Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Quote of the Week"I don't think anyone anticipated breach of the levees." President George W. Bush, Sept. 1, 2005
"A flood from a powerful hurricane can get trapped for weeks inside the levee system. Emergency officials concede that many of the structures in the area, including newer high-rise buildings, would not survive the winds of a major storm. The large size of the area at risk also makes it difficult to evacuate the million or more people who live in the area, putting tens of thousands of people at risk of dying even with improved forecasting and warnings." The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune, June 23, 2002
Headlines The aftermath of the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina moved into its third week, with finally some progress: repairs to the New Orleans levees, hundreds of thousands of evacuees settling in elsewhere, and the early beginnings of cleanup. Many months more to come.
The state of Texas welcomed an estimated 240,000 Gulf Coast guests, including several thousand in Austin shelters, hotels, and homes an extraordinary outpouring of community solidarity, headquartered at the Austin Convention Center by city officials, the Red Cross, and other volunteer organizations. For more on the week's events and a comprehensive listing of what's going on, see "Home From Home.
As New Orleans and its neighbors began to dig out of the wreckage, the official disaster response (or lack of it) came under increasing public and political attack. The Bush administration moved into high spin mode, promising an investigation of itself (while, The New York Times revealed, Karl Rove is already working on a plan to blame the tragedy on local officials), while communities all over the country braced for a rising death toll and uncertain ripple effects from the greatest natural disaster in the nation's history.
Closer to home, more pedestrian business: The City Council readied to approve a $470 million budget early next week, public hearings commence this week on bond proposals in preparation for next year, and the firefighters union moved to break the impasse in contract negotiations with a new staffing proposal to the council.
Austin Stories Several Texas cities hosting hurricane evacuees stand to lose millions of dollars in revenue from cancellation of conventions. That's why Austin convention and city officials are scrambling to pin down other meeting facilities around town to accommodate most of about 20 groups booked this month. The arrival of some 4,000 people to the Austin Convention Center and Palmer Events Center left little wiggle room for this weekend's Texas Home & Garden Show, forcing the event's cancellation. And the Catholic Diocese of Austin postponed indefinitely a ministry conference on Saturday. About $150,000 in deposits have been refunded thus far, but it's too soon to calculate what the financial loss will be. The evacuees will remain in the convention center indefinitely as city, social services, and Red Cross officials help them regain their footing. Mayor Will Wynn said the goal is to try to relocate them in permanent or temporary housing as soon as possible. "Not for our sake, but for theirs." Amy Smith
In the aftermath of Katrina, a storm that quadrupled in strength over the Gulf of Mexico's warm waters, the Union of Concerned Scientists last Friday addressed the connection between rising global temperatures, warmer oceans, and stronger hurricanes. "Scientific evidence suggests there is a link between global warming and the power, not frequency, of hurricanes," said Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate scientist with UCS. The union cited recent peer-reviewed research from MIT showing that a combined measure of both the duration and intensity of hurricanes has doubled over the last 30 years. This trend corresponds with increases in average ocean surface temperatures over the same period, and most of the strongest hurricanes on record have occurred during the past 10 years, when ocean surface temperatures reached record levels, according to the UCS. "Recent scientific developments also tell us that hurricanes will only get more powerful with warmer oceans caused by global warming," Ekwurzel said. "For economic and environmental reasons, and above all, to save human lives, President Bush and other elected officials must take action to reduce heat-trapping emissions." Dan Mottola
With just two months to go before the start of the highly anticipated November trial, city officials and APD Detective Jeff White on Sept. 6 finally reached an agreement that will close White's 21Ú2-year-old whistle-blower lawsuit. White filed suit against the city in 2002, claiming that he was transferred from a plum assignment, and then blocked from another, by former APD Assistant Chief Jimmy Chapman in apparent retaliation for White's comments to a city lawyer that Chapman may have been involved in thwarting a mid-Nineties drug trafficking investigation code-named Mala Sangre (Bad Blood). The terms of the settlement are confidential, but White's attorney Don Feare said that White is "very satisfied" with the resolution of the case. (For more on White and Mala Sangre, see "There's Going to Be Some Changes," Oct. 17, 2003.) Jordan Smith
Former Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Charlie Baird announced his candidacy for the Travis Co. 299th District Court, to replace Judge Jon Wisser, who is retiring at the end of his term. Baird will run in the March 2006 Democratic primary. He sat on the CCA from 1990 to 1998 where he was often on the short end of votes to approve dubious capital convictions and has been serving as a visiting judge since stepping down. Announcing his candidacy, Baird said, "District courts are on the front lines against serious threats such as murder, robbery, rape, and child abuse. I am running because I have the experience, qualifications, and respect for the rule of law that are exactly what we need to protect people as well as our legal system. My 15 years of judicial experience and my seven years as a law school professor make me uniquely qualified to serve the people of Travis County." Michael King
On Sept. 2, after two years of effort, the APD Forensic Science Lab got its official certificate of accreditation from the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors. In addition, the lab received accreditation for its Crime Scene Section the first accredited CSS lab in Texas. ASCLD has given the APD lab a national nod for handling a variety of tasks, including forensic testing of biological DNA evidence, firearms/toolmarks and ballistics, and latent print analysis. "With this certification, the citizens of Austin can be assured that the highest investigative and scientific standards are applied to the processing of evidence," reads an APD press release. "The APD's Forensic Science Division is now recognized as one of the finest in the country." According to the APD, the lab has 53 full-time employees and in 2004 was responsible for providing forensic support in more than 32,000 criminal investigations. J.S.
On Sept. 6, 22-year-old former UT student Christopher Phillips was sentenced to five years probation, 500 hours of community service, and ordered to pay a $170,000 fine to the university for hacking into the UT computer system in 2003 and downloading nearly 40,000 Social Security numbers. Federal District Judge Lee Yeakel's sentence also prohibits Phillips from accessing the Internet during the five years of his probated sentence, unless he needs to do so for work or for school, and only if the access is preapproved by his probation officer. A federal jury found Phillips guilty of hacking into the university computer system in June but acquitted the student of the more serious charge of possessing the numbers with the intent to profit off of them. Phillips is now a senior at the University of Houston, where he is studying computer sciences. J.S.
Beyond City Limits Demonstrators gathered at the Governor's Mansion last Thursday as contested case hearings got under way to re-examine the decision to grant a Texas Department of State Health Services permit to Waste Control Specialists, allowing the private company to dispose of about 3,500 truckloads (1.5 million cubic feet) of radioactive toxic waste in West Texas' Andrews County. Although "low-level" radioactive waste began rolling into Texas in June from a former nuclear bomb factory in Ohio, the hearings are a milestone in the nearly 30-year-old struggle to keep radioactive waste out of Texas. Recently, the battle has focused on the seemingly endless stream of nuclear waste contracted out for handling to WCS, which is co-owned by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, a major Bush booster and GOP political contributor. If the permit is approved, WCS is free to do billions of dollars' worth of business in importing radioactive waste from all over the country and establishing Texas as the nation's largest nuclear waste dump. D.M.
Young adults who were in high school or college on September 11, 2001, have responded differently from other age groups to the terrorist attacks, according to the first results of a five-year "Generation 9/11" series of studies. Patricia Somers, an assistant education professor at UT, recently compiled the preliminary findings. "Anger at the U.S. government and media, a distinct need to feel a 'sense of community,' fear for the safety of others (particularly the Muslim population), a strong desire to gain more knowledge about global affairs and what Somers termed a 'skeptical patriotism'" were all responses of the Midwest college students who participated in the study, a UT press release reads. "Significant shifts in college students' attitudes will have an effect on the future politics, economics and social policy. Although we're just beginning our studies, there does seem to be some evidence of the emergence of a more civically inclined, altruistic generation that takes a world view and will be better equipped to deal with global politics and a world economy." Interviews for the second stage begin in the spring. For more, see www.edb.utexas.edu/faculty/somers/911studies. Cheryl Smith
Happenings Numerous events are happening about town related to Hurricane Katrina. For a comprehensive listing, see p.28.
Third Coast Activist will host two screenings of the documentary Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear & the Selling of American Empire at Alamo Lake Creek (Lake Creek Shopping Center, 13729 Research), at 7:20pm Friday and Saturday, Sept. 9-10. Narrated by NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, Hijacking Catastrophe features interviews with more than 20 prominent observers, including Pentagon whistle-blower Lt. Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski, who witnessed firsthand how the Bush Administration set up a sophisticated propaganda operation to link the anxieties generated by 9/11 to a pre-existing foreign policy agenda that included a pre-emptive war on Iraq. Introduction and Q&A following with UT professor and peace activist Robert Jensen.
San Antonio Congressman Lamar Smith whose District 21 includes Western Travis Co. will hold public meetings with his Austin-area constituents on Saturday, Sept. 10, 9-10am at the Highland Park Elementary School cafeteria, 4900 Fairview; and 11am-noon at the Kocurek Elementary School cafeteria, 9800 Curlew. For more info call 402-9743 or visit www.lamarsmith.house.gov.
In striving to create a bond package in accordance with public priorities, the city of Austin will hold several public hearings to hear from citizens on how their needs and goals can be addressed in next year's bond election. Where should your money go? Sat., Sept. 10, 10am-noon at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, 4801 La Crosse.
City Council Member Lee Leffingwell will talk and listen at the First Unitarian Universalist Church's Public Affairs Forum, Sun., Sept. 11. 11:30am-12:30pm at 4700 Grover. Call 452-6168 or visit www.austinuu.org.
Austin Against War sponsors Our Grief Is Not a Cry for War!, a march and peace festival with the endorsement of Families of September 11 for Peaceful Tomorrows, an organization of families of the victims of 9/11 who are working for peace. Join them in their call for an end to a war waged in the name of revenge for their loved ones. Sun., Sept. 11, 12:30pm at Gillis Park, Oltorf & South First. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.peacefultomorrows.org.