AP News in Brief at 5:58 a.m. EST

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Associated Press

Posted on February 14, 2014 at 6:02 AM

Updated Friday, Feb 14 at 6:02 AM

Another messy, snowy morning in winter-weary Northeast; many in South still waiting for power

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Commuters face a messy morning of travel a day after a winter storm brought snow and ice to many states, leaving at least 21 dead, including a pregnant woman struck by a mini-plow in New York City whose baby was then born by cesarean section in critical condition.

The next go-round of bad weather began early Friday in some places — just in time to delay tens of thousands of deliveries of Valentine's Day flowers.

The sloppy mix of snow and face-stinging sleet grounded more than 6,500 flights nationwide on Thursday and closed schools, businesses and government centers. About 1.2 million utility customers lost power as the storm moved from the South through the Northeast, dropping to about 550,000 outages, mostly in South Carolina and Georgia.

"Every time it snows, it's like, "Oh, not again,'" said Randal DeIvernois of New Cumberland, Pa., which had about 10 inches of snow by midafternoon Thursday. "I didn't get this much snow when I lived in Colorado."

The treacherous weather was blamed for nearly two dozen deaths, many of them in motor vehicle accidents.

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Record flight cancellations this winter; storms, cost cuts, new regulations strand passengers

NEW YORK (AP) — The relentless snow and ice storms this winter have led to the highest number of flight cancellations in more than 25 years, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.

U.S. airlines have canceled more than 75,000 domestic flights since Dec. 1, including roughly 14,000 this week. That's 5.5 percent of the 1.35 million flights scheduled during that period, according to AP calculations based on information provided by flight tracking site FlightAware.

It's the highest total number and highest percent of cancellations since at least the winter of 1987-1988, when the Department of Transportation first started collecting cancellation data.

Mother Nature isn't entirely to blame. A mix of cost-cutting measures and new government regulations has made airlines more likely to cancel flights and leave fliers scrambling to get to their destination.

On Thursday, more than 70 percent of flights were canceled in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Charlotte, N.C. thanks to a winter storm that paralyzed most air traffic along the East Coast. Ice storms this winter have caused major headaches in typically warm cities like Atlanta, Dallas and Houston.

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Judge declares ban on same-sex marriage in Virginia unconstitutional; South's 1st such ruling

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — In a federal court ruling echoing decisions reached elsewhere in the U.S., Virginia on Thursday became the first state in the South to overturn a voter-approved prohibition of same-sex marriage.

U.S. District Judge Arenda Wright Allen issued a stay of her order while it is appealed, meaning that gay couples in Virginia still will not be able to marry until the case is ultimately resolved. Both sides believe the case won't be settled until the Supreme Court decides to hear it or one like it.

Allen's decision makes Virginia the second state in the South to issue a ruling recognizing the legality of gay marriages.

A judge in Kentucky ruled Wednesday that the state must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. But that judge did not rule on the constitutionality of same-sex marriages inside the state. Decisions similar to that of the Virginia judge have been issued in in Utah and Oklahoma federal courts.

The office of newly elected Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring took the unusual step of not defending the law because it believes the ban violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. In her ruling, Wright Allen agreed.

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Oscar Pistorius says he mourns for girlfriend on 1st anniversary of day he killed her

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Oscar Pistorius, the celebrated athlete who became a murder suspect, said Friday that he is consumed by grief on the first anniversary of the day that he fatally shot his girlfriend in his home.

The rare statement by the double-amputee runner came ahead of the March 3 start of his trial for the killing of Reeva Steenkamp, shot in her boyfriend's bathroom in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine's Day.

"No words can adequately capture my feelings about the devastating accident that has caused such heartache for everyone who truly loved - and continues to love Reeva," said Pistorius, who told a court last year that he mistook Steenkamp for a dangerous nighttime intruder. Prosecutors allege the track star, who is out on bail, intentionally killed her after an argument.

"The pain and sadness — especially for Reeva's parents, family and friends consumes me with sorrow," Pistorius said. "The loss of Reeva and the complete trauma of that day, I will carry with me for the rest of my life."

The statement from Pistorius, 27, was unusual because his uncle, Arnold, has normally been quoted in statements from his camp, which has sought to shield the runner from intense media and public interest in a case that transfixed many people around the world.

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Japanese online retailer Rakuten moves into voice calls with Viber purchase for $900 million

TOKYO (AP) — Japan's Rakuten Inc. is buying Cyprus-based Viber Media, which operates a popular Internet phone application, for $900 million, fortifying the online retailer's social networking footprint.

The Tokyo-based company said Friday it sees Viber, with 280 million global users, as a key platform as people are moving from TVs and computers to mobile devices to consume and enjoy content.

Rakuten, which competes with Amazon.com and Yahoo, has been successful with online shopping in Japan, where it is the top Internet retailer.

But it is eager to expand in scope as well as outside Japan.

Rakuten already has under its wing online scrapbook site Pinterest and Canadian e-book maker Kobo Inc.

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Comcast merger with Time Warner cable worries, outrages customers

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Comcast and Time Warner Cable regularly rank at the bottom of the pay TV industry when it comes to customer satisfaction. So it didn't take long for customers to vent frustrations online over high prices, spotty service and fears of a monopoly after Comcast announced its $45 billion purchase of Time Warner Cable.

Outrage that these two big cable companies would join hands to form an even more massive entity spurred a cascade of sarcastic tweets and satirical memes: the killer Death Star battle station from "Star Wars," the evil Eye of Sauron from "The Lord of the Rings," and a "South Park" snippet where character Eric Cartman and friends are tormented by cable employees before a logo curiously similar to Time Warner Cable's own.

Consumers weren't buying the assertion of Comcast CEO Brian Roberts that the combination, which will have 30 million TV and Internet subscribers, would be "pro-consumer and pro-competitive."

Using a contorted logic, the two companies are expected to argue to anti-trust regulators that the fact they don't directly compete against each other in many parts of America shows the deal won't reduce competition and therefore should be approved.

But it is that lack of overlap, and lack of choice, which is at the root of customer frustration, according America Customer Satisfaction Index managing director David VanAmburg. Cable companies that purposely don't compete against each other to provide fast Internet or reliable TV service can get away with not fully meeting customer needs in markets where they dominate.

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Military food researchers say they're near the holy grail: MRE pizza that lasts 3 years

NATICK, Mass. (AP) — They call it the holy grail of ready-to-eat meals for soldiers — a pizza that can stay on the shelf for up to three years and still remain good to eat.

Soldiers have been asking for pizza since lightweight individual field rations — known as meals ready to eat, or MREs — replaced canned food in 1981 for soldiers in combat zones or areas where field kitchens cannot be set up.

Researchers at a U.S. military lab in Massachusetts are closing in on a recipe that doesn't require any refrigeration or freezing.

"You can basically take the pizza, leave it on the counter, packaged, for three years and it'd still be edible," said Michelle Richardson, a food scientist at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center.

Scientists at the Natick labs also are responsible for developing equipment and clothing that improves soldiers' combat effectiveness and their survival, but the quest for good pizza has become known as the holy grail there.

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US sees more delay likely in finalizing security agreement with Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration has quietly stopped demanding that Afghan President Hamid Karzai finalize a stalled security pact within weeks, opening up the possibility that a decision on keeping U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan after this year might not be made until after Karzai's successor is elected this spring.

While U.S. officials say they still strongly prefer that the agreement be signed quickly, they did not rule out the possibility of waiting to see if a new Afghan leader might be easier to work with. Pushing off the decision on keeping troops in Afghanistan comes with increased risks and complications for the U.S. military, though the Pentagon is making adjustments to give President Barack Obama that option.

Karzai's refusal to sign the security pact has strained relations with Washington. He further exacerbated tensions on Thursday by releasing 65 militants from a former U.S. prison near Kabul. The American military angrily denounced the move, saying the men are Taliban fighters who will likely return to the battlefield to kill coalition and Afghan forces.

American-led combat operations in Afghanistan are set to end on Dec. 31, but the U.S. is seeking to keep up to 10,000 troops on the ground for counterterrorism and training missions. Without a security agreement setting conditions for the American forces, the White House has said it will remove all U.S. troops at the end of the year.

The White House had hoped Karzai would sign the bilateral security agreement by the end of last year. When that deadline passed, administration officials repeatedly said a deal needed to be signed within "weeks, not months."

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2 blind cows, see how they bond: Rescuers cross borders to unite old cows in greener pastures

Two blind, aging cows were 350 miles apart, distressed and facing a dark future.

What happened next is a love story starring, not cows, but rescuers who worked across international borders for nearly a month to bring the bovines together.

It started when Sweety, an 8-year-old Canadian cow with a hoof infection, was rescued from the slaughterhouse by a horse sanctuary in Ontario. Workers at Refuge RR put out the word to the small legion of folks devoted to saving aging farm animals that she needed a permanent home.

Farm Sanctuary in New York is just such a place and they had a 12-year-old Holstein named Tricia, who seemed lonely and anxious after losing her cow companion to cancer a year ago. Cattle are herd animals and she was the only one at the shelter without a partner.

"It was exciting to think that by giving Sweety a new life, we might also give Tricia another chance to enjoy her own," said Susie Coston, national shelter director for the sanctuary.

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Slowest Suit? With US speedskaters having miserable Olympics, focus turns to high-tech attire

SOCHI, Russia (AP) — The U.S. speedskating team is desperately trying to figure out why it's had such a miserable performance the first week of the Sochi Olympics — and much of the speculation has turned to its new high-tech skinsuit.

The much-heralded Under Armour suit was developed with help from aerospace and defense giant Lockheed Martin. Now, some are wondering if it's actually a drag on performance.

After a strong season on the World Cup circuit, no U.S. skater has finished higher than seventh through six of 12 Olympic events. Team officials huddled in the stands after the women's 1,000 meters, trying to figure out what they can do to turn things around.

Friday was an off day. Coaches are reviewing everything from the suits to the food in the athletes village.

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