In her first trip as homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano toured damaged areas in Kentucky, Kansas, and Iowa following an ice storm that pummeled those states and Arkansas last month, killing 33 people. Since the storm struck, 101 counties and 75 cities have declared states of emergency, and President Barack Obama issued a major disaster declaration for Kentucky.
Kentucky resident Bill Allen said he'd weathered plenty of ice storms but had "never seen anything like this." On the night of the storm, as he and his family huddled in their living room in the town of Kuttawa, wind blasts coupled with freezing rain ravaged the countryside. "We could hear the trees snapping off and it sounded like shotgun blasts," said Allen, who is music minister at First Baptist Church of Kuttawa. Immediately after the storm, downed limbs and power poles blocked the roads like piles of jackstraw.
"I've heard the word war zone used," Allen said.
Aid arrived in storm-damaged areas from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Red Cross, and local governments. In Kuttawa, local and out-of-state church groups like the Tennessee Baptist Convention teamed up to help clear debris while electrical workers from other states poured in to help restore power. As of Feb. 10, two weeks after the storm began, almost 50,000 Kentucky residents were still without electricity, down from 769,000. In Arkansas, the storm knocked out power to 25,000 homes and caused an estimated $77 million in damage. Heading into mid-February, 8,000 Arkansans remained without electricity as a new round of severe weather, including predicted long-track tornadoes, threatened the state.
Appearing on Meet the Press this month, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., argued for a bailout to state governments "to prevent this budget crunch from laying off public employees." But according to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics for January, government workers are doing better than nearly every other sector of the economy-with a 3 percent unemployment rate compared to a high of over 18 percent for the construction industry and 8 percent for retailers. A sampling:
Agriculture and related private wage and salary workers 18.7%
Wholesale and retail trade 8.7%
Transportation and utilities 8.4%
Self-employed and unpaid family workers 6.5%
Financial activities 6.0%
Education and health services 3.8%
Government workers 3.0%
Both candidates raised arms in victory after perhaps the tightest election in Israeli history Feb. 10. Foreign minister Tzipi Livni won in the polls by the narrowest margin, but coalition partners of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party made large gains-suggesting he is the more likely candidate to form a coalition government. His party of the right has longer-standing alliances than Livni's centrist Kadima party, a recent offshoot of Likud, particularly after last month's tense fighting with Hamas in Gaza.
Sudan headed for court
Judges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) decided to issue an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan for war crimes in Darfur-the first time the court has sought to detain a sitting head of state. The decision complicates negotiations to bring an end to fighting in Darfur and prompted Arab leaders, who lobbied the UN to defer charges against Bashir, to say they would consider granting him safe haven in an Arab country where he might be shielded from prosecution. ICC prosecutors, meanwhile, have little cause for leniency after the Sudanese government this month threatened 200 UN peacekeepers with attack if they did not withdraw from protecting displaced civilians in south Darfur.
New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez has confessed that reports of steroid use in his past are true. Sports Illustrated initially broke the story, citing four independent sources who named Rodriguez among the 104 players who tested positive for performance-enhancing substances in 2003, when Major League Baseball conducted what were meant to be anonymous tests.
Faced with that public charge, baseball's highest-paid player sought to explain his behavior in an interview with ESPN's Peter Gammons: "When I arrived in Texas in 2001, I felt an enormous amount of pressure," Rodriguez said. "I had just signed this enormous contract, [and] I felt like I needed something, a push, without over-investigating what I was taking, to get me to the next level."
Lost in that explanation is the manner in which Rodriguez procured his $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers. He employed notorious agent Scott Boras in an aggressive contract negotiation strategy that pitted team against team in a bidding war that got A-Rod three years on a losing team and more pressure than he could handle. Rodriguez insists that he used illegal substances only during his two years in Texas. As the youngest player ever to reach 500 home runs, he is on pace to one day break the all-time career home run record of Barry Bonds, another player steeped in steroid controversy.
New day in Zimbabwe
Zimbabweans expressed cautious optimism as President Robert Mugabe swore in opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister at a somber ceremony on Feb. 11.
The two leaders had been locked in a battle for power since Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) won presidential elections nearly a year ago, but failed to win enough votes to avoid a runoff with Mugabe. Citing threats and violence against his supporters, Tsvangirai withdrew from the runoff. But international pressure mounted for Mugabe to share control. Now Tsvangirai will take on daily operations of the languishing country's government, and takes away some powers from Mugabe. Zimbabweans are looking to Tsvangirai to ease the economic and health crises rocking the nation: The UN estimates at least 3,500 have died in a cholera epidemic since August, and as many as 80 percent need food aid to survive in a country with the world's highest inflation rate-230 million percent.
Small business break
Three days before a federal anti-lead law was set to take effect, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued temporary exemptions that should give a reprieve to small businesses and libraries that deal in children's clothes and books. The CPSC delayed until next year the lead testing required as part of the law, adding to confusion over how the new standard would be enforced, while granting exemptions to certain kids' clothing and crafts made of natural woods, among others. Thrift stores, clothing makers, and others had complained the law was overly broad and could cause some to go out of business ("Make that unleaded," Feb. 14, 2009). More details are available at www.cpsc.gov.
While most Americans approved of early Obama decisions to appoint overseas envoys and boost ethics rules in government, according to a Gallup poll they disapproved of two executive decisions last month that received most attention. Nearly 60 percent said they did not approve of Obama's decision ordering the detention facility at Guantanamo to close within a year. And 65 percent disapproved of his decision to end the Mexico City policy, which banned U.S. funds from supporting abortion and related causes overseas.
Americans will have more time to prepare for the transition from analog to digital TV after Congress passed legislation delaying the Feb. 17 switch until June 12. Despite an extensive government advertising campaign, the Nielsen Company estimated last month that 6.5 million households were unprepared for the change-partly because the government ran out of $40 coupons intended to defray the cost of converter boxes. President Obama has pushed for more financing to continue the coupon program, including up to $650 million pending in the stimulus package.
No. 1 persecutor
North Korea remains No. 1 for the seventh year in a row on a list of the world's worst persecutors of Christians. The Open Doors Watch List for 2008, released Feb. 3, ranks Saudi Arabia second and Iran third, noting that both countries are controlled by Shariah, or Islamic law.
Afghanistan, Somalia, and the Maldives are the next three on the list, followed by Yemen, Laos, Eritrea, and Uzbekistan. Afghanistan moved up three spots in the past year, according to Open Doors, as a result of increased activity by the Taliban. Somalia and Eritrea are new among the top 10, while Bhutan and China have dropped from the top-10 ranking to numbers 11 and 12, respectively.
Can the Ox be pulled from the ditch?
Chinese New Year celebrations ended Feb. 9 on a sober note, as the upcoming Year of the Ox is likely to bring more bad economic news.
One year ago China had 8,610 factories producing 70 percent of all the world's toys, and today only 4,388 remain, according to customs office figures quoted in The Times of London. In addition, up to a quarter of Hong Kong-owned factories could be closed due to the current economic slump and stricter toxic-substances restrictions on toys sold abroad. The massive loss of jobs, particularly in southern China's Guangdong Province, has led some to take drastic steps: On Feb. 10 three Chinese workers were found dead in waters off the coast of Hong Kong after they apparently tried to swim the short distance in search of jobs.
Religion at work
Two employees are fighting for the right to express their religious beliefs in the workplace. In Granby, Quebec, Jean-Francois Bergeron got fired from his job at Delta Transformers for wearing T-shirts that express the Raelian belief that aliens created life and have been mistaken for gods. One shirt said "Dieu n'existe pas" (God does not exist) while the other sported a picture of aliens with the words "Le vrai visage de Dieu" (The true face of God). One hundred Raelians protested the decision outside Delta Transformers on Feb. 4. Bergeron is taking the case to the Quebec Human Rights Commission.
In Washington, D.C., a Pentecostal woman, Gloria Jones, claimed that the transit system refused to hire her because she wanted to wear a skirt instead of the pants they required for their bus driver's uniform. On Feb. 3, the U.S. Department of Justice made the transit agency pay Jones a $47,000 settlement.