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March 2011

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Tsunami warning issued for at least 50 areas after quake

tsunami

The threat of a tsunami prompted the U.S. National Weather Service to issue a warning for at least 50 countries and territories after an 8.9-magnitude earthquake struck Japan Friday.

The wide-ranging list includes Russia and Indonesia, Central American countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Costa Rica and the U.S. state of Hawaii. The weather service's bulletin is intended "as advice to government agencies."

The quake, which struck near the coast of Honshu, Japan on Friday afternoon, unleashed a wall of water that rushed in toward land, leveling houses and bashing cars in its path.

Some officials feared that the fast-moving waves from a tsunami could be so high that they wash over entire islands in the Pacific, a spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said Friday.

"Experts are saying that it could be anywhere from 4 to 10 meters. That's higher than some of the Pacific islands are above sea level. We just have to do the calculations to see that this is a real threat," federation spokesman Paul Conneally said.

"In a situation like this, we have to prepare for the worst case scenario," he added.

But Gerard Fryer of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said even though waves could cause significant flooding, "washing over islands is not going to happen."

Tsunami waves can travel at speeds of 800 kilometers per hour.

"The tsunami is more than one wave, and the waves can be separated by 20 minutes or half an hour. So just because you see a wave come up and then go back in the ocean again, that doesn't mean it's over," Fryer said.

Sirens sounded in Hawaii around 10 p.m. Thursday (3 a.m. ET), warning residents they could expect tsunami waves five hours later.

The West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center early Friday issued a tsunami warning for coastal areas along the United States and Canadian west coasts. The tsunami warning includes coastal areas of California and Oregon from Point Conception to the Oregon-Washington border. It also includes coastal areas of Alaska from Amchitka Pass to Attu.

In the Philippines, the government has evacuated 20 coast areas. A tsunami could could hit by 6 p.m. (5 a.m. ET), it said.

Meanwhile, the regional government in eastern Taiwan's Taitung county canceled classes and work, but did not immediately begin evacuations.

Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry said more than 11,000 people living in dangerous areas had been evacuated after a tsunami warning was issued for the Kuril Islands. Ships docked in open ports were heading back out to sea to avoid being hit by tsunami waves, the ministry said.

Chip McCreary of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said officials estimated the quake was already causing waves with magnitudes of up to 2 meters above normal sea level.

"This is a very large earthquake. We've evaluated it as about the same size as the earthquake last year in Chile. However, it's much closer to the Hawaiian islands than the Chile earthquake," he said.

The National Weather Service list includes Japan, Russia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Australia, Fiji, Mexico, New Zealand, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and the United States.

Numerous Pacific islands, including some U.S. territories, are also on the list.

Friday's 8.9-magnitude temblor in Japan was the largest earthquake since a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck the Banda Aceh area of Indonesia on Dec. 26, 2004, causing a massive tsunami that killed about 250,000 people in 14 countries and washed away entire communities. The tsunami caused nearly $10 billion in damage and more casualties than any other tsunami in history, according to the United Nations.

The earthquake, initially reported as a 7.8 earthquake, was upgraded to an 8.9 quake.

"When you jump a magnitude from 7 to 8, it's not 10 times stronger, it's 1000 times stronger," said CNN International meteorologist Ivan Cabrera. "With an ... earthquake that shallow, that close to shore, there will be more than one tsunami."

Wisconsin Senate passes union curbs as protesters rally

Republicans in the Wisconsin state Senate approved sweeping curbs on collective bargaining by public employees on Wednesday in an abrupt and accelerated vote that caught many Democrats by surprise.

The move added to the already bitter political atmosphere in Wisconsin over the fight, and dozens of protesters flooded the Capitol in the evening following the vote, ignoring announcements from police that the building was closed.

The ground floor and first floor appeared nearly as full as they were during the first days of the demonstrations more than three weeks ago, and protesters stayed in the Capitol defiantly chanting "recall" and "Whose house? Our house!"

Outside the Assembly chamber, House Minority Leader Peter Barca allowed protesters to fill out forms listing themselves as witnesses to a violation of the state's open meetings laws stemming from the Republicans' earlier conference committee meeting.

The move by the Wisconsin Senate will increase the anxiety of union workers nationwide, who face similar efforts to roll back public employee power in a number of other states.

The bill, which also increases the health care and pension costs for workers and was the most controversial part of newly elected Governor Scott Walker's emergency budget repair bill, now heads for the Republican-controlled state Assembly, where quick passage as early as Thursday is all but assured.

By stripping out the sections of Walker's bill that involved appropriating funds, the Senate Republicans were able to work around the legislative roadblock their 14 Democratic colleagues threw up three weeks ago when they fled the state to deny the Republicans a quorum.

In an 18-to-1 vote, the Senate approved the curbs on collective bargaining by public employees.

Republican Walker insists the limits are needed to help the state's cash-strapped municipalities deal with a projected $1.27 billion drop in aid over the next two years from the state, struggling to close its own $3.6 billion budget gap.

The measure has prompted massive demonstrations in the state capital by the bill's opponents and triggered a wave of recall campaigns targeting both the governor's supporters and opponents in the legislature.

What began a month ago as a Republican effort in one small U.S. state to balance the budget has now turned into a confrontation with unions that could be the biggest since then President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers nearly 30 years ago.

If the plan is approved as expected in Wisconsin, a number of other states where Republicans swept to victory in the 2010 elections could follow. Legislatures including those in Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Idaho, Tennessee, and Kansas have already been working on union curbs of their own.

The stakes are high for labor because more than a third of U.S. public employees such as teachers, police and civil service workers belong to unions while only 6.9 percent of private sector workers are unionized. Unions are the biggest single source of funding for the Democratic party.

Walker, 43, applauded the move, which came despite signs, including public opinion polls, that a growing number of Wisconsinites don't back the measure.

Walker never mentioned the proposal on his official campaign website nor debated it during his two-year campaign. It reverses long-standing policy in Wisconsin, among the first states to give public employees union rights.

"The Senate Democrats have had three weeks to debate this bill and were offered repeated opportunities to come home, which they refused," Walker said in a statement.

'OUTRAGE'

But Wisconsin Democrats blasted the move, whose speed seemed to surprise the missing Senators.

"In 30 minutes, 18 state senators undid 50 years of civil rights in Wisconsin. Their disrespect for the people of Wisconsin and their rights is an outrage that will never be forgotten," Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller said.

Miller and other Senate members said they would now be coming back to the state and continuing the fight.

"We have no reason to remain away and when the Assembly acts on the bill tomorrow we will be back in the state within a matter of hours," Democratic Senator Jim Holperin told Reuters in a telephone interview.

"We did what we could to delay the bill so people could know what was in it and to try to negotiate something less than the complete elimination of workers' rights."

Democrats say Walker is taking advantage of the state's current financial problems to attack organized labor -- traditionally a strong supporter of the Democratic Party and a critical player in any effort by Democrats to recover from the setbacks they suffered in the midterm elections last fall and to keep President Barack Obama in the White House in 2012.

Immediately upon being sworn as governor in this January, Walker convened a special session of the legislature to pass what he called a budget repair bill. Buried inside were the provisions slashing public employee union rights.

By stripping out the fiscal fixes in the bill and considering just the collective bargaining portions, the Senate Republicans were able to pass the measure on Wednesday without the absent Democrats.

The Senate measure requires public workers to pay health care premiums and contribute to their pensions -- concessions the workers had signaled they would accept if the collective bargaining restrictions were removed.

A conference committee made up of Republican members of the legislature on Wednesday separately approved a revised budget repair bill over the objections of Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, who called the meeting a violation of state law.

Obama budget has $556 billion, six-year transport plan

President Barack Obama on Monday proposed an ambitious long-term transport spending plan in his 2012 budget as a way to boost U.S. economic competitiveness and spur job growth.

While cutting other spending, Obama aggressively accelerated efforts to upgrade aging roads, bridges and introduce high-speed rail with a six-year, $556 billion package.

"It's really about a big vision, a bold vision, an innovative vision," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told reporters.

The total is 60 percent richer than the last transportation blueprint enacted by Congress, which expired in 2009.

Congress is working on its own transportation spending priorities with proposals expected soon. LaHood expressed optimism recently legislation could be approved this year.

In a sign of the intense opposition to Obama's transportation policies, House of Representatives Republicans on Friday proposed eliminating Obama's high-speed passenger rail effort.

Republicans hold the majority in the House and are seeking deep cuts across the board to narrow the budget deficit, which is forecast to reach $1.48 trillion this fiscal year.

The Obama proposal relies heavily on competitive grants and sidesteps earmarks in order to depoliticize how projects are financed. According to LaHood, the plan will consolidate 55 smaller highway programs into five different areas.

"This budget does all that I've talked about in bold terms ... without passing any debt on to future generations," LaHood said, adding the federal government will ensure "the dollars we give out do not exceed dollars coming in."

According to department documents, the proposal's high price would be paid by a "Transportation Trust Fund." Essentially, the administration would expand the current Highway Trust Fund to also back transit, high-speed rail, and a national infrastructure bank. But LaHood said Obama has not suggested where to find revenues for the bigger account.

Obama is not seeking to raise gasoline taxes nor does he embrace calls by some experts to charge motorists a fee for each mile they drive.

INFRASTRUCTURE BANK

Obama's plan includes a $53-billion proposal to advance high-speed rail over six years and a proposal to spend nearly 17 percent of the overall $556 billion transportation package in the first year.

It would also create an infrastructure bank capitalized at $30 billion over six years to finance the biggest projects with the help of states and private investment.

Obama pushed the infrastructure bank idea last year, but it got a cool reception in Congress and a government poll released this summer showed analysts, transportation agencies and states' leaders were unclear about how it would operate.

Under Obama's plan the bank would reside within the Transportation Department and be run by an executive director and a board of officials from federal agencies. At first, it would only finance transportation projects.

General Electric Chief Executive Jeff Immelt said last month that prospects are slim for an infrastructure bank, because of deficit concerns.

Proponents of an infrastructure bank have said investments from private equity and pension funds and other sources would complement federal capital. Projects could generate revenue through tolls or other fees that would provide long-term, low-yield returns for investors.

Australia's Macquarie Group is the global leader in private infrastructure investment, according to Infrastructure Investor magazine rankings. Others include Goldman Sachs and Alinda Capital Partners, the largest U.S. manager of pension funds for infrastructure investment.

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates it will cost more than $2 trillion to bring roads, bridges, and other infrastructure to a state of good repair.

Increased spending would potentially benefit companies like heavy equipment makers Caterpillar Inc and Deere & Co, sand and gravel producer Vulcan Materials, industrial conglomerate General Electric, engineering firm Parsons Corp, steelmakers and prefabricated materials manufacturers. LaHood is scheduled to visit Caterpillar on Tuesday.

The previous transport bill, a five-year, $285 billion package, expired in September 2009. Since then, Congress has funded road and transit projects through short-term extensions.