Waiting for Wilma

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Oct. 23 2005 8:48 AM

Waiting for Wilma

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.

The New York Times and Los Angeles Times lead with hurricane Wilma's shredding of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. The Washington Post leads with a leaked government audit that catalogues billing irregularities in a billion-dollar contract to build a high-tech communications network among the nation's airports.

The LAT's Yucatan dispatch reports that Wilma dropped a staggering 5 feet, 4 inches of rain near Cancun in a 24-hour period. (That's three times the rainfall of the region's last two hurricanes.) The sea washed away many of the resort city's beaches, while wind and floods damaged or destroyed dozens of hotels and countless homes. The hurricane has weakened from a Category 4 to a Category 2 since it hit the peninsula, but the LAT says it will probably strengthen as it traverses the Gulf en route to Florida. (The Post—which stuffs a piece datelined from Florida—says Wilma is expected to remain a Category 2.) The NYT's lead (undatelined) notes that half a million people have evacuated from the west side of Cuba and that mandatory evacuations have begun in Florida, where Wilma will likely touch down on Monday.

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Government auditors found that Unisys, the company building the Transportation Security Administration's airport-to-airport communications system, billed the government in allegedly unauthorized ways. For example, the company requested and received $131/hour in reimbursement for workers that it actually paid about $50/hour. It billed thousands of hours of overtime "at a 100 percent profit" and altered timesheets months after workers filled them out. The company admitted to the Post that it lumped "hard-to-categorize" workers in the highest-wage category but claims that the overtime was proper and that it was correcting worker errors in the timesheets. For its part, the TSA admitted that, in its rush to get the contract moving, it didn't monitor expenses well. (In 2003 the government had only 25 people overseeing the $1 billion contract; today there are 242 people.) Elsewhere in the piece, anonymous government officials admit that they deliberately low-balled the contract's price (it will eventually cost $3 billion) to please Congress. 

The NYT fronts a piece on an immense task facing New Orleans: demolition. Officials have just begun to survey the 110,000 houses that were flooded, but it is expected that 50,000 to 100,000 will need to be torn down. The article mostly focuses on arguments for and against the wholesale leveling of neighborhoods. An LAT front-pager, however, makes a more valuable contribution: It discusses emerging legal strategies within the mayor's office to take control of abandoned houses. Using an obscure Louisiana legal procedure called usufruct, the city may ask homeowners who do not plan to return soon whether the city can take control of their dwelling. If the owners agree, the city would use expected federal reconstruction funds to repair/rebuild the home (while assuming the owners' mortgage payments), then rent it out to civil servants for three to five years. At that point, the owners could retake possession by reimbursing the government for repairs. If they don't want to or can't afford to retake possession, the government would sell the house and split proceeds with the owners.

Bodies were found in every neighborhood of New Orleans, reports a story inside the Post. A Louisiana State University study of the 1,056 storm deaths found some predictable patterns. For example, the most lethal flooded neighborhoods were the Lower Ninth (poor and black) and Gentilly (lower middle class and black). But 21 to 30 bodies were found in Lakeview (rich and white), and some bodies were found in areas with no flooding.

A local crime story at the bottom of the Post's front page offers a revealing snapshot of the nearly complete lack of law and order in parts of our nation's capital. It relates how the discovery of the body of a 16 year old in Southeast D.C. has helped police close several outstanding homicide cases. The murdered teen had been connected to five shootings in the last two years, but the cops could not find cooperative witnesses until the young capo was found safely dead. Left unspoken in this story is the implication that the Washington police department—which closes barely more than half its homicide cases in any given year—would never have brought the perp to justice had he remained alive. 

The NYT runs a fascinating book excerpt showing that Donald Trump's net worth is nowhere near the $5 billion to $6 billion that he claims. Nor is it even close to Forbes' estimate of $2.7 billion. According to information gleaned from auditors and former business associates, it's an order of magnitude less: about $250 million. So how does The Donald fool so many people? By claiming ownership of properties that he either doesn't own or that are larded with debt. Most of Trump's branded Manhattan real estate, for example, was sold in the 1990s, when his casino losses brought him to the verge of personal bankruptcy. He also sold three-quarters of his casino company to the public and used the IPO proceeds to pay off debt. (The stock is now worthless.) He had to dip into business loans to finance his divorce from Ivana and at one point was reduced to borrowing from his siblings' trust funds. What was Trump's reaction to the book's charges? "You can go ahead and speak to guys who have 400-pound wives at home who are jealous of me," he told the author, "but the guys who really know me know I'm a great builder."

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