Christmas Church Heist Turns to Community Blessing

Religion News Service reports that parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Violet, La., had their Christmas sorrow turn to joy on Dec. 22. The previous Sunday, a burglar broke into the St. Bernard Parish church and rifled through about 65 Christmas gifts destined for some of the parish’s needy children. As word of the crime spread, people from across the metropolitan area and as far as Wisconsin and Ohio stepped up to help. By Tuesday night, gifts were piled on the floor about 7 feet deep along three walls, including 15 bicycles donated by Boy Scouts and bags stuffed with toys from the Salvation Army. After the theft was discovered, the church’s pastor, the Rev. John Arnonesaid the anger he initially felt had changed to sorrow for the thief. “It’s an unfortunate need,” he said. “But so much good has come of it. It’s really been incredible.”

Hundreds of Yemen Militants Planning Attacks

Hundreds of Al Qaeda militants are planning terror attacks from Yemen, the country’s foreign minister said Tuesday. Abu Bakr al-Qirbi appealed for more help from the international community to help train and equip counter-terrorist forces. His plea came after an Al Qaeda group based in Yemen claimed responsibility for the failed Christmas Day airliner bomb plot. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, alleged to be behind the attempt to blow up an American-bound aircraft, spent time in Yemen with Al Qaeda and was in the country only days before the failed attack. Abdulmutallab is said to have told U.S. agents that there were more people “just like him” ready to carry out attacks. Photographs showing the underpants worn by alleged bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab contained a six-inch packet of a high explosive called PETN sewn into the crotch.

Yemen‘s government said Tuesday the U.S. should have shared its warnings about the Nigerian suspect in the botched Christmas Day airline attack, and said it was tightening restrictions on student visas like the one that allowed the young man to enter the country. “We didn’t get any notice from the Americans to put this man on a list,” Information Minister Hassan al-Lozy said. “America should have told Yemen about this man, as they have of others.” He confirmed that Umar Faruk Abdulmutallab spent two extended periods in Yemen, as recently as this month, and that authorities were trying to determine what he did during that time. U.S. authorities have been trying to determine how Abdulmutallab, 23, managed to board a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit with explosives even though he was flagged on a watchlist as a possible terrorist. The U.S. government had intelligence from Yemen before Christmas that leaders of a branch of Al Qaeda there were talking about “a Nigerian” being prepared for a terrorist attack, the New York Times reported Tuesday.

Dutch to Use Full Body Scanners for U.S. Flights

The Netherlands will immediately begin using full body scanners for flights heading to the United States to prevent future terrorist attacks like the Christmas Day attempt by a young Nigerian. In a preliminary report, the Dutch government on Wednesday said the plan to blow up the Detroit-bound aircraft was professional but called its execution “amateurish.” Interior Minister Guusje Ter Horst said Abdulmutallab apparently assembled the explosive device, including 80 grams of PETN, in the aircraft toilet, then planned to detonate it with a syringe of chemicals. Abdulmutallab arrived in Amsterdam on Friday from Lagos, Nigeria. After a layover of less than three hours, he passed through a security check at the gate in Amsterdam, including a hand baggage scan and a metal detector.

Security companies say they have new body-scanning machines capable of screening passengers for plastic explosives in seconds that could replace the metal detectors used for decades at airports around the world. The machines could be a central part of a security review President Obama ordered Monday. The review will cover “all screening policies, technologies and procedures related to air travel,” Obama said. A “systemic failure” of the nation’s intelligence gathering and analysis allowed a Nigerian man to board a flight to Detroit on Christmas Day in an alleged attempt to blow up an airliner, President Obama said Tuesday. Experts urged the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to accelerate the installation of the body scanners that can spot hidden plastic explosives such as those Abdulmutallab apparently got past security at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport as he boarded a flight to Detroit.

Obama’s K-12 Policy Doesn’t Change Much

For the nation’s K-12 schools, 2009 may well go down as the year when everything changed but little happened. A new president promised a fresh start but angered many in even his own party by polishing his predecessor’s apple. Obama administration officials promised a new, “forward-thinking” approach to education. Public opinion had slipped for No Child Left Behind, President Bush‘s signature education reform law, which requires schools to test most children in math and reading each year in an attempt to reduce a nagging achievement gap between whites and minorities. So President Obama’s inauguration represented a fresh start to supporters. But Obama kept teachers unions at arm’s length. He talked a lot about test scores — and Arne Duncan, his Education secretary, promoted charter schools and performance-based teacher pay, as did predecessor Margaret Spellings. This prompted education historian Diane Ravitch to declare that Obama was giving Bush “a third term in education.”

Catastrophe Costs Drop in 2009

Insurers’ losses from natural disasters fell more than half in 2009 thanks to fewer hurricanes and earthquakes, a leading reinsurer said Tuesday. Munich Re said in its annual review that insured losses came in at $22 billion this year, down from $50 billion in 2008. It said total economic losses, including losses not covered by insurance, fell 75% to $50 billion from last year’s $200 billion. Winter storm Klaus was the costliest weather disaster in 2009. The storm, which hit northern Spain and southwest France on Jan. 23-25, with winds of up to 121 mph, caused more than a million people to lose power, damaged buildings and cars and wrecked numerous solar panel farms in Spain. Insured losses came to $3 billion amid total losses of $5.1 billion. The Sept. 30 earthquake that shook Sumatra caused the biggest number of deaths, with 1,200 people killed when the 7.6 magnitude quake caused tens of thousands of homes to collapse in Padang. Deaths from severe storms the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan numbered more than 1,700.

Cardiologists Sue over Medicare Fee Cuts

Heart specialists on Monday filed suit against Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius in an effort to stave off steep Medicare fee cuts for routine office-based procedures such as nuclear stress tests and echocardiograms. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, charges that the government’s planned cutbacks will deal a major blow to medical care in the USA, forcing thousands of cardiologists to shutter their offices, sell diagnostic equipment and work for hospitals, which charge more for the same procedures. “What they’ve done is basically killed the private practice of cardiology,” says Jack Lewin, CEO of the American College of Cardiology. The fee cuts are separate from the health care bills now winding their way through Congress.

Local Government Pension Costs Exceed $530 billion

U.S. state and local governments face more than $530 billion in unfunded public pension liabilities and most do not have funds set aside to pay for them, a government report showed on Wednesday. As of June, state governments were on the hook for around $405 billion and 39 of the country’s largest local governments must come up with around $130 billion for their other post employment benefits, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said. The report said unfunded state liabilities ranged from as low as $71 million in Arizona to $62 billion in California. Local government liabilities ranged from $15 million for a county in Arizona to over $59 billion for New York City, the GAO said. The economic meltdown hit all U.S. municipalities hard and many have had difficulty keeping up with their pension, or OPEB, obligations. “Unfunded OPEB liabilities on their own are large enough to represent a fiscal pressure for state and local governments,” the GAO said. “Most state and local governments included in our review are paying for their OPEB liabilities for active and retired workers in a given year from their current revenues.”

“Payment Shock” Coming

The New York Times warns that U.S. debt is rising so fast that the federal government is careening toward a “payment shock” in the not-too-distant future. The national debt now stands at more than $12 trillion, and the White House has estimated that servicing the debt will rise to more than $700 billion a year in 2019, up from $202 billion in 2009. The additional $500 billion a year in interest payments would surpass the combined budgets in 2009 for education, energy, homeland security, plus the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. faces not only huge new debts incurred in response to the economic meltdown, but also a balloon of short-term borrowing coming due in the months ahead.

1 in 4 Mortgages “Under Water”

The Wall Street Journal reports that  about 23 % of U.S. homeowners, nearly 10.7 million households, owe more on their mortgages that their properties are worth, and 5.3 million households are tied to mortgages that are at least 20% higher than their current home value.  Those properties with negative equity are more likely to fall into foreclosure and get dumped into an already saturated market, slowing a housing recovery. In Nevada, 65% of mortgage borrowers owe more than their home is worth, and Arizona also has a high percentage of properties with negative equity.

Economic News

A more upbeat outlook on jobs pushed Americans’ confidence in the economy higher in December for the second month in a row, a survey released Tuesday said. Consumers’ outlook on the job market over the next six months reached its highest level in two years. The New York-based The Conference Board said Tuesday that its Consumer Confidence Index rose to 52.9, up from a revised 50.6 in November, but the reading is still far short of the 90 that would signify a solid economy. In October, consumer confidence had reached 48.7. The index, which hit a historic low of 25.3 in February, had enjoyed a three-month climb from March through May.

More U.S. credit card users fell further behind on their payments in November, Moody’s Investor’s Services said Tuesday. The charge-off rate on U.S. credit cards, as measured by Moody’s Credit Card Index, rose to 10.56% last month after falling for the two previous months. The charge-off rate measures those credit card account balances written off as uncollectable, as an annualized percentage of total outstanding principal balance. The record-high of 10.76% was reached in June.

A congressional stalemate has left the federal estate tax, the levy on assets left to heirs, in doubt for at least part of 2010. The tax is poised to expire Thursday, though the House and Senate are expected to pass a reauthorization next year, possibly retroactive to Jan. 1. In the meantime, what might seem like a potential tax savings has become a guessing game for taxpayers, accountants, estate planners and tax lawyers. The impasse also could mean capital gains taxes on more inheritances.

Rebates to buy energy-efficient appliances, announced by the U.S. government in July, are so far available only in Delaware and won’t be offered in many states until spring. The $300 million “cash for appliances” program, funded by the federal economic stimulus, is being rolled out gradually, state-by-state. In contrast, the popular “cash for clunkers” car trade-in program was national, so all buyers were eligible the same day. Since the program is new, it’s taking time for each state to set up its own rules and “framework” for handing out the rebates.

Iran

Iran‘s police chief threatened Wednesday to show “no mercy” in crushing any new opposition protests and said more than 500 demonstrators have been arrested in the wake of this week’s deadly clashes. Tens of thousands of hard-liner government supporters turned out for state-sponsored rallies Wednesday to try to show strength against the pro-reform opposition movement. At rallies in the cities of Shiraz, Arak, Qom, Tehran and several others, they chanted “Death to Opponents” of the Islamic establishment. The government gave all civil servants and employees a day off to attend the rallies and organized buses to transport groups of schoolchildren and supporters from outlying rural areas to the protests.

Iraq

Staggered explosions killed 23 people — 13 of them policemen — and injured the governor of Anbar on Wednesday, Iraqi officials said, the worst violence in months to hit the western province as it struggles to stamp out the remnants of the al-Qaeda insurgency. Anbar is strategically important because it was once the heartland of support for al-Qaeda linked militants before American officials paid Iraqi fighters to join a pro-government force.

Gunmen killed five Sunni security guards — including one by beheading — in a gruesome pre-dawn slaying Tuesday at a village checkpoint in central Iraq The five victims were members of the Sons of Iraq, or Awakening Councils — a Sunni-dominated security force now on the government payroll that has been targeted in revenge attacks after helping turn the tide against al-Qaeda.

Pakistan

The waters off Somalia are teeming with pirates who have hijacked dozens of ships for multimillion-dollar ransoms in the past two years. An international naval force now patrols the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Monday’s bombing against a Shiite procession marking the key holy day of Ashoura sparked riots as people rampaged through the city, setting fire to markets and stores. Firefighters were still battling the flames Tuesday, with authorities calling for reinforcements. Hundreds of shops had been destroyed, with damages estimated to run into millions of dollars.

Japan

When the U.S. took over a Japanese airfield in the closing days of World War II, it was surrounded by sugarcane fields and the smoldering battlegrounds of Okinawa. It is now the focus of a deepening dispute that is testing Japan‘s security alliance with the United States and dividing its new government in Tokyo. That Marine Corps Air Station Futenma must go is not the dispute. U.S. military officials agree the base must be moved. The problem is where. The United States says that Futenma cannot be shut down until a replacement is elsewere on Okinawa, an idea that most Okinawans oppose. They have the ear of a new left-leaning Japanese government that took office in September and is reassessing the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Somalia

Pirates seized a British-flagged chemical tanker and a Panamanian-flagged carrier off Somalia‘s coast and were holding 45 crewmembers Tuesday The two hijackings late Monday showed that pirates are relentless in their pursuit of quick money from ransom and that ship owners need to take extra precaution when sailing in the Horn of Africa,. The waters off Somalia are teeming with pirates who have hijacked dozens of ships for multimillion-dollar ransoms in the past two years. An international naval force now patrols the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, but the area is too vast to completely shut down the pirates.

Earthquakes

A 5.7-magnitude earthquake has jolted parts of Bangladesh, but there have been no immediate reports of casualties or damage. The moderate intensity quake shook the capital, Dhaka, and other districts across the country after 4:00 p.m. (0900 GMT) local time Tuesday. The epicenter of the quake was near India-Myanmar border.

Wildfires

Wildfires possibly sparked by fallen power lines roared across a swath of western Australia on Wednesday, razing almost 40 homes and sending hundreds of people fleeing for their lives, officials and witnesses said. At least three people were injured. Two major blazes burned out of control overnight after breaking out Tuesday afternoon in a wheat and sheep farming district north of the coastal city of Perth, forcing the evacuation of the township of Toodyay and threatening a second town, Badgingarra, farther north. The two fires scorched a combined total of more than 33,000 acres of forest and farmland before cooler conditions on Wednesday helped hundreds of firefighters contain them.

Weather

A snowstorm blamed for a fatal crash and a fuel truck rollover served as a prelude to wind gusts of nearly 50 mph, dangerous wind chills and some of the coldest weather of the season in northern New England, and knocked out power to thousands of homes and businesses across Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. The wind, along with plunging temperatures, created dangerous wind chills for those venturing outside. In Vermont, the gusty weather prompted some ski resorts to close lifts.

St. Louis got more than a foot more rain than usual this year, making 2009 its fifth wettest on record and raising the risk of spring floods, forecasters said Monday. St. Louis has had 50.84 inches of rain this year — 12.4 inches more than usual. A record 12.38 inches of rain fell in October, a month when the city usually gets less than 3 inches. Last year was St. Louis’ wettest on record with 57.96 inches.

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