in Q4 likely stronger on export gains

WASHINGTON (AP) — A jump in energy-related exports and a steep decline in oil imports lowered the U.S. trade deficit in December to nearly a three-year low.

The improvement suggests the economy grew in the October-December quarter instead of shrinking as the government estimated last week.

A brighter outlook for trade also illustrates how a boom in oil and gas production is reducing crude oil imports and making the U.S. a leader in the export of fuels. And it shows that higher domestic sales of fuel-efficient cars are lowering dependence on oil.

The trade gap fell nearly 21 percent in December from November to $38.6 billion, the Commerce Department said Friday.

Total exports rose 2.1 percent to $186 billion, driven in part by record exports of gasoline, diesel and other fuels.

At the same time, imports declined 2.7 percent to $225 billion. That was largely because oil imports plunged to 223 million barrels — the fewest in 15 years.

“While we may see some give back in the coming months … the trend of a narrowing petroleum trade gap will continue to drive improvement in the overall trade balance,” said Michael Dolega, an economist at TD Bank, said in a note to clients.

A narrower trade gap boosts growth because it means U.S. companies earned more from overseas sales while consumers and businesses spent less on foreign products.

Fewer exports were one of the reasons the government’s first estimate of economic growth in the October-December quarter showed a contraction at an annual rate of 0.1 percent. The December trade deficit figures were not available when the government reported its estimate last week.

Some of the gain from trade will be offset by a decline in December wholesale stockpiles.

Overall, economists at Barclays Capital expect the government’s second estimate for fourth-quarter growth will be revised up to a still-weak annual rate of 0.3 percent.

The monthly trade figures can be volatile. Still, economists see the trade picture brightening in 2013, helped by new technology that has made U.S. fuel cheaper.

Production of oil and natural gas is surging in the U.S. because drillers have learned to tap once-inaccessible reserves trapped in shale formations. New techniques such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, have made this possible.

Increased production has lowered U.S. prices of crude oil and natural gas, which refiners use to make gasoline, diesel and other fuels. Crude in the U.S. has been selling for $20 per barrel cheaper than international crude. U.S. natural gas is half the price of natural gas in Europe and one-third the price in Asia.

With lower input costs, U.S. refiners are making enormous amounts of petroleum-based fuels and selling them on the international market at a huge profit.

For all of 2012, the trade deficit narrowed 3.5 percent to $540.4 billion.

Many economists believe that trade will give the economy a small lift in 2013. That forecast is based on an assumption that the European debt crisis will stabilize, helping boost U.S. exports to that region, and economic growth in Asia will continue to rebound.

“The drag from Europe has lessened,” said Mark Vitner, an economist at Wells Fargo.

The politically sensitive trade deficit with China rose to $315.1 billion last year, the largest on record with any country. That could add to pressure on the Obama administration and Congress to take a harder line on China’s trade practices. Some U.S. manufacturers contend that China keeps the value of its currency artificially low to make its exports to the U.S. cheaper.

‘Identity Thief’ swipes No. 1 spot with $36.6M

LOS ANGELES (AP) — “Identity Thief” has turned out to be the real thing at the North American box office.

The comedy starring Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy debuted at No. 1 with a $36.6 million opening weekend, according to studio estimates Sunday.

“Identity Thief” opened solidly despite the winter storm that buried much of the U.S. Northeast. Distributor Universal Pictures estimates the storm might have choked off as much as 10 percent of the movie’s business.

“It took such a chunk out of the business this weekend. But we can’t control Mother Nature,” said Nikki Rocco, Universal’s head of distribution. “We probably could have hit $40 million if it weren’t for the weather this weekend.”

The previous weekend’s top movie, the zombie romance “Warm Bodies,” fell to No. 2 with $11.5 million. That raises its domestic total to $36.7 million.

The weekend’s other new wide release, Steven Soderbergh’s thriller “Side Effects,” had a modest opening of $10 million, coming in at No. 3.

Tom Cruise’s 1986 hit “Top Gun” took flight again in theaters with a 3-D reissue that pulled in $1.9 million in narrow release of 300 theaters. The movie has a short run on the big-screen leading up to its Feb. 19 3-D release on DVD and Blu-ray.

Overall domestic revenues were down sharply from a year ago, when four movies had big openings — “The Vow,” ”Safe House,” ”Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” and a 3-D reissue of “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.”

Receipts totaled $105 million, down 45 percent from the same weekend last year — which was the only non-holiday weekend to have four movies open with more than $20 million, according to box-office tracker Hollywood.com.

“The same weekend a year ago was such a tremendous weekend,” said Hollywood.com analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “It’s really tough to live up to a weekend like we had last year. It was sort of a foregone conclusion that this was going to be a down weekend.”

“Identity Thief” came in above industry expectations despite the storm and poor reviews for the comedy, which stars Bateman as a man chasing down a con artist (McCarthy) who has racked up thousands of dollars of charges in his name.

The combination of the actors and the premise made it a review-proof comedy, Rocco said.

“I think people just want to be entertained,” Rocco said. “The chemistry between Jason and Melissa is the reason why this picture is doing so well.”

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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