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(Photo by Bruce Smith/AP)

This March 20 photo shows houses on Colonial Lake in Charleston, S.C. About 29,000 property owners who have subsidized federal flood insurance in South Carolina face premium increases as the government works to get the program back into the black (Bruce Smith/AP)

Flood zone insurance: a reprieve but, likely, not for long (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.24.14

Homeowners buckling under skyrocketing flood insurance rates received a brief reprieve Friday, as President Obama pulled back 2012 reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program.

For many years, federal flood insurance, now $24 billion in debt, had been criticized as subsidizing dangerous building and rebuilding in flood zones. The 2012 reforms aimed to bring costs in line with revenues and ask owners to pay the real cost of the risk they're taking.

But Congress got an earful after cuts in federal subsidies resulted in skyrocketing premiums for home and business owners living in flood plains. Some property owners saw increases of 10- and 15-fold.

Friday’s rollback will bring rates for the bankrupt program back down to pre-reform levels, but only temporarily.

"While Congress was able to make the glide path a little more gentle ... they still did nothing, zero, to really address the affordability issues," Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers told the Associated Press.

More than 1 million policyholders can expect to see their rates creep back up in the coming decade. Rates are expected to increase 18 percent annually for residential properties and 25 percent annually for vacation properties.

The number of homes and businesses that fall within a flood plain could drastically increase by 2015 if the Federal Emergency Management Agency adopts new flood zone maps that reflect projected sea level rise, The Boston Globe reported.

While rate increases will impact the largest number of people in coastal communities, homes and businesses around the nation’s rivers and lakes will also see rising premiums.

The National Flood Insurance Program dates back to the 1960s and covers homes and businesses in flood zones that were built before there were building codes mitigating flood risks. Over the years, government subsidies for these properties, coupled with a series of catastrophic flood events, have resulted in a $24 billion government shortfall. The 2012 reforms aimed to stem the tide of red ink for taxpayers and shift more of the burden of paying for flood damage back onto those who live in flood zones.

Bridging that gap, even gradually, is a burden many property owners hit by such higher rates say is too great to bear.

“The problem is the insurance payments will become so onerous that no one can afford to pay them,” Robert Gurley, director of advocacy for the Preservation Society of Charleston, S.C., told the Associated Press. 

In Maine, some residents are opting to drop their insurance policies and bear the risk of floods themselves.

For property owners unwilling or unable to take the risk on themselves, few options remain. Realtors across the country have reported increased difficulties in selling homes in flood plains because buyers are unwilling to take on the higher premiums.

Lurie and Michael Portanova of Jersey Shore, Pa., told AP that flood insurance rates for their block of 19th century brick shops had soared from less than $3,000 to more than $25,000 following the 2012 reform. While Friday’s rollback offers temporary relief, the Portanovas expect those rates to climb back up above $25,000 in the coming decade.

“There’s no way we can afford that. Just no way,” Mr. Portanova told AP. “We’d have to let it go back to the bank and walk away from it.”

Scientists and policy analysts have long pushed for revision of flood insurance subsidies, which they say has promoted development in locations frequently battered by storm surges, the Monitor reported in September.

Material from Associated Press was used in this report.

Neighbors gather at the Oso Fire Department to look for updates about the fatal mudslide that washed over homes and over Highway 530 east of Oso, Wash. (Annie Mulligan/The Daily Herald/AP)

Search continues for survivors of massive Seattle-area mudslide (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.23.14

UPDATE 2:20 pm: The AP reports that about 18 people are still unaccounted for after a massive mudslide in rural northwest Washington State killed at least three people and forced evacuations because of fears of flooding. Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots said at a news briefing Sunday that "we suspect that people are out there, but it's far too dangerous to get responders out there on that mudflow."

Rescuers continued the search Sunday morning for survivors of a massive mudslide north of Seattle.

So far, three people are known dead, about a dozen were injured, and at least six homes were destroyed when the slide blocked the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River, which prompted an evacuation notice because water was rising rapidly behind the debris. The number of homes lost is expected to increase.

The rain-drenched landslide, which hit midday Saturday, completely covered State Route 530 near the town of Oso, about 55 miles north of Seattle. It was at least 135 feet wide and 180 feet deep, Snohomish County authorities said. Authorities worried about severe downstream flooding if water suddenly broke through the blockage.

Local rescue units, plus units of the Washington State Patrol and US Army Corps of Engineers, continued the search through Saturday night. Helicopters, hovercraft, and thermal imaging cameras have been part of the search-and-rescue effort.

"We have people who are yelling for our help, and we are going to take extreme risks," Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots said at a news briefing late Saturday.

“This is a massive slide, and we are in a very, very fluid and unstable situation,” Chief Hots said. "This is still a rescue mission until we determine otherwise. We don't have a firm idea of how many people are out there."

The power, speed and severity of the slide were spectacular, as it swept over a 360-yard-long section of roadway with mud and debris up to 20 feet deep, the Seattle Times reported.

“In three seconds, everything got washed away,” Paulo de Oliveira, who was driving on Highway 530, told the newspaper. “Darkness covering the whole roadway and one house right in the middle of the street.”

“I came within about 50 feet of being washed out,” Mr. De Oliveira said. “Along the river, I saw one place where there were two homes and they were just gone. Nothing left but a portable toilet … destruction all around.”

Local authorities and the National Weather Service link the massive slide to saturating rains this month in Snohomish County, destabilizing the terrain.

State geologists are expected to analyze the scene for possible causes, the Daily Herald in Everett, Wash., reports.

The last rainfall in the county was reported Wednesday, with the last big rainfall on March 16, said Johnny Burg, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle.

About 5.65 inches of rainfall have been recorded since the beginning of March, compared to the average total of 3.37 inches for this month. Higher areas generally get more rain, including nearly an inch about three days ago, Burg said. "They had more than double what Everett had.”

The American Red Cross set up operations at a local hospital, and evacuation shelters were created at a middle school and community center.

"This is the worst thing that's ever happened in our community," Trudy LaDouceur of the Darrington Fire District told the Daily Herald. “For all of us, even though we're small between Arlington and Darrington, we're all connected, we're all neighbors. We’ve all lost people today.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

Emergency personnel work at the scene of a train accident where two pedestrians were hit near Earle Yorton Field Friday, March 21, 2014 in Marysville, Calif. (Chris Kaufman/Appeal-Democrat/AP)

Teen couple struck by California train: Tragedy points to growing problem (+video)

By / 03.23.14

The story of a teenager who was fatally struck by a train on his way to a Sadie Hawkins Dance Friday points to a significant rise in pedestrian train accidents nationwide.

Mateus Moore and his girlfriend, Mickayla Friend, were walking on railroad tracks on their way to a dance at the Marysville Charter Academy For The Arts in Marysville, Calif. Reports suggest they were walking in the same direction the train was traveling and did not notice it approaching them from behind until the last moment.

At that point, Mateus pushed Mickayla off the tracks, saving her life, according to eyewitnesses who were at a Little League baseball game nearby. Mickayla was taken to a local hospital with traumatic injuries but is expected to live. Mateus died at the scene.

Pedestrian train accidents increased dramatically in 2013, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Through Aug. 31, there had been 352 pedestrian deaths compared with 281 during the same period in 2012, a 25 percent rise. The newspaper reported that the fatality rate in the first eight months of 2013 was the highest in a decade.

In a three-part series on pedestrian train accidents, the Post-Dispatch reports that pedestrian accidents are a problem without an easy solution. Railroad tracks are private property, which means victims are trespassing at their own risk. Yet train operators take few if any measures to mitigate the risks, such as building fences to block trespassers in some high-traffic areas, the newspaper reports.

Meanwhile, USA Today has reported on the growing phenomenon of "distracted walking," with pedestrians losing a sense of their surroundings as they text and chat on mobile phones.

"Reports of injuries to distracted walkers treated at hospital emergency rooms have more than quadrupled in the past seven years and are almost certainly underreported," the paper reports, referring to pedestrians in general, not just those on train tracks. "There has been a spike in pedestrians killed and injured in traffic accidents, but there is no reliable data on how many were distracted by electronics."

That did not appear to be the case in California. Union Pacific, which owns the tracks, is conducting an investigation. So far there is no evidence that the couple was intoxicated or wearing headphones, according to KXTV in Sacramento, Calif.

Union Pacific spokesperson Aaron Hunt said the teens had their backs to the freight train. He said there was ample time for the teens to leave Union Pacific property after the horn sounded. It is unclear why they didn't realize the train was approaching.

"Sometimes these trains, when you're directly in front of them, can sneak up on you," Marysville Police Chief David Baker said, according to KXTV.

Ibragim Todashev, shown here in a May 4, 2013, photo, was fatally shot on May 22, 2013, by an FBI agent. Reports leaked on Friday indicate that the agent will not be charged with any criminal wrongdoing. (Orange County Corrections Department/AP Photo)

FBI agent cleared of wrongdoing in killing of Ibragim Todashev

By Staff writer / 03.21.14

A Florida prosecutor has cleared the Federal Bureau of Investigation agent who shot and killed Ibragim Todashev during questioning about one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, according to law enforcement officials.

Although The Washington Post broke the news on Friday, State Attorney Jeffrey Ashton’s official report is not due out until Tuesday.

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division conducted a separate inquiry into the May 2013 incident and came to the same conclusion, CNN reported Friday. The official federal review is also expected to be released next week.

Although civil rights advocates and Mr. Todashev’s father have expressed concerns that the agent may have used excessive force, law enforcement officials said the agent was acting in self-defense.

FBI officials close to the investigation told the Post that Todashev, a mixed martial arts fighter, had attacked the agent with a metal pole. The FBI’s original reports said that Todashev, a Chechen national, had threatened the agent with a knife.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the civil rights group that provided Todashev’s family with legal counsel, told the Post that the finding was troubling.

“Obviously we have a lot of concerns about this, a lot of concerns,” Hassan Shibly, executive director of CAIR’s Florida chapter, told the Post. “We’re eagerly waiting to see the full report.”

Mr. Shibly told the Monitor last May that the council had confirmed with FBI officials that Todashev had been unarmed when the agent shot him seven times in the back of the head.

The FBI and Massachusetts state troopers had sought Todashev for questioning at his Orlando, Fla., home during an investigation into bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s possible involvement in a 2011 triple homicide in Waltham, Mass. Todashev reportedly implicated Mr. Tsarnaev in those slayings.

Tsarnaev was killed in a shootout with police several days after the Boston Marathon bombings. His younger brother, Dzhokhar, faces 30 federal charges and a possible death penalty for the bombings, which killed three people and injured 260 others.

Shortly after Todashev’s death, an FBI spokesman told The New York Times that the bureau “takes very seriously any shooting incidents involving our agents, and as such we have an effective, time-tested process for addressing them internally.”

The Times conducted a subsequent review of the outcomes of such internal investigations.

It said, "[I]f such internal investigations are time-tested, their outcomes are also predictable: from 1993 to early 2011, F.B.I. agents fatally shot about 70 ‘subjects’ and wounded about 80 others – and every one of those episodes was deemed justified, according to interviews and internal F.B.I. records obtained by The New York Times through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.”

 Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

A Time Warner Cable truck is parked in New York, Feb 2, 2009. Comcast, the nation's biggest cable colossus, plans to swallow runner-up titan Time Warner Cable. If the deal goes through, executives could collect $135 million in 'golden parachutes.' (Mark Lennihan/AP Photo/File)

Is Time Warner Cable CEO's $80 million 'golden parachute' too much?

By Staff writer / 03.21.14

As of Friday, Robert Marcus has been the chief executive of Time Warner Cable for 80 calendar days. If Comcast’s acquisition of the media giant goes through, Mr. Marcus stands to gain a $79.9 million dollar “golden parachute.”

Marcus assumed the role of CEO on Jan. 1, after previously serving as president and chief operating officer. He negotiated the massive deal, which would combine the nation’s two largest cable providers, less than two months after stepping into the position. The compensatory package represents a near eight-fold increase over his $10.1 million salary as chief operating officer, Bloomberg reports.

In total, Time Warner plans to dole out $135 million in parachutes to executives: Chief Financial Officer Arthur Minson could get $27.1 million, Chief Technology Officer Michael LaJoie is looking at a $16.3 million package and Chief Operating Officer Philip Meeks stands to gain $11.7 million, as outlined in a regulatory filing.

The size of these exit packages isn't unprecedented, but they are “rare and troubling,” Columbia Law School professor Robert Jackson told The New York Times. “There’s something stunning about such big paydays for such a small amount of work.”

Last year, a dozen executive received parachutes valued a more than $100 million each, Bloomberg Businessweek reports.

Shareholders will have a chance to weigh in on these packages, under the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill of 2010, though such votes are nonbinding.

“If Time Warner Cable shareholders are sufficiently outraged, they can vote against it, and if executives are sufficiently embarrassed, it might discourage other CEOs from doing the same thing,” Mr. Jackson told the Times. “But I’m not optimistic.”

In 2013, there were 141 such votes on executive compensation packages associated with company takeovers; 86 percent of them passed, according to figures from FactSet Shark Watch reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the $45 billion buyout will actually go through.

The deal will first have to pass through federal regulatory reviews conducted by the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission. Several states are considering joining the DOJ review. The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to hold hearing on the merger in April. The regulatory review process is expected to take about a year.

Critics, including competitor Direct TV, argue that the merger would restrict competition and give Comcast an unfair share of the market. The cable provider absorbed NBC Universal in 2011.

“This merger is unprecedented,” Seth Bloom, a former general counsel of the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee and current president of Bloom Strategic Counsel told the Monitor. “There has never been a cable merger of this size – we’re talking here about the No. 1 and No. 2 cable companies in the US.”

Material from the Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.

 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its annual Spring Outlook report on Thursday. The report suggests that snow and ice left over from the winter could pose mild to moderate flood risks come spring. (Courtesy of NOAA)

NOAA Spring Outlook: Floods for some, but drought could spread

By Staff writer / 03.20.14

The winter that keeps on giving could fuel flood conditions this spring in much of the Midwest, Great Lakes, and New England, say federal meteorologists.

As the remaining snowpack begins to melt, it may not have many drainage paths because of deep layers of frozen ground and thick ice jams on rivers and streams, officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said in a teleconference with reporters Thursday.

All that extra water could overwhelm rivers and streams in half of the continental United States, NOAA’s annual Spring Outlook report cautions.

“Rivers in half of the continental United States are at risk of exceeding minor or moderate river flood levels this spring,” explained Robert Hartman, acting director of NOAA's Office of Hydrologic Development.

NOAA’s predictions are primarily based on the existing snowpack, ice accumulation, depth of frozen ground, and relatively short-term weather forecasts. Heavy rain events could exacerbate flood conditions.

“Unfortunately, for precipitation, climate signals were very weak and unreliable,” Mr. Hartman said. “That is often the case during spring but especially this year.”

Floods not only pose major economic threats to homes and businesses, but also to human life.

“Flooding is the leading cause of severe-weather-related deaths [in the United States], claiming, on average, more than 100 lives per year,” Hartman cautioned.

“Half of these flood-related deaths occur in motor vehicles,” he added. “Please take NOAA’s advice to ‘Turn around, don’t drown.’ Water can be deceptively deep and the underlying roadway can be washed away,” he said.

The flood risk in the middle and eastern portions of the country is in stark contrast to the drought that has gripped – and likely will continue to plague – much of the West and Southwest.

While portions of Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Nebraska, and the Midwest could experience some relief this spring, drought conditions in Arizona, New Mexico, and West Texas could spread to previously unaffected areas, said Jon Gottschalack, acting chief of the Operational Prediction Branch of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

"If the drought persists as predicted in the West and Southwest, it will likely result in an active wildfire season and continue to stress crops and livestock, due to low water levels,” Mr. Gottschalack said.

Over the next three months, areas ranging eastward from Western Montana across the Northern Plains to the Great Lakes Region can expect temperatures below normal, while parts of the Northwest, California, Nevada, the desert Southwest, Southern Plains, and the Southeast likely will feel warmer than usual.

NOAA issued an advisory earlier this month that conditions appeared favorable for the development of an El Niño event later this summer or early fall. Such an event could exacerbate drought conditions in parts of Arizona and New Mexico.

A jogger runs along the Potomac River on a foggy Thursday morning in Washington. The Northern Hemisphere celebrates the first day of spring Thursday, an event marked by the vernal equinox. (J. David Ake/AP)

Spring equinox has arrived (today, officially)! Someone better tell winter. (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.20.14

Spring has sprung! At least that’s what the calendar says. However, it could be nearly a month before temperatures fully catch up to the calendar in many parts of the country, according to long-term forecasts.

“It looks like we are going to have a 2-3 week stretch where there’s far more chilly days than warm ones,” says Accuweather meteorologist Mark Paquette.

He does have some consolation for the winter-weary, though.

“Even though we have this extended period of cool weather expected – and I do expect it to be chilly – it’s not going to be like we are locked in the freezer for three weeks at a time,” Mr. Paquette says. “Though the three-week stretch will average quite a bit below normal, we’ll be able to sneak in some normal to above normal days here and there.”

Paquette expects that spring will truly set in around the second week of April and could rapidly give way to more summer-like conditions.

The late warm up isn't actually all that unusual.

As many Northeasterners and Midwesterners know, snow in April is never entirely out of the question.

In New England, the now-fabled April Fools’ Day blizzard buried Boston in two feet of snow, shuttering schools, businesses, and much of the usually weather-hardy public transit system in 1997.

Denver catches an average of 5.6 inches of snow in April, The Weather Channel’s Tom Niziol reports.

Last year, four major wintry storms swept across the Northwest, the High Plains, and the Heartland during the month of April, Mr. Niziol said.

The good news is that it is much more difficult for cold temperatures to persist after the vernal equinox, Accuweather’s Paquette says.

While the equinox technically has more to do with astronomy than meteorology – it’s the day that the sun is positioned most directly over the equator – the amount of solar energy that the Northern Hemisphere receives in coming weeks will not allow bitter cold air masses to build up as frequently as they did a month or two ago, he says.

As the Northern Hemisphere begins to tilt closer toward the sun, there will be more days when it feels even warmer than thermometer readings, he says.

While there is hope in the long term that the seemingly endless winter will in fact come to an end, there are still some ominous weather systems on the way.

Next week could bring yet another round of the dreaded polar vortex, as the jet stream once again dips as far south as Virginia, The Weather Channel reports.

The following week may not be any better, the National Weather Service predicts, with an 8-to-14 day outlook that suggests large swaths of the country, from the Atlantic corridor to the High Plains, can expect temperatures as much as 50 percent below normal.

Cindy Quiring (L.) and her husband Roger place flowers at a memorial outside Fisher Plaza, home to KOMO-TV, following a helicopter crash outside the building earlier Tuesday in Seattle. The news helicopter crashed into a city street near Seattle's Space Needle, killing two people and critically injuring a person in a car on the ground. (Elaine Thompson/AP Photo)

Seattle crash underscores NTSB's urgent concerns over helicopter safety (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.19.14

The crash Tuesday of a news helicopter into a busy Seattle intersection, killing two men and injuring a third, is highlighting concerns about helicopter safety expressed just this January by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The NTSB outlined helicopter safety as a major advocacy priority, citing “an unacceptably high number of helicopter accidents,” in an NTSB Most Wanted List report. Since 2004, more than 1,600 accidents have claimed more than 500 lives.

“The NTSB is concerned that these types of accidents will continue to occur if a concerted effort is not made to improve the safety of helicopter operations,” the NTSB report states.

This year alone, there have been 10 other helicopter crashes in the United States, two of them fatal, according to NTSB data.

Hundreds of helicopters take to the sky every day. Some flights bear journalists monitoring traffic and breaking news. Others support law enforcement. Many transport medical patients and supplies. The US civil helicopter industry is growing, and safety management systems need to be updated to accommodate the increasingly diverse number of uses, the NTSB says.

The agency called on helicopter operators, manufacturers, and regulatory agencies to revise safety management practices, including inspection and maintenance procedures. Specific recommendations called on operators to ensure that pilots receive adequate training in maneuvering during compromising conditions and to restrict the schedules of maintenance personnel to ensure alertness.

The NTSB uses information gathered in the investigations of crashes like the one in Seattle to inform new safety recommendations.

NTSB acting deputy Dennis Hogenson said Wednesday that investigators are examining pilot, maintenance, and company records. While it could be a full year before the agency is prepared to release a full report, Mr. Hogenson said that a preliminary report could come in several days.

At a televised news conference Tuesday, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray told reporters that the incident could have been “a much larger tragedy” if it had not taken place so early in the morning. The site of the crash was very near several tourist attractions, including the Space Needle, the monorail, and a music museum. Mayor Murray has ordered a review of helipads in the city. He said regulations have not been updated in more than 20 years.

"We need to look at it," Murray said of the regulations. "In consultation with the council, we will decide if we need to adjust our policies."

An online list of public and private airports suggests that Seattle has a dozen such helipads at TV stations, universities, hospitals, and private corporate sites.

Helicopter pilot Gary Pfitzner of Issaquah, Wash. and former KOMO photographer Bill Strothman were killed in the crash. Both men worked for Cahokia, Ill.-based Helicopters Inc.

Another man, Richard Newman of Seattle, was seriously injured when the just-fueled helicopter crashed, setting several cars ablaze. Two other drivers escaped their burning cars unharmed.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

President Obama gives a speech on climate change at Georgetown University in Washington in 2013. On Wednesday, the Obama administration launched a new web portal that provides access to government-held data on climate change in a bid to boost preparedness. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Obama's Climate Data Initiative: Congress gridlocked? Empower the public. (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.19.14

With Congress shunning legislation to curb global warming, President Obama on Wednesday launched a new online resource to help businesses, citizens, and communities plan for climate change.

The Climate Data Initiative aims to ease access to federal data on climate issues including rises in sea level, storm surges, extreme heat, and drought. The hope is that Americans will use the data to create better public and private preparedness plans.

The website is a work in progress, with some components still under construction. For example, a click on the "coastal flooding" tab yields a description of what will be available, though there is no indication when the data will go live.

The Climate Data Initiative marks a next step on Mr. Obama's pledge last June to address climate change. The president and Democratic leaders have highlighted the issue several times in recent months, despite congressional opposition from most Republicans and red-state Democrats.

"Climate change is a fact," Obama said during his 2014 State of the Union Address. "And when our children's children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say, 'Yes, we did.' "

In June, Obama unveiled a plan to cut carbon emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, with or without congressional support. He directed the Environmental Protection Agency to strengthen air emissions regulations under the Clean Air Act, a move that Republican leaders have called an overstepping of executive authority.

“I think it’s unfortunate, I think it’s divisive and quite frankly, borderline unconstitutional on many of those issues,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida told Politico, following the president’s address. “I understand the [legislative] process takes long and can be frustrating, but I think it truly undermines the republic.”

Earlier this month, 28 Senate Democrats and two Independents held an all night “talkathon” on climate change in an attempt to “wake up” Congress and the nation on the issue.

With little chance of congressional compromise in sight, the president appears to be appealing instead to the American public.

While nearly two-thirds of Americans believe global warming is happening, just under half of the country believes that humans are to blame, according to a survey conducted by researchers at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the international nonprofit organization and publisher of Science magazine, has also shifted its education efforts from policymakers to American citizens.

AAAS launched its own website this week in an effort to bring the scientific evidence for climate change directly to the people.

While the government portal is a text-heavy catalog of federal databases, AAAS’s What We Know report is a visually rich, multimedia product that makes the case for climate change with video interviews.

“Climate change is not about the polar bears. It’s about your kids and my kids. It’s about the price of Cheerios and cereal,” says Marshall Shepherd, a geography professor at the University of Georgia and former president of the American Meteorological Society, in one of the interviews. “It’s not a political issue. It’s an issue of human beings, their kids, and their future.”

Master Sgt. Jose Rodela is awarded the Medal of Honor by President Obama in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday, March 18. Mr. Obama awarded 24 Army veterans the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry in recognition of their valor during major combat operations in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. (Evan Vucci/AP Photo)

Medal of Honor: 24 given overdue award 'to set the record straight' (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.18.14

Master Sgt. Jose Rodela was 17 years old when he left his Corpus Christi home to join the Army. In September 1969 his company came under attack in Phuoc Long Province, Vietnam, and sustained heavy casualties.

Ignoring his own wounds, Sergeant Rodela braved enemy fire to assist his fallen comrades, according to a biography posted by the Army this month. In 1970, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest military honor.

More than 45 years later, President Obama upgraded that award to the the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award, in a special White House Ceremony Tuesday afternoon.

Rodela was just one of 24 Army veterans to receive the Medal of Honor Tuesday. The unusual ceremony was the culmination of a 12-year review that found potential anti-minority bias in the awarding of commendations since World War II. All but three of the 24 recipients – among them Jews, Hispanics, and blacks – are now deceased.

While each of the so-called “Valor 24” received the Distinguished Service Cross for their services, they were passed over for the nation’s highest commendation. Until now.

In the East Room of the White House, Mr. Obama took a small step toward righting one of the nation’s historic wrongs. "Today we have the chance to set the record straight," he said.

Before beginning the ceremonial distribution of the medals, Obama shared with the crowd a bit about the men and the sacrifices that they made for their country.

“They were Americans by birth and Americans by choice,” he began, “They were sons who made their parents proud and brothers who their siblings looked up to. They were so young, many in their early 20s. And when their country went to war, they answered the call. They put on the uniform and hugged their families goodbye. Some of them hugged the wives and children that they’d never see again.”

The Army has posted biographies of each of the so-called “Valor 24” online so the public can read about their acts of heroism.

One such hero is Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Morris, a Vietnam veteran and one of the country’s first Green Berets.

While commanding a strike force near Chi Lang, Vietnam, in September 1969, Sergeant Morris risked his own life to advance across enemy lines to retrieve a fallen comrade after his company came under fire. He was shot three times before he was able to return to safety. He received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in April 1970 and returned to Vietnam for a second tour later that month.

Mr. Morris reflected on that fateful day in a video interview with the Army News Service.

“I didn’t worry about the shooting. One of the two individuals I was with was wounded. I had to get them out and come back again,” he said. “I don’t know how many magazines I used or how long I fought until I decided I had to get out some kind of way, ‘cause I was by myself,” he recalled. “Luck was with me.”

More than 40 years later, Morris told the Army News Service that he was overwhelmed to learn that the president wished to honor him.

“To be honored in such a fashion, I just still can’t comprehend it, not yet anyhow.”

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