AP News in Brief at 4:58 a.m. EST

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Associated Press

Posted on January 4, 2013 at 6:06 AM

Updated Friday, Jan 4 at 6:06 AM

Congress to vote on $9.7 billion flood insurance package for Superstorm Sandy victims

WASHINGTON (AP) — A $9.7 billion measure to pay flood insurance claims is set for a vote in Congress, boosting prospects for relief for the many home and business owners flooded out by Superstorm Sandy.

If the House, as expected, approves the flood insurance proposal on Friday, the Senate plans to follow with a likely uncontested vote later in the day.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency warns that the National Flood Insurance Program will run out of money next week if Congress doesn't provide additional borrowing authority to pay out claims. Congress created the FEMA-run program in 1968 because few private insurers cover flood damage.

Northeast lawmakers say the money is urgently needed for storm victims awaiting claim checks from the late October storm, which was one of the worst ever to strike the Northeast, ravaging the coast from North Carolina to Maine, with the most severe flooding occurring in Atlantic City, N.J., New York City and Long Island and along the Connecticut coastline.

"People are waiting to be paid," said Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., whose district includes Atlantic City and many other coastal communities hard hit by the storm. "They're sleeping in rented rooms on cots somewhere and they're not happy. They want to get their lives back on track and it's cold outside. They see no prospect of relief."

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HealthBeat: Poll finds people split on gov't role in obesity but oppose limiting food choices

WASHINGTON (AP) — We know obesity is a health crisis, or every new year wouldn't start with resolutions to eat better and get off the couch. But don't try taking away our junk food.

Americans blame too much screen time and cheap fast food for fueling the nation's fat epidemic, a poll finds, but they're split on how much the government should do to help.

Most draw the line at policies that would try to force healthier eating by limiting food choices, according to the poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

A third of people say the government should be deeply involved in finding ways to curb obesity, while a similar proportion want it to play little or no role. The rest are somewhere in the middle.

Require more physical activity in school, or provide nutritional guidelines to help people make better choices? Sure, 8 in 10 support those steps. Make restaurants post calorie counts on their menus, as the Food and Drug Administration is poised to do? Some 70 percent think it's a good idea.

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US hiring likely held steady last month even as White House, Congress battled over budget

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. employers likely kept hiring last month at a modest but steady pace, despite tense negotiations that pushed the economy to the brink of the fiscal cliff.

Economists forecast that employers added 155,000 jobs in December, according to a survey by FactSet. That would be slightly higher than November's 148,000. The unemployment rate is projected to remain at 7.7 percent.

Stable hiring would mean the job market held up during the talks between Congress and the White House over tax increases and spending cuts that were not resolved until the new year.

A trio of encouraging reports Thursday on private hiring and layoffs suggested companies did not panic last month, although the Labor Department report will offer a more accurate measure of how businesses responded to the uncertainty in Washington.

"Given that we have restraints, the labor market data do appear to be improving," said Dana Saporta, an economist at Credit Suisse.

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New school offers fresh start for Sandy Hook children on 1st day back since Conn. massacre

MONROE, Conn. (AP) — Sarah Caron made her son his favorite pancakes for breakfast and walked the second-grader to the top of the driveway for the school bus.

"I hugged him a lot longer than normal, until he said, 'Mommy, please,'" she said. "And then he got on the bus, and he was OK."

It was 7-year-old William's first day of school since last month's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, and his mother tried to make the day as normal as possible. But it was harder than usual to say goodbye.

William was among more than 400 students who escaped a gunman's rampage that killed 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook on Dec. 14. On Thursday, the returning students settled in at their old, familiar desks but in a different school in a different town.

Students, teachers and administrators were met by a large police presence outside their new school in the neighboring town of Monroe, where a middle school that had been shuttered for nearly two years was overhauled and renamed after their old school. Several officers guarded the entrance and checked IDs of parents dropping off children.

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Incarcerated veterans train service dogs for disabled vets in Md. maximum-security prison

CRESAPTOWN, Md. (AP) — Hazard Wilson's new cellmate is a hairy bundle of energy whose playful zeal can't be contained by steel doors: a five-month-old golden retriever. Yardley is one of three canines assigned since September to inmates at a maximum-security prison in western Maryland for training as service dogs for disabled military veterans.

The number of programs nationwide using inmates to train service dogs is growing, but the program at Western Correctional Institute might be the first to use incarcerated veterans to train dogs for other veterans.

Professional trainers say prison-raised dogs tend to do better than those raised traditionally in foster homes, because puppies respond well to consistency and rigid schedules. That's just what they get in prison.

It's not all work and no play.

"I just love to see him be a puppy," said Wilson, 53, serving a life sentence for first-degree murder. "We're putting them through some very stringent training — 90 percent of their time is training — so it gives me great joy just see them romp and roll around and be puppies."

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India's top court to decide fate of India's cheap, generic drugs used by millions of poor

NEW DELHI (AP) — From Africa's crowded AIDS clinics to the malarial jungles of Southeast Asia, the lives of millions of ill people in the developing world are hanging in the balance ahead of a legal ruling that will determine whether India's drug companies can continue to provide cheap versions of many life-saving medicines.

The case — involving Swiss drug maker Novartis AG's cancer drug Glivec — pits aid groups that argue India plays a vital role as the pharmacy to the poor against drug companies that insist they need strong patents to make drug development profitable. A ruling by India's Supreme Court is expected in early 2013.

"The implications of this case reach far beyond India, and far beyond this particular cancer drug," said Leena Menghaney, from the aid group Doctors Without Borders. "Across the world, there is a heavy dependence on India to supply affordable versions of expensive patented medicines."

With no costs for developing new drugs or conducting expensive trials, India's $26 billion generics industry is able to sell medicine for as little as one-tenth the price of the companies that developed them, making India the second-largest source of medicines distributed by UNICEF in its global programs.

Indian pharmaceutical companies such as Cipla, Cadila Laboratories and Lupin have emerged over the past decade as major sources of generic cancer, malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS drugs for poor countries that can't afford to pay Western prices.

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The new 'Jerusalem': An Arab and a Jew share a cookbook about the city they once knew

LONDON (AP) — Two London-based chefs with roots in Jerusalem one day. The next, poster boys for peace.

Such has been the reaction to "Jerusalem," a bestselling cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi, an Israeli, and Sami Tamimi, a Palestinian, built on their memories of a shared city and its delicious food.

"Regardless of all the trouble, food is always there," Tamimi said.

The men run gourmet delis and restaurants in London and have written an earlier cookbook together. They were known not for politics, but for saving some chic London neighborhoods from culinary boredom with Mediterranean-based recipes infused with fresh, exotic flavors.

That changed with the publication of "Jerusalem," as observers took note of their unusual partnership.

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Venezuelan government: Chavez coping with severe respiratory infection after cancer surgery

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is being treated for "respiratory deficiency" after complications from a severe lung infection, his government said, pointing to a deepening crisis for the ailing 58-year-old president.

Chavez hasn't spoken publicly or been seen since his Dec. 11 operation in Cuba, and the latest report from his government Thursday night increased speculation that he is unlikely to be able to be sworn in for another term as scheduled in less than a week.

"Chavez has faced complications as a result of a severe respiratory infection. This infection has led to respiratory deficiency that requires Commander Chavez to remain in strict compliance with his medical treatment," Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said Thursday night, reading the statement on television.

The government's characterization raised the possibility that Chavez might be breathing with the assistance of a machine. But the government did not address that question and didn't give details of the president's treatment.

"It appears he has a very severe pneumonia that he suffered after a respiratory failure. It is not very specific," said Dr. Alejandro Rios-Ramirez, a pulmonary specialist in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, who is not involved in Chavez's treatment. "It does imply the gravity of his pulmonary infection that led to a respiratory failure. It doesn't mean yet that he is breathing with a machine."

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Transocean's $1.4B settlement with Justice Department to pump millions into recovery projects

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A $1.4 billion settlement between the Justice Department and Deepwater Horizon rig owner Transocean Ltd. will pump hundreds of millions of dollars into projects designed to help the Gulf Coast recover from the nation's largest offshore oil spill.

U.S. Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana said the settlement announced Thursday will dedicate $800 million of the civil penalty and $300 million of criminal penalty to coastal protection and restoration work. Other settlement funds will support spill-prevention research and training.

U.S. Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana said he hopes it leads to "much bigger final action with BP, the main culprit in this horrible disaster."

BP PLC leased the rig from Transocean. It already has agreed to pay $4.5 billion in penalties and plead guilty to criminal charges.

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Mass. writer's latest mystery: Where's Tessa his rescue beagle? Search attracts wide attention

BROOKLINE, Mass. (AP) — There's a new mystery on Dennis Lehane's mind, but the story isn't something the best-selling author can control from behind a keyboard.

The plot kicked off Christmas Eve, when the crime novelist's rescue beagle Tessa escaped from his yard after an outdoor gate latch didn't lock all the way.

Since then, Lehane's family has launched an all-out search. They've posted fliers, organized foot searches and used social media to try to bring Tessa back to their home in Brookline, Mass., near Boston.

The 47-year-old author of books including "Mystic River" and "Gone, Baby, Gone" is offering a monetary reward and has said he'll name a character in his next book after whoever finds Tessa.

Lehane said Thursday outside his home that he's surprised by the media attention the story has attracted, and thinks it has something to do with the character offer.

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