Monday AM May 7th, 2007

International Association of Ports and Harbors concludes week-long meeting in Houston...Congressman introduces bill putting Veteran Affairs bonuses on hold until disability benefits backlog is cleared...

The International Association of Ports and Harbors 25th World Ports Conference in Houston was a chance for participants to discuss issues and acquaint themselves with the latest port and maritime technology. The executive director of the Port of New Orleans talked about mitigation from hurricanes. Gary LaGrange has been working to get that city's port viable following Hurricane Katrina.

"You know, the biggest thing I can tell you about mitigating risk as a result of a hurricane—we had the greatest hurricane plan at the Port of New Orleans that money could possibly buy. The greatest preparedness plan that we could possibly put together. And every year, we tweaked it and made it a little better, and a little better and a little better. But nobody ever really thought that the hurricane of a Category 5 nature like Katrina would every really hit New Orleans. So everybody would pack their little overnight bag, and they would take their one pair of blue jeans and one pair of underwear, and they would leave, knowing they were coming back home the next day. Wrong."

LaGrange says one of the most important lessons learned is to make sure communications are possible during hurricane events.

"The fact that all satellite towers were totally knocked out, the fact that you had no communications whatsoever--no computers, no laptops, no cell phones worked. Nothing worked. There was simply no way to communicate. I cannot express that big enough and large enough. We were able to—thanks to the international media that came in to New Orleans and set up shop—I was averaging 64 interviews a day to let the world know that the port was going to be okay and we were coming back. It's through the international news media—thank God they came to the city, thank God they came to the disaster area, so that we could show where we were and what we were doing to mitigate the damages of the hurricane and to bring the fourth largest port in the Untied States back to an element of activity."

Port conferees also heard from a tsunami expert, who talked about what ports can do to mitigate that kind of threat. The week included discussions about construction projects at the Panama Canal and how ports are dealing with the demand in the cruise industry. The Port of Houston's Tom Kornegay headed the IAPH for the past two years.

The months of April and May were particularly good for Houston's convention business, capped off by the giant Offshore Technology Conference. For the month of June, the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau is welcoming 21 conventions, trade shows and other meetings to the city. More than 28,600 attendees will spend an estimated $27.9 million in Houston during June. Events include the Texas Police Athletic Federation's annual Police Games at the Hilton Houston NASA Clear Lake, June 19th through the 15th , and the 15th annual Business convention of HelmsBriscoe June 20th through the 23rd at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Top officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs have some hefty bonuses coming, but lawmakers on Capitol Hill want them stopped. Congressman John Hall says he's introducing a bill to put the payments on hold until a backlog of veterans waiting for disability benefits is cleared. The New York Democrat calls the performance bonuses "shocking and scandalous even by the VA's low standards.'' Hall's move follows an Associated Press report that senior veterans affairs officials have bonuses of up to $33,000 coming. The current backlog of claims ranges between $400- and $600,000 cases with delays averaging 177 days. Democratic leaders have demanded VA Secretary Jim Nicholson explain the bonuses and say they'll hold hearings to investigate. The VA says the payments are needed to retain hardworking employees. The annual bonuses average more than $16,000, the most generous in government.

Fort Worth's billionaire Bass family is trying to sell two office towers that helped revitalize downtown Fort Worth when they were built in the 1980s. Bass-owned Sundance Square has hired Holliday Fenoglio Fowler to develop sales material for the 33-story Wells Fargo Tower and the 38-story D.R. Horton Tower. The towers are nearly full and command some of the highest rents in Fort Worth. They have more than 75 tenants and 8,000 workers. Sundance CEO Johnny Campbell says the business climate in Fort Worth has been strong and the company considers this a good time to test the market. Recent reports by real estate research firms say Fort Worth has one of the lowest vacancy rates for downtown office space. Developers are building or planning several other nearby projects, including a Bass-backed 16-story office building.

Computer services company Electronic Data Systems reports its first-quarter profit rose. Plano-based EDS earned $164 million in the three months that ended March 31st. The number matches the average forecast of analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial. EDS one year ago had net income of $24 million. Revenue rose to $5.22 billion. EDS president Ron Rittenmeyer says the company increased its expansion in low-cost countries and grew its applications business.

After getting an ad in her mailbox for undeveloped land in west Texas, Maxine Bryant bought--sight unseen--20 acres of sorry-looking desert in the middle of nowhere. The Florida woman said she was led to believe--like some of the 200 or so other customers who bought the pitch from the real estate company, Florida Top Land, and paid $15,000 to $20,000 for a 20-acre lot--that this was a place where "things are happening.'' But if things are happening around Dell City, it's news to locals. Florida Top Land has not been accused of any wrongdoing, and none of the customers interviewed by the Associated Press are threatening to sue. Florida Top Land president and chief executive Dennis Grant denies misleading anyone. He says that 20 years from now people are going to be building all over the place. The land is a few miles outside Dell City, a spot along the Texas-New Mexico line that has 400 residents, no grocery store, no bank, no doctor's office. Drinking water is available only by well, and electrical service is spotty.

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