WASHINGTON

Benefits recipients can expect small increase again

For the second straight year, millions of Social Security recipients, disabled veterans and federal retirees can expect historically small increases in their benefits come January.

Preliminary figures suggest a benefit increase of roughly 1.5 percent, which would be among the smallest since automatic increases were adopted in 1975, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.

Next year’s raise will be small because consumer prices, as measured by the government, haven’t gone up much in the past year.

The exact size of the cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, won’t be known until the Labor Department releases the inflation report for September. That was supposed to happen Wednesday, but the report was delayed indefinitely because of the partial government shutdown.

The COLA is usually announced in October to give Social Security and other benefit programs time to adjust January payments. The Social Security Administration has given no indication that raises would be delayed because of the shutdown.

BEIRUT

Gunmen abduct seven humanitarian-aid workers

Gunmen abducted six Red Cross workers and a Syrian Red Crescent volunteer after stopping their convoy early Sunday in northwestern Syria, a spokesman said, in the latest high-profile kidnapping in the country’s civil war.

Simon Schorno, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Damascus, said the assailants snatched the seven aid workers from their convoy near the town of Saraqeb in Idlib province around 11:30 a.m. local time as the team was returning to Damascus.

He declined to provide the nationalities of the six ICRC employees, and said it was not clear who was behind the attack.

Syria’s state news agency, quoting an anonymous official, said the gunmen opened fire on the ICRC team’s four vehicles before seizing the Red Cross workers.

The news agency blamed “terrorists,” a term the government uses to refer to those opposed to President Bashar Assad.

Schorno said the team of seven had been in the field since Oct. 10 to assess the medical situation in the area. He said the part of northern Syria where they were seized “by definition is a difficult area to go in,” and the team was traveling with armed guards.

BEHRAMPUR, India

Mass evacuations prevent widespread cyclone deaths

Mass evacuations spared India the widespread deaths many had feared from a powerful cyclone that roared ashore over the weekend, officials said Sunday, as the country sorted through the wreckage of flooded towns, tangled power lines and tens of thousands of destroyed thatch homes.

Cyclone Phailin, the strongest storm to hit India in more than a decade, destroyed hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of crops, but more than 20 hours after it made landfall in Orissa state on the country’s east coast, authorities said they knew of only 17 fatalities.

The final death toll is expected to climb further as officials reach areas of the cyclone-battered coast that remain isolated by downed communication links and blocked roads.

But the evacuation of nearly 1 million people appeared to have saved many lives.

“Damage to property is extensive,” said Amitabh Thakur, the top police officer in the Orissa district worst-hit by the cyclone. “But few lives have been lost,” he said, crediting the mass evacuations.

SIOUX FALLS, S.D.

South Dakota blizzard kills tens of thousands of cattle

Western South Dakota ranchers are reeling from the loss of tens of thousands of cattle in last weekend’s blizzard, and many will dispose of carcasses in pits set to open Monday.

Rancher Heath Ferguson said the storm killed 96 percent of his herd of 100 black Angus and Limousin cattle, a hit worth about $250,000.

He said total losses topped more than 1,000 head, as six other herds were roaming the family’s 16,000 acres east of Sturgis.

Up to 4 feet of snow fell in the Black Hills area last weekend. Reports of 20 or more inches of snow were common, and 21½ inches in Rapid City were a record for both a 24-hour period in October and the entire month.

At least two deaths were attributed to the storm, and it took a particularly heavy toll on livestock.

Ferguson said the vast majority of ranchers don’t have insurance covering storm-related damage.

“It’s cost-prohibitive for a producer,” he said Sunday in an interview with The Associated Press.

“Unless you’re a really big operator, you can’t afford to pay for the insurance,” Ferguson added.

– From news service reports