Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has appealed for international help as rescue efforts continue following Saturday’s devastating earthquake. The official death toll is at 723, but it is expected to rise. An estimated two million people were affected by the earthquake. Bachelet says Chile urgently needs mobile bridges, field hospitals, satellite phones, electrical generators, water purification systems and field kitchens. Troops have been dispatched to Chile’s heavily damaged south, where looting was reported. Some of the worst devastation has been reported along Chile’s central Pacific coast, which was also hit by a tsunami. Entire fishing villages were reportedly wiped out by the high waves. In Concepción, Chile’s second largest city, people are camped on the streets, cooking and eating outside.
Resident of Concepción: “What we need the most is food. Food and water. Let us not run out. We call on the authorities to make their presence known in this place, to not leave us so alone. Yesterday, the children were crying because they were hungry, and they were tearing their hair out, and there wasn’t anything to give them.”
Many residents along Chile’s coast said the tsunami was more devastating than the actual earthquake.
Jose Gonzalez: “I saw it very clearly. It looked like a massive snake, with water behind it. The mass of water was maybe a meter-and-a-half high, and it swept away everything in its path.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to briefly visit Santiago, Chile today as part of a regional tour of Latin America.
Scientists says the 8.8-magnitude earthquake was so powerful that it slightly shifted the earth’s axis and shortened the day. NASA scientist Richard Gross told Bloomberg that the axis about which the earth’s mass is balanced likely moved by about three inches and that the length of the day should have gotten shorter by 1.26 microseconds.
President Obama appears set to urge Senate Democrats to pass the healthcare reform legislation through the congressional process known as budget reconciliation. This would enable Senate Democrats to pass the healthcare package with fifty-one votes, rather than the sixty votes they would need to overcome a Republican filibuster. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the President will talk tomorrow about “the way forward” to pass a bill.
Robert Gibbs: “The President will speak on this later in the week, likely on Wednesday. And I will wait until we have something from the President then. I do believe the President believes that an up-or-down vote is necessary. I think the Republicans could decide not to filibuster, and that would be one way.”
The Department of Transportation furloughed nearly 2,000 employees without pay Monday as Senate Republican Jim Bunning continued to filibuster a key spending bill to extend unemployment and COBRA benefits for hundreds of thousands of Americans. The blocked bill also affects several governmental agencies, rural television customers and doctors receiving Medicare payments. Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Republican whip, defended Bunning’s opposition to the bill. Kyl said unemployment benefits dissuade people from job hunting because “people are being paid even though they’re not working.” Due to Bunning’s filibuster, forty-one highway projects were shut down yesterday because federal inspectors were off the job. The Obama administration ordered Medicare billing contractors not to pay any claims from doctors for the first ten business days of March. On Monday, when a producer from ABC tried to ask Bunning why he was blocking the unemployment benefits, Bunning flashed him the middle finger.
In education news, President Obama has voiced support for the mass firings of every teacher at a public high school in Rhode Island. Last week, all ninety-three teachers and school personnel at Central Falls High School were told they were being fired at the end of the school year because of the school’s low achievement scores and low graduation rates. Last week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan applauded the move, saying school committee members were “showing courage and doing the right thing for kids.” On Monday, President Obama added his support for the mass firings.
President Obama: “So, if a school is struggling, we have to work with the principal and the teachers to find a solution. We’ve got to give them a chance to make meaningful improvements. But if a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn’t show signs of improvement, then there’s got to be a sense of accountability. And that’s what happened in Rhode Island last week at a chronically troubled school, when just seven percent of eleventh graders passed state math tests. Seven percent. When a school board wasn’t able to deliver change by other means, they voted to lay off the faculty and the staff.”
President Obama’s comment during a speech promoting School Turnaround Grants for low-performing schools. The President encouraged school districts to fire teachers at poorly performing schools, open more charter schools, and close some schools outright. The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, responded to the President’s speech by saying, “We know it is tempting for people in Washington to score political points by scapegoating teachers, but it does nothing to give our students and teachers the tools they need to succeed.”
Afghanistan has banned the news media from covering Taliban attacks. The announcement came on a day when NATO-led forces reported six of its service members had been killed in various attacks. Under the new rules, journalists will be allowed to film only the aftermath of attacks, when given permission by Afghanistan’s spy agency. Journalists who film while attacks are underway will be held and their gear seized. The new rule has been denounced by Afghan journalism and rights groups.
In Iraq, violence appears to be spiking ahead of Sunday’s general elections. Three hundred fifty-two Iraqis were killed in February, an 80 percent jump over January.
Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic defended himself in the UN tribunal in The Hague on Monday. He is charged with eleven war crimes for his actions during the Bosnian War in the 1990s. Prosecutors say Karadzic led a genocidal campaign to make Bosnian Muslims “disappear from the face of the earth.” Karadzic denied all the charges.
Radovan Karadzic: “Instead of isolating a specific crime that the accused has done, the prosecution is criminalizing the entire nation and all its legal, legitimate and political activities, and it proclaims it as a joint criminal enterprise.”
In Sudan, rebels in Darfur say more than 230 civilians have been killed by Sudanese troops over the past week. The rebel group known as the Sudan Liberation Army said government aircraft have been repeatedly bombing the area of Jebel Marra. The United Nations has not been able to confirm the civilian casualties, because the UN does not have access to the region. A French aid agency said the recent fighting had forced 100,000 civilians to flee their homes.
In Greece, protesters forced their way through the gates of the Labor Ministry on Monday just as a top European Union official was arriving for a meeting. Greek police fought back the protesters with pepper spray after they came close to the ministry doors. Protesters say they are angry over the tough measures the government has announced under its economic plan to tackle the debt crisis.
Greek Protester: “The new measures they will take are going to burden the workers. Things will get even worse, so why should we accept them? We did not create this crisis, so why should we pay for it?”
In campaign news, Arkansas Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter has announced he will challenge Senator Blanche Lincoln in the Democratic primary. Halter had been recruited by the progressive group Accountability Now to challenge Lincoln, who is seen as one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate. She has opposed including a public insurance option in the Senate healthcare bill and the pro-union Employee Free Choice Act. Bill Halter released a video on Monday announcing his candidacy.
Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter: “Washington is broken, bailing out Wall Street with no strings attached while leaving middle-class Arkansas taxpayers with the bill; protecting insurance company profits instead of protecting patients and lowering health costs; gridlock, bickering and partisan games, while unemployment is at a twenty-five-year high. Enough’s enough. It’s past time to put more Arkansas values in Washington.”
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said President Obama will support Blanche Lincoln in her reelection bid, but the AFL-CIO has reportedly decided to throw its weight behind Bill Halter.
In other campaign news, former Tennessee Representative Harold Ford has decided not to mount a primary challenge here in New York against Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
In California, Democrat Jerry Brown is expected to announce today he will run for governor, the post he held from 1975 to 1983.
Here in New York, employees of the anti-poverty group ACORN have been cleared of criminal wrongdoing after a five-month investigation conducted by the Brooklyn District Attorney office. The probe began after right-wing activists secretly videotaped ACORN employees giving tax advice to a couple posing as a pimp and a prostitute.
The Internal Revenue Service building in Ogden, Utah was partially evacuated Monday after a suspicious substance was found. Investigators later determined the substance was not hazardous, but it raised alarms about the safety of IRS employees. Government figures show the number of threats against IRS employees have increased by over 21 percent since 2008. Two weeks ago, a Texas man crashed his private plane into the IRS office in Austin, Texas, killing himself and one IRS employee. Many critics of the IRS refused to denounce the suicide attack. In an interview, Republican Congressman Steve King expressed empathy with the suicide pilot Joe Stack.
Reporter: “The pilot who flew himself into an IRS building, do you think his attack, his terrorist attack, was motivated at all by a lot of the anti-tax rhetoric that’s popular in America right now?”
Rep. Steve King: “I think if we had abolished the IRS back when I first advocated it, he wouldn’t have had a target for his airplane. It’s sad that the incident happened down in Texas, but, by the same token, the IRS is an agency that’s unnecessary, and when the day comes that that is over and we have abolished the IRS, it will be a happy day for all Americans.”
And in science news, a new study shows one of the world’s most commonly used weedkillers can turn male frogs into females. The chemicals in the weedkiller atrazine disrupt development and make frogs develop both male and female features. The European Union banned atrazine in 2004, but the weedkiller is still widely used in agriculture here in the United States. Researchers said approximately 80 million pounds of atrazine are applied annually in the United States alone. Atrazine is now the most common pesticide contaminant of ground and surface water.