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President Obama Promises Help to Rebuild Tornado-Hit South

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(Reuters) - President Barack Obama promised federal aid on Friday to the tornado-ravaged South after he got a close-up look at the "heartbreaking" impact of deadly twisters that killed at least 328 people.

"We are going to do everything we can to help these communities rebuild," Obama told reporters after touring scores of smashed homes and talking with survivors in Tuscaloosa, a university city in Alabama that was wrecked by the tornadoes.

Alabama was the hardest hit of seven southern states that were blasted this week by a swarm of tornadoes and violent storms that flattened whole neighborhoods. It was the deadliest U.S. natural catastrophe since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"I have never seen devastation like this. It is heartbreaking," said Obama, accompanied by his wife Michelle and Alabama Governor Robert Bentley. "This is something I don't think anyone has seen before."

In Alabama, emergency officials raised the death toll from the tornadoes in that state alone to 228. Governor Bentley said 1,700 people were injured.

At least 100 more deaths were reported across Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia, Virginia and Louisiana.

"We can't bring those who've been lost back. They're alongside God at this point ... but the property damage, which is obviously extensive, that's something we can do something about," Obama said.

The president was eager to show that federal relief is on its way and that he is not taking the disaster lightly. His predecessor George W. Bush was fiercely criticized for what was viewed as a slow response to Hurricane Katrina.

Flying into Tuscaloosa aboard Air Force One, Obama and his family saw a wide brown scar of devastation several miles (kilometers) long and hundreds of yards (meters) wide.

Tuscaloosa resident Jack Fagan, 23, was glad that Obama saw the damage. "Perhaps federal funds will help us, but I'm sure it will take longer than they say because it always does."

Recovery could cost billions of dollars and even with federal disaster aid it could complicate efforts by affected states to bounce back from recession. It will place an added burden on municipalities grappling with fragile finances.

Tornadoes are a regular feature of life in the U.S. South and Midwest, but they are rarely so devastating.

NUCLEAR PLANT SHUT, INDUSTRIES DAMAGED

The tornadoes hit Alabama's poultry industry -- the state is the No. 3 U.S. chicken producer -- and hurt other manufacturers in the state.

It halted coal production at the Cliffs Natural Resources mine in Alabama.

The second-biggest U.S. nuclear power plant, the Browns Ferry facility in Alabama, may be down for weeks after its power was knocked out and the plant automatically shut, avoiding a nuclear disaster, officials said.

Apparel producer VF Corp, owner of clothing brands such as North Face and Wrangler Jeans, said one of its jeanswear distribution centers, located in Hackleburg, Alabama, was destroyed and one employee killed.

In Tuscaloosa, the twisters, including one a mile-wide, cut a path of destruction, reducing houses to rubble, flipping cars and knocking out utilities. The death count was expected to rise with many bodies still trapped under debris.

"We are bringing in the cadaver dogs today," said Heather McCollum, assistant to the mayor of Tuscaloosa. She put the death toll in the city at 42 but said it could rise.

Of the more than 150 tornadoes that rampaged from west to east across the South this week, the National Weather Service confirmed that one that struck Smithville in Mississippi's Monroe County on Wednesday was a rare EF-5 tornado, with winds reaching 205 miles per hour.

This is the highest rating on the Enhanced Fujita scale that measures tornado intensity.

"The homes here are made well ... but when you are talking about a direct hit, it does not matter," Monroe County Sheriff Andy Hood said. "Right now, those homes are slabs of concrete. There is nothing left."

Across the South, many people were made homeless by the tornadoes and stayed in shelters. Some residents provided food, water and supplies to neighbors whose homes were destroyed.

Tuscaloosa resident Antonio Donald, 50, received help. "I got no light, no water. I have a newborn baby at home, a daughter who is pregnant and an 88-year-old aunt," he said.

The storms left up to 1 million homes in Alabama without power. Water and garbage collection services were also disrupted in some areas.

Alabama's Jefferson County, which is fighting to avoid what would be the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, suffered damage and 19 dead but said the storms would have little direct impact on its struggling finances because federal grants were expected.

(Additional reporting by Peggy Gargis in Birmingham and Colleen Jenkins in St. Petersburg, Leigh Coleman in Mississippi, Phil Wahba in New York; writing by Matthew Bigg and Pascal Fletcher, Editing by Laura MacInnis)

Brazile Urges Blacks to Support Obama, Protect Gains

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By Cash Michaels, Special to the NNPA from The Wilmington Journal –

The interim chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) says the nation, and specifically the African-American community, has to stick with President Barack Obama and the Democrats during these tough times to “keep the country safe and secure.”

But, in an exclusive taped interview Tuesday with the weekly radio program “Make it Happen” on Power 750 WAUG-AM/Power 750.com, top Washington insider and CNN/ABC commentator Donna Brazile also admitted that there have been times during the past two years when she didn’t necessarily agree with some of the president’s policies.

“Look, I haven’t always been pleased with the president of the United States,” the renowned Democratic Party strategist and interim DNC chair said. “I’ve had times when I’ve had to differ with the president. Whether it’s been the housing policies or the firing of [former USDA official] Shirley Sherrod, or just recently, giving the Republicans the opportunity [during the recent 2011 budget negotiations] to write their own narrowly-based social agenda on the [Washington] D.C. budget where I live, I’m not always in the cheerleading section.”

“Sometimes I’m on the sidelines, sometimes I like to be right there on the field getting a little dirty with the rest of them. But, the bottom-line is I’m proud to be a Democrat, I’m proud to be an American, [but] more importantly I’m proud to say that Barack Obama is my choice for president in 2012,” Brazile said.

It’s the kind of frank, pull-no-punches talk that Brazile, 51, is known. The first African-American ever to run a major political party’s bid for president when she took the reins of then Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 campaign, the Louisiana native has earned the title of Washington powerbroker, serving as DNC vice chair; managing her own D.C. consulting firm, hitting the talk and keynoter’s circuit at colleges and universities across the nation; and now chairing the Democratic National Committee until Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, is officially voted in, which is expected to happen shortly.

But right now, Brazile’s passion is supporting the president, and making sure that both he and the Democrats are successful in 2012.

“The country is still in the throes of a very critical economic downturn,” Brazile told WAUG-AM. “While we’ve seen 13 months of promising job growth, President Obama is committed to see that every American who is looking for a job will be able to find work in his/her hometown.”

Balancing spending cuts with “revenue attractions” in the midst of a slow economic recovery has to be a “balanced approach to getting our fiscal house in order,” Brazile maintains, countering the popular Republican mantra that America as “a spending problem, not a revenue problem.”

The poor and middle-class have definitely been hurt during the recovery, so government must do all it can to make them whole, as much as possible, Brazile says, particularly through job growth.

Brazile says the president “is committed to make sure that the federal government lives within its means,” and will make well thought-out cuts to the budget where needed.

But Republicans, per their plan to drastically cut the federal budget through Medicare/Medicaid, education, affordable housing, and other vital programs, while simultaneously giving millionaires and billionaires generous tax cuts, threaten the government’s social safety net where it’s needed the most. The trend is already being seen in local and state governments across the nation, and Brazile says Americans must take note, and then take action.

Brazile also urges communities to support President Obama’s insistence on “winning the future” through investing more in education, and for individuals to improve their own educational opportunities to better prepare themselves for upcoming challenges and opportunities.

“If you’re living on the margins; if you’re living without the means to dip into your savings account, then the recession we’ve just experienced will have a devastating impact on communities of color,” Brazile says, maintaining that communities should not be “pitted against each other” in times of great struggle.

Hudson River Tragedy Puts Mental Health in the Black Community Into Focus

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By Cyril Josh Barker, Special to the NNPA from the New York Amsterdam News –

The recent tragic death of a woman who drove herself and her children into the Hudson River in Newburgh, N.Y., still has people asking, “How could she?” And, while there are no easy answers for this terrible act, it is increasing the conversation on depression and mental health in the Black community.

Reports indicate that LaShanda Armstrong, 25, drove herself and her four children into the Hudson River after an incident at her and her boyfriend's apartment. Armstrong was upset because she thought her boyfriend was cheating on her.

The children in the minivan were 10-year-old La’Shaun Armstrong, 5-year-old Landen Pierre, 2-year-old Lance Pierre, and 11-month-old Lainaina Pierre.

“If I'm going to die, we're all going to die,” Armstrong reportedly said before driving her family into the Hudson River.

As the car sank into the river, La’Shaun was able to swim out of the vehicle to safety, leaving his siblings and mother behind. La'Shaun, who knew how to swim, feels a heavy load of guilt for not being able to save his siblings who could not.

Upon reaching the shore, La’Shaun went into the street and flagged down a car for help. Soaking wet, he quickly got the attention of motorist Meave Ryan. La'Shaun explained to her what happened and Ryan called the police.

After an hour, the City of Newburgh fire and police departments found the minivan under 10 feet of water, 25 yards from the shore. La’Shaun told police officers what had happened, and spoke of his regret and guilt over not being able to save his young siblings. The guilt-stricken boy said that, during the final moments as the water began to fill the minivan, his mother began to scream words of regret, but it was too late.

The family’s tragic story is actually just the face of mental illness and the depression that often results from it that so many African-Americans are dealing with. According to statistics, 63 percent of African-Americans view depression as a “personal weakness.” Only seven percent of African-American women seek treatment for depression, while 92 percent of African-American men do not seek any help for depression.

Factors that can lead to depression include financial issues, traumatic life experiences, health problems and being a victim of abuse, violence or poverty. Left untreated, depression can be fatal.

Terrie Williams, author of the acclaimed book, “Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting,” said that there is a stigma in the Black community around mental illness. It is perceived that a person is insane, which prevents many Black people from seeking the help they need.

“We're all very fragile,” Williams said. “A lot of depression begins from a basic place. All of us move through the world with unresolved wounds from our childhood. Many of us have not opened up and we don't have any coping skills.”

Williams added that in Armstrong’s case, things most likely became too much for her and she felt a sense of worthlessness. While she was probably aware of the anger and rage that she felt, Williams said it was not a case of her not loving her children—she was probably pushed over edge by dealing with issues in her relationship without seeking outside help.

As for 10-year-old La’Shaun, Armstrong’s only surviving child, Williams said she believes that, with the right help, he will be alright.

“He's mourning the loss and dealing with the trauma from what was going on,” she said. “He's going to need some help because he can't do that by himself. We just can't leave him to his own devices and expect he's going to be ok.”

Famed psychologist Dr. Jeffery Gardere added that several factors may have come into play in the lead-up to Armstrong's actions. Stress from motherhood could have been a likely factor. Armstrong was 25 years old at the time of her death—her oldest child was 10 years old, making her only 15 when she first became a mother.

The financial and emotional stress of having four children might have been too much for her to bear. Coupled with an already fragile personality, Gardere said, Armstrong likely had a nervous breakdown that ended in tragedy.

“She loved her kids, and for her to do something so heinous to herself and her children—this is someone who had lost touch with reality,” he said. “With the lack of emotional support, and financial issues, she felt very alone in her misery. This was an unhappy woman.”

Gardere said that La’Shaun is going to need at least 15 to 20 years of therapy and that the traumatic experience he went through might lead to difficulties with relationships with others later in life.

“He'll have flashbacks for years. This will stay with him forever and impact his life and whoever he is involved with—he's going to be unable to make a full commitment [to a relationship] only because he feels she's going to leave him the way his mother left him. There is hope for him and he may become a much stronger individual, but he may become so strong that he shuts out other people,” Gardere said.

Nigerian Election Tears the Country in Two

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Special to the NNPA from the Global Information Network –

Religious and political loyalties appear to have determined the outcome of Nigeria’s presidential poll during the past weekend with northern states throwing their support to former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari of the predominantly Muslim north, while the southern states backed incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, of the predominantly Christian south.

Jonathan, who was accused of spreading billions in “walking around money” as it is called in the U.S., was declared the winner after a recent landmark vote. He allegedly garnered 31% of the vote total or 22.5 million votes to Buhari, who received 12.2 million votes or just under 60 percent.

Buhari’s loss could sound the death knell to an unwritten power-sharing arrangement, which had handed the presidency back and forth between the Muslim north and Christian and animist south every two years.

A president from the north should have been in power until 2015 but plans went awry when the previous president Umaru Yar'Adua, died in office. Jonathan, a vice-president from the south, should have stepped down after completing his predecessor's term of office. He did not, and went on to defeat a northern Muslim challenger, former vice-president, Atiku Abubakar, for the party's presidential nomination.

Buhari’s party is rejecting the vote totals and has filed a challenge. They have also issued a call to law and order as deadly riots spread through several northern cities in an apparent protest of the result.

Meanwhile, social media groups that monitored reports of electoral abuse, mostly gave thumbs up to the vote. “Nigerians need to be commended, along with elected/appointed officials who were saddled with delivering hitch-free elections,” wrote the watchdog Enough is Enough on their website. “We look forward to the last set of elections on Tuesday, April 26, so that we can have a honest review of the impact of our work – and also plan for the journey ahead.

“This is 2011, our votes will count!”

Supporters Tell City: 'Compensate the Central Park Jogger 5'

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By Nayaba Arinde, Special to the NNPA from the New York Amsterdam News –

The Central Park Jogger case has hit the headlines again.

Raymond Santana, Khary Wise, two of the five young men falsely accused and wrongfully imprisoned in the notorious case, last week, gathered on the steps of New York City Hall to demand that the city address the issue of their compensation.

“We call on Mayor Bloomberg to authorize the immediate settlement of this case,” said Roger Wareham, one of the lawyers in the case. “We call on the City Council to hold hearings on the city’s refusal to settle this matter. And, as our history demonstrates, we will be in the streets to mobilize our community to create whatever pressure is necessary to bring long overdue justice to the Central Park 5 and their families. Almost 10 years ago next April, Councilman Charles Barron introduced a resolution in the chambers at City Hall to that end.”

While jogging in Central Park on April 19, 1989, Trisha Meili was raped and beaten. Five Harlem teens—Raymond Santana, Khary Wise, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, and Yusef Salaam—were charged and tried for the crime, first in the media and eventually in court, where they were convicted of the assault. The case had current so-called potential presidential candidate Donald Trump taking out full-page ads in New York City papers demanding the death penalty for the young men.

In 2002, the convictions were overturned when DNA evidence and a confession proved that Matias Reyes committed the crime alone.

The evidence proved what the the teens—now men—had always maintained: they were not guilty of the assault. In the wake of the subsequent civil suit, supporters, families, and attorneys for the exonerated men demanded that the city not put them through another trial, but rather step up and compensate them for their unlawful imprisonment.

Santana said, “Today marks 22 years since Kharey, Yusef, Kevin, Antron and myself were taken from our homes, robbed of our youth, and given labels of ‘rapists,’ ‘monsters,’ ‘animals’ and ’wolf pack.’

“We come here every year. We stand on these steps. We demand justice,” he continued. “The media does a small article and puts it in the back of the paper. TV doesn't even acknowledge us. Where is our justice? Twenty-two years is a very long time. We have lost family members. We have lost time. We have lost our foundations.

“We have difficulties when it comes to functioning on a higher level as productive individuals because we never had the opportunity to grow naturally, make mistakes, live life. We didn't have the chances to become lawyers, doctors, police officers, firefighters or Duke lacrosse players.

“I was charged, convicted and sent to prison in 17 months...I think that's a record!” said Santana. “I wasn't given any type of chances. I was sent to the worst prisons. I had to sit in meetings listening to the stories of real sexual predators. Even to my friends I was ‘Raymond Santana from the Central Park case.’ I was a child abandoned by everyone, even my family.

“Now in order to receive some type of civil justice I have to wait. Wait for justice? It’s been 8 years! Lead detective Humberto Arroyo said ‘The system works.’ For real criminals, I guess it does! Trump wanted to give us the death penalty, now he wants to be president.”

He continued, “It saddens me when a city can brag and call itself ‘The Greatest City in the World,’ and talk of the American Dream, but when it comes to justice for the Central Park 5, justice for 5 innocent boys who lost their lives because the people who ran the justice system decided to take matters into their own hands—decided to ignore the scales of justice and make us scapegoats and sacrifice our lives so that they could go on to profit and live a wealthy life—it is there that lies the truth, there lie the facts on how far as a people we have truly come.

“Anniversaries are supposed to be joyous occasions, special events, celebrations. Instead my anniversary consists of struggle, hardship, pain, and suffering. You gave me all of this in exchange for my childhood, my progress, my life...Wow! Thank you, NYPD, thank you, New York City,” Santana said.

"This was an horrific miscarriage of justice which robbed these young brothers of their youth," said Councilman Charles Barron. “In 2002, after having served between 6 and 16 years in jail for this attack, the Central Park 6 [sic] were exonerated when the actual rapist came forward. While April 19 marks the 22nd anniversary of the rape of the Central Park Jogger and this unfortunate crime, the city of New York must do the right thing and compensate these six innocent, now adult, men and their families for being falsely accused and convicted.”

Last year, Barron sponsored Resolution 81, which called for compensation for the young men. Several members of the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus and other council members have co-sponsored this bill. Barron added, “I encourage the entire city council and Speaker Christine Quinn to join in this effort to have the city make arrangements to settle this lawsuit. If the city of New York can settle out of court with a known drug dealer, surely it can compensate six men who lost much of their youth to a false accusation.”

The mayor’s office told the New York Amsterdam News that, “since this is ongoing litigation,” we would have to speak with the Law Department for a comment. Kate O'Brien Ahlers, Media & Communications Director said, “The lawsuit was brought by 15 people (not just five) and includes family members. Their current demand is for a quarter of a billion dollars. Also, while their convictions were vacated, the plaintiffs were not ‘cleared’ of any of the charges against the Central Park Jogger or the other victims. Having a conviction vacated does not mean they are innocent. It just means they were entitled to a new trial. But, because they had already served prison terms, the DA chose not to retry them.”

"The City stands by the decisions made by the detectives and prosecutors in bringing this case,” added Celeste Koeleveld, Executive Assistant Corporation Counsel for Public Safety, NYC Law Department. “The 'Central Park Jogger' was not the only victim that night; others were also brutally attacked, beaten and robbed. The charges against the plaintiffs and other youths were based on abundant probable cause, including confessions that withstood intense scrutiny, in full and fair pretrial hearings and at two lengthy public trials.

"Nothing unearthed since the trials, including Matias Reyes’s connection to the attack on the jogger - changes that fact. Indeed, it was well known at the time of the trials that an unidentified male’s DNA was present. Under the circumstances, the City is proceeding with a vigorous defense of the detectives and prosecutors, and the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars that each of the five plaintiffs and their family members are seeking.

"The parties are actively engaged in lengthy and complex discovery, which was recently extended upon joint request by both sides. The plaintiffs themselves have already taken 20 depositions, and have recently noticed the depositions of several other NYPD personnel. The City has also turned over more than 60,000 pages of documents, plus videotapes and other evidence, in response to plaintiffs' demands."

“From April 19, 1989, through today, the December 12th Movement has maintained that the arrests, mistreatment, prosecution and incarceration of the Central Park 5 were motivated by racism, not reality,” said Wareham. “That in the wake of a cowardly, near fatal attack on a White female jogger in Central Park, any Black or Latino suspect would do as a sacrifice to a White community’s calls for revenge. And, that is precisely what happened.

“To understand why, some nine years after their exoneration and eight years after filing a suit for compensation, this case is still not settled, one must acknowledge the lynch mob mentality that led to their unjust convictions and still persists today. Mayor Bloomberg could very simply resolve this matter with the stroke of a pen, authorizing the city to settle this case. Instead, these men and their families are faced with the New York City Law Department using its immense resources to employ every pre-trial maneuver procedure possible to stretch this case out as far as they can,” Wareham continued.

“The five are now rapidly approaching age 40. They have been incarcerated, had their teen years stolen from them, vilified as “wild animals” that should be put to death by Donald Trump, branded as sex offenders, had tremendous problems finding employment and experienced heart-breaking family disruptions. And, still apology and repair are in the distant future.”

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