Wildfires

Firefighters are planning their biggest aerial assault yet Friday of a massive wildfire that has raged for days across Central Texas, destroying nearly 1,400 homes and tens of thousands of acres of drought-parched land. Crews have been making steady progress against the blaze burning in and around Bastrop, closing in around its biggest flames. Concern lingers, however, about wind sparking flare-ups or fanning flames outside the area. The fire has been the most catastrophic of nearly 180 wildfires that the forest service says erupted across Texas this week. The outbreak has left nearly 1,700 homes statewide in charred ruins, killed four people and forced thousands of people to evacuate. The fires have burned over 3.6 million acres (about 5,625 sq. mi.). Record heat and drought have led to fires spanning the entire Lone Star State. Seventeen major cities recorded their hottest summer this year. More than 81% of the state is in exceptional drought conditions, the worst level on record.

Weather

Stretches of the swollen Susquehanna River in New York and Pennsylvania were receding Friday morning after days of rainfall from what had been Tropical Storm Lee flooded communities around the Northeast, sweeping homes off their foundations and forcing nearly 130,000 people to seek higher ground. At least 11 deaths have been blamed on Lee and its remnants. Lee’s impact was felt widely in already waterlogged Pennsylvania, as authorities closed countless roadways, including some heavily traveled interstates, and evacuation shelters were opened to serve the many displaced people.

Similar scenarios played out in Maryland and New York, but the fading storm’s wrath was also felt from Connecticut to Virginia. Evacuees were told to expect to stay at least until Sunday or Monday, and it will be some time before officials get a handle on the damage that included a partial bridge collapse in northern Pennsylvania, vehicles and other property swept away, and failed sewage treatment plants. The flooding was fed by drenching rains from Tropical Storm Lee that continued for days, and followed a little more than a week the dousing that Hurricane Irene gave the East Coast.

The USA just endured its hottest summer in 75 years and the second-hottest summer on record. The average U.S. temperature during the summer of 2011 was 74.5 degrees, which was 2.4 degrees above the long-term (1901-2000) average. Only the Dust Bowl year of 1936, at 74.6 degrees, was warmer. Four states — Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Louisiana — had their warmest summer ever recorded. Texas also suffered through its driest summer on record. The state is in the midst of its worst drought since the 1950s. More than 81% of the state is listed as experiencing extreme drought, the worst category, according to Thursday’s U.S. Drought Monitor.

Sewage-Tainted Floodwaters Threaten Public Health

Nasty floodwaters from the remnants of Lee and Irene — tainted with sewage and other toxins — threaten public health in parts of the Northeast by direct exposure or the contamination of private water wells, officials said Thursday. “We face a public health emergency because sewage treatment plants are underwater and no longer working,” Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett said. “Flood water is toxic and polluted. If you don’t have to be in it, keep out.” In Waterbury, the municipal wastewater plant was overwhelmed by flooding from Irene and raw sewage flowed into the Winooski River. A dozen Vermont towns flooded by Irene were still on boil-water orders 12 days later, though officials reported no waterborne illness. Similar precautions have been taken throughout other storm-damaged states. Vermont’s state health department, which regulates private water wells, urged residents to check their wells for bacteria with free testing kits it is distributing.

  • Wildfires, wild weather, pestilence and earthquakes are all on the increase as the “beginning of sorrows” is well underway (Matthew 24:8). Famine (e.g. Somalia) is also a growing global problem.

Obama Unveils Jobs Proposal

President Obama urged Congress Thursday night to pass a surprisingly big, $447 billion jobs package that’s intended to spur business hiring and consumer spending in an economy that has sputtered almost to a halt. The package, more than half the size of Obama’s $825 billion economic stimulus plan passed in February 2009, would slash payroll taxes by 50% next year for employees and small businesses, extend unemployment benefits, and create or save jobs for teachers, police and firefighters, and construction workers. The president didn’t say how he would pay for his proposals but promised to do so a week from Monday, when he submits a deficit-reduction plan to a congressional committee charged with cutting red ink by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

The jobs plan includes these main elements: Cutting the 6.2% payroll tax paid by both employees and employers to 3.1% next year. This year, only employees got a 2-percentage-point cut. That would cost $240 billion, more than half of the total package; Spending $140 billion to save the jobs of state and local teachers and first responders, repair deteriorating schools and rebuild roads, railways and airports; Extending jobless benefits to the unemployed, with special emphasis on those out of work at least six months and those in low-income neighborhoods. While most of these initiatives have been tried before with limited success, weaving them together into such a large package marked a bold move for a White House that has been on the defensive for more than two years of heavy government spending with only paltry economic growth to show for it.

9/11 Terror Threat Investigated

Citing several U.S. sources, Fox News reports that authorities are investigating what may be a credible terror threat to New York City or the nation’s capital days before the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. According to a senior U.S. official with knowledge of the threat, “People are aggressively pursuing leads,” and it is “specific enough to elicit worry.” Homeland Security Department spokesman Matt Chandler described the threat as specific and credible. Security has been heightened around the country before this weekend’s commemoration.

Omitting Clergy at 9/11 Ceremony Prompts Protest

The second Sunday after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, New York clergy members of many faiths joined elected officials at Yankee Stadium in a city-sponsored memorial ceremony that melded the sacred and the secular, replete with flags, prayers and tears. Ten years later, any consensus that existed about the appropriate role of religion in public ceremonies marking a monumental American trauma has fallen apart. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has come under attack by many religious and political leaders for not including clergy members as speakers at Sunday’s official ceremony at ground zero on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. At the same time, evangelical Christian leaders said they were outraged that an interfaith prayer service planned by the Washington National Cathedral did not include a Southern Baptist or other evangelical minister. Richard D. Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which is the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, said in an interview that the planned ceremony only proved that New York was the “epicenter of secularism,” out of step with the rest of America.

Some 62,000 Americans have signed petitions assembled by the Family Research Council asking him to relent. Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice wrote that the United States “has a long and cherished history of prayer, from the first prayer in Congress in 1774 to the National Day of Prayer celebrated each year. Even the Supreme Court acknowledges our religious heritage.” Now, however, a new incentive is coming into Bloomberg’s world: A lawsuit that challenges his decision on the basis of the 1st Amendment’s freedom of speech and religion provisions. What he is doing is sending a message that radical Islam takes precedence over the Judeo-Christian tradition in New York City and throughout the country. He’s sending a message that terrorists are welcome in New York City. That’s not the message that one should be sending on 9/11,” said attorney Larry Klayman, who founded Judicial Watch and now is of Freedom Watch. He said the lawsuit will be filed Friday.

Federal Court Tosses Lawsuits over Health Reform

A federal appeals court in Virginia dismissed two lawsuits Thursday that claimed President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul was unconstitutional, though it remains likely the U.S. Supreme Court will eventually decide whether the government can force individuals to buy insurance. A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals cited technicalities in both decisions and did not rule on the constitutional issues raised by the lawsuits. Two of the judges on the Virginia panel were appointed by Obama, the other by Bill Clinton. The Richmond-based appeals court is the third appellate court to rule in lawsuits challenging the health care reform law, which requires individuals to buy health insurance or pay a penalty. A federal appeals court in Cincinnati upheld the law, while an appeals court in Atlanta struck down the insurance mandate. More than 30 lawsuits have been filed across the country.

Guard Troops at Arizona Border to Stay 90 More Days

President Barack Obama’s administration said Thursday that 1,200 National Guard troops will remain on watch for drug traffickers and illegal immigrants in Arizona and other states neighboring Mexico for an additional 90 days, which analysts say is part of a political effort to demonstrate he is committed to keeping border security a priority as the 2012 election season heats up. This is the second time the Obama administration has extended the National Guard’s temporary deployment, which originally was scheduled to end in June. The extension, which will be funded by the Department of Defense, comes as the Pentagon is facing billions of dollars in budget cuts and the Obama administration is under tremendous pressure to cut spending to reduce the deficit.

Drug Survey Shows Big Drop in Methamphetamine Use

Marijuana is as popular as ever while methamphetamine is falling out of favor, a national drug-use survey has found. Nearly one in 10 Americans report regularly using illegal drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, inhalants or prescription drugs used recreationally, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health made public Thursday. Drug use among young adults 18 to 25 has inched up steadily from 19.6% in 2008 to 21.5% in 2010, driven largely by an increase in marijuana use Marijuana, with about 17.4 million regular users, is by far the most commonly used drug. Its popularity is growing: 6.9% of the population reported using marijuana regularly, up from 5.8% in 2007, the survey found.

Meanwhile, methamphetamine use, which raced across the USA for a decade, has declined sharply. The number of past-month users declined from 731,000 in 2006 to 353,000 in 2010. Since methamphetamine emerged as a problem drug in 2001, states have outlawed or restricted the sale of ingredients used to concoct homemade meth, such as pseudoephedrine found in cold medicines such as Sudafed. The percentage of the population who used prescription drugs, such as narcotic painkillers, for non-medical reasons stayed at 2.7%. The survey found that 55% of them got the drugs free from a friend or relative; 11.4% bought them from a friend or relative, and 5% stole them from a friend or relative. Just 4% purchased them from a drug dealer, the survey found.

Adult Smoking Rate Down Slightly

A new government report shows fewer U.S. adults are smoking, and those who light up are smoking fewer cigarettes daily. But the trend is weaker than the government had hoped. Overall, about 19 percent of adults said they smoked last year, down from about 21 percent in 2005. The rate for smoking 30 or more cigarettes daily dropped to about 8 percent from almost 13 percent. The decline means 3 million fewer adults were smoking.

Big Oil: To Create Jobs, Let Us Drill More

With job creation taking center stage in American politics, the oil industry Wednesday made a pitch for drilling more widely. With looser restrictions, the industry says it could deliver 1.4 million new jobs, boost tax rolls by $800 billion, and increase domestic energy production almost 50%. To hit those numbers, the industry would need to drill off the East and West Coasts, in waters off Florida’s Gulf Coast, in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and on most federal public land that’s not a national park. These areas are currently off limits to drilling, except for some public land in these regions. In addition, the industry says it would need approval to build new pipelines to facilitate a doubling of production from Canada’s vast oil sands, a halt to the gradual tightening of rules governing shale gas development, and the preservation of favorable tax policies the industry currently enjoys.

Economic News

The number of people seeking unemployment benefits ticked up slightly last week. Weekly applications for unemployment benefits rose 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 414,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. The report suggests companies aren’t significantly increasing layoffs, despite weak economic growth. But it also signals that little hiring is taking place.

However, companies advertised the most job openings in three years, a hopeful sign after the worst month for hiring in nearly a year. The Labor Department said Wednesday that employers posted 3.2 million jobs in July, up from 3.17 million in June. That is the largest number of openings since August 2008.

The ranks of self-employed Americans are shrinking. In August, 14.5 million people were self-employed, down 2.1 million from the most recent peak in December 2006, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. With tightened bank lending, reduced savings and sluggish consumer spending, many can’t afford to start a business or keep an existing one going. Adding to the trouble: Diminished home values make it difficult to get the home equity loans that the self-employed often use for capital.

Fitch Ratings said Thursday that China’s credit risk has increased because local governments have become heavily indebted, with a lack of disclosure by financial institutions compounding the problem. The comments by Fitch, one of three major credit rating agencies, come amid concern that borrowing by local authorities in China for expensive public works may overwhelm the ability of some of those local governments to repay banks. Chinese local governments borrowed heavily the past decade to build subways and other infrastructure that the central government in Beijing initially promised to pay for but then reneged.

Middle East

A top Israeli Army officer predicted “all-out war” will be initiated by Muslims from Egypt, Turkey, and Iran next month, after the U.N. vote to seize Jerusalem on 20 Sept.  Recent revolutions in the Arab world and the deteriorating ties with Turkey are raising the likelihood of a regional war in the Middle East, IDF Home Front Command Chief, Major General Eyal Eisenberg warned. “‘It looks like the Arab Spring, but it can also be a radical Islamic winter,’ he said in a speech at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. ‘This raises the likelihood of an all-out, total war, with the possibility of weapons of mass destruction being used.”

Libya

Moammar Gadhafi supporters rocketed a front line south of Tripoli Friday, testing the patience of the country’s new leaders as a grace period for the holdouts to surrender runs out. The seizure of the capital by the then-rebel forces last month effectively ended nearly 42 years of Gadhafi’s autocratic, violent and unpredictable rule. The new leaders now control most of the country, but as long as Gadhafi is on the loose, able to urge his followers on with messages from underground, they cannot claim total victory. Also Friday, Interpol said it has issued its top most-wanted alert for the arrest of Gadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam and the country’s ex-head of military intelligence, all sought by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity.

A potent stash of Russian-made surface-to-air missiles is missing from a huge Tripoli weapons warehouse amid reports of weapons looting across war-torn Libya. They are Grinch SA-24 shoulder-launched missiles, also known as Igla-S missiles, the equivalent of U.S.-made Stinger missiles. A CNN team and Human Rights Watch found dozens of empty crates marked with packing lists and inventory numbers that identified the items as Igla-S surface-to-air missiles. The warehouse contains mortars and artillery rounds, but there are empty crates for those items as well. There are also empty boxes for another surface-to-air missile, the SA-7. Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch emergencies director, told CNN he has seen the same pattern in armories looted elsewhere in Libya, noting that “in every city we arrive, the first thing to disappear are the surface-to-air missiles.” “We are talking about some 20,000 surface-to-air missiles in all of Libya, and I’ve seen cars packed with them.” he said. “They could turn all of North Africa into a no-fly zone.”

Syria

Syrian security forces barged into a hospital and snatched 18 wounded patients, including five from an operating room, the Human Rights Watch reported. The action occurred Wednesday at al-Barr hospital in the restive western city of Homs during a major military operation there. Human Rights Watch also reported that security forces prevented medical personnel from reaching wounded people in several Homs neighborhoods. The report was issued Thursday as Syrian security personnel continued their unrelenting crackdown on protesters who take to the streets daily to rail against the Bashar al-Assad regime and its policies. Meanwhile, demonstrators took to the streets on Friday in Homs and the southern city of Daraa. Mass protests across the country have been staged after Muslim prayers on Friday over the past six months.

India

A bomb hidden in a briefcase exploded Wednesday outside a crowded entrance to a New Delhi courthouse, killing 11 people and wounding scores more in the deadliest attack in India’s capital in nearly three years. The blast near a gate at the High Court, the second at the building in five months, came despite a high alert in the city. It renewed doubts about India’s ability to protect even its most important institutions despite a security overhaul that followed the 2008 Mumbai siege. A Muslim militant group claimed responsibility for the blast. The Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami extremist group said to be based in Pakistan that has been blamed for numerous terror strikes in India.

Iraq

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta is supporting a plan that would keep 3,000 to 4,000 American troops in Iraq after a deadline for their withdrawal at year’s end, but only to continue training security forces there, a senior military official said on Tuesday. The recommendation would break a longstanding pledge by President Obama to withdraw all American forces from Iraq by the deadline. But it would still involve significantly fewer forces than proposals presented at the Pentagon in recent weeks by the senior American commander in Iraq, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, to keep as many as 14,000 to 18,000 troops there.

Reacting to growing threats of new terrorist attacks from Egypt, like the one that killed eight Jews two weeks ago, Israel has moved several warships closer to the southern border with Egypt in the Red Sea. In addition, IDF forces have beefed up security along the 150-mile border. Tension between Israel and Egypt is higher than it has been in more than 30 years. The leading candidates for office in Egypt’s upcoming elections are running on campaign platforms of overturning the peace treaty with Israel.

Afghanistan

Afghan officials have been meeting with Taliban representatives to find a political solution to the conflict. The United States has said that it supports the Afghan initiative but that it is too early to report progress in the talks. However, Pakistan is reluctant to allow senior Taliban leaders to travel to Afghanistan for reconciliation talks, raising concerns that Pakistan is not helping enough to resolve the conflict. Analysts say Pakistan is attempting to play both sides in the conflict, hedging its bets in the event the Taliban remains after the United States leaves the region. The United States plans to withdraw its forces by the end of 2014.

Pakistan

A pair of suicide bombers attacked a top army officer in Pakistan’s southwestern city of Quetta on Wednesday, missing him but killing his wife. At least 22 others died, including several guards. Police said they were investigating whether the strike was in revenge for the recent arrests in Quetta of three top al-Qaida suspects, an operation that was assisted by the CIA. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

Kashmir

If nuclear war ever breaks out, the most likely place would be in Kashmir, between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan. The fabled state of Kashmir lies in majestic isolation amid the towering mountain ranges of the Himalayas and Karakoram that separate the torrid plains of north India from the steppes and deserts of Central Asia. Nineteenth Century geopoliticians called Kashmir one of the world’s primary strategic pivots and site of the world’s longest running border conflict. The state human rights commission of the Indian-ruled portion of divided Kashmir just reported its investigators had found 2,156 bodies buried in unmarked graves in 38 different locations. Most were young men. Many bore bullets wounds. Grisly and horrifying as this discovery was, there was hardly a peep from India’s allies, notably the United States and Britain, who have raised such a hue and cry over alleged civilian deaths in Libya, Iran and Syria. India shrugged off the report. Some nine million Kashmiris live in the Indian-ruled two thirds of Kashmir; over three million in the Pakistani portion, known as “Azad Kashmir,” or in Pakistan proper, and small numbers in the frigid, 15,000-20,000 ft high Aksai Chin plateau which is controlled by China.

Somalia

Leaders in Somalia signed a deal on Tuesday planning to hold elections within a year, aiming to end a string of ineffective transitional U.N.-backed administrations. The deal commits the government to a new constitution, stipulates reforms in governance and security services and calls for talks with armed opposition groups. It also says African Union troops supporting the government should spread beyond the capital of Mogadishu. That is all the territory the transitional administration currently holds. Most of the rest of southern Somalia is held by Islamist insurgents, although allied militias hold a few other areas in southern Somalia.

Six Somalis were shot dead by soldiers as families scrambled for food aid in the Somali capital on Thursday. There have been several deadly shootings in the Somali capital as starving families fight over food aid. Families had stood in line for hours before finally rushing guards and carrying off food aid. The guards tried to beat them back with rifle butts but then opened fire. Six areas in southern Somalia are suffering from famine. The effects of a devastating drought have been exacerbated by Somalia’s 20-year-old civil war.

Nigeria

A Christian family of eight were hacked to death by Muslim youths in an outbreak of sectarian violence that resulted in more than 50 fatalities in Nigeria’s volatile Plateau State. More than 40 Muslims and Christians were killed in Plateau’s capital city, Jos, last week when fighting broke out as Muslims gathered to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Many residents said that the security forces were responsible for most of the deaths, using excessive force to end the violence. Riyom, another village in Plateau State, was spared similar carnage when a bomb planted in a marketplace failed to detonate because its battery had run flat. Plateau State in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, where the predominantly Muslim north meets the mainly Christian south, is often beset by sectarian tensions. As well as religious conflict, there is political rivalry, with Christians mostly supporting the People’s Democratic Party while Muslims generally support the opposition. More than 1,000 people have been killed in sectarian violence in Jos over the past two years.

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