Tuesday Roundup: (Not) Getting the News

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The latest report is that wildfires have covered 30,000 acres in Bastrop County, Texas, a largely rural community just east of Austin. The picture above, taken Monday afternoon as we drove into Bastrop, gives you an idea of how big this fire has become.

The Texas fires are striking close to home here at the Yonder. A frequent contributor, Kelley Snowden, lost her house in Gladewater, Texas. She writes: 

“Our 2 acres has burned to the ground. The house is gone, the hay barn is gone (which was full of hay), the equipment shed is gone. The 2 acrces we built up with our own two hands. Gone.”

And Yonder editors used to live in Bastrop County, so we know plenty of people who lost their houses. Monday in Bastrop, people were just wandering the streets, looking at the billowing clouds of smoke and wondering if anything was left back home. We saw a big guy riding a Harley with tears streaming into his beard.

The thing that struck us during this current disaster — and there have been plenty across rural America in 2011 — is how hard it is now to get news. There used to be local radio stations manned by real people. During a disaster, the local radio could be the place people call in to report changes in the direction of the fire or meeting places for volunteers.

Now, the radio stations are automated or they’ve been consumed by larger stations in the cities. The news radio station out of Austin that covers Bastrop was airing reruns of programs from last week while 30,000 acres burned just 30 miles away.

Meanwhile, we’ve cut back on public services so that the local law enforcement is overwhelmed. Calls to 911 went unanswered. And now federal emergency services are facing cuts.

• Just because you stopped hearing about a disaster doesn’t mean it’s over.

Reuters reminds us that the Missouri River is STILL flooding and isn’t expected to end for weeks. The flooding started shortly before Memorial Day. 

Just repairing the levees and dams on the upper stretches of the Missouri, from Montana to Nebraska, could cost $1 billion. That doesn’t touch the incredible destruction downstream, where roads, houses and railroad tracks have been twisted, cracked and washed away. BNSF Railway expects to spend $300 million just on its tracks.

To get an up close and personal view of what the flooding means, check out some video Yonder writer Richard Oswald posted here

This has been an incredible year in rural America — wildfire, tornados, floods, earthquake, hurricanes,s and droughts. And it’s only September.

• The New York Times is reporting that the U.S. Postal Service is near default. It will not be able to make a $5.5 billion payment on debt due this month “and may have to shut down entirely this winter unless Congress takes emergency action to stabilize its finances.” 

The Postal Service will have a $9.2 billion deficit this year. The agency would like to close up to 3,700 post offices and lay off 120,000 workers.

The Times has good charts showing the problem. The Postal Service is losing revenue while its costs remain high. Labor represents 80% of the agency’s costs. At UPS, labor accounts for 53% of costs.

Any major changes in the Postal Service will require Congressional action — so we’ll see how that works out.

• Richard Oswald, Yonder writer and president of the Missouri Farmers Union, sends out an alert today saying the Congress could be cutting off funding for new regulations governing the relationship between meat producers and buyers. 

The Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) has proposed these new regs. “All the new GIPSA rules do is add fairness to a marketplace that has become dominated by big packers and livestock and poultry integrators,” Oswald writes. “If young farmers and ranchers even have a shot at raising their own livestock, they’ll get that chance when rules for the 90 year old Packers and Stockyards Act are finally enforced.”

Oswald is telling MFU members to contact their U.S. senators and tell them they support GIPSA’s activities.

• Two AP writers say that the Obama administration’s anti-trust action against AT&T’s proposed purchase of T-Mobile doesn’t mean there will be similar action in other areas. This is a very good article. 

Daniel Wagner and Pete Yost write:

The Obama administration has explained its effort to block AT&T’s purchase of T-Mobile USA by saying it will fight mergers that would reduce competition and hurt consumers.

Yet few think the lawsuit the administration filed Wednesday signals a more aggressive stance toward acquisitions in other industries. Rather, experts say, the administration’s challenge of AT&T’s purchase comes down to this: Telecom is dominated by just a few big companies. Reducing the number of major players could all but kill competition and drive prices up.

There are few other examples of this kind of concentration of ownership. And that may be one reason why the administration has not acted on its two year investigation into antitrust violations in the agriculture business.

• Rural telecom providers continue to object to changes in the Universal Service Fund.

The USF collects money from phone subscribers and then uses that money to subsidize service in hard to reach areas.  The Federal Communications Commission wants to use USF money to create a “Connect America Fund” that will be used to subsidize the extension of broadband service.

Rural telecoms say they are using the money now to extend broadband service to customers — and that if the funds are cut or diverted to the Connect America Fund, that effort will be stopped.

Cedar Valley Business Monthly has a good article about objections from Iowa telecoms. The Iowa providers are calling the change proposed by the FCC “the Great Disconnect.” 

 

 

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