July 25, 2014

Presidential disaster declaration granted in wake of Pilger tornado

Federal officials have informed Gov. Dave Heineman his request for a presidential disaster declaration in wake of the Pilger tornado has been granted.

The declaration covers more than just the Pilger tornado, extending to cover damage from tornadoes and thunderstorms through southern and northeastern Nebraska between June 14th and the 21st.

Still, the biggest damage was done by an EF-4 tornado that ripped through the heart of Pilger, destroying more than half the town.

President Barack Obama has approved the presidential disaster declaration for 12 counties, which suffered storm damage from severe storms, tornadoes, straight-line winds, and flooding.

“We appreciate the approval of the disaster declaration for Public Assistance,” said Gov. Heineman said in a written statement issued by his office. “The federal government and local entities have been good partners working with the State as we assessed the severe and extensive damage that occurred throughout Nebraska. I am proud of Nebraskans for coming together and helping each other in challenging times.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region VII office notified the governor that the Public Assistance portion of his request had been approved, according to the governor’s office. Public assistance can help offset the cost of clean-up, even repair or replacement of any infrastructure damaged by the storms, including roads, bridges, sewers, and power systems.

Public assistance has been extended to the counties of Cedar, Cuming, Dakota, Dixon, Franklin, Furnas, Harlan, Kearney, Phelps, Stanton, Thurston, and Wayne Counties.

Federal assistance to help individuals recover from the storm has been extended to Cedar, Cuming, Dixon, Stanton and Wayne Counties.

“The public assistance declaration will help Nebraska recover some of the costs of responding to the disaster and will help fund rebuilding public infrastructure damaged by this disaster,” said Bryan Tuma, assistant director of Nebraska Emergency Management Agency in a written statement. “NEMA will work closely with local governments to help speed up the recovery process.”

Public assistance damage is expected to exceed $13 million.

NEMA will coordinate with the Federal Emergency Management Agency in assessing damages and distributing aid.


Sen. Johanns supports McDonald as next Secretary of Veterans Affairs (AUDIO)

Sen. Mike Johanns supports President Barack Obama’s nomination of former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald as the next Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Johanns, a Republican member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, says McDonald has the background needed to shake-up the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs.

“I really believe in this person. I like him a lot. He’s got an unbelievable resume. I mean, he’s run very large, complex private organizations,” Johanns says. “But I will say this, it is different in a large, complex governmental organization and I speak from experience.”

Johanns served as Secretary of Agriculture under President George W. Bush.

Criticism of the Department of Veterans Affairs became widespread after a former VA employee alleged that the Phoenix VA Health Care System falsified records to make it appear that patients had much shorter wait times than they actually faced. A VA inspector general report disclosed several VA hospitals throughout the country followed the same practice.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned over the allegations.

Obama has nominated McDonald to take his place.

During testimony before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, McDonald pledged to work hard during the first 90 days as secretary to address the problems plaguing the VA. McDonald, who is a military veteran, stated the mission was personal for him, siting a number of family members who have served.

Johanns has been harshly critical of the VA for falsifying records and providing poor treatment. Johanns says McDonald will have no time to waste.

“He’s got his work cut out for him, but I’m enthusiastically supportive. I like what he says. I like what he stands for; great background, great experience. We can’t get him confirmed fast enough in my opinion and I just pray that he’ll grab ahold of that department, because they really need leadership.”

Johanns worries problem employees at the VA might just try to run the clock on McDonald, knowing that, at most, he has only the two-and-a-half years left in the Obama Administration to overhaul the VA.

AUDIO:  Sen. Mike Johanns comments on Robert McDonald’s nomination as next Secretary of Veterans Affairs. [1:10]

Early childhood education touted as way to fight crime (AUDIO)

Lincoln Public Safety Dir. Tom Casady leads news conference with (from L) Joshua Spaulding with Fight Crime and Sen. Burke Harr

Lincoln Public Safety Dir. Tom Casady leads news conference with (from L) Joshua Spaulding with Fight Crime and Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha

A push is underway to promote early childhood education as a way to reduce crime.

Advocates admit this is a long-term solution, but argue that money spent upfront in the first few years of life could make the difference between a child growing up to be a criminal or growing up to be a productive member of society.

State Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha stated during a news conference in Lincoln the discussion underway at the Capitol on reducing prison over-crowding needs to be expanded.

“It’s obvious we have a problem. We have got to find a way to lower our prison rates. I don’t think anyone wants to build new prisons,” Harr said. “So, the question is, how do we do that? It’s not an overnight fix.”

A group called “Fight Crime: Invest in Kids,” hosted the news conference at the Justice and Law Enforcement Center in Lincoln.

The group touts research which indicates early childhood education has a number of benefits, including reducing crime. Its report, “I’m the guy you pay later,” outlines the benefits, such as a drop in abuse and neglect, better school outcomes, less need for special education, better reading and math scores, fewer drop-outs, and less crime.

Sen. Harr answers questions from reporters

Sen. Harr answers questions from reporters

The report argues that states can either fund pre-Kindergarten education or pay a greater price down the road when children grow into a life of crime.

The group has attracted the support of 5,000 law officers throughout the country, including nearly 80 in Nebraska.

Lincoln Public Safety Director Tom Casady spoke for the Nebraska officers, stating that the current discussion about ways to fight crime needs to be broadened to ways to prevent crime.

“So, if we can expand the discussion a little bit and get all of our citizens to start thinking more about the importance of prevention so that we’re really not just thinking about the end of the road, with adding a judge, increasing the number of deputy sheriffs, and building a new jail, I think we’ll all be better off for that discussion,” Casady reasoned.

Sen. Harr acknowledged that can be a difficult argument to make in the Unicameral, but insisted it is one that can be made.

“We policy makers, just like law enforcement, we like our facts,” Harr said. “So now, we have facts that prove, it’s not easy, but over the long term this is the better way.”

AUDIO:  Open to news conference on the benefits of early childhood education. [9 min.]

Concerns raised over Omaha’s new Municipal Land Bank

Nebraska’s largest city is taking steps to rid neighborhoods of vacant, abandoned and run-down houses.

The Omaha City Council approved the creation of a Municipal Land Bank that can either purchase or accept donations of those properties, clean them up, and resell them. One of the goals is to rid neighborhoods of these eyesores.

John Chatelain, president of the Metropolitan Omaha Property Owners Association, says this could open the door to a lot of creativity. He says the land bank will have what is known as automatically accepted bidding and that crowds out other offers on the property. He says they could get very creative and purchase apartment buildings, malls and other business complexes and since it is city owned they don’t have to pay property tax.

Chatelain says, “The statute specifically says they don’t have eminent domain but this automatically accepted bid approaches that.”

Sen. Fischer: increase Russian sanctions in wake of Malaysian jet crash

Sen. Deb Fischer supports increased sanctions against Russia in wake of the downing of a Malaysian commercial flight over Ukraine.

Fischer acknowledges much isn’t yet known about the doomed flight, except that it was shot down by a missile fired from territory occupied by pro-Russia separatists.

Fischer says the U.S. must go beyond sanctions and lend support to Ukraine.

“I believe our goal must be to help the Ukrainians regain control of their country and that means providing them with assistance and holding Russia accountable for its actions,” Fischer tells Nebraska reporters during a conference call.

Accident investigators have yet to arrive at the crash site. Fighting remains fierce in that area. The Netherlands has said it will take the lead in the investigation of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. The flight was shot down as it traveled from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people on board, including one America. The Netherlands lost 193 citizens.

The remains of the victims have been transferred from rebel-held ground to an area held by the Ukrainian government.

Fischer says the prospects for getting to the bottom of the crash diminished with the compromise of the crash site in a war zone.

“As you know, there was no control over that crash site. You had people in there who were basically looting. A lot of the evidence was destroyed,” Fischer says. “So, I think the crash site itself is not going to offer up much information.”

While the United States might well move to tighten economic sanctions against Russia, Europe hesitates. Europe receives a lot of its energy needs from Russia and sanctions could backfire should Russia retaliate.

Fischer suggests the U.S. prepare to provide more energy to its NATO allies so they have the freedom to stand up to Russia.

“Watching what’s happening in Europe, especially with the belligerent moves of Russia, I think that drives it home that this is a national security issue,” Fischer says. “But energy also now is a world security issue.”