Thursday September 8th, 2005

Red Cross and FEMA debit cards to be issued to Hurricane Katrina evacuees…Rowan workers treated after Gulf helicopter crash…Job efforts at evacuee centers ramp up… There was some confusion in Houston among Hurricane Katrina evacuees concerning debit cards. The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that it would be issuing debit cards of up to $2,000 […]

Red Cross and FEMA debit cards to be issued to Hurricane Katrina evacuees…Rowan workers treated after Gulf helicopter crash…Job efforts at evacuee centers ramp up…

There was some confusion in Houston among Hurricane Katrina evacuees concerning debit cards. The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that it would be issuing debit cards of up to $2,000 per household. That word spread through the Houston Astrodome, and evacuees began seeking out the cards–but workers say the distribution process isn’t ready yet. Meanwhile, the American Red Cross is distributing debit cards of its own and hundreds of evacuees began lining up for them before dawn this morning. Red Cross spokeswoman Jana Zehner says the agency issued appointment times, but that shelter residents decided to begin lining up anyway, hours ahead of the time the cards were to become available. The amount received is based on the size of the family.

Two of 12 survivors of a helicopter crash in the Gulf of Mexico remain hospitalized in critical condition. The two continue receiving treatment at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. The Sikorsky S-76 helicopter with two crew members and ten passengers aboard–eight from Houston-based Rowan Companies–was flying an offshore oil rig crew to shore Tuesday afternoon when it went down. The helicopter crashed about 23 miles south of Sabine Pass. Survivor Jim Horner says the aircraft apparently developed engine trouble that sent it into the water from an altitude of about 70 feet. He says all 12 occupants managed to climb out of the wrecked helicopter before it capsized. They floated for several hours before the U. S. Coast Guard rescued them.

The Texas Workforce Commission says the U. S. Department of Labor will fund a National Emergency Grant of up to $75 million to provide assistance to some 37,500 people who evacuated to Texas as a result of Hurricane Katrina. The money will be used to provide temporary jobs to provide food, clothing, shelter and humanitarian assistance for victims; rapid response dislocated worker services, including crisis and financial counseling, assistance filing, disaster unemployment assistance and unemployment insurance claims; career counseling and assessment; vocational training; child care, transportation and clothing; and needs-related payments to individuals who do not qualify for disaster unemployment assistance or insurance.

The Texas Workforce Commission has created two toll-free hotlines for Hurricane Katrina evacuees. One assists displaced Louisiana workers filing Disaster Unemployment Insurance claims at 800-818-7811. The other serves as a central number for employers wishing to hire those displaced by Hurricane Katrina at 800-695-6879.

The Hurricane Katrina Relief Effort Joint Information Center at Reliant Center says there are jobs for emergency medical technicians, EMT intermediates and paramedics. Interested applicants can e-mail or call 936-523-5190.

Chandler Hill Partners launched a free Web site allowing jobseekers to place resumes in a searchable database for employers. The site allows companies to post jobs at no charge. Tucson, Arizona-based chandler Hill provides services for job seekers and employers.

Up to 10,000 workers who lost their jobs because of Hurricane Katrina are believed to have filed for unemployment benefits last week. Today’s report from the Labor Department comes ahead of an expected wave of requests for aid. The Department says that number is an estimate based on spot checks in Gulf Coast and neighboring states, now sheltering storm victims. Overall, some 319,000 newly laid-off workers filed claims last week, down just 1,000 from the previous week. Many claims offices in the path of the hurricane and flooding remained shut down. It is believed that hundreds of thousands of jobs will have been lost amid the devastation.

The U. S.-Arab Economic Forum which had been set for September 14th through the 16th at Houston’s Hilton Americas-Downtown has been postponed because of Hurricane Katrina. Organizers say they will reschedule the event to take place in six to eight months. The Houston Antiques Dealers Association fall show at the George R. Brown Convention Center has been canceled. The Texas Association of School Boards/Texas Association of School Administrators Convention will start as planned in late September at the convention center. The International Quilt Market and Festival at the convention center will go on as scheduled between October 27th through the 30th. Reliant Park–made up of the Astrodome, Reliant Stadium, Reliant Arena and Reliant Center–has canceled at least nine events so far.

Several high-ranking government officials are traveling to Texas, Louisiana and Alabama tomorrow, as a Bush economic team to assess both near-term and long-term economic needs of the Gulf Coast region. Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao, Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Guiterrez and Social Security Commissioner Jo Anna B. Barnhart will discuss assistance available to individuals and small businesses in the region.

Governor Rick Perry has asked the U. S. Health and Human Services for assurances that Texas will get reimbursed for the cost of providing Medicaid and other services to the more than quarter million Hurricane Katrina evacuees that found sanctuary in Texas.

Continental Airlines has a bank of computers on the Astrodome floor offering evacuees who want to relocate free one-way tickets to anywhere in the continental United States. Evacuees receive tickets by showing their bands that gain them admittance into the shelter and provide their FEMA case numbers. Saudi Arabian Oil subsidiary Saudi Refining has donated $5 million to the American Red Cross to support relief efforts. Anadarko Petroleum is donating $1 million to the effort, mostly to the Red Cross and United Way Katrina Relief Fund. St. Luke’s Episcopal Health System has opened a diabetes clinic at the Reliant Astrodome complex, supplementing the efforts of the Harris County Hospital District. Maxxam Chairman and CEO Charles E. Hurwitz requested that his $350,000 gift be used by St. Luke’s to make an immediate and substantial difference to the health status of evacuees. HEB customers have donated nearly five million pounds of relief supplies and over $400,000 during the grocer’s food drive this past weekend. The drive benefits America’s Second Harvest Network of food banks. Two million pounds of food were donated to the Houston Food Bank and End Hunger Network.

The United States is turning to its NATO allies to help bring in desperately needed food and supplies for the hundreds of thousands of Americans left homeless by Hurricane Katrina. Military experts are drawing up plans for an expanded role, including the possible use of ships from the elite NATO response force to ferry the aid. The request comes at a time when many nations offering aid are complaining that they have received no answer from U. S. authorities. The last time NATO units were used in the United States was just after the 9-11 attacks. NATO officials could have a plan as early as tomorrow. Final approval rests with the ambassadors from the 26 alliance nations.

A Mexican army convoy crossed the Rio Grande into Texas today to bring aid to victims of Hurricane Katrina. The unit headed for San Antonio is the first Mexican military operation on U. S. soil since 1846. That’s when Mexican troops briefly marched into territory disputed between the two countries along the border of Texas. Texas had separated from Mexico in 1836 and joined the United States in 1845.The convoy crossed the Rio Grande near Laredo this morning, carrying water treatment plants, mobile kitchens and supplies to feed hurricane victims. The 45 green vehicles displaying Mexican flags and about 200 personnel will apparently be used to provide water, meals and other help for Hurricane Survivors from the New Orleans area. Mexican officials said they have another land convoy and another ship preparing to help.

Chevron has erected an evacuee village in Pascagoula, Mississippi as the first step to bringing its refinery back to service. The refineries of several other companies are expected to start up in the region this week. Exxon Mobil is running newspaper ads to locate employees and $5,000 lump-sums for emergency living expenses. Shell Oil is offering workers emergency cash and interest-free loans. BP is offering generators to workers whose homes remain dark over a week after the storm, and temporary housing and a cash per diem to those who headed to Texas. The Minerals Management Service reported that 21 offshore platforms in the Gulf of Mexico were swamped by the storm, and more than 256 platforms and rigs remained evacuated last weekend. Houston-based Swift Energy says no assessment can be made at this time to its facilities because of still poor communications and damaged access roads.

An emergency information system with a chemical inventory of thousands of facilities is expected to help with Hurricane Katrina cleanup. It’s called: e-plan. The Internet-accessible system was developed by the University of Texas at Dallas and the Environmental Protection Agency. The inventory includes the chemical contents of thousands of sites in a number of states–including Louisiana and Alabama. Douglas Harris with the school’s cyber security and emergency preparedness institute says information available through e-plan will be vital to first responders. The database offers information on the location and nature of hazardous materials before crews enter the chemical plants.

Houston-based Kenyon International Emergency Services has been hired by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help recover the bodies of those killed by Hurricane Katrina, according to Reuters. The company specializes in providing disaster mortuary services. Some 50 workers are being sent to Louisiana and Mississippi, and a mobile morgue was sent to the region last week. Kenyon is a subsidiary of Houston-based Service Corporation International.

CenterPoint Energy says it decision to increase the fuel factor on gas bills by about 27 percent was made before Hurricane Katrina. The gas utility is adjusting the fuel factor to account for pre-storm natural gas price increases that have risen sharply since May.

The move by Mervyns to close nearly one-quarter of its stores nationwide and lay off 4,800 employees will affect all of eight of its Houston outlets. Some 600 Houston jobs will disappear. About 1,200 full-time employees and 3,600 part-time workers nationwide will be laid off. Mervyns was sold last year by Target to a private investment consortium. Hayward, California-based Mervyns announced plans to close 62 stores in eight states. Other Mervyns stores in Texas, as well as in Louisiana and Colorado, and all stores in Michigan and Oklahoma, will close by February. The company also will close one store in each of California, Oregon and Utah, and two distribution centers in Texas and Utah. The stores were money-losers and comprised just 17 percent of total sales.

A new report from TexPIRG finds that Texas ranks first for power plant mercury pollution, with emissions in Fort end County among the highest in the nation. The report utilizes data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory to identify states, counties, communities and power plants, which TexPIRG calls the largest industrial source of U. S. mercury emissions.

A grand jury in Austin has indicted Texans for a Republican Majority–a political action committee formed by U. S. House Majority Leader Tom Delay. Also indicted was the Texas Association of Business. Delay and individuals with the business group have not been charged. A spokesman from Delay’s office says the Republican from Sugar Land was not involved in day-to-day operations of the group. Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle says the five indictments involve misuse of corporate money to influence Texas elections in 2002. The Delay-founded group is accused of illegally accepting a political contribution of $100,000 from the Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care. The Texas Association of Business is accused of unlawful political advertising, unlawful contributions to a political committee and unlawful expenditures.

A telecommunications reform bill has been signed into law by Governor Rick Perry. Perry’s office says the measure will mean new technology investments and create greater competition for video, cable and telecommunications services. Texas will be the first state to offer broadband service over power lines. The bill also requires the Public Utility Commission to do a study of the Universal Service Fund, which subsidizes service to rural areas.

A state audit shows more than 62,000 college students failed to get the financial aid they should have gotten after tuition rates increased. The Tuition Deregulation Law passed in 2003 says universities are required to provide more money to students who can’t afford tuition and fees. The state audited tuition at the University of Houston, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and the University of Texas at Austin. The audit found that tuition increases ranging from 33 percent to 54 percent during the 2004-05 budget year seemed reasonable. But only Texas Tech performed a calculation required by law to identify students who qualify as a priority for financial aid. Universities responding to the audit say it’s impossible to precisely identify the priority students until all financial aid has been awarded. They say students made to wait would suffer a hardship.

Computer maker Dell is getting ready to open its new customer contact center in Oklahoma City. Round Rock-based Dell formally will open the center on Monday–just 14 months after announcing plans to build it. Oklahoma leaders will join Dell CEO Kevin Rollins for a grand opening ceremony at the 60-acre site along the Oklahoma River. Dell’s new center is expected to boost Oklahoma City’s empowerment zone. Dell’s facility anchors the western portion of the riverfront development.

Texas Instruments has developed technology to let manufacturers quickly produce digital video devices with more power and features. Dallas-based TI says manufacturers are expected to begin using the new chip, microprocessor and software by year’s end. TI hopes the “Davinci” technology will give it the same stronghold in digital video components that it enjoys in the market for mobile phones. TI’s technology will allow digital cameras to correct color and lighting problems, instead of fixing them on a computer. The system also will mean a single box for letting TV viewers record, play or hold a videoconference.

Aramark has been named to Hispanic Business magazine’s list of “Top 40 Companies for Hispanics.” The list was based on more than 30 variables measuring commitment to Hispanic hiring, promotion, marketing, philanthropy and supplier diversity. Aramark provides food and facilities management services to health care institutions, universities and school districts, corporations and stadiums and arenas. The company has served more than 555,000 meals to some 26,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees seeking shelter at Reliant Park, as well as law enforcement officials, American Red Cross and medical personnel and volunteers. Aramark is providing all facility services, including cleaning and garbage collection, at the Astrodome, Reliant Arena, Reliant Center and the George R. Brown Convention Center. Over 12 tons of trash are collected daily, 660 bathrooms cleaned and re-stocked each day, and 175 showers cleaned daily at these locations.