Friday September 9th, 2005

FEMA and Red Cross continue issuing debit cards to Hurricane Katina evacuees...FEMA head Michael Brown recalled...FEMA hires contractors to provide emergency housing...

Evacuees have begun a long walk toward money that could help them recover from Hurricane Katrina. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is distributing debit cards valued at $2,000 to members of households now living in the Astrodome complex. Thousands of people are filing into a processing center where FEMA staffers are making sure they're registered for assistance. Debra Landry is with J. P. Morgan Chase, which has ATM machines set up to help those on site.

Debra Landry audio

Armed, uniformed Secret Service agents are overseeing the process. A FEMA spokeswoman says there are enough cards to cover the families of theξ7,000 people now in the three shelters at the Astrodome complex. Other evacuees who need the cards will begin receiving theirs tomorrow. FEMA has also made $79 million in direct deposits into the bank accounts of evacuees. That includes more than $12 million for those registered in Texas. The money is considered expedited aid to help families get food, clothing and temporary housing.

The American Red Cross also continued issuing client assistance cards today in Reliant Center. The Red Cross issued 6500 cards yesterday. Evacuees must be registered with FEMA to determine eligibility for assistance.

FEMA Director Mike Brown says he doesn't know why he's been removed from onsite command of Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. He tells the Associated Press the decision was made by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Brown also denies charges he padded his resume. He says the White House and FEMA made mistakes in describing two of his past jobs. Brown says the story's not about him. Rather it's about the worst disaster in the country's history. He says he's going home to Washington where he'll walk his dog, hug his wife, maybe get a good Mexican meal, a stiff margarita and a full night's sleep. Then he says he plans to go back to FEMA and continue to help the hurricane victims.

Labor Secretary Elaine Chao has approved funding to create more than 47,000 temporary jobs for dislocated workers to provide clean-up and recovery. Traveling in Texas and Louisiana today, including here in Houston, she's hailing the outpouring of compassion and effort nationwide, saying "it is a wonderful statement about who we are as Americans.''

The American International Automobile Dealers Association has launched a Web site called Emergency Relief Auto Jobs to help provide displaced automotive personnel with a temporary job. The site will match retail auto salespeople, technicians and related personnel displaced by the hurricane with temporary job openings at dealerships around the country.

Almost 20 employers participated in a job fair at the Dallas Convention Center this week, and job fairs are set for Friday in San Antonio and Monday in Austin. Job seekers are encouraged to log on to a Web site where currently over 46,000 positions are available statewide. The Greater Houston Partnership's Jeff Mosely says a job fair in Houston is also in the works.

Jeff Mosely audio

Other recruiting events are coming from the disaster zone, in locations where evacuees are now residing. Goodwill Industries International spokeswoman Christine Bragale says many attending the fairs are eager to work. She says "they need money to get the basics like food and water, and a place to live.''

Federal emergency officials have hired some of the nation's largest construction and engineering companies. The Federal Emergency Management Agency wants the companies to provide emergency housing for people displaced by Hurricane Katrina. FEMA also says it's formed a new Housing Area Command with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Army Corps of Engineers and the American Red Cross. The engineering and construction company Shaw Group says it's received a FEMA contract worth up to $100 million. Shaw will handle design, construction, transportation and utilities for the housing construction program, with no limits on quantity. It'll also provide on-demand services for displaced residents, including registering them at emergency shelters in Texas and other areas. FEMA says more than a million people have had to leave their homes because of the storm. It also says 163,000 of those hurricane survivors are now staying in shelters. Fluor Corporation of Aliso Viejo, California will head operations for the command. Bechtel National of San Francisco is now on the scene in Gulf states to provide emergency housing. CH2M Hill of Denver will be working on providing housing in Alabama. Dewberry Technologies of Fairfax, Virginia will provide planning and reporting support. Tennessee-based Clayton Homes is the country's largest manufactured housing company and has operations in Waco. Clayton officials on Sunday got an order from FEMA to ship 1,800 homes to a staging area outside Texarkana.

A top official says the United Nations will get more involved in Hurricane Katrina relief effort. Jan Egeland is the UN's Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs. He expects more international relief flights to arrive in the U. S. as America asks for more help. Small UN teams already are helping coordinate international aid. Teams in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Denton, Texas are offering expert advice in several areas, including water and sanitation, health coordination and child protection. Egeland says "the whole world has been really shaken'' by images of the damage and suffering.

A Mexican army unit spent the night camped on a field at San Antonio's former Kelly Air Force Base--just miles from the Alamo. They began providing aid this morning to Hurricane Katrina survivors sheltered at the former base--now called Kelly USA. The nearly 200 soldiers are part of a historic military convoy. They received a hero's welcome as they traveled from Laredo to San Antonio in the first Mexican military presence on U. S. soil since 1846. San Antonio residents greeted the troops with cheers, honking car horns and signs proclaiming "bienvenidos''--or welcome. Dignitaries from Mexico and the United States earlier greeted the soldiers at the Laredo border crossing, but the arrival in San Antonio created more fanfare. The U. S. census says that of the city's 1.2 million residents, about 500,000 identify themselves as of Mexican descent. The Mexican government plans another 12-vehicle aid convoy for this week and sent a Mexican navy ship toward the Mississippi coast with rescue vehicles and helicopters.

The U. S. is getting some hurricane relief aid from its old adversary, Vietnam. The communist country is pledging $100,000 to help victims of the Gulf Coast storm, including Vietnamese-Americans who fled the war 30 years ago. North and South Vietnam re-unifed after the communist government seized the southern capital, Saigon, in April 1975. In recent years, it's been urging overseas Vietnamese to come home.

International Red Cross officials are putting a price tag on their initial relief efforts from Hurricane Katrina. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies says it will need about $1 billion for the first phase of those efforts. The American Red Cross, which is focusing its efforts on helping Katrina evacuees, has already received almost half that amount. An international spokeswoman says the main work is focused outside New Orleans, as part of an effort to encourage people to leave. But she says the Red Cross will probably enter New Orleans itself once the reconstruction process has progressed and flooding has subsided. The American Red Cross is also installing computers in its shelter so evacuees can search for lost family members. By Wednesday, 118,000 people had registered on an international web site.

AAA Texas says it sees signs that retail gasoline prices are stabilizing in Texas after skyrocketing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The auto club's weekly Texas retail gas price survey today found regular self-serve averaging $2.94 per gallon. That's up over 31 cents from the week before and $1.02 a gallon higher than last year's average. Houston's prices are up more than 32 cents to $2.95 per gallon. AAA Texas spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says the price spike resulted from several refinery and oil pipeline shutdowns because of the hurricane. However, she says the auto club has seen prices begin to level out in many Texas markets during the last two days. The national average for regular self-serve gasoline at the pump is $3.03 per gallon. That's up 35 cents.

The Base Closure Commission has urged the Navy to move some of its jet training exercises--possibly to Kingsville. The Base Closure and Realignment Commission has given President Bush its final recommendations, which were made public today. The panel says residential and commercial encroachment is likely to continue on Naval Station Oceana in Virginia. The commission suggested the Navy move certain jet training exercises to bases with less encroachment--such as Naval Air Station Kingsville. Congressman Solomon Ortiz has urged Bush to ask the commission to reconsider closing Naval Station Ingleside in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and slow response to victims. BRAC members voted to realign Red River Army Depot in Texarkana and the Lone Star Ammunition Plant. The Commission voted to close Brooks City Base in San Antonio and Naval Station Ingleside.

Letters will be written by U. S. District Court Judge Sim Lake to the lawyers of 38 key witnesses who former Enron executives Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling and Rick Causey complain will not aid in their defense. The Houston Chronicle says Judge Lake won't require that cooperating witnesses for the prosecution talk to the defendants, but he will assure that the government will not retaliate should the witnesses choose to speak to defense attorneys.

BP Texas City refinery managers last May decided to keep a unit with eroding pipes running just two months after a blast at another unit killed 15 people, according to an internal e-mail obtained by the Houston Chronicle. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration confirms it is investigating the recent operations of the refinery's ltraformer #4 unit.

Continental Airlines said today it expects to save about $300 million this year from pay and benefit reductions. The Houston-based airline revealed its expectations in an update for investors filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Continental says it expects to save about $418 million a year when the cuts are fully implemented. The airline says that despite continued improvement in revenue trends, it still expects to post a "significant loss'' for 2005. That's due to record high fuel prices. Continental says Boeing has agreed to provide backstop financing for the purchase of some airplanes. Continental recently announced an order for two new Boeing 777-200-E-R wide-body aircraft to support its international expansion. The aircraft are scheduled for delivery in the first quarter of 2007.

The new Texas Telecommunications Law is the focus of a court fight. The lawsuit by the Texas Cable and Telecommunications Association challenges the measure signed earlier this week by Governor Rick Perry. The legislation allows phone companies to offer enhanced TC services throughout Texas. The suit also alleges the state law violates the Federal Communications Act and a ban on exclusive franchises. Perry has said the measure will spark new technology investments and create greater competition for video, cable and telecommunications services.

Texas Instruments has raised its third-quarter profit outlook, citing stronger demand for semiconductor products. There had been a glut in those products earlier this year. The news late yesterday sent TI share prices higher today. TI says it expects quarterly revenue of $3.48 billion to $3.62 billion. That's up from a previous anticipated range of $3.29 billion to $3.56 billion.

Baker Hughes in Houston says the number of rigs actively exploring for oil and natural gas in the U. S. decreased by six this week--to reach 1,441. One year ago the rig count was 1,240. Texas gained nine rigs this week.

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