Friday, September 30, 2005

Miller Agrees to Testify in CIA Leak Probe

WASHINGTON - After nearly three months behind bars, New York Times reporter Judith Miller was released Thursday after agreeing to testify about the Bush administration's disclosure of a covert CIA officer's identity.

Miller left the federal detention center in Alexandria, Va., after reaching an agreement with Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald. She will appear Friday morning before a grand jury investigating the case.

"My source has now voluntarily and personally released me from my promise of confidentiality regarding our conversations," Miller said in a statement.

Her source was Vice President
Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, reported the Times, which supported her contention that her source should be protected.

"As we have throughout this ordeal, we continue to support Judy Miller in the decision she has made," said Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. "We are very pleased that she has finally received a direct and uncoerced waiver, both by phone and in writing, releasing her from any claim of confidentiality and enabling her to testify."

Fitzgerald spokesman Randall Samborn declined to comment.

Until this past summer,
President Bush said leakers in the Plame probe would be fired. But in July after it was revealed that top aide Karl Rove and Libby had been involved in the leaks, Bush said "if someone committed a crime," he would be fired.

Miller has been in custody since July 6. A federal judge ordered her jailed when she refused to testify before the grand jury investigating the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame's name by White House officials.

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The disclosure of Plame's identity by syndicated columnist Robert Novak in July 2003 triggered an inquiry that has caused political damage to the Bush White House and could still result in criminal charges against government officials.

The federal grand jury delving into the matter expires Oct. 28. Miller would have been freed at that time, but prosecutors could have pursued a criminal contempt of court charge against the reporter if she continued to defy Fitzgerald.

Of the reporters swept up in Fitzgerald's investigation, Miller is the only one to go to jail. She was found in civil contempt of court.

Time reporter Matthew Cooper testified to the grand jury after his magazine surrendered his notes and e-mail detailing a conversation with presidential aide Karl Rove.

Last year, Cooper and NBC's Tim Russert answered some of the prosecutor's questions about conversations they had with Libby.

Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus also answered the prosecutor's questions about a conversation with an unidentified administration official. Under the arrangements for his testimony, Pincus did not identify the official to the investigators, who already knew the official's identity. Prosecutors also say they know the identity of Miller's source.

Novak apparently has cooperated with prosecutors, though neither he nor his lawyer has said so.

Novak's column on July 14, 2003, came eight days after Plame's husband said in an opinion piece in the Times that the Bush administration twisted intelligence to exaggerate the threat from
Iraq's nuclear weapons program.

Novak wrote that two senior administration officials told him Plame had suggested sending her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, to the African nation of Niger on behalf of the CIA to look into possible Iraqi purchases of uranium yellowcake.

Wilson's article in the Times had stated it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place.

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The timing of Wilson's article was devastating for the White House, which was struggling to fend off criticism because no weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. The president's claims of such weapons in Iraq were the main justification for going to war.

According to an affidavit of Miller's in the investigation, the reporter spoke to one or more confidential sources regarding Wilson's op-ed piece, which was titled, "What I Didn't Find In Africa." She never wrote a story about Wilson or Plame.

Fitzgerald wanted Miller to tell the grand jury about the confidential conversations she had with a particular administration official and the prosecutor demanded that she produce documents relating to those conversations.

Fitzgerald said in July that he thought he had identified Miller's source and that the source had waived confidentiality.

Miller's cooperation could clear the way for Fitzgerald to wind up his investigation. Whether he will seek any indictments or is trying to negotiate guilty pleas with anyone isn't publicly known.

While the expiration of the grand jury on Oct. 28 would seem to be a milestone signifying the end of the investigation, Fitzgerald could ask the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Thomas Hogan, to impanel a new grand jury.

Miller is a veteran national security reporter. In the 1980s, she became the first woman to be named chief of The Times' Cairo bureau in Egypt. For her work on
Osama bin Laden in 2001, she won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism as part of a small team of Times reporters.

Starting in 2002, her stories about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq helped bolster the Bush administration's case for toppling
Saddam Hussein. The failure to find the weapons prompted heavy criticism of Miller and the Times as well as of the Bush administration.

The news media is in a less-than-ideal position in the Plame probe.

The reporters' sources — rather than being whistle-blowers exposing wrongdoing and facing retaliation if identified — are government officials whose motives in leaking appear to have been to undermine the credibility of a critic of the Bush administration.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Online Ad Market Grows 26 Percent

NEW YORK - Search-based keyword ads largely propelled the 26 percent growth — to a record $5.8 billion — in U.S. Internet advertising revenues for the first half of the year.

That compares to $4.6 billion for the same period last year, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

The IAB did not release the full study, which PricewaterhouseCoopers conducted on its behalf. Although the report was not yet finished, the bureau said it wanted to release numbers during a marketing conference that opened Monday. Home Page

Internet-based advertising remains a small portion of the total U.S. advertising market, which was $71 billion during the first half of 2005, according to research firm TNS Media Intelligence.

Search ads made up 40 percent of the online ad revenues, the same share as the first half of 2004. But revenue totals for search jumped 27 percent to $2.3 billion, from $1.8 billion. Display ads made up 20 percent and classifieds 18 percent.

"The consistent growth in overall revenues shows marketers may be shifting more of their total advertising budgets to online," David Silverman, a partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers, said in a statement. "This is a natural development as research shows more consumers are spending a larger percentage of their media time online, while the flow of advertising dollars follows."

Rescuers Find More Survivors, More Damage

CREOLE, La. - Hurricane Rita's path of devastation along the Texas-Louisiana coast became shockingly clear Monday, as rescuers pulled stranded bayou residents out on skiffs and Army helicopters searched for thousands of cattle feared drowned.

Crews struggled to clean up the tangle of smashed homes and downed trees. The hurricane slammed low-lying fishing villages, shrimping ports and ranches with water up to 9 feet deep. Seawater pushed as far as 20 miles inland, drowning acres of rice, sugarcane fields and pasture.

In coastal Terrebonne Parish, the count of severely damaged or destroyed homes stood at nearly 9,900. An estimated 80 percent of the buildings in the town of Cameron, population 1,900, were leveled. Farther inland, half of Creole, population 1,500, was left in splinters.

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"I would use the word destroyed," Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore said of Cameron. "Cameron and Creole have been destroyed except for the courthouse, which was built on stilts on higher ground. Most of the houses and public buildings no longer exist or are even in the same location that they were."

The death toll from the second devastating hurricane in a month rose to nine with the discovery in a Beaumont, Texas, apartment of five people — a man, a woman and three children — who apparently were killed by carbon monoxide from a generator they were running indoors after Rita knocked out the electricity. A Texas couple was confirmed killed by an uprooted tree that fell on their home.

Houses in the marshland between Cameron and Creole were reduced to piles of bricks, or bare concrete slabs with steps leading to nowhere. Walls of an elementary school gymnasium had been washed or blown away, leaving basketball hoops hanging from the ceiling. A single-story white home was propped up against a line of trees, left there by floodwaters that ripped it from its foundation. A bank was open to the air, its vault still intact.

"We used to call this sportsman's paradise," said Honore, a Louisiana native. "But sometimes Mother Nature will come back and remind us that it has power over the land. That's what this storm did."

While residents of the Texas refinery towns of Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange were blocked from returning to their homes because of the danger of debris-choked streets and downed power lines, authorities in Louisiana were unable to keep bayou residents from venturing in on their own by boat to see if Rita wrecked their homes.

"Knowing these people, most of them are hunters, trappers, farmers. They're not going to wait on FEMA or anyone else," said Robert LeBlanc, director of emergency preparedness in Vermilion Parish. "They're going to do what they need to do. They're used to primitive conditions."

And many were finding that conditions were, in fact, primitive. Across southwestern Louisiana, many people found they had no home to go back to.

In the refinery town of Lake Charles, National Guardsmen patrolled the place and handed out bottled water, ice and food to hundreds of people left without power. Scores of cars wrapped around the parking lot of the city civic center.

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Dorothy Anderson said she did not have time to get groceries before the storm because she was at a funeral out of town. "We got back and everything was closed," she said.

Louisiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries said its teams used small boats to rescue about 200 people trapped in their homes. In Chauvin, a steady stream of people were brought by small boats from flooded sections of Terrebonne Parish. Some cried as they hauled plastic bags filled with their possessions.

"This is the worst thing I've ever been through," said Danny Hunter, 56. "I called FEMA this morning, and they said they couldn't help us because this hasn't been declared a disaster area."

"Texas is a disaster area!" Jenny Reading shouted. "I guess the president made sure of that, and everyone just forgot about us."

Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman said that Terrebonne Parish was declared a disaster area for Katrina but not for Rita. Officials were checking to see if the residents were eligible for Rita help.

With the floodwaters going down, officials turned their attention from rescuing people to saving property, including cattle — many of which were seen swimming in the brown floodwaters.

The Army used Blackhawk helicopters equipped with satellite positioning systems to search for cattle amid fears as many as 4,000 may have been killed in Cameron Parish alone, where ranchers on horseback struggled to herd the animals into corrals attached to pickup trucks.

"Take all the coastal parishes, they all had cattle," said Bob Felknor, spokesman for the Louisiana Cattlemen's Association. "It could be more than 30,000 in trouble."

Texas put the damage from Rita at a preliminary $8 billion.

At least 16 Texas oil refineries remained shut down after Rita, which came ashore early Saturday at Sabine Pass, about 30 miles from Beaumont. A refinery in Port Arthur and one in Beaumont were without power, and a second Port Arthur refinery was damaged and could remain out of service for two to four weeks.

"We didn't dodge a bullet with Rita; we took a couple bullets in the legs with Katrina and Rita," said Tom Kloza, an analyst with the Oil Price Information Service of Wall, N.J. "It's still a significant loss, and it's going to create some supply problems through at least mid-October."

Early estimates were that Hurricane Rita will cost U.S. refiners about 800,000 barrels a day in capacity, on top of a drop about 900,000 barrels a day because of Katrina. Kloza said the national average for a gallon of regular gasoline could again top $3.

In Washington,
President Bush said the government is prepared to again tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to ease any new pain at the pump, and he urged motorists to cut out any unnecessary travel.

"We can all pitch in by being better conservers of energy," Bush said.

Gasoline and traffic were both flowing smoothly as metropolitan Houston continued its second day of a voluntary, staggered re-entry plan, an attempt to avoid the epic gridlock that accompanied the exodus of nearly 3 million people last week.

"It's not stop-and-go traffic. Everything is flowing," said Mike Cox, a spokesman for the Texas Transportation Department. He said crews were also making progress in clearing trees and downed power lines from major roads.

In New Orleans, Mayor Ray Nagin picked up where he left off before Rita with his plan to reopen the Big Easy, inviting people in the largely unscathed Algiers neighborhood to come back and "help us rebuild the city."

About 300,000 customers were without power in Louisiana, and 250,000 in Texas on Monday, a number cut in half since the storm hit. A spokesman for Entergy, a major utility in both states, said it could be more than a month before some customers have power restored, and rolling blackouts are possible if residents in unaffected areas do not cut back on usage.

Among the deaths attributed to Rita was a person killed in Mississippi when a tornado spawned by the hurricane overturned a mobile home, and a Texas man struck by a falling tree. Two dozen evacuees were killed before the storm in a bus fire near Dallas.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Japanese carriers to start group chat for cellphones

TOKYO (AFP) - Japanese mobile telephone operator KDDI will start a group chat service later this year allowing five users to converse and share text messages and pictures, a report said.

KDDI, Japan's second-biggest mobile operator, will launch several cellphone models with the new function by the end of the year, with the service available on all models by early next year, the Asahi Shimbun said.

The new mobiles will use technology known as "push-to-talk" for group chatting, in which a user would press a button to open a conversation like when using a transceiver, it said.

Others listen to it simultaneously, with a second member in the group pressing the talk button to carry the conversation on once the first person finishes, it said.


The KDDI service would also enable users to send and share texts and pictures, the daily said without citing sources.

Industry leader NTT DoCoMo also plans to introduce a push-to-talk service by the end of the year, it added.

Rita Landfall Spot Reduces Loss of Life

SABINE PASS, Texas - As Texans watched Hurricane Rita — at one point a terrifying Category 5 storm — spinning in the Gulf, they didn't see a best-case scenario. The storm was on track to slam Galveston and drench flood-prone Houston.

f it moved north, the Golden Triangle of the petroleum industry would get a direct hit.

But the storm weakened slightly and made landfall in a tiny, evacuated shrimping village surrounded by marsh and a wildlife refuge, perhaps the best place to avoid deaths and economic damage.

"Even though the people right here in Beaumont and Port Arthur and this part of Orange County really got whacked, the rest of the state missed a bullet," Gov. Rick Perry said.

The storm weakened before hitting land, coming ashore Saturday as a Category 3 with 120 mph winds instead of the 175 mph winds it had in the Gulf.

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And it changed course. On Wednesday and early Thursday, Rita appeared headed straight for the city of Galveston and the heavily populated corridor between there and Houston.

Visions of a repeat of Katrina spurred a mass evacuation, which ended up causing more deaths than the storm itself — 23 people were killed when a bus of nursing home evacuees burst into flames in gridlocked traffic Friday.

As of Sunday, only two deaths were blamed directly on the storm, that of a Mississippi woman who was killed by a tornado that spun off the remains of the hurricane and a Texas man who suffered a broken neck and head injuries after a tree fell on him.

Rita's eye came ashore over Sabine Pass early Saturday, doing the kind of wholesale damage to the town that was seen up and down the Mississippi coast during Hurricane Katrina.

The most intense side of the storm passed over lightly populated areas of southwestern Louisiana before causing significant damage in Cameron, Lake Charles and Abbeville.

In Port Arthur, 10 miles north of Sabine Pass and the first significant city the storm hit as it came ashore, water never topped the 17-foot seawall that shields the city from Sabine Lake.

"From my point of view, we're lucky," Port Arthur police officer Mike Hebert said Sunday, as he watched crews remove a boat that had washed up on the road. "It could have been a lot worse."

Though floodwaters came into the city after Rita, the stormwater pumps did their job, and most of the water was gone by Sunday.

Farther north in Beaumont, though, Jefferson County officials said it will be days, if not weeks, before the electricity, water and sewer service can be restored.

Police officers were stationed at exits from Interstate 10, turning back residents trying to return home.


County Judge Carl Griffith said "we have a horrible disaster" but noted that a last-second airlift and bus evacuation of the sick and others with special needs removed some 10,000 people from the county.

"Had they not done that, people today would be dead," Griffith said.

At the port in Sabine Pass, shrimp boats were pushed up onto docks and piled atop one another in a jumble of masts, ropes and nets.

Longtime residents know their town is vulnerable to hurricanes. It was wiped out in 1886 by a storm that killed 86 people, and hit again in 1900 and 1915.

Hebert, the police officer from nearby Port Arthur, said many would rebuild. "These people are tough," he said.

The destruction, though, was devastating for some.

Don Jones, 48, was among the first of the 370 residents to return home Sunday to Sabine Pass and found he had lost his home and nearly everything he'd accumulated in a lifetime.

"All I got right now is my fishing pole and this cooler full of shrimp," he said, towing the plastic foam container through the knee-deep waters that covered the streets.

"We did not dodge the bullet," he said, estimating that 80 percent of his hometown was destroyed. "We got smashed."

Friday, September 23, 2005

Texans Flee Rita for Major Traffic Jams

HOUSTON - Hurricane Rita closed in on the Texas Gulf Coast and the heart of the U.S. oil-refining industry with howling 145 mph winds Thursday, but a sharper-than-expected turn to the right set it on a course that could spare Houston and nearby Galveston a direct hit.

The storm's march toward land sent hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the nation's fourth-largest city in a frustratingly slow, bumper-to-bumper exodus.

"This is the worst planning I've ever seen," said Judie Anderson, who covered just 45 miles in 12 hours after setting out from her home in the Houston suburb of LaPorte. "They say we've learned a lot from Hurricane Katrina. Well, you couldn't prove it by me."

In all, nearly 2 million people along the Texas and Louisiana coasts were urged to get out of the way of Rita, a 400-mile-wide storm that weakened Thursday from a top-of-the-scale Category 5 hurricane to a Category 4 as it swirled across the Gulf of Mexico.

The storm's course change could send it away from Houston and Galveston and instead draw the hurricane toward Port Arthur, Texas, or Lake Charles, La., at least 60 miles up the coast, by late Friday or early Saturday.

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But it was still an extremely dangerous storm — and one aimed at a section of coastline with the nation's biggest concentration of oil refineries. Environmentalists warned of the possibility of a toxic spill from the 87 chemical plants and petroleum installations that represent more than one-fourth of U.S. refining capacity.

Rita also brought rain to already battered New Orleans, raising fears that the city's Katrina-damaged levees would fail and flood the city all over again.

At 8 p.m. EDT, Rita was centered about 350 miles east-southeast of Galveston and was moving at near 10 mph. Its winds were near 145 mph, down from 175 mph earlier in the day. Forecasters predicted it would come ashore somewhere along a 350-mile stretch of the Texas and Louisiana coast that includes Port Arthur near the midpoint.

Forecasters warned of the possibility of a storm surge of 15 to 20 feet, battering waves, and rain of up to 15 inches along the Texas and western Louisiana coast.

The evacuation was a traffic nightmare, with red brakelights streaming out of Houston and its low-lying suburbs as far as the eye could see. Highways leading inland out of Houston, a metropolitan area of 4 million people about an hour's drive from the shore, were clogged for up to 100 miles north of the city.

Drivers ran out of gas in 14-hour traffic jams or looked in vain for a place to stay as hotels filled up all the way to the Oklahoma and Arkansas line. Others got tired of waiting in traffic and turned around and went home.

Service stations reported running out of gasoline, and police officers along the highways carried gas to motorists whose tanks were on empty. Texas authorities also asked the
Pentagon for help in getting gasoline to drivers stuck in traffic.

The traffic jam extended well into Louisiana, with Interstate 10 jammed from Lake Charles through Baton Rouge. State police said the biggest backups were at exits where cars stacked up in long lines of motorists trying to get gasoline.

Rather than sit in traffic, some people walked their dogs, got out to stretch or switch drivers, or lounged in the beds of pickup trucks. Fathers and sons played catch on freeway medians. Some walked from car to car, chatting with others.

With temperatures in the 90s, many cars were overheating, as were some tempers.

"I've been screaming in the car," said Abbie Huckleby, who was trapped on Interstate 45 with her husband and two children as they tried to get from the Houston suburb of Katy to Dallas, about 250 miles away. "It's not working. If I would have known it was this bad, I would have stayed at home and rode out the storm at home."

Trazanna Moreno decided to do just. After leaving her Houston home and covering just six miles in nearly three hours, she finally gave up.

"It could be that if we ended up stranded in the middle of nowhere that we'd be in a worse position in a car dealing with hurricane-force winds than we would in our house," she said.

To speed the evacuation, Gov. Rick Perry halted all southbound traffic into Houston along I-45 and took the unprecedented step of opening all eight lanes to northbound traffic out of the city for 125 miles. I-45 is the primary evacuation route north from Houston and Galveston.

Perry urged evacuees to stay calm and be patient.

"You've done the right thing by leaving two days before Hurricane Rita makes landfall," he said. "You will get out of the coastal region on time. It's just going to take some time."

In Galveston, a city rebuilt after an unnamed 1900 hurricane killed between 6,000 and 12,000 residents in what is still the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history, the once-bustling tourist island was all but abandoned, with at least 90 percent off its 58,000 residents cleared out.

The city pinned its hopes on its 11-mile-long, 17-foot-high granite seawall to protect it from the storm surge, and a skeleton crew of police and firefighters to ward off potential looters.

"Whatever happens is going to happen and we are going to have a monumental task ahead of us once the storm passes," said City Manager Steve LeBlanc. "Galveston is going to suffer and we are going to need to get it back in order as soon as possible."

The last major hurricane to strike the Houston area was Category-3 Alicia in 1983. It flooded downtown Houston, spawned 22 tornadoes and left 21 people dead.

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NASA evacuated its staff, powered down the computers at Mission Control and turned the international space station over to the Russian space agency.

Along the coast, petrochemical plants began shutting down and hundreds of workers were evacuated from offshore oil rigs. Environmentalists warned of a worst-case scenario in which a storm surge pushed spilled oil or chemicals from the bayous into the city of Houston itself, inundating mostly poor, Hispanic neighborhoods on its south side.

Perry said state officials had been in contact with plants that are "taking appropriate procedures to safeguard their facilities."


In New Orleans, Rita's steady rains Thursday were the first measurable precipitation since Katrina. The forecast was for 3 to 5 inches in the coming days — dangerously close to the amount engineers said could send floodwaters pouring back into neighborhoods that have been dry for less than a week.

"Right now, it's a wait-and-see and hope-for-the-best," said Mitch Frazier, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, which added sandbags to shore up levees and installed 60-foot sections of metal across some of the city's canals to protect against storm surges.

But as the rain fell, there were ominous signs it might not be enough. In the city's lower Ninth Ward, where water broke through a levee earlier this month and caused some of the worst flooding, there was standing water a foot deep in areas that were dry a day earlier.

Katrina's death toll in Louisiana rose to 832 on Thursday, pushing the body count to at least 1,069 across the Gulf Coast. But workers under contract to the state to collect the bodies were taken off the streets of New Orleans because of the approaching storm.

In southwestern Louisiana, anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000 residents along the state's southwest coast were urged to evacuate and state officials planned to send in buses to take refugees, some of whom had already fled Katrina.

"Rita has Louisiana in her sights," Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said. "Head north. You cannot go east, you cannot go west. If you know the local roads that go north, take those."

As for those who refuse to leave, she said: "Perhaps they should write their
Social Security numbers on their arms with indelible ink."

National Guard and medical units were put on standby. Helicopters were being positioned, and search-and-rescue boats from the state wildlife department were staged on high ground. Blanco said she also asked for 15,000 more federal troops.

The U.S. mainland has not been hit by two Category 4 storms in the same year since 1915. Katrina came ashore Aug. 29 as a Category 4.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Gulf Oil Refineries, Rigs Hunker Down

Oil companies began closing Texas refineries Wednesday, threatening the supply of gasoline to the nation's pumps as Hurricane Rita grew more violent and took aim at a stretch of Gulf coast that holds one-fourth of the nation's oil-refining capacity.

Experts say the refineries, nestled in a 300-mile swath from the Louisiana border to Corpus Christi, would recover within a couple days from a glancing blow. But if Rita swamps Houston as Hurricane Katrina did to a three-state area along the Gulf of Mexico last month, they warn, the storm will take more dollars from motorists' wallets and add to the problems of the nation's airlines.

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BP PLC began closing its massive Texas City refinery on Wednesday. Marathon Oil Corp. and Shell Oil did the same at their refineries near Houston. Shell's refinery kept running through the last major Texas hurricane, Alicia in 1983.

"It was a split decision between taking a risk and playing that waiting game of seeing where it's going to land, and being sensitive to employees getting home," said David McKinney, a Shell spokesman. "Once we made the decision, everybody felt good."

Meanwhile in the Gulf of Mexico, Rita began to take a toll on oil production, which hadn't yet fully recovered from last month's Hurricane Katrina. Fresh evacuations that began this week in the eastern waters of the Gulf spread farther west, one step ahead of the storm.

Rita threatens to compound the havoc caused by Katrina, which damaged oil platforms and knocked out refineries, four of which in Louisiana remain dark. They had accounted for about 5 percent of U.S. refining capacity and weren't expected to resume operations anytime soon.

Combined, the damage from Katrina and the precautionary evacuations due to Rita have slashed normal Gulf oil production of 1.5 million barrels a day by 73 percent, the U.S. Minerals Management Service said Wednesday.

Since Katrina evacuations began Aug. 26, the storms have cut more than 27 million barrels of oil production, or 5 percent of the Gulf's annual production, the agency said. Natural gas production was 47 percent below normal on Wednesday.

Oil and gasoline prices could spike again if Rita causes additional disruptions in supply, market analysts say.

Rita became a Category 5, 165-mph behemoth Wednesday and was expected to hit the Texas coast this weekend.

"We're closely watching this hurricane, and we realize its full potential," said Neil Geary, a spokesman at the BP refinery, which produces gasoline, jet fuel and other products.

At first, Shell sent nonessential personnel home and kept parts of the refinery running. By afternoon, the decision was made to shutter the entire plant.

Texas refineries are clustered around Houston, Port Arthur and Corpus Christi, "and any one of those being forced to shut down is pretty bad," said Roger Diwan, who studies oil markets for research and consulting firm PFC Energy in Washington.

Diwan said under the best circumstances — if the hurricane causes no damage to the plants — it would take four to five days for the refineries to resume operations after a shutdown.

"That will reduce supply at a time when we don't need it," he said.

Oil prices climbed more than $1 a barrel on Wednesday, as traders calculated the possibility that Rita could damage oil-industry facilities on land or in the Gulf of Mexico. Heating oil jumped nearly 3 cents to $2.0387 a gallon, while gasoline surged more than 7 cents to $2.0531 a gallon.

Analyst Tom Kloza of research firm Oil Price Information Service called the reaction hysteria — unless Rita scores a direct hit on Texas City or the Houston Ship Channel, which is lined with refineries and chemical plants.

Kloza said that unlike the Louisiana refineries that were knocked out by Katrina, the Houston-area plants are well above sea level and have withstood big storms before. The most likely threat, he said, might be power outages that could halt refineries for two to five days.

Some refiners were keeping their plants running until Rita got closer — it can take 12 to 24 hours or longer to shut down, they said. For example, Exxon Mobil was continuing to operate refineries and chemical plants in Baytown, Beaumont and in Baton Rouge, La.

The Houston area is also home to many chemical plants. Dow Chemical's seaside plant behind a 16-foot levee in Freeport, southwest of Houston, remained operating normally at midday Wednesday, a spokesman said. But Lyondell Chemical Co. began closing two plants, one in a marshy inland area and the other near the Gulf.

With plants scattered along the Texas coast from Houston to Corpus Christi, "No matter where it hit, we were going to have to take some action," said Lyondell spokesman David Harpole.

Out on the Gulf waters, driller Transocean Inc. dragged four moveable rigs in the central Gulf out of the storm's projected path and evacuated about 500 workers from three rigs that are moored to the seabed floor. The Houston company's decision to evacuate was shaped by its experience last month with Katrina.

"Right now, the storm path is south of those (moored) rigs, but that's what happened with Katrina until it made a looping turn and went into the eastern side of New Orleans," said Transocean spokesman Guy Cantwell. "So we're not taking any chances."

BP, which began evacuating workers from platforms off the Alabama coast Sunday, said it was also removing nonessential employees from platforms in the western Gulf, out in front of Rita's path.

Exxon Mobil, Chevron Corp., Shell, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch/Shell Group, El Paso Corp. and others also continued to evacuate employees from many rigs and platforms.

The airline industry is likely to be a loser from Rita. Four of the nation's six oldest carriers are in bankruptcy protection, partly because U.S. carriers will pay $9.2 billion more for fuel this year than last year, according to the Air Transport Association, an airline trade group. Now Rita threatens to send jet fuel prices even higher.

"Even if we can get through this," said the group's chief economist, John Heimlich, referring to Rita, "it comes at a price, which is difficult when you're sitting on the fence of Chapter 11."

Rita Unleashes Category 5 Fury Over Gulf

GALVESTON, Texas - Gaining strength with frightening speed, Hurricane Rita swirled toward the Gulf Coast a Category 5, 165-mph monster Wednesday as more than 1.3 million people in Texas and Louisiana were sent packing on orders from authorities who learned a bitter lesson from Katrina.

"It's scary. It's really scary," Shalonda Dunn said as she and her 5- and 9-year-old daughters waited to board a bus arranged by emergency authorities in Galveston. "I'm glad we've got the opportunity to leave. ... You never know what can happen."

With Rita projected to hit Texas by Saturday, Gov. Rick Perry urged residents along the state's entire coast to begin evacuating. And New Orleans braced for the possibility that the storm could swamp the misery-stricken city all over again.

Galveston, low-lying parts of Corpus Christi and Houston, and mostly emptied-out New Orleans were under mandatory evacuation orders as Rita sideswiped the Florida Keys and began drawing energy with terrifying efficiency from the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Between 2 a.m. and 4 p.m., it went from a 115-mph Category 2 to a 165-mph Category 5.

Forecasters said Rita could be the most intense hurricane on record ever to hit Texas, and easily one of the most powerful ever to plow into the U.S. mainland. Category 5 is the highest on the scale, and only three Category 5 hurricanes are known to have hit the U.S. mainland — most recently, Andrew, which smashed South Florida in 1992.

Government officials eager to show they had learned their lessons from the sluggish response to Katrina sent in hundreds of buses to evacuate the poor, moved out hospital and nursing home patients, dispatched truckloads of water, ice and ready-made meals, and put rescue and medical teams on standby. An Army general in Texas was told to be ready to assume control of a military task force in Rita's wake.

"We hope and pray that Hurricane Rita will not be a devastating storm, but we got to be ready for the worst,"
President Bush said in Washington.

By late afternoon, Rita was centered more than 700 miles southeast of Corpus Christi. Forecasters predicted it would come ashore along the central Texas coast between Galveston and Corpus Christi.

But with its breathtaking size — tropical storm-force winds extending 350 miles across — practically the entire western end of the U.S. Gulf Coast was in peril, and even a slight rightward turn could prove devastating to the fractured levees protecting New Orleans.

In the Galveston-Houston-Corpus Christi area, about 1.3 million people were under orders to get out, in addition to 20,000 or more along with the Louisiana coast. Special attention was given to hospitals and nursing homes, three weeks after scores of sick and elderly patients in the New Orleans area drowned in Katrina's floodwaters or died in the stifling heat while waiting to be rescued.

Military personnel in South Texas started moving north, too. Schools, businesses and universities were also shut down.

Galveston was a virtual ghost town by mid-afternoon Wednesday. In neighborhoods throughout the island city, the few people left were packing the last of their valuables and getting ready to head north.

Helicopters, ambulances and buses were used to evacuate 200 patients from Galveston's only hospital. And at the Edgewater Retirement Community, a six-story building near the city's seawall, 200 elderly residents were not given a choice.

"They either go with a family member or they go with us, but this building is not safe sitting on the seawall with a major hurricane coming," said David Hastings, executive director. "I have had several say, `I don't want to go,' and I said, `I'm sorry, you're going.'"

Galveston, a city of 58,000 on a coastal island 8 feet above sea level, was the site of one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history: an unnamed hurricane in 1900 that killed between 6,000 and 12,000 people and practically wiped the city off the map.

The last major hurricane to strike the Houston area was Category-3 Alicia in 1983. It flooded downtown Houston, spawned 22 tornadoes and left 21 people dead.

In Houston, the state's largest city and home to the highest concentration of Katrina refugees, the area's geography makes evacuation particularly tricky. While many hurricane-prone cities are right on the coast, Houston is 60 miles inland, so a coastal suburban area of 2 million people must evacuate through a metropolitan area of 4 million people where the freeways are often clogged under the best of circumstances.

Mayor Bill White urged residents to look out for more than themselves.

"There will not be enough government vehicles to go and evacuate everybody in every area," he said. "We need neighbor caring for neighbor."

At the Galveston Community Center, where 1,500 evacuees had been put on school buses to points inland, another lesson from Katrina was put into practice: To overcome the reluctance of people to evacuate without their pets, they were allowed to bring them along in crates.

"It was quite a sight," Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said. "We were able to put people on with their dog crates, their cat crates, their shopping carts. It went very well."

But Thomas warned late Wednesday that the city was nearly out of buses. She said those left on the island will have to find a way off or face riding out a storm that is "big enough to destroy part of the island, if not a great part of the county."

City Manager Steve LeBlanc said the storm surge could reach 50 feet. Galveston is protected by a seawall that is only 17 feet tall.

Rita approached as the death toll from Katrina passed the 1,000 mark — to 1,036 — in five Gulf Coast states. The body count in Louisiana alone was put at 799, most found in the receding floodwaters of New Orleans.

The Army Corps of Engineers raced to fortify the city's patched-up levees for fear the additional rain could swamp the walls and flood the city all over again. The Corps said New Orleans' levees can only handle up to 6 inches of rain and a storm surge of 10 to 12 feet.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin estimated only 400 to 500 people remained in the vulnerable east bank areas of the city. They, too, were ordered to evacuate. But only a few people lined up for the evacuation buses provided. Most of the people still in the city were believed to have their own cars.

"I don't think I can stay for another storm," said Keith Price, a nurse at New Orleans' University Hospital who stayed through Katrina and had to wade to safety through chest-deep water. "Until you are actually in that water, you really don't know how frightening it is."

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Rita also forced some Katrina refugees to flee a hurricane for the second time in 3 1/2 weeks. More than 1,000 refugees who had been living in the civic center in Lake Charles, near the Texas state line, were being bused to shelters farther north.

"We all have to go along with the system right now, until things get better," said Ralph Russell of the New Orleans suburb of Harvey. "I just hope it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing."

Crude oil prices rose again on fears that Rita would smash into key oil installations in Texas and the gulf. Hundreds of workers were evacuated from offshore oil rigs. Texas, the heart of U.S. crude production, accounts for 25 percent of the nation's total oil output.

Rita is the 17th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, making this the fourth-busiest season since record-keeping started in 1851. The record is 21 tropical storms in 1933. The hurricane season is not over until Nov. 30.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Cuba, Florida, US Gulf coast brace for new hurricane

MIAMI (AFP) - US authorities ordered the evacuation of several islands off southern Florida and parts of Miami as Tropical Storm Rita headed toward the United States, amid fears it could soon become a hurricane.

In Cuba, officials told residents of coastal areas and mountain regions in central and western parts of the island to head to safe shelter.

"This storm can gain power very, very quickly ... this is serious business," said Florida Governor
Jeb Bush, telling residents to flee the Florida Keys islands, Miami Beach and low-lying areas of Miami.

The governor urged his brother President George W. Bush to declare a state of emergency that would free federal relief funds for Florida.

Experts said the storm's path could eventually take it to New Orleans and the US Gulf Coast, which were devastated by Hurricane Katrina on August 29.

The likelihood of Rita barreling over the oil-rich Gulf of Mexico sent world crude prices surging Monday.

Rita pounded southern islands of the Bahamas Monday and appeared set to strengthen into a hurricane that forecasters said could reach category three on the five-level Saffir-Simpson intensity scale.

The storm's center was expected to pass over or near the Bahamian island of Andros late Monday and approach the Florida Keys on Tuesday, according to the Miami-based
National Hurricane Center.

While the Bahamas, Cuba and southern Florida were the most immediately threatened, with Texas at risk over the weekend, hurricane experts warned there was also a possibility the storm might slam ashore near New Orleans.

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Bill Doran, operations division chief for the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security, said authorities were keeping a close eye on Rita.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin suspended the return of the city's residents because of the threat from Rita and warned that people may have to flee again.

He said as many as 30,000 people, most of them national guardsmen and relief workers, might need to be evacuated if Rita were to strike the US Gulf Coast areas recovering from Katrina's wrath.

Florida's governor said a total of 500 National Guard troops were on stand-by in southern Florida. "Weather conditions will grow steadily worse tonight and tomorrow," Bush said.

In Miami, residents packed supermarkets to stock up on food, and long lines formed outside gas stations.

The US National Hurricane Center forecast a track that would have the storm just skirting the Bahamas, Cuba and Key West in Atlantic waters and eventually making landfall in Texas over the weekend.

But experts warned that hurricanes are highly unpredictable, and a "cone of probability" in the forecast indicates the storm might enter Florida near Miami and later make a second landfall between northeastern Mexico and the swamplands of southern Louisiana just west of New Orleans.

Should the storm eventually land west of New Orleans, the city would find itself on the so-called "dirty side" of the hurricane, where winds are the most powerful.

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"There is deep concern about this storm causing more flooding in New Orleans," the US president said. "And again, if it were to rain a lot, there is concern from the Army Corps of Engineers that the levees might break."

Rita also sent jitters on global oil markets amid fears of further disruption of crude production in the US Gulf, which had been severely affected by Hurricane Katrina.

New York's main contract, light sweet crude for delivery in October, closed up a sharp 4.39 dollars at 67.39 dollars per barrel on Monday. The benchmark contract had climbed as high as 67.50 dollars in earlier trading.

At 8:00 p.m. (midnight GMT) Monday, Rita was 510 kilometers (315 miles) east-southeast of Key West, and packed near-hurricane strength winds of 110 kilometers per hour (70 mph.)

Meanwhile, another storm, Hurricane Philippe, was swirling 570 kilometers (355 miles) east of the Leeward Islands and looked set to remain over the open waters of the Atlantic.

Ex-Tyco Execs Get Up to 25 Years in Prison

NEW YORK - Former Tyco CEO L. Dennis Kozlowski was sentenced Monday to up to 25 years in prison for looting the company of hundreds of millions of dollars, the climax of a case of executive greed replete with tales of a $6,000 gold-threaded shower curtain and a $2 million Mediterranean birthday party.

Kozlowski, 58, was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs as his wife quietly sobbed from a bench three rows back. He will be eligible for parole after eight years and four months behind bars in a state prison in New York.

Tyco's former finance chief Mark Swartz, 44, received the same sentence, and state Supreme Court Justice Michael Obus ordered the defendants to pay a total of $134 million in restitution to Tyco International Ltd. In addition, the judge fined Kozlowski $70 million, and Swartz $35 million.

Assistant District Attorney Owen Heimer asked the judge for the maximum sentence of 30 years, saying Kozlowski had "committed theft and fraud on an unprecedented, staggering scale." He said Kozlowski and Swartz stole so much from the company that "Tyco became a worldwide symbol of kleptocratic management."

Kozlowski pleaded with the judge to be as "lenient as possible" and to consider "all the positive things I have done in my life."

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His lawyer, Stephen E. Kaufman, read from letters written on his client's behalf and said, "He's a good man. He's a decent person. His reputation has been tarnished, but his life should not be destroyed."

But the prosecutor said the defendants should be properly punished for stealing $180 million outright, and improperly made hundreds of millions more through manipulations of Tyco's stock.

"This exceeds anything ever prosecuted in this state," Heimer said.

Kozlowski and Swartz join a line of other executives sentenced to prison for lengthy stints after white-collar scandals that outraged the public.

Former WorldCom Chairman Bernard Ebbers was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the $11 billion accounting fraud that toppled the telecommunications company that emerged from bankruptcy as MCI Inc. Adelphia Communications Corp. founder John Rigas was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his role in the looting and fraud at the cable TV company. His son and former finance chief, Timothy Rigas, got 20 years.

Enron Corp. founder Kenneth Lay, former CEO Jeffrey Skilling and former top Enron accountant Richard Causey are expected to go to trial in January.

Unlike WorldCom and Enron, Tyco survived the scandal. Tyco, which has about 250,000 employees and $40 billion in annual revenue, makes electronics and medical supplies and owns the ADT home security business. Home Page

Kozlowski's lawyer Stephen Kaufman and Swartz attorney Charles Stillman said they would apply for bail for their clients as promptly as they could. Neither would comment further about the appeals process.

The sentences cap a case that may be best remembered for its tales of executive greed and excess, most notably the $6,000 shower curtain in an $18 million Manhattan apartment. In two trials — the first ended in a mistrial last year — jurors took a video tour of the apartment that was furnished for nearly $20 million and caught scenes from a $2 million birthday party for Kozlowski's wife on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia.

Kozlowski and Swartz will be sent to one of New York's prisons because they were convicted in state court, meaning the former executives will do considerably harder time than they would have at a federal facility.

Kozlowski and Swartz were accused of giving themselves as much as $150 million in illegal bonuses and forgiving millions of dollars in loans to themselves, while also manipulating the company's stock price by lying about the state of Tyco's finances.

Heimer said that the defendants looted Tyco at a time when Kozlowski was the highest paid executive in the country. Though Kozlowski made $267 million from 1999 through 2001, Heimer said "he engaged in a shocking spree of self-indulgence with Tyco's assets."

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Kozlowski and Swartz were convicted in June after a four-month trial on 22 counts of grand larceny, falsifying business records, securities fraud and conspiracy. The first trial ended in mistrial after a juror said she received threats following reports that she made an "OK" signal to the defense team.

Swartz also asked Obus for leniency, while his lawyer, Charles A. Stillman, called him a man of "remarkable decency."

Kozlowski, employed by Tyco from 1975 until 2002, and Swartz, who joined Tyco in 1991 and left in 2002, testified that they never stole anything from Tyco or received anything from the company to which they were not entitled.

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