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MINNESOTA NEWS ROUNDUP: FEMA begins flood damage assessments in southwest Minnesota

Officials from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, are in southwest Minnesota (Jackson, Nobles, Renville and Rock counties) starting today (Tues) to survey flood damage.  To qualify for federal funds, damage to public infrastructure must be at least 7.3 million dollars and a number of top officials believe the state will meet that threshold.  Once all damage assesments are in, Governor Dayton is expected to request a presidential disaster declaration.  


Geneva, Wisconsin police say they've identified a second body found in a suitcase as that of Jenny Gamez, who vanished from Oregon two years ago.  The bodies of 21-year-old Gamez and 37-year-old Laura Simonson of Farmington, Minnesota were discovered in suitcases alongside the road on June 5th.  Geneva Police Chief Steve Hurley says in more than 36 years of law enforcement it is one of the more horrific crimes that he's seen.  Simonson's corpse was bound and gagged, and Hurley says Gamez was restrained as well.  Former police officer, 52-year-old Steven Zelich, has been charged with hiding a corpse but investigators expect the charges to be upgraded to murder when the investigation is complete.  It is believed that Zelich met both women through an online sex site.


A new law restricting the sale and use of electronic cigarettes goes into effect today in Minnesota (7/1).  State Representative Laurie Halverson of Eagan says lawmakers were not able to add e-cigs to the Clean Indoor Air Act, but their use *is* prohibited in numerous public spaces -- including public schools, colleges and universities, most government buildings, licensed day cares, and hospitals and clinics.  Halverson says the new law also bans the sale of e-cigs to minors with the same criminal penalty as selling traditional cigarettes to kids.  She says e-cig use by middle school students increased 250 percent in one year. 


Minnesota's new smartphone anti-theft law takes effect today (Tues), but it will be another year before a key provision begins.  It won't be until July 1st, 2015 when all smartphones manufactured after that date and sold in Minnesota will have to be equipped with a "kill switch" that renders the phone inoperable if stolen.  Backers say it will deter smartphone theft and an increasing number of assaults during robberies, particularly on and around the U-of-M Minneapolis campus.  But provisions in the new law that *do* take effect today include: All dealers in used cell phones must keep records with the seller's information, including drivers license number, plus have video surveillance cameras to record the person's face.  But officials also note that a good number of stolen smartphones are re-sold overseas -- something which they hope a "kill switch" will deter.


Minnesota's first-ever gypsy moth quarantine takes effect today in Lake and Cook counties in Minnesota's Arrowhead, as officials try to slow the spread of the tree-leaf-eating pests.  Kimberly Thielen Cremers with the state Ag Department says people should carefully inspect outdoor household items before moving them out of the quarantine area.  She says if you find anything suspicious -- whether it looks like a cocoon, a caterpillar, or else anything that wasn't there before -- simply remove it and leave it at the site.  The quarantine also prohibits people from transporting firewood out of Cook and Lake counties.  They're the most gypsy-moth-infested area of Minnesota.


The Minnesota Judicial Council has approved the opening of six new drug courts throughout the state.  The courts will be established--some as soon as next month--in Carlton, Morrison, Rice and Steele-Waseca Counties, as well as the Eighth Judicial District Court in western Minnesota and Ramsey County Veterans Court.  Judge Shaun Floerke says drug courts have proven effective with fewer re-arrests and also incredible benefits for housing, work, paying taxes, raising kids and the like.  Drug courts specialize in non-violent criminal offenders with a addictions to alcohol and other drugs  Funding for the new courts was approved by the Minnesota legislature in 2013.  


A week after U.S. officials ordered BNSF Railway Company and Canadian Pacific to report their plans to clear a backlog of grain cars after months of service delays, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture has announced a one-day forum on the future of ag freight in the state.  International Trade Representative Christina Connelly says it's not meant to focus on pointing fingers or assigning blame -- but instead how to make things better in the coming year.  Connelly says they'll take what they've learned from delays and difficulties and use it to help move ag products by rail in the fastest, safest, most cost-effective way for both farmers and the rail companies.


Starting today, Minnesota will require all diesel fuel sold in the state to contain at least 10 percent biodiesel, except during the winter months.  Currently, state law requires diesel fuel to contain at least five percent biodiesel, and two percent during the winter.  Biodiesel is made from soybean oil and Minnesota ranks number three in the nation when it comes to soybean production. 


Another three-year high for the economies of Minnesota and other nearby states; the Mid-America Business Conditions Index rose to 60.6 in June from 60.5 in May, suggesting more economic growth over the next three to six months.  And supply managers in the region are confident that the next six months will be good, with the business confidence portion of the index up to 63.6 from 62.5 in May  Any score above 50 suggests growth.


The recent heavy rains, with flooding, wet basements, and sewage discharges into rivers may be something of a new future for Minnesota as heavy precipitation events have increased 37-percent in the Upper Midwest since 1958.  Municipal Wastewater Manager for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Wendy Turri says many older city storm water and sewer systems weren'st built to handle such heavy rainfall events.  A June 23 report by the MPCA says more heavy rainfall will result in more crop land runoff, more discharges of untreated sewage into rivers and streams, and more flooding in homes that include backed up sewage, as well as more storm water system failures, as cities adjust their stormwater and sewage systems to accommodate the increase in heavy rain events.


Moorhead fire investigators say it was a faulty bathroom fan that started a fire that destroyed Moorhead Baptist Church on Highway 75 early yesterday (Mon). The pastor and assistant pastor and their families got out safely.  The Red Cross is helping them with immediate needs.


You can hear more and more backyard fireworks the closer we get to the Fourth of July, but the Minnesota Medical Association advises against it -- even fireworks that are legal in Minnesota.  The M-M-A's Dan Hauser says amateurs shouldn't deal with fireworks at all -- leave that to the experts who know how to handle them safely  Hauser says even something as seemingly harmless as sparklers cause serious burns, and 17 percent of injuries around 4th of July are caused by them.  Firecrackers are responsible for 27 percent of the injuries.


 Flooding has forced St. Paul's Independence Day fireworks show to move.  The "Pioneer Press" reports that Friday's display will now be held at the state Capitol mall.  Flooding at the show's usual home of Harriet Island forced the change for this year.  The mall will open to the public at 8:00 p.m. on Friday and the fireworks show will start at 10:00 p.m.