Saturday January 5, 2013

Congress approves $9.7B flood insurance package for Superstorm Sandy victims

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The new Congress has passed a $9.7 billion bill to help pay flood insurance claims to homeowners, renters and businesses damaged by Superstorm Sandy.

The bill cleared the Senate following passage earlier Friday by the House. It replenishes the National Flood Insurance Program that was due to run out of money next week with some 115,000 Sandy-related claims as well as 5,000 from other floods unresolved.

The late October storm ravaged the coast from North Carolina to Maine, with the worst flooding occurring in New York City and its suburbs, Atlantic City, N.J., along the Connecticut coastline. Votes are planned later this month on another $51 billion aid package. The government already has spent more than $2 billion as part of the emergency response to the storm.

FDA proposes new food safety rules covering farms and processing plants

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Food and Drug Administration on Friday proposed the most sweeping food safety rules in decades, requiring farmers and food companies to be more vigilant in the wake of deadly outbreaks in peanuts, cantaloupe and leafy greens.

The long-overdue regulations are aimed at reducing the estimated 3,000 deaths a year from foodborne illness. Just since last summer, outbreaks of listeria in cheese and salmonella in peanut butter, mangoes and cantaloupe have been linked to more than 400 illnesses and as many as seven deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The actual number of those sickened is likely much higher.

The FDA’s proposed rules would require farmers to take new precautions against contamination, to include making sure workers’ hands are washed, irrigation water is clean, and that animals stay out of fields. Food manufacturers will have to submit food safety plans to the government to show they are keeping their operations clean.

Many responsible food companies and farmers are already following the steps that the FDA would now require them to take. But officials say the requirements could have saved lives and prevented illnesses in several of the large-scale outbreaks that have hit the country in recent years.

In a 2011 outbreak of listeria in cantaloupe that claimed 33 lives, for example, FDA inspectors found pools of dirty water on the floor and old, dirty processing equipment at Jensen Farms in Colorado where the cantaloupes were grown. In a peanut butter outbreak this year linked to 42 salmonella illnesses, inspectors found samples of salmonella throughout Sunland Inc.’s peanut processing plant in New Mexico and multiple obvious safety problems, such as birds flying over uncovered trailers of peanuts and employees not washing their hands.

Former Rep. Giffords visits Conn. town where gunman killed 26 in school shooting

NEWTOWN, Conn. (AP) -- Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona on Friday visited the Connecticut town where a gunman killed 26 people last month inside an elementary school.

Giffords, who was shot and critically wounded in a 2011 shooting, met with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman and Newtown’s first selectman, according to Sue Marcinek, an assistant to the selectman. Giffords was accompanied by her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly.

She was planning to meet later Friday with families of some of the Newtown victims, according to Steve Jensen, a spokesman for Wyman.

Giffords was left partially blind, with a paralyzed right arm and brain injury, when a gunman opened fire at a constituent meet-and-greet outside a Tucson grocery store on Jan. 8, 2011. Arizona’s chief federal judge and five others were killed and 13 people, including Giffords, were injured.

The gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, pleaded guilty to 19 federal charges and was sentenced to seven consecutive life sentences, plus 140 years.

Success of Chevrolet Sonic embodies Detroit’s improbable 4-year revival

DETROIT (AP) -- When the word reached the Orion Assembly Plant, it spread along the serpentine assembly line like news of a death or natural disaster: General Motors, the biggest automaker in the world, had filed for bankruptcy protection.

On that grim day in 2009, Chevrolet and Pontiac sedans kept rolling down the line. And 1,700 worried workers stayed at their stations even as GM announced it would close the plant in a desperate bid to survive.

"The unknown was the scariest part," recalled Gerald Lang, who had worked at Orion for two years installing dashboards and doors. "We really had no clue what was going to happen."

There was something else that the workers didn’t know: They were witnessing the opening act of one of the greatest recovery stories in American business.

Nearly four years later, Chevrolets are still moving down the assembly line under the plant’s 82-acre roof. Lang and his co-workers now build the Sonic, the best-selling subcompact car in the nation. It’s a vehicle no one thought could be made profitably in the U.S., by a company that few people thought would last.

New York nursing homes under scrutiny over handling of Sandy evacuees

NEW YORK (AP) -- A nursing home and an assisted living facility are under scrutiny by state officials and an advocacy group after The Associated Press disclosed that hundreds of elderly and disabled people forced to evacuate by Superstorm Sandy were still sleeping on rows of cots in cramped and sometimes oppressive conditions almost two months later.

New York’s attorney general sent two investigators to the Bishop Henry B. Hucles Episcopal Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Center in Brooklyn last week after the AP reported that the home was swollen to nearly double its licensed capacity with evacuees from the storm-damaged Rockaway Care Center on the Queens seashore.

As of Christmas, many of those patients were still sleeping, field-hospital style, on cots squeezed into community rooms, a rehabilitation gym and the nursing home’s tiny chapel.

The state’s Office of Long Term Care Ombudsman also dispatched a representative to check on conditions. State Health Department officials were independently investigating how one patient walked out of the facility unnoticed on a cold Friday night, only to turn up at a hospital two days later.

Separately, a legal aid group, MFY Legal Services, is questioning why disabled and elderly residents of Belle Harbor Manor, an adult care home in Queens, were still being asked to sign over most of their monthly Social Security checks to the facility to cover room and board even though they have been flooded out of their rooms since Halloween.

American Eagle pilot fails alcohol test, is removed from plane, arrested at Minn. airport

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- An American Eagle pilot was suspended after failing a blood-alcohol test as he prepared to fly on Friday to New York City from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, authorities said.

Airport police said officers and a Transportation Security Administration agent smelled alcohol as they passed the pilot waiting to get on an elevator. The pilot was conducting preflight checks at about 6 a.m. when police boarded the aircraft, airport spokesman Patrick Hogan said.

Officers made him take a breath test and arrested him on suspicion of being under the influence of alcohol, Hogan said. Passengers had not yet boarded the flight to New York’s LaGuardia Airport, he said.

The 48-year-old pilot was released several hours later to airline employees. Hogan said airport police will wait until blood tests are processed before deciding whether to file charges against him.

Federal rules prohibit pilots from flying within eight hours of drinking alcohol or if they have a blood-alcohol level of 0.04 or higher, half the level allowed for motorists. Police haven’t released the pilot’s initial test results.

Theater shooting victim’s father will attend reopening, says son would want him there

DENVER (AP) -- The father of a man killed in the mass shooting at a Colorado movie theater says he will be present at the reopening, even though his daughter-in-law and relatives of some other victims are refusing to go.

Tom Sullivan wrote a column published in Friday’s Denver Post saying his son, Alex, would want him to be there.

Alex Sullivan was among 12 people killed in the July 20 attack in the Denver suburb of Aurora, which also wounded 70 people. James Holmes, suspected in the shooting, faces more than 160 counts including murder and attempted murder.

Holmes has not entered a plea. He is due back in court Monday for a preliminary hearing in which prosecutors will outline their case against him. His lawyers have said he suffers from mental illness.

Alex Sullivan’s widow, Cassandra Sullivan, was among 15 relatives of the victims who said the invitation from theater owner Cinemark to attend a reopening ceremony Jan. 17 was "disgusting" and insensitive.

House Dem. leader Nancy Pelosi defends altered photo of women House members

WASHINGTON (AP) -- House minority leader Nancy Pelosi on Friday defended an altered picture of Democratic congresswomen that was posted on her Flickr photo-sharing site.

The photo showed four House members who were not in the original picture, which was taken Thursday, when lawmakers were sworn in as members of the 113th Congress. They arrived at the Capitol steps late, and their images were inserted with a computer program.

"It was an accurate historical record of who the Democratic women of Congress are," Pelosi told a news conference. "It also is an accurate record that it was freezing cold and our members had been waiting a long time for everyone to arrive and ... had to get back into the building to greet constituents, family members, to get ready to go to the floor. It wasn’t like they had the rest of the day to stand there."

Pelosi said the photo reflected the nation’s diversity, because it included women from every community and religious faith.

"So we were pretty excited about it," Pelosi said. "We got a lot of response back from the country, and one I loved was when they said, ‘Can the women in Congress hear the people cheering across the country?"’

Syrian forces bombard rebel areas to keep rebels out of capital

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian government warplanes and artillery pounded restive suburbs of Damascus on Friday and anti-regime activists said a car bomb targeted an intelligence building north of the capital.

Fighting in Syria’s civil war has flared in areas around Damascus as rebels seeking to topple President Bashar Assad try to push into the city itself. The rebel advances in the suburbs threaten the government’s grip on its seat of power, prompting a punishing response from the military on rebel areas skirting the capital.

Anti-regime activists circulated a video they said showed an explosion near a military intelligence office in the town of Nabk, north of the capital. They had no information on casualties and the government did not comment on the bombing.

The blast came one day after a car bomb hit a gas station in the capital itself, killing eleven people, activists said. While no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, they could be guerrilla strikes by rebels groups who lack the force to battle Assad’s troops in the capital.

Syria’s 21-month conflict has turned into a bloody stalemate that the United Nations says has killed more than 60,000 people, and it warns the civil war could claim the lives of many more this year. International efforts to stop the fighting have failed so far, and although rebels have made gains in recent months, they still can’t challenge Assad’s hold on much of the country.