USA

A monthly forecast of future economic activity, compiled by the New York-based Conference Board, fell 0.7 percent in July, its steepest decline this year, the private business group said Thursday. The largest drag on its index was the drop-off in building permits, followed by tumbling stock prices and rising unemployment claims.

The government is banning phone calls of prerecorded sales messages unless consumers agree to receive calls, the Federal Trade Commission said Wednesday of its response to a barrage of consumer complaints. By December, all such calls must provide an opt-out selection to make it easy for consumers to stop receiving them.

The US has halted a program that united African refugees with relatives in America after DNA testing revealed many people were lying about family links, the State Department said Wednesday. Recent tests showed only about 20 percent of applicants in a family reunification program had a family member in the US.

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To help Louisiana's recovering posthurricane economy, President Bush said the state will be given 30 years to repay a $1.8 billion federal loan for levee improvement in the New Orleans area. Initially the amount was due by 2011. On the whole, Bush said the $126 billion in disaster relief poured into the Gulf Coast region since hurricane Katrina hit three years ago was bringing hope back. Above, Bush and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (l.) toured a construction site with National Guardsmen.

Amtrak ridership surged 14 percent in July to 2.7 million passengers, the highest ridership for a single month in the rail service's 37-year history. Soaring gasoline prices are behind the record-high ridership, according to officials who said Amtrak must double its fleet in the next 10 years to meet projected demand.

Forecasters expected tropical storm Fay to complete its zigzag course by hitting Florida for a third time in a week, along with Georgia, as it began moving onshore from the Atlantic Thursday. The storm has flooded hundreds of homes in Brevard and St. Lucie counties.

America's Amish population has gone from 123,000 to an estimated 227,000 nationwide since 1992, according to researchers at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County, Pa., a popular area for Amish farm families. Amish couples typically have five or more children. Above, Amish boys zip along on scooters in Quarryville, Pa.

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