More than a million people are estimated to be fleeing their homes and communities as the 3rd most powerful hurricane on record. Hurricane Rita packs wind speeds of 175 miles per hour and is expected to hit the US coast sometime on Saturday. The hurricane is already classified as a Category 5. Several communities in Texas, including Galveston and Corpus Christi, have ordered total evacuations. That is also happening across the southern coast of the US. Galveston, which was destroyed in 1900 by the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history, is once again in the center of the storm’s projected path. Around Houston, the nation’s fourth most-populous city, highways were clogged with traffic as residents rushed to leave. President Bush declared states of emergency in both Texas and Louisiana. Rita is forecast to hit land on Friday, somewhere between northern Mexico and Louisiana but most likely Texas. In New Orleans, engineers are rushing to repair severely damaged levees. Some estimates suggest that even three inches of rain would overwhelm the flood protection system.
Meanwhile, oil prices have resumed their rise as six Texas refineries have been forced to shut down. A quarter of total US refining capacity is based in Texas, and the US government’s Energy Information Administration warned the hurricane could have a "substantial impact". Energy companies ExxonMobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips have ordered staff to leave platforms in the Gulf, which account for nearly a third of US oil output.
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco has joined the growing chorus calling for an independent commission to investigate the government handling of Hurricane Katrina. In a letter sent to President Bush on Wednesday, Blanco wrote, : "This disaster was of such a magnitude that it will certainly have significant national implications regarding the response to future events such as a natural disaster or a potential terrorist attack." Continuing, Blanco wrote, "For these reasons, it is imperative that the investigation into the response to Katrina be comprehensive, probing and non-partisan." Bush has appointed a top aide to head up an internal White House investigation into how the federal government responded to the crisis.
The battle continues over the confirmation of President Bush’s nominee for chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, as more prominent Democrats have made their voting intentions public ahead of today’s vote. Senators John Kerry and Ted Kennedy say they will vote against Roberts, while Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy says he will support Roberts. Earlier this week, Minority Leader Harry Reid said he would vote no. Meanwhile, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, is calling on President Bush to delay nominating a replacement for retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Specter said he talked to Justice O’Connor about staying on the high court and that "She’s prepared to do that’’ through the court’s term ending in June. But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said he urged Bush to submit a name to the Senate right away.
Meanwhile, The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville, is reporting that Senator Frist may have been involved with insider trading. The paper reports that Frist sold his stock in a company his family founded just before the stock took a significant dive in July. Frist’s father founded the company, the Hospital Corporation of America, in 1968, and the senator’s brother remains its largest shareholder, owning more than $271 million in stock. This isn’t the first time that Frist’s connection to HCA has been a source of embarrassment for him. In 2000, HCA agreed to pay more than $95 million to settle criminal fraud charges after having already paid out $745 million in civil fines and penalties related to an alleged conspiracy to defraud government health care programs by paying kickbacks to doctors and submitting false bills. At the time, the criminal fraud settlement was the largest in US history. HCA employees and its political-action committee have given Frist more than $80,000 — more money in campaign contributions over his career than any other donor.
A new report from the Government Accountability Office has found that the Pentagon has no accurate knowledge of the cost of military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan or the so-called war on terror. The GAO says this limits Congress’s ability to oversee the war spending. The Defense Department has reported spending $191 billion since the September 11th attacks. The report says , "Neither DOD nor Congress can reliably know how much the war is costing and details of how appropriated funds are being spent."
Mexico’s top federal law enforcement official was killed Wednesday along with eight others in a helicopter crash. Ramon Martin Huerta, who was a close ally of Vicente Fox and Mexico’s secretary of public security, was traveling to a ceremony for new prison guards at Mexico’s maximum-security La Palma prison when the Bell helicopter crashed into a mountain about 30 miles west of the capital.
The Dean of Students at Harvard Law School said this week that military recruiters will be allowed back on the school’s campus after the school was threatened by the Pentagon that it would lose federal funds if it did not allow recruiters on the grounds. Harvard Law has had a policy of barring the Pentagon from using the law school’s career services office for recruiting, on the grounds that the Pentagon’s "don’t ask don’t tell" policy against gay people violates the guidelines on nondiscrimination that the school requires of recruiters on campus. A decade-old federal law, called the Solomon Amendment, requires campuses to offer full recruiting access to the military or risk losing federal grants. But that law is in limbo. Last year, the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals sided with several law schools who had sued to overturn the law on free speech grounds.
The New York Times Company announced that it plans to lay-off 500 workers in coming months—that’s 4 percent of its workforce. The announcement came just hours after the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News announced a planned buyout of 15 percent of its newsroom staff. The New York Times newspaper will cut 250 jobs, including 45 newsroom employees. The company’s New England Media Group, which includes the Boston Globe, will lose about 160 jobs, including 35 in the Globe newsroom. The rest of the cuts will be made in other parts of the company, including its smaller regional papers and radio and television stations.
Meanwhile, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is preparing to elect a new chairperson on Saturday to replace Ken Tomlinson, whose tenure ends that day. Broadcasting and Cable reports two of the top candidates are Republican board members Gay Hart Gaines and Cheryl Halpern. Gaines is a member of the Heritage Foundation while Halpern, like Tomlinson, also serves on the Board For International Broadcasting, the government’s propaganda/international news service arm abroad.
The New York Times is reporting that Pope Benedict, the 16th is planning to sign a document banning gay men from being priests, even those who are celibate. The ruling will be issued to Catholic seminaries. The paper reports that while the pope has not yet signed the document, it would probably be released in the next six weeks. In addition to the new document, which will apply to the church worldwide, Vatican investigators have been instructed to visit each of the 229 seminaries in the US.
The former President of the National Organization for Women, Molly Yard, has died at the age of 93. She led NOW during the fight over the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Yard was elected president of NOW in 1987 after working for nearly a decade on its national staff. She stepped down in late 1991, after suffering a stroke earlier that year. NOW’s membership grew by more than 100,000 during Yard’s tenure as president.