Monday September 12th, 2005
by: Ed Mayberry, September 12, 2005 5:09:00 am
Six Flags says it will permanently close its AstroWorld theme park in Houston at the end of the 2005 season. The New York-based company says it has engaged a company to market the 109-acre site to the real estate development community. AstroWorld is located near a revitalized area of Houston, close to Reliant Park and the Astrodome. The company says selling it compares favorably to making significant improvements to the 37-year-old park. There are continued uncertainties over offsite parking rights related to Reliant Stadium and the Texans football team as well as the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has registered 573,262 families nationwide and has provided $669 million in expedited assistance. The Joint Information Center at Reliant Center says 245,000 evacuees from Louisiana have been transported to Texas. Some 36,823 families are registered in Houston and $49.3 million has been provided for evacuees in the Houston area. Houston has been moving Katrina evacuees from the rescue phase to the recovery phase. Slightly more than 4,680 people remain at the Reliant Center, Reliant Arena, Reliant Astrodome and the George R. Brown Convention Center. Officials estimate that all evacuees will have found a place to live by September 17th.
The American Red Cross issued some 4,000 checks Sunday at the St. Agnes Baptist Church Service Center, which is open for several more days. The Social Security Administration has serviced more than 2,000 established recipients with their benefit checks. More than 100 evacuees have accepted the Continental Airlines complimentary ticket offer to relocate to new homes throughout the United States.
A local program to help those housing Hurricane Katrina evacuees with grocery purchases has been announced. Grocery gift cards will be distributed to those providing refuge for evacuees, in a program underwritten by the Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund. Kroger and HEB are contributing resources to the program. The grocery assistance program will be administered through the local branches of the Urban League, Catholic Charities, the League of Latin American Citizens, the NAACP and ACORN. People providing shelter for one to five visitors may be eligible for $50 in gift cards per week. Those housing six to ten visitors may receive $100 if gift cards per week.
Amegy Bank of Texas opened an emergency banking center in the George R. Brown Convention Center on September 8th, opening new accounts and cashing FEMA, Social Security, Red Cross and child support checks. The bank has been giving instructions on the direct deposit of relief funds into accounts.
Swiss Reinsurance, the world's second-largest reinsurance company, now puts the total value of Hurricane Katrina claims at $40 billion. That's double its previous estimate and would affirm the fact that Katrina will be the world's costliest hurricane. Swiss Re had previously agreed with the world's largest reinsurer Munich Re that the total losses would be $20 billion. It says damage caused by the hurricane was greater than thought. Another firm, Risk Management Solutions of California, last week raised its forecast for the total insured loss caused by Katrina to $40 to $60 billion. It says total economic damage caused by the hurricane may top $125 billion. The revised estimates put Katrina ahead of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, when claims reached $22 billion with figures adjusted to current dollar values, according to Swiss Re. RMS says its revised damage figures reflect, in part, the ravages of heavy flooding in New Orleans. Laurie Johnson, an RMS vice president, estimates damage to infrastructure such as roads and bridges and the utility system in New Orleans alone at more than $10 billion.
The Texas Windstorm Insurance Association wants to raise rates ten percent, citing rising construction costs and the possibility of a hurricane like Katrina hitting the Texas Coast. Allstate President Tom Wilson says industry losses above a certain amount should be handled by public funds. He says insurance companies don't want to risk their existence on one or two events. Wilson says the issue needs to be addressed on a state-by-state basis, as well as at the federal level.
Wilson says not all insurance companies are interested in setting aside public funds for natural disasters.
Wilson says Houston is at the epicenter of these risks because of the concentration of refineries and hundreds of miles of coastline vulnerable to hurricanes.
Wilson says bundling all unpredictable disasters together in one fund would help spread the risk. Losses from four hurricanes in Florida nearly wiped out Allstate's third-quarter earnings last year.
Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco said political forces are trying to find scapegoats for the death and destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. Blanco has been among many government officials taking criticism for the preparations made before the hurricane and the relief efforts during the response. But Blanco insisted that Louisiana had a "well thought-out plan'' that prevented thousands more deaths. The democrat also refused to put any blame on President Bush. Blanco made her remarks while in Houston, where she visited the Reliant Center to meet with evacuees and say thank you to the State of Texas for its hospitality toward those who fled the storm.
As the Hurricane Katrina tragedy unfolded in New Orleans, Houston's mayor threw open the Astrodome and the George R. Brown Convention Center to refugees. Then Mayor Bill White did something more remarkable: he essentially told convention groups whose plans were spoiled--tough luck. The Associated Press reports the decision could ultimately cost Houston a bundle in lost business and burden its social service agencies for years to come. But so far, Houston is backing White in his act of municipal compassion toward the mostly poor, mostly black victims of Katrina. White is a first-term democrat up for re-election in November. The 51-year-old businessman is a former Deputy Energy Secretary in the Clinton Administration. In an editorial, the Houston Chronicle commended White for "exerting decisive leadership that has been lacking in the federal relief effort.'' More than 24,000 volunteers registered to help in Houston. Thousands more opened their churches and homes to refugees.
The average price for self-serve regular gasoline nationwide is $3 a gallon for the first time ever, a national survey of 7,000 gas stations reveals. Trilby Lundberg--who published the semi-monthly Lundberg Survey--said the hurricane had cut 11 percent of the nation's gasoline production capacity. Lundberg said the storm decimated refineries and damaged pipelines. The weighted average price for all three gasoline grades is $3.04--a jump of more than 38 cents.
METRO has issued an appeal for 5,000 gallons of #2 diesel fuel per day for the next ten to 12 days. Houston's Metro Transit Authority says the fuel is needed for use by buses transporting persons impacted by Hurricane Katrina. Fuel can be delivered to bus operating facilities east of downtown or near Reliant Astrodome. METRO is running shuttles from Reliant Park to Bush Intercontinental and expanded service from Reliant and the George R. Brown Convention Center to area hospitals. Some trips have helped relocate evacuees to Galveston.
Hurricane Katrina has pushed gas prices higher, and that's had an impact on the Internal Revenue Service. The federal tax agency has increased the mileage reimbursement rate that workers claim when they use personal cars for work, because of increased gas prices. The decision raises the rate to 48 and a-half cents a mile for the last four months of the year, after which the tax agency plans to look again at gas prices and reevaluate the rate. IRS Commissioner Mark Everson calls the move "extraordinary.'' The IRS says its decision to temporarily increase the rate eight cents in the middle of the year is the largest single increase on record. Everson says the change recognizes that taxpayers should be entitled to a deduction that matches the real cost of operating a vehicle. Many businesses use the IRS rate as a benchmark for reimbursing their employees for travel costs.
Hurricane Katrina has reopened a national debate on energy policy. The deadly storm and ensuing higher gasoline prices have generated new Congressional support for more stringent auto fuel economy requirements. President Bush earlier this summer signed a massive energy bill in law. But members of Congress are talking about the need for a second one. New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici chairs the Senate Energy Committee and was an architect of the energy legislation. He says Hurricane Katrina exposed the harsh reality that "we have been skating on thin ice'' when it comes to this country's energy concentrations on the Gulf Coast. Domenici made the comments in an interview on C-Span. Domenici predicted that the drilling ban on the Alaska refuge will be lifted.
Muslim groups said they're about one-third of the way toward their goal of raising $10 million for Hurricane Katrina victims. About 2,000 Muslims turned out in Houston yesterday--the anniversary of the September 11th attacks--to serve food to evacuees at the city's downtown convention center. Muslim leaders who were there for the volunteer effort said the 9-11 anniversary was mere coincidence. But leaders viewed the volunteer opportunity as another chance to show that the September 11th attacks were carried out by Islamic extremists--and not those who represent the true meaning of their faith. In addition to serving food, Muslim volunteers also brought water to evacuees standing in lines for federal assistance and helped the elderly.
NBA stars Lebron James, Kevin Garnett, Chauncey Billups, Ron Artest and a host of other players spent about 90 minutes playing with kids, signing autographs and greeting Hurricane Katrina evacuees in Houston yesterday. They were in town to play in a charity basketball game at a packed Toyota Center. At least 5,000 evacuees were given free tickets to the game. Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Tracy McGrady and Carmelo Anthony were also among the 30 NBA stars who participated in the East versus West game. The West won, 114-to-95. TNT basketball analyst Kenny Smith helped organize the game. Smith says each of the NBA players donated a minimum of $10,000 in money or supplies to the relief effort.
Gallery Furniture has funded a temporary YMCA in tents on Reliant Center's east side hosting basketball hoops, video games, inflatable slides and bouncing rooms, a playground, board and card games. The so-called "Town Square" is to provide hurricane survivors with a physical and psychological break from the shelter of the Astrodome or Reliant Center.
Aeromexico is providing complementary one-way travel to Mexicans from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida affected by Hurricane Katrina through October 15th. Travel to Mexico City is being offered from Aeromexico's gateways in Houston, as well as Dallas, Atlanta and Miami.
A Texas tycoon is helping dogs from the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast get a new day in California. Oil tycoon Boone Pickens chartered a
Five former Enron executives will be retried in three separate cases next year. The executives were part of the company's defunct broadband unit. They were tried earlier this year, but jurors were unable to reach verdicts on most charges. So a judge declared a mistrial and set retrial dates today. The conspiracy and fraud trial of the unit's former finance chief and a former in-house accountant has been scheduled for May 1st. It's likely to overlap with the conspiracy and fraud trial of Enron founder Ken Lay and former CEO Jeff Skilling. That trial is scheduled for January. The other two cases against the broadband unit executives were scheduled for June 5th and September 5th. All five broadband defendants, as well as Lay and Skilling, have pleaded innocent.
The Texas Supreme Court could soon make a decision on the state's lingering school finance dilemma. Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson says in the Midland Reporter-Telegram that he expects the court to issue a ruling within two weeks. Lawmakers in Austin have failed five times in the last three years to find an agreeable solution to school finance. The last special session ended in failure August 19th. It is widely expected that Governor Rick Perry will call lawmakers back to try it again once the state has guidance from the court.
The head of the Federal Communications Commission has asked agency staff to draft orders approving two big phone company mergers. The Associated Press reports those are San Antonio-based SBC Communications and AT&T, and Verizon Communications and MCI. AP reports FCC Chairman Kevin Martin wants the commission to take a final vote on the deals next month. Details came from two people with firsthand knowledge of the issue who were authorized to speak about the drafts only on the condition of anonymity. The sources did not say what conditions might be placed on the mergers. SBC's deal to acquire AT&T is valued at $16 billion. Verizon is offering $8.5 billion for MCI. AP reports Martin's request for drafts of approval signal his intention to press ahead with the mergers.
State officials are joining forces with some advocacy groups to fight fraud that targets Hispanics. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott will host a conference Wednesday and Thursday in Austin. Abbott says Texas has shut down many operations that have devastated thousands of Hispanic families. The conference is called: "Fraud: Protecting Hispanic Consumers.'' The program will include guests from the National Council of La Raza, the Pew Hispanic Center and the National Consumer Law Center. The conference is open to the public.
Prosperity Bancshares is acquiring Grapeland Bancshares and its First State Bank subsidiary for an undisclosed sum. First State Bank operates two outlets in Houston County, one in Crockett and another in Grapeland. Houston-based Prosperity operates 85 full-service banking locations in Texas.
Houston-based Encore Bank has finalized its acquisition of Linscomb & Williams of Houston in a merger. Linscomb & Williams is a financial planning and wealth management firm.
Alaska Airlines today begins service at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. The carrier will offer two daily non-stop flights between DFW and Seattle. Alaska Airlines is based in Seattle. An airline spokesman says Dallas-Fort Worth is a natural continuation of the carrier's strategy to selectively expand its network from the Pacific Northwest.