Nation roundup for January 29
Senate nears vote on $50.5B bill for Sandy victims
WASHINGTON (AP) — Three months after Superstorm Sandy devastated coastal areas in much of the Northeast, the Senate moved Monday toward passing a $50.5 billion emergency package of relief and recovery aid after House Republicans stripped it of spending unrelated to disasters.
Despite opposition from conservatives concerned about adding billions of dollars more to the nation’s debt, Northeast lawmakers were optimistic about having the 60 votes needed to win Senate approval and send the long-delayed package to President Barack Obama, who has said he would sign it. The House passed the bill two weeks ago.
Lawmakers say the money is urgently needed to start rebuilding homes, businesses, public transportation facilities and other infrastructure damaged by the Oct. 29 storm, one of the worst ever to strike the Northeast. Sandy is blamed for more than 130 deaths in the U.S. and tens of billions of dollars in property damages, particularly in New York and New Jersey.
“There’s no excuse for delay,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. “We need to get assistance to victims of Sandy as soon as possible.
The biggest chunk of money is $16 billion for Housing and Urban Development Department community development block grants. Of that, about $12 billion will be shared among Sandy victims as well as those from other federally declared disasters in 2011-2013. The remaining $3.9 billion is solely for Sandy-related projects.
More than $11 billion will go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief aid fund for shelter, restoring power and other storm-interrupted utility services and meeting other immediate needs arising from Sandy and other disasters. Another $10 billion is devoted to repairing New York and New Jersey transit systems and making them more resistant to future storms.
“The funding in this bill is urgently needed,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., as Senate debate began. “Hundreds of thousands of families have seen their lives turned upside down.”
Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., said Republicans weren’t seeking “to undermine” help for Sandy victims, but instead wre trying to make sure that the money was actually being spent on emergency needs.
“We’re simply trying to say we need some standards,” Coats said.
Earlier in January, Congress approved and Obama signed a $9.7 billion bill to replenish the National Flood Insurance Program, which has received well more than 100,000 flood insurance claims from businesses, homeowners and businesses related to Sandy. Added to the new, $50.5 billion package, the total is is roughly in line with the $60.4 billion that Obama requested in December.
Sandy damaged or destroyed 305,000 housing units in New York and more than 265,000 businesses were disrupted there, according to officials. In New Jersey, more than 346,000 households were destroyed or damaged.
The aid package was greased for passage before the last Congress adjourned and the new one came in on Jan. 3. But Speaker John Boehner refused to bring it to the floor after two-thirds of House Republicans voted against a “fiscal cliff” deficit reduction deal raising taxes on couples making more than $450,000 a year while deferring some $24 billion in spending cuts to have been shared between defense and domestic programs.
The ruckus after the Senate had passed an earlier $60.4 billion Sandy relief package by a nearly 2-to-1 margin on Dec. 28 exposed deep political divisions within Republican ranks. “There’s only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent victims, the House majority and their speaker, John Boehner,” Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie fumed at the time.
Top House Republicans responded by bringing new Sandy aid legislation to the floor under ground rules designed to win over as many Republicans as possible while retaining support from Democrats eager to approve as much in disaster aid as possible.
GOP leaders cut spending in the Senate bill unrelated to disasters. One was to transfer $1 billion for training Iraqi policemen to instead be used on bolstering security at U.S. diplomatic missions abroad in the wake of a Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed.
Also deleted was $188 million for an Amtrak expansion project that included new, long-planned tunnels from New Jersey to Penn Station in Manhattan, and another $150 million for fisheries disasters that states such as Alaska and Mississippi could have shared.
After all the cost-cutting, 179 House Republicans still voted against the disaster aid package with only 49 favoring it. GOP leaders had to rely on yes votes from 192 Democrats to pass it.
As with past natural disasters, the Sandy aid bill does not offset the aid with spending cuts, meaning the aid comes at the cost of higher deficits. The lone exception is an offset provision requiring that $3.4 billion for Army Corps of Engineers projects to protect against future storms be covered by unspecified spending cuts of an equal amount in other programs before next October.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, sought to amend the final package Monday with a provision to cut federal programs across the board by one-half of 1 percent through 2021 as a way to prevent the disaster aid from swelling the U.S. debt. Democrats were optimistic Lee would be unable to muster 60 votes needed to prevail.
As of Monday, FEMA said it spent $3.3 billion in disaster relief money for shelter, restoring power and other immediate needs arising from the storm.
New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, New Hampshire, Ohio, Delaware, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia have shared that money.
Barge hits Miss. River bridge; oil cleanup ongoing
VICKSBURG, Miss. (AP) — Cleanup crews with booms skimmed oily water from the Mississippi River a day after a barge with more than 80,000 gallons of oil struck a railroad bridge near Vicksburg, spreading a sheen of light crude that kept part of the waterway shut to ship traffic Monday, authorities said.
It remained unclear Monday morning how much oil had leaked into the river, according to the Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers.
Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Lally said that on Monday afternoon, oil was “still discharging, but it is slowly discharging.”
He said crews are looking for oil roughly 50 miles downriver from the site.
“It’s minimal, if any, environmental impact due to the swift current” further downriver, Lally said.
He said the investigation is continuing closer to the site, but there is still no word on how much oil has leaked or how long it will take to transfer oil from the damaged barge to another barge.
The spill backed up at least 24 tugboats, barges and other vessels on the normally bustling corridor, said Kavanaugh Breazeale, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg. The river was closed to traffic for 16 miles — eight miles north and eight miles south of Vicksburg.
Breazeale said it was uncertain how long the river would remain closed.
He said the damaged barge had eight tanks and each tank could hold 80,000 gallons of oil. He said the investigation had shown that one tank was pierced above the water line.
“It’s not leaking that much oil,” Breazeale said.
Tugs were holding the barge near shore on the Louisiana side of the river, south of the bridge it hit and directly across from Vicksburg’s Riverwalk Casino.
Orange containment boom was stretched across part of the river downstream from the barge, and a small boat appeared to patrol the area.
Twelve northbound vessels and 12 southbound vessels were waiting to pass Monday, according to Breazeale.
Herman Smith, superintendent of the Vicksburg Bridge Commission of Warren County, said the railroad bridge gets hit about once or twice a year, usually during floods. During the 2011 flood, it was hit five times in two weeks.
The river isn’t in flood stage now, Smith said. It was at 33.5 feet Sunday.
Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Ryan Gomez said investigators reported that a towboat or tug was pushing two tank barges when the collision occurred about 1:30 a.m. Sunday.
The second barge was damaged, Gomez said.
Authorities inspected and declared the railroad bridge safe for trains after the collision Sunday. That day, the oily sheen was reported up to three miles downriver from the bridge.
Gomez said crews have laid down a boom and also a secondary boom. They also were using a rotating skimmer device to sweep up oily water in the river.
“They have the boom to contain any crude oil that’s leaking out of the barge. They have a secondary boom to corral any crude oil that gets past the first boom,” Gomez said. United States Environmental Services, a response-and-remediation company, was working on the booms and collecting the oily water, he said.
He said crews also were in the process of working to transfer the remaining oil.
“They are continuing to try to remove the product from the damaged tank to one of the non-damaged tanks on the same barge,” he added. “The ultimate goal is to transfer all of the crude to a different barge.”
Gomez said the barge was southbound at the time of the collision, but investigators were still trying to figure out exactly what happened.
The oil sheen was unlikely to pose a threat to the Gulf of Mexico, more than 340 river miles south of Vicksburg.
The oil appeared to be coming from one or two tanks located at the stern of the first barge, Gomez had said previously. He said that there was no indication that any oil was leaking from the second barge and that it was still unclear whether the second barge also hit the bridge or was damaged through a collision with the first.
The barges are owned by Third Coast Towing LLC, Gomez said. According to a website listed under that name, the company is located in Corpus Christi, Texas. A woman who answered the phone Monday at Third Coast Towing LLC declined to comment.
Both vessels were being pushed by the tugboat Nature’s Way Endeavor. The website for Nature’s Way Marine LLC of Theodore, Ala., identifies the vessel as a 3,000-horsepower, 90-foot-long boat. It was built in 1974 and underwent a complete rebuild in 2011, according to the company.
A company manager referred calls to the Coast Guard command center at Vicksburg.
The last time an oil spill closed a portion of the lower Mississippi River, it was for less than a day last February after an oil barge and a construction barge collided, spilling less than 10,000 gallons of oil. In 2008, a fuel barge collided with a tanker and broke in half, dumping 283,000 gallons of heavy crude into the waterway and closing the river for six days.
When barges it the Vicksburg bridges, a sharp bend in the river is sometimes blamed. In March 2012, barges carrying grain broke loose and hit the old U.S. 80 bridge. A barge scraped the bridge in July 2011.
On March 23, 2011, several barges broke loose and some hit the U.S. 80 bridge and Interstate 20 bridge. One was hung up on the I-20 bridge for about three weeks before it was removed.
Barbara Walters hospitalized with chickenpox
NEW YORK (AP) — Barbara Walters would probably like to hit the reset button on 2013.
She’s got the chickenpox and remains hospitalized more than a week after going in after falling and hitting her head at a pre-inaugural party in Washington on Jan. 19. A fellow host on the “The View,” Whoopi Goldberg, said Monday that Walters has been transferred to a New York hospital and hopes to go home soon.
“She’s been told to rest. She’s not allowed any visitors,” Goldberg said. “And we’re telling you, Barbara, no scratching!”
The 83-year-old news veteran, who underwent heart surgery in May 2010, apparently avoided a disease that hits most people when they are children. It can be serious in older people because of the possibility of complications like pneumonia.
Even after concern about her fall had subsided, Walters had been kept hospitalized last week because of a lingering fever, and doctors found the unexpected cause.
“We love you, we miss you,” Goldberg said on “The View,” in a message to the show’s inventor. “We just don’t want to hug you.”
Chris Brown investigated for possible assault
WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. (AP) — Grammy-winning singer Chris Brown is under investigation for an alleged assault in a West Hollywood parking lot, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said early Monday.
Deputies responding to a report of six men fighting Sunday night found the scene clear, but were told by witnesses there had been a brief fight over a parking space.
“The altercation allegedly led to Chris Brown punching the victim,” the department said in a statement released early Monday morning.
The “victim” wasn’t identified, but the celebrity website TMZ, which first reported the fight outside the Westlake Recording Studio, said it also involved Frank Ocean, one of the top nominees at the Grammy Awards next month.
In a Twitter posting later, Ocean said he “got jumped by (Brown) and a couple guys” and suffered a finger cut.
It wasn’t Brown’s first problem in the run-up to the Grammys. His attack on singer Rihanna on the eve of the 2009 awards event overshadowed the show.
Last June, he was injured in a brawl with members of hip-hop star Drake’s entourage at a New York nightclub.
No arrests were made. Brown was gone by the time deputies arrived but the department said the investigation is ongoing and Brown would be contacted later.
Email messages to Ocean’s publicist and Brown’s lawyer and representative were not immediately returned. A man answering the phone at the recording studio declined to comment.
Brown, 23, remains on probation for the attack on Rihanna and is due back in court on Feb. 6 to update a judge on his progress. Prosecutors have raised concerns about records showing that Brown has completed his community labor obligations.
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