Friday September 2nd, 2005

Houston mayor opens George R. Brown convention Center and Reliant Center to refugees...Corporate relief contributions top $100 million...Risk assessment firm projects economic losses at over $100 billion...

Houston Mayor Bill White says the George R. Brown Convention Center, as well as the exhibition hall at Reliant Center, are authorized to accept Hurricane Katrina refugees. Reliant Center can accommodate 11,000 people. He says if a convention group wants to sue to the city, they can explain it to the American people. Some 22,000 evacuees have come to Houston so far and been processed, including 15,000 in the Astrodome and 4,000 to local shelters. About 3,000 were being processed in Reliant Arena this morning. Harris County Judge Robert Eckels says Reliant Arena is a transitional facility, and not a shelter. Medical needs are being assessed there, and food and water are being provided. Then people are being sent to shelters. The U. S. Postal Service created a special ZIP code to handle mail for Astrodome evacuees: 77230.


Hurricane Katrina damaged or displaced an estimated 58 oil platforms and drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. That's according to the American Petroleum Institute. Among those, 30 rigs and platforms have been reported as lost. API spokesman Tim Sampson says no breakdown of the affected rigs by companies is available. Sampson says that even with these reports, it's still too early to gauge damage in the Gulf. One of the more significant reported losses of platforms or rigs came from Houston-based Apache Corporation. Apache said it lost eight platforms that produce almost 7,200 barrels of oil and 12 million cubic feet of natural gas per day. An Apache spokesman says about ten percent of the lost oil production and two percent of the shut in gas reported earlier this week. Earlier in the week, the Diamond Offshore Drilling rig Ocean Warwick was found beached on Dauphin Island off the Coast of Alabama. That's about 60 miles from its original position. Diamond also had another rig, Ocean Voyager, break from its moorings, but tug boats were bringing it to shipyards for further assessment. Also, earlier in the week, Houston-based Shell Oil reported heavy topside flooding to its Mars platform.


Hurricane Katrina kicked the average price of regular self-serve gasoline to record levels in Texas and across the nation. A survey by the Oil Price Information Service shows the average price of regular grade at Texas gas pumps early today was $2.63 per gallon. That's about a nickel higher than last week. But AAA Texas spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says motorists are seeing much higher prices for regular grade of $3 a gallon and beyond. She says prices increased by 50 cents a gallon overnight after Hurricane Katrina hit shore. Rougeau says the auto club is advising motorists not to top off their tanks and to take measures to conserve gasoline. The national average is $2.68 cents per gallon--up almost eight cents from last week. AAA Texas' Weekend Gas Watch found the average price of regular self-serve gasoline this morning in Houston up six cents to $2.63.

Americans want President Bush and Congress to do something about soaring gas prices. An poll finds that the chief concern is still the war in Iraq but the price at the pump comes in a strong number two. According to an AP-Ipsos poll, 24 percent of those questioned listed gas prices as their chief concern. Twenty-nine percent of Americans named the Iraq situation as the top priority for the nation's political leaders. Other issues of concern were the economy and jobs, and terrorism. President Bush has moved to release oil from the government's emergency stockpile and temporarily ease pollution standards on gasoline and diesel fuel.


Federal and state authorities are fielding thousands of complaints from angry consumers. The Federal Energy Department reports getting more than 5,000 calls to its price gouging hotline in a single day. It is handing the complaints over to the Federal Trade Commission. Democratic members of Congress are urging the FTC to get more aggressive with its review of the complaints. They say hundreds of reports of price gouging were made in Illinois alone. Attorney's General from a number of states held a telephone conference to discuss possible investigations. States getting the most complaints included North Carolina, Georgia, New York, Texas and Michigan.

The STRONG>State Attorney General's Office says Texans wanting to help Hurricane Katrina relief should give through well-known charities to avoid bogus charities. Attorney General Greg Abbott warned that door-to-door con artists and telephone, e-mail and Internet scams might be on the rise. To avoid being swindled, consumers should ask for credentials from solicitors, call the charity to confirm information, and be wary of appeals that provide few details. Consumers can file complaints about suspicious charities with the Attorney General's office by calling (800) 252-8011, or online .


Houston residents will be able to donate food and other items for victims of Hurricane Katrina by simply leaving their items on the curb outside their homes. The city's Solid Waste Management Department is sponsoring a food and clothing drive. Houston residents are being asked to place their donated items in a grocery bag at their home's curbside on their regular garbage collection day next week. The items will be picked up by Solid Waste Management Department workers on their rounds and distributed to hurricane victims.


The Chamber of Commerce says corporate contributions could top $100 million by the end of this week. The Chamber's Stephen Jordan says help is coming from every corner of the nation. First out of the gate was Office Depot, which gave $1 million grant to the American Red Cross on Sunday. The company then challenged other members of the Business Roundtable to do the same. The Red Cross says 30 pharmaceutical companies are donating things like antibiotics, pain relievers and vials of the hepatitis A vaccine. General Motors and Nissan are both sending vehicles to help with the relief effort, and Anheuser-Busch is contributing hundreds of thousands of cans of water. Wal-Mart says it is providing $15 million. The world's largest retailer is also planning to set up "mini-Wal-Mart'' stores in the area to provide free supplies like water, diapers and clothing to those in need. It announced the increased donation after CEO Lee Scott contacted former President Clinton and the White House. Drug maker Wyeth says it plans to donate antibiotics and pain relievers, while Johnson and Johnson is providing $250,000 worth of kits containing toothbrushes, soap and shampoo. Beer giant Anheuser-Busch says it will donate more than two million cans of drinking water a week to Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. To supply the much-needed water, it is converting brewery operations here in Houston and Cartersville, Georgia. Like other large corporations, it has pledged $1 million to the American Red Cross for Hurricane Relief. The maker of Budweiser and Michelob says it will also make its large truck fleet, based at 12 domestic breweries, available to help the Red Cross ship emergency supplies such as generators, food and clothing. The U. S. Chamber of Commerce says corporate contributions could soon top $100 million.

Some Hurricane Katrina refugees in Houston are getting food, a place to shower--and a chance to sign on. Companies and non-profit agencies are working to give thousands of evacuees at the Astrodome more access to the outside world. The sprawling stadium already had a bank of telephones set up. Donated computers with high speed Internet are planned as part of the effort led by a non-profit group called "Technology for All.'' Displaced residents from the Superdome in New Orleans are getting ten-minute blocks of time make free local and long distance calls. A center is being set up with 40 desktop computers loaded with office productivity software and connected to the Internet. San Antonio-based SBC Communications plans to install about 1,000 telephone lines and will offer free high-speed Internet service.

Continental Airlines says it'll donate a thousand tickets for victims of Hurricane Katrina in their efforts to relocate around the country. The tickets will be given to various relief agencies, which will then arrange travel for qualifying individuals. The ticket donation is in addition to Continental's gift of one million frequent flier miles to both the American Red Cross and Americares. Houston-based Continental is also waiving advance purchase requirements of any fare, including discount ones, for residents of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. The offer is for travel originating through Monday.


Shipments of grain and other cargo have languished on barges on the Mississippi River since Saturday because of Hurricane Katrina. The barges have been unable to pass through the New Orleans ports. It's unclear when the ports will reopen--raising questions about what will happen with this year's upcoming corn and soybean harvest. Officials with alternative ports in Houston, Corpus Christi and Tampa, Florida say they're ready to handle incoming ships. But experts tell the Associated Press that New Orleans ports are critical to what goes out. New Orleans traditionally has handled more than half of the country's grain exports to overseas destinations. The Coast Guard has closed ports and waterways stretching from Texas to Florida. The lower Mississippi and other waterways are open to limited tug and barge traffic to help with hurricane-related cleanup.

Port officials are preparing to reopen the Mobile Ship Channel this weekend, with some restrictions. The channel was closed pending a survey of hurricane damage. Restrictions on shipping could include limiting ship drafts to 42 feet in the upper channel leading into the port until dredging can be done to remove some shoaling caused by the hurricane. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Patrick Robbins in Mobile says crews are trying to get the aids to navigation back in place in the waterway. The channel stretches some 35 miles from just south of the mouth of Mobile Bay up into the Port of Mobile. It provides shipping access through the shallow waters of mobile bay into Mobile's harbor. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard's Unified Command Mobile says the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway from Mobile to New Orleans remains closed. The 1,300 waterway from Brownsville, Texas to Saint Marks, Florida is normally heavily traveled by barge traffic. Also remaining closed are the ship channels to the Mississippi ports of Pascagoula, Biloxi and Gulfport.


A leading risk assessment firm is projecting the economic loss from Hurricane Katrina and flooding in New Orleans at over $100 billion. Risk Management Solutions says the losses are the result of two separate catastrophic events: the landfall of Hurricane Katrina last Monday, and the New Orleans flood which resulted from failure of the levee systems that protect the city. The company says at least 50 percent of the total economic loss is expected to come from flooding in New Orleans, in addition to hurricane losses from wind and coastal surge, infrastructure damage, and indirect economic impacts. On Monday, RMS issued preliminary insured loss estimates of up to $25 billion for Hurricane Katrina, prior to evidence of the levee failure and flooding. Credit rating agency Standard and Poor's has said that damage from the hurricane could reach $50 billion once damage to bridges, roads and other public infrastructure is counted.


The Home Depot has paid $1.35 billion to buy a distributor of products used to build and repair wastewater transmission systems. The deal involves Waco-based National Waterworks Holdings. The update came today in a regulatory filing by Atlanta-based Home Depot. The measure was announced in July, but the price wasn't previously disclosed. Home Depot outlined the price in its quarterly report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, adding that the deal closed in August. The acquisition will be operated under the Home Depot Supply brand. The purchase is part of Home Depot's effort to expand its division focused on business-to-business customers. National Waterworks has 130 branches in 36 states.


Three former Enron executives facing fraud and conspiracy charges complain that federal prosecutors have denied their attorneys access to key witnesses. Attorneys for Enron founder Kenneth Lay, former CEO Jeffrey Skilling and former top accountant Richard Causey filed the motion in federal court on Wednesday. The complaint alleges prosecutorial misconduct. The three are scheduled to go trial in January, all three have pleaded not guilty to all charges. Defense attorneys have long said prosecutors had pressured witnesses to not talk to the defendants. They said access to those witnesses, including more than 100 unindicted co-conspirators, is critical to their cases. U. S. District Judge Sim Lake has set a court hearing for next week in Houston.


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