The death toll from a wave of storms in the southern United States is approaching 300, in what has become the deadliest natural disaster to hit the country since Hurricane Katrina. Thousands of people were wounded, and many more have been left homeless. At least 204 people have died in Alabama. Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox said entire neighborhoods were destroyed.
Walt Maddox: “I would estimate on a three- to four-mile stretch of the city, at some parts more than a half-mile wide, we have utter destruction. We have neighborhoods that have basically been removed from the map. We have businesses that will no longer be able to engage in commerce. And we’ve got thousands upon thousands of citizens who have lost all of their possessions. Of course, the most tragic thing about what has transpired since yesterday afternoon is we now have 36 confirmed deaths within the city, well over 600 injuries that are directly related to yesterday’s tornado.”
President Obama has declared a state of emergency for Alabama and plans to visit the state later today. At the White House, Obama called the damage left by the storms “catastrophic.”
President Obama: “In many places, the damage to homes and businesses is nothing short of catastrophic. We can’t control when or where a terrible storm may strike, but we can control how we respond to it. And I want every American who has been affected by this disaster to know that the federal government will do everything we can to help you recover, and we will stand with you as you rebuild.”
The fighting in Libya has spilled over into neighboring Tunisia with clashes reported between forces loyal to Col. Muammar Gaddafi and the Tunisian military. Gaddafi’s fighters have crossed into the Tunisian border town of Dehiba to attack rebels stationed there. On Thursday, Gaddafi’s forces seized a key border crossing used by thousands of Libyans to escape the fighting. Fierce clashes continue in the Libyan town of Misurata, with at least 12 people reportedly killed by Gaddafi’s forces earlier today.
President Obama has formally unveiled the reshuffling of his national security team with appointments of four key posts. CIA Director Leon Panetta will move to the Pentagon to replace the retiring Robert Gates. Gen. David Petraeus will become the new head of the CIA. U.S. Marine General John Allen will be nominated to become the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, a position currently held by Petraeus. And Ryan Crocker will be nominated to be U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Obama appeared with the quartet at the White House.
President Obama: “Leon Panetta at the Defense Department, David Petraeus at the CIA, Ambassador Crocker and General John Allen in Afghanistan. These are the leaders that I’ve chosen to help guide us through the difficult days ahead. I will look to them and my entire national security team for their counsel, continuity and unity of effort that this moment in history demands.”
Speaking after Obama, Panetta said his top priority will be to ensure the United States remains the world’s leading military power.
Leon Panetta: “This is a time of historic change, both at home and abroad. As the son of immigrants, I was raised to believe that we cannot be free unless we are secure. Today we are a nation at war, and job one will be to ensure that we remain the strongest military power in the world, to protect that security that is so important to this country.”
Former President Jimmy Carter has sharply criticized the United States and South Korea for withholding humanitarian aid to North Korea. Carter issued the statement at the end of a three-day trip to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. Carter also said North Korean leader Kim Jim Kong-il is ready to hold direct talks without preconditions.
Jimmy Carter: “Chairman and General Secretary Kim Jong-il sent word that he is willing and the people of North Korea are willing to negotiate with South Korea or with the United States or with the six powers, the other five powers, on any subject, at any time, and without any preconditions. And for the South Koreans and for the Americans and others, deliberately to withhold food aid to the North Korean people because of political or military issues not related is really indeed a human rights violation.”
Several Palestinian civilians have been wounded in an Israeli military attack on the Gaza Strip. Israeli tanks shelled an area near a refugee camp in Gaza earlier today. The victims included two children. The attack comes just two days after the Palestinian factions of Fatah and Hamas announced an agreement to form a unity government and hold general elections.
Egypt has announced it plans to open up the Rafah border crossing with Gaza after years of closure under former president Hosni Mubarak. Speaking to Al Jazeera, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi said Egypt will unveil further steps to address the “blockade and suffering of the Palestinian nation.”
Oil companies continue to report major profit increases amidst rising prices for gas and oil. On Thursday, Exxon Mobil said it posted a $10.7 billion profit in the first quarter, a gain of 69 percent. Royal Dutch Shell earned $6.3 billion, up 30 percent. The news comes as the Venezuelan government has announced a new tax on oil companies’ windfall profits. The tax kicks in at 20 percent when oil hits $40 dollars a barrel, reaching up to 95 percent if oil tops $100 barrel. Venezuela says it expects to collect between $9 billion and $16.3 billion this year, with the money going to social programs. In a statement, the group Public Citizen called for a tax on oil companies’ windfall profits in the United States, saying, “Prices at the gas pump are jumping, even though the cost of drilling hasn’t changed… Big Oil is able to pocket the difference—at the direct expense of consumers.”
The alleged whistleblower U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning, who is suspected of leaking classified U.S. documents to WikiLeaks, has been cleared to be held as a medium-security prisoner at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he was just transferred. Up until last week Manning was held in solitary confinement at a Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia.
California Gov. Jerry Brown has canceled a controversial plan for a new death row at the San Quentin State Prison. The new facility carried a price tag of $356 million. Brown said, “It would be unconscionable to earmark $356 million for a new and improved death row, while making severe cuts to education and programs that serve the most vulnerable among us.”
The Massachusetts State House has approved a measure that would curb the rights of public sector unions. The bill would prevent public employees from collectively bargaining over their health benefits. The measure is similar to Republican bills passed in Wisconsin and Ohio, but unlike those states, the Massachusetts House is controlled by Democrats. The measure now goes to the Massachusetts State Senate.
The Federal Trade Commission has released new guidelines aimed at curbing the marketing of unhealthy foods to children. Under the proposal, food advertised to children would have to contain certain healthy ingredients, including fresh fruits and vegetables, and not have large amounts of sugar, saturated fat, transfat and salt. The guidelines would target a wide range of marketing tools, including the use of cartoon characters, advertising mediums, product placement and digital media applications. Although food companies could face pressure to adopt them, the guidelines are voluntary, and companies would have up to 10 years to put them into effect.
A group of students at Rutgers University in New Jersey have ended a sit-in to protest tuition hikes. The nine students occupied the school’s administration building for more than 24 hours before leaving voluntarily Thursday night.