Another Earthquake in Chile

A 7.2 magnitude earthquake shook the ground near Libertador General Bernardo O’Higgins, near the Chilean coast Thursday morning. It struck just as Chile prepared to inaugurate a new president, Sebastian Pinera. The epicenter was about 71 miles away from Valparasio, Chile, where Pinera was to be inaugurated.  Television footage showed the inauguration proceeding without a hitch. The quake was almost 22 miles deep and centered 95 miles southwest of Santiago. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said in a statement that “a destructive Pacific-wide tsunami is not expected” and there is no tsunami threat to Hawaii. Too soon for reports on injuries and damages.

Experts say that Chile‘s response to one of history’s most powerful earthquakes has been a model for disaster recovery. At first, the problems were all too obvious: Chile’s navy and emergency preparedness office failed to issue a tsunami warning that might have saved hundreds of lives after the Feb. 27 quake. But experts say other smart moves — like insisting that foreign help meet specific needs, quickly patching up roads and having the military handle logistics — made it possible to deliver 12,000 tons of relief in just 10 days. And despite extensive damage to hospitals, few additional lives have been lost since the tsunami retreated, leaving at least 497 dead and hundreds missing.

Virginia Approves Bill Banning Mandated Health Care, Utah Exempts Guns

Virginia’s General Assembly became the first in the nation Wednesday to approve legislation that bucks any attempt by President Obama and Congress to implement national health care overhaul in individual states. The Republican-ruled House of Delegates, with wide Democratic support, voted 80-17 without debate for the largely symbolic step of banning federally mandated health care. Thirty-four other state legislatures have either filed or proposed similar measures — statutes or constitutional amendments — rejecting health insurance mandates, according to the American Legislative Exchange Council. The legality of bills like Virginia’s is questionable because courts generally rule that federal laws supersede those of the states.

Utah has become the third state to adopt a law exempting guns and ammunition made, sold and used in the state from massive federal regulations under the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and supporters say about 30 more states have some sort of plan for their own exemptions in the works. Officials in Utah say they expect a lawsuit over their direct challenge to Washington if the federal government succeeds in its current case against Montana’s law. Wyoming and South Dakota, they have passed legislation and it’s on their governors’ desks. Oklahoma’s House has passed a plan over to the Senate. Idaho’s House has just passed it along. Alaska’s has passed the House and is in the Senate Judiciary committee.

  • Despite the Constitution’s promotion of states rights for all but a few purposes, our court system continues to promote federal control in most areas

Senate Extends Aid for Jobless, Health Care for Poor

The Senate voted Wednesday to extend a host of soon-to-expire elements of last year’s economic stimulus measure, including help for the jobless and money to help financially strapped states pay for health care for the poor. The 62-36 vote came over protests from conservatives who say the bill adds too much to the $12.5 trillion national debt. Six Republicans joined all but one Democrat in voting for the bill. The plight of the jobless and the political power of an annual package of tax breaks powered the measure through the Senate, even though it would add more than $130 billion to the budget deficit over the next year and a half.

House Bars Earmarks to For-Profits

Hit by recent ethics scandals, House Democratic leaders Wednesday barred the long-standing practice that allows members to direct federal spending to specific private companies. The move marks a dramatic shift in policy. The practice has been denounced by watchdog groups, such as Taxpayers for Common Sense, as ripe for corruption. The new rule comes after a damaging ethics report linking campaign donations to the special projects, known as earmarks. Lawmakers directed about 1,000 earmarks worth $1.7 billion to companies this budget year. That’s about 10% of the $16 billion in all earmarks, most of which went to non-profits and government agencies. How much the new rule will reduce such spending is unclear. The Senate so far has refused to go along.

Job-Focused Voters Weary of D.C. Games, Feel Less Safe

There’s a gaping disconnect between what Americans care about and what President Barack Obama and Congress, Democrats and Republicans are actually doing. A new Associated Press-GfK poll tells the story: contempt for lawmakers, a bare majority approving of what Obama is doing. Only 22 percent of Americans, less than at any previous point in Obama’s presidency, approve of Congress, the new AP-GfK poll indicates. Just over half like what Obama is doing. Frustration is directed at both Republicans and Democrats. Half of all people say they want to fire their congressman. Unemployment and the economy are the issues Americans are most concerned about; health care trails behind those issues as well as terrorism and the federal budget deficit. Even voters who supported Obama and his Democrats have soured on Washington.

Nearly half of Americans believe the U.S. is less safe against terrorism since President Barack Obama took office — and 35 percent say the nation is “much less safe,” a Newsmax/Zogby poll reveals. “By some estimates, we had as many as 14 attempted or successful jihadist attacks on this country during 2009, as opposed to an average of two to three in the previous years since 2001,” says Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy and former assistant secretary of defense for International Security Policy.

Archbishop Defends Catholic School Decision on Banning Lesbians’ Kids

The archbishop of Denver on Tuesday defended a decision by a Catholic school not to allow two children to continue as students because their parents are a lesbian couple. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said it was a “painful situation,” but the decision by Sacred Heart of Jesus parish school in Boulder was in line with church teachings. Chaput said the school told the parents that one of the children could complete kindergarten and the other could complete preschool, but neither could continue after that.

  • The rights of private and religious enterprises to affirm their beliefs is under severe attack

Minority Births to Outnumber White Births Soon

Minorities make up nearly half the children born in the U.S., part of a historic trend in which minorities are expected to become the U.S. majority over the next 40 years. Demographers say this year could be the “tipping point” when the number of babies born to minorities outnumbers that of babies born to whites. The numbers are growing because immigration to the U.S. has boosted the number of Hispanic women in their prime childbearing years. Minorities made up 48% of U.S. children born in 2008, the latest census estimates available, compared to 37% in 1990. There are now more Hispanic women of prime childbearing age who tend to have more children than women of other races.

Food Product Recall Expands

The recall of products containing a potentially salmonella-tainted flavoring ingredient ballooned this week with the addition of 1.7 million pounds of ready-to-eat beef taquito and chicken quesadilla products from a Houston firm. All the recalled products contained hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP). That is an MSG-like flavor enhancer made by Basic Food Flavors of North Las Vegas, Nev., which on March 4 announced a recall of its entire production dating to Feb. 17, 2009. To date, 105 products containing the ingredient have been recalled, including bouillons, dip mixes, salad dressings, gravy mixes, snacks, soups and ready-to-eat foods. The Food and Drug Administration is continuously updating the recall list at www.foodsafety.gov.

Cyber Thieves Stealing from Large Number of Small Businesses

Cybercriminals are cracking into the online bank accounts of small- and medium-sized businesses at an unprecedented rate.  Banks are failing to take proactive steps to protect their SMB customers, and, as a result, many SMBs are changing banks. That’s what the Ponemon Institute and Guardian Analytics found in a survey of more than 500 executives and owners of SMBs in the U.S. These findings quantify the degree to which cyber crooks are wiring funds from online banking accounts. The study results, released Tuesday, show: 55% of businesses reported experiencing fraud in the last 12 months; 80% of banks failed to catch fraud before funds were transferred out of their institution; 57% of the respondents that experienced a fraud attack were not fully compensated by their banks; 26% were not compensated for any part of their losses; 40% of defrauded businesses moved their banking activities elsewhere.

Miami-Dade Hospital System Near Insolvency

The city’s major hospital network, which runs Miami‘s only round-the-clock trauma center and is a safety net for the poor and uninsured, is running out of money and could close, a predicament that illustrates the precarious financial state of many hospitals around the country. The Jackson Health System will have little cash on hand by the end of March if it does not receive a $67 million advance from the county. “Sadly, it’s not all that unique,” Larry S. Gage, president of the National Association of Public Hospitals & Health System, said of financial difficulties like the one Jackson is facing. Millions of people across the country have lost jobs and the insurance that goes with them over the last two years. Hospitals, including in the Jackson network, are dealing with more uninsured patients while facing cuts in state and county funding. That has translated into cuts in staff, services and administrative costs at many hospitals across the nation.

Half of Kansas City Public Schools to Close

The Kansas City school board is closing nearly half of the district’s schools in a desperate bid to stay afloat. The board’s 5-4 decision Wednesday night means 29 out of 61 schools will shut down at the end of the school year. The district is seeking to erase a projected $50 million budget shortfall. Teachers at six other low-performing schools will have to reapply for their jobs, and the district will sell its downtown central office. The plan, proposed by Superintendent John Covington, also will eliminate about 700 of 3,000 jobs, including 285 teachers. The move comes after decades of dropping enrollment but few efforts to reduce buildings or staff. Over the past 40 years, enrollment has dropped from more than 75,000 students to about 17,500.

  • Government bureaucracies remain bloated no matter what, seldom reducing size until absolutely forced to do so. The feds are still passing the buck while local and state entities are now facing the music because they can’t print the money they think they need

Economic News

The number of newly laid-off workers requesting unemployment benefits fell last week, latest sign the employment picture is slowly brightening. The Labor Department said initial jobless claims fell 6,000 to a seasonally adjusted 462,000. In late December, claims fell to 434,000, lowest level since July 2008. Claims peaked at 674,000 in the spring. In a healthy economy, the number would be in the 300,000-350,000 range.

The foreclosure crisis isn’t over, but the pace of growth may finally be slowing down. RealtyTrac said Thursday that the number of U.S. households facing foreclosure in February grew 6% from the year-ago level, the smallest annual increase in four years. More than 308,000 households, or one in every 418 homes, received a foreclosure-related notice in February, down more than 2% from January.

The U.S. trade deficit unexpectedly shrank in January, reflecting a big drop in imports of oil and foreign cars. American exports also fell, a potential blow to hopes that the economic recovery will be helped this year by U.S. sales abroad. The Commerce Department said the trade deficit declined to $37.3 billion in January, a drop of 6.6%. U.S. exports dipped 0.3%, reflecting weaker sales of a wide variety of products from civilian aircraft and machinery to agricultural products. But imports dropped by a larger 1.7% as both oil and foreign cars saw big declines.

As Toyota sought to contain the fallout from a California sudden-acceleration case involving a Prius, another driver’s out-of-control Prius slammed into a stone wall in New York on Tuesday. The new Prius incident came as Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rushed investigators to San Diego to analyze the 2008 Toyota Prius involved in a runaway incident.

Israel

Vice President Joe Biden condemned Israel’s plan to build 1,600 new homes in disputed east Jerusalem, saying it undermined trust in peace efforts. Biden is in Israel to help restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel has apologized for embarrassing Biden, but not backed down from the construction plan.  The Arab League recommended on Wednesday to withdraw its support for indirect talks between Palestinians and Israelis due to recent announcements of the new settlement building in east Jerusalem.

Greece

Greek police fired tear gas to disperse protesters throwing rocks and firebombs outside Parliament as more than 20,000 people marched through central Athens during a nationwide strike against the government’s harsh new austerity measures. The strike brought the country to a virtual standstill Thursday, grounding all flights and bringing public transport to a halt. State hospitals were left with emergency staff only and all news broadcasts were suspended as workers walked off the job for 24 hours to protest spending cuts and tax hikes designed to tackle the country’s debt crisis. Riot police fired volleys of tear gas to disperse protesters throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails in sporadic clashes throughout the demonstration outside Parliament.

Iraq

Though there remains much work to be done in Iraq, the election turnout last Sunday suggests that American efforts to promote stability and democracy in the region are paying off. Despite threats of violence, nearly 62 percent of Iraq’s 19 million voters showed up to the polls in what the New York Times describes as “arguably the most open, most competitive election in the nation’s long history of colonial rule, dictatorship and war.” But the Iraqi regime still faces many internal and external hurdles. Perhaps the greatest challenge is its larger neighbor to the east: Iran, the foremost state sponsor of terrorism. The Iranian regime is steadfast in its desire to sabotage Iraq’s democratic experiment. Its threat to Iraq’s fledging democracy cannot and should not be downplayed. Were they to succeed, the repercussions would stretch beyond Iraq and into the entire Middle East and even back to the United States.

Afghanistan

The State Department is failing to properly oversee nearly $2 billion in contracts to battle the drug trade, build infrastructure and train police in Afghanistan, according to a bluntly worded internal assessment. “Embassy oversight of contracts and grants is seriously inhibited by the dangerous security conditions … as well as by the shortage of qualified contract officer representatives in Kabul,” says the report, released last week. The report by the department’s inspector general questions whether the U.S. will be able to stabilize the country in time to meet President Obama’s goal of withdrawing some troops by June 2011. The embassy, which reports to special representative Richard Holbrooke, says the report is generally “accurate in its assessments,” spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in an e-mail from Kabul. “We are already implementing a great majority of the report’s recommendations.” That includes better contract oversight.

Somalia

Up to half the food aid intended for the millions of hungry people in Somalia is being diverted to corrupt contractors, radical Islamic militants and diverted to cartels who were selling it illegally, according to a U.N. Security Council report. The report blames the problem on improper food distribution in the Horn of Africa nation, which has been plagued by fighting and humanitarian suffering for nearly two decades. Transporters in Somalia must truck bags of food through roadblocks manned by a bewildering array of militias, insurgents and bandits. Kidnappings and executions are common and the insecurity makes it difficult for senior U.N. officials to travel to the country to check on procedures.

Christians Expelled, Forced to Abandon 33 Foster Kids in Morocco

The Christian Post reports that 33 Moroccan children were forced to say goodbye to their effective parents on Monday, when police ordered their Christian caretakers to leave the country. Authorities accused Christian volunteers and foster parents at Village of Hope (VoH) orphanage of proselytizing and forced them to board a bus for the airport. Many of the children, who could not legally be adopted by their Christian foster parents, had been in their care since the orphanage opened 10 years ago. “Watching the children be told by their parents that they had to leave, that they would maybe never see them again, is the most painful thing I have ever witnessed,” said Chris Broadbent of VoH. The overwhelmingly Muslim country had given the orphanage permission to operate despite the open faith of its volunteers and foster parents.

Hundreds Flee New Religious Violence in Nigeria

Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports that youths in Jos, Nigeria, are holding protests following the massacre of more than 200 Christians in several villages. Survivors of the massacre say armed men arrived at around three o’clock on Sunday morning, and woke the villagers simultaneously with gun fire and shouting, before setting homes on fire and attacking men, women and children with knives. Army assistance was requested, but arrived after the massacre had taken place. Some youths are now calling for the army to leave, as they question its role in the violence and feel its presence has done little to deter attacks on isolated communities. Sky News reports that more than 90 people, including 19 Muslim Fulani herdsmen, have been arrested following Sunday’s violence. The Associated Press reports that hundreds of people have fled the city of Jos and surrounding areas following Sunday’s massacre. According to Red Cross spokesman Robin Waubo, the aid agency doesn’t really know how many people were killed, although officials have estimated that about 500 people, mostly women and children, were killed. More than 600 people fled the area into neighboring Bauchi state, the Red Cross said.

Weather

At least five homes and a barn owned by the county government were destroyed and other structures were damaged Monday by a large tornado in the western Oklahoma town of Hammon. No injuries were reported with the storm. The roofs of several other houses were blown off, and power lines were down throughout the area. Tornadoes cut a path through much of Arkansas on Wednesday, destroying a handful of homes and injuring four people. Nine houses in the county also were damaged.

Weather forecasters say the wetter-than-usual El Niño winter that has blasted much of the United States could be followed by an active tornado season. El Niño is a seasonal weather pattern in which warm equatorial winds that periodically push toward the West Coast send moist air to the nation’s interior. Tornadoes can happen at any time, but they are most common in the first half of the year in the USA.

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