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Christmas Eve is a time for family traditions, and that means something a little different in St. James Parish- the Festival of Bonfires. Festival spokesperson Jason Amato says they have over 135 bonfires that are permitted, with the bulk of them in the Lutcher-Gramercy area. He says when the festival begins, there are bonfires as far as they eye can see along the banks of the Mississippi River.

“All 130 bonfires light off at 7 o’clock, which is pretty unique, and of course there’s fireworks going off and horns blaring and music playing. I guess it’s St. James Parish’s version of Mardi Gras,” Amato said.

The festival located halfway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is a Cajun Christmas staple. Amato says there’s a few stories about how the tradition got started, and locals tell people to pick the one they like best.

“One of the stories is years ago they used to build bonfires on the levee to light the way to Midnight Mass. The other version, which is the one I kind of like, is that we build the bonfires to light the way for Santa Clause,” Amato said.

Amato says they light the bonfires at 7 p.m. sharp, but he encourages spectators to be there at 5 p.m. He says while many bonfires will be the typical four post tee-pee, some will be more creative.

“We’ve had anywhere from shrimp boats to plantation homes to firetrucks. This year, there’s one that looks like a crawfish and another one that was built to honor the Cajun Navy,” Amato said.

 
 
 
 
 

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Children around the country are getting ready to keep track of Santa’s journey, with a little help from the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD. Lt. Commander Paul Noel says making sure the skies are safe over North America is part of NORAD’s mission, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

“We use the same radars, satellites, and jets that protect our homeland for a very special mission on December 24, and that’s to track Santa’s journey,” Noel said.

Noel says last year alone they had over 1,500 volunteers who came to work the 23 hours period. He says they took over 141,000 calls and emails. He says they expect the same enthusiasm this year.

“Last year, and we expect the same this year, we received over 100 calls a minute of children looking for Santa’s route and where Santa was in his yuletide journey,” Noel said.

Noel says NORAD began tracking Santa in 1955 by accident. He says there was a misprint in the paper urging children to call and talk to Santa instead connected them to the Continental Air Defense Command.

“The Watch Commander, a Col. Harry Shoup, answered that call, and he had his operators provide Santa’s location so he could report it to every child that phoned in that night,” Noel said.

Noel says families can monitor Santa’s journey through the NORAD Track Santa app or online at NORADSanta.org. He says people can also call 1-877-HI-NORAD.

 
 
 
 
 

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The holiday season is here, and unfortunately so is flu season. Dr. Frank Welch with LDH says we’re seeing a slight uptick in the number of flu cases in Louisiana.

“Over the past week, week and a half we’ve seen a fairly significant jump in the number of flu cases. We’re up about 1.5%,” Welch said.

Welch says about 4 of every 100 doctor visits is for the flu. He says public health officials are also watching for potential outbreaks of other illnesses. He says there’s a fairly large outbreak of mumps in northern Arkansas.

“Fortunately that does not seem to have affected Louisiana yet, but we’re also on the lookout for mumps, as well as several cold viruses going around,” Welch said.

Welch says illness is more prevalent this time of year because so many people stay indoors, which allows viruses to spread. He says there are ways people can avoid getting sick during the holidays.

“Make sure you go and get that flu shot, and then follow those simple rules that we all follow. Wash your hands frequently, cover your cough, and if you are sick, please try and stay away from those family gatherings,” Welch said.

 
 
 
 
 

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Only hours remain to finish up your Christmas shopping in time for the big day. LSU marketing professor Ofer Mintz doesn’t expect the stores will be too crowded today and tomorrow, and he says last minute shoppers can still find good deals.

“A lot of the good bargains have gone, but you’re lucky that there’s still some around, and there’s even going to be some around right after Christmas as well. That week in between Christmas and New Year’s there’s always good bargains there,” Mintz said.

Mintz says brick and mortar stores could see more business in these final hours before Christmas, since it’s too late to order online. He says smart retailers will use that to their advantage to draw more shoppers through the doors.

“Hopefully for us customers, you see more of these specials. You say ‘Wow I can’t believe it’s that cheap,’ and it gets you into the store, and then while you’re you say ‘Well I need these other things,’” Mintz said.

Mintz says all kinds of people will be shopping today and tomorrow, not just procrastinators. He has some advice for people heading out to fight the crowds the day before Christmas Eve.

“I’d say look for the best deals, they’re still out there. Retailers still want you to come, and there’s still a lot of availability. So I’d say don’t hesitate,” Mintz said.

 
 
 
 
 

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The year-end holiday travel period, as defined by AAA, begins today and this year is expected to reach the highest level on record. Spokesman Don Redman says more than 103 million Americans are forecast to travel today through January 2nd, a 1.5% increase over 2015.


"Christmas and New Years combined, overall adding about one and a half million more people than were traveling last year," said Redman.

Redman says increased travel this year is being driven by additional consumer spending because the labor market is improving and wages are rising. He says most people will be driving.

"Almost 91% of everyone who is going to be traveling will be traveling by vehicle," said Redman.

Redman says low gas prices and increased consumer optimism will prompt more Americans than ever to set out on road trips, take to the skies or board trains, buses and cruise ships to celebrate the holidays. He says the estimate US drivers have saved more than $27 billion at the pump so far this year.

"That was money that was going into the gas tank that is now going into other parts of the economy," said Redman. "That's why you've seen almost every holiday this year, either set records or tie previous records."
 
 

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The LSU Tigers miserably failed their final test before the start of SEC play, as Wake Forest hit 16 3-pointers in a 110-76 victory. Dinos Mitoglou hit a career-high 8 3-pointers and finished with a career-high 28 points. Mitoglou had just 9 3-pointers coming into the game.
 
Wake Forest had six players in double figures as they shot 59% from the field and 62% from 3-point territory. The Tigers gave the Demon Deacons open looks and Wake Forest took advantage.  
 
LSU shot just 40% from the field. Antonio Blakeney led the way with 21 points. He was just 1-of-5 from 3-point territory. 
 
Wake Forest started strong, scoring the first ten points. But LSU kept it close during the first half and trailed 43-38 at halftime. The Demon Deacons started the 2nd half on a 31-10 run to put the game away. 
 
The loss drops LSU's record to 8-3. They will begin SEC play on December 29th at home against Vanderbilt.  

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A Houma substitute teacher has been arrested for allegedly having sex with teenagers. Police say they received a report about sexual misconduct between 30-year-old Heidi Verret and three students.

The investigation found that Verret was having inappropriate conversations with a 12-year-old on social media. Detectives say they later found that Verret had sex with three teenagers at her home over the course of several months. The ages of the victims ranged from 15 to 16-years-old. Verret faces one count of indecent behavior with a juvenile and three counts of carnal knowledge of a juvenile. 


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The Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Office is taking part in a multi-agency investigation to bust criminals accused of robbing people after the August floods. They say, so far, a dozen suspects have been tied to multiple crimes including the case of a stolen trailer.


LPSO spokeswoman Lori Steele says the trailer was recovered in late November.

"When new owners, people who thought the purchase was aboveboard, attempted to register that trailer, obviously it came up stolen," said Steele. "Then a domino effect started to take place."

Steele says the investigation crossed parish lines, and so far, 12 people have been arrested by various law enforcement groups. She says it's incredible to see so many agencies cooperating to get these victims some answers and sentimental items recovered.

"Some involved vehicles, stolen credit cards," said Steele. "There are still lots of pieces left to be put together, but the puzzle is starting to take shape."

Steele says the very active investigation is ongoing and they anticipate more arrests will be made. She says it's important that all citizens take necessary safety precautions around this time of year.

"Lock those vehicles even if you're there, lock your home," said Steele. "Criminals will strike at any time of the day."

 
 
 

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The West Monroe High School Rebel Band has been selected to play at President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration. Band Director Robert Freeman says West Monroe was the only high school in Louisiana chosen to perform in the parade. He says it’s exciting for these students to have this once in a lifetime experience.

“This kind of unique transfer of power the United States has that makes us unique to the rest of the world is something that’s pretty unforgettable and is really something that high school kids would only get to experience once,” Freeman said.

Freeman says the band just found out they were selected Tuesday and called an emergency meeting to decide if parents would want to put up the roughly $600 it will cost for students to attend. He says they took a vote, and it was clear everyone wanted to play at this historic event.

“There will be some certainly out of pocket expenses, as well as fundraising to try to make this happen. This was a decision that we didn’t take lightly. We were honored to be accepted,” Freeman said.

Freeman says the Rebel Band will likely play a medley of Louisiana tunes that was arranged for them when the band played at President George W. Bush’s second inauguration. He says they plan to tweak the piece to make it a unique arrangement for this event.

“We’ll be using Jimmy Davis’ ‘You are my Sunshine,’ a little bit of ‘Jambalaya,’ ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,’ all kind of melded together in a musical gumbo,” Freeman said.

 
 
 
 
 

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LSU running back Leonard Fournette has received criticism from fans and those in the national media for deciding not to play in the Citrus Bowl. Tigers head coach Ed Orgeron came to Fournette's defense today by saying Leonard would still be with the team today, if his ankle was not injured.


"I think every individual case is different," Orgeron said. "Leonard's case was an injury and I know if Leonard was 100%, he would be playing with us, no question."
 
Fournette signed with an agent this week, so he can begin his professional career and prepare for the NFL draft. Orgeron insists the team has no qualms with the decision Leonard made.
 
"We wanted to give Leonard the ability to do what's best for him and his family and he felt that what's best for him and his family, so we are fine with it." 
 
Fournette missed four games this season because of an ankle injury. Stanford's Christian McCaffrey and Baylor's Shock Linwood are other high profile running backs who have decided not to play in their team's bowl game. Orgeron doesn't see this becoming a trend in college football.
 
"I do believe, myself personally that if you are 100% you gotta finish off with your team that's just way it is, but there's individuals circumstances that different for everybody, so each case is considered a different case," Orgeron said. 
 
 
 
 

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The Webster Parish Convention and Visitors Bureau is dealing with the ramifications of an adult video that was accidentally uploaded to the bureau’s Instagram account. Webster CVB Chairman Jerry Madden says the video was posted by the CVB’s Executive Director, 61-year-old Lynn Dorsey.

“We’re dealing with it as best we can. We’ll be meeting very shortly to come up with a plan of action of what we feel like is best for our parish,” Madden said.

Madden says Dorsey was staying in a Baton Rouge hotel room when the video went live Monday night. Dorsey was reportedly using an iPhone 7 purchased by the bureau. He says she says she was trying to send the video to her husband.

“Punching a wrong button, having a personal conversation or video with her husband, and it went out on the wrong media, and that’s about the gist of it,” Madden said.

Madden says the bureau will discuss and implement a new social media policy in light of the mishap. He says Dorsey called and reported what happened, and she has apologized for what she calls an honest mistake.

“It just was something between her and her husband that went out on the wrong site, and it was a horrible mistake that we’ll deal with,” Madden said.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Governor John Bel Edwards defends his brother Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff Daniel Edwards following FBI raids at both the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office and the Hammond Police Department. An FBI spokesperson says they were carrying out court ordered actions during the December 15 raids. But Edwards says he doesn’t know what the federal agents were looking for.

“I obviously don’t have much information about what they were looking for, why they chose to operate in the manner that they did. I just don’t have a clue, but I can tell you what I do have a clue about, that’s my brother Daniel,” Edwards said.

FBI agents seized computers, cellphones, and case files from both agencies in an investigation that reportedly stems from mishandling of evidence by a drug task force. Edwards says he is confident his brother had nothing to do with any crimes that may have taken place in the departments.

“Without any fear of contradiction or ever being proven wrong, I will tell you now he did not engage in anything improper, much less illegal,” Edwards said.

Two suspects who worked for the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office are reportedly facing federal charges.

 
 
 
 
 

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With Christmas this weekend, there are still thousands of flood victims that are still not in their homes, and Governor John Bel Edwards says his heart breaks for families that are displaced during the holidays. He says they are doing what they can to get them back home as quickly as possible.

“We are working extremely hard. We had the first $438 million appropriation in the CR in September, weeks after the rain stopped. That’s never happened before,” Edwards said.

Congress approved $438 million for flood recovery in September, and an additional $1.2 billion was allocated in December. Edwards says the biggest challenge with getting federal funds into the hands of those that need it, is all the federal red tape. But he says hopefully the wait is almost over for displaced flood victims.

“We believe that by March or April we will be repairing people’s homes, making permanent repairs because we’ve done some temporary repairs, which is all you can do working with FEMA,” Edwards said.

Edwards says thanks to the Shelter At Home program, more than 10,000 families were able to move back into their homes while repairs continue. He says only 400 homes in the program are left to be repaired. He says the biggest challenge they faced with the program is communicating with the public so homeowners had realistic expectations.

“You want to put people back in their homes, but when you can only do temporary repairs, they’re going to go back into a home that is not going to be fixed to the point that they would prefer,” Edwards said.

 
 
 
 
 

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Louisiana’s population has grown very little, according to the latest census data. Demographer Greg Rigamer says the nation as a whole changed more than 4% from 2010 to 2016, while the southern region changed about 6.5%. He says Louisiana saw a 3% change over the same period.

“We’re not keeping up with our peers throughout the South. So I do think you see some of that ‘out migration,’ not as much that would result in a population loss when you look at the natural inherent growth in the state,” Rigamer said.

Rigamer says in 2010, Louisiana ranked 25th in the nation for population, and we still rank 25th today. He says job loss could be pushing some working people out of the state. He says while Louisiana saw a small growth, Mississippi’s population decreased slightly.

“Mississippi is a poorer state than Louisiana. We’re pretty close to the bottom, but we’re ahead of Mississippi, so that’s not a great surprise,” Rigamer said.

The census data shows the state’s population has increased by about 12,000 residents since 2015. Rigamer says at this point it seems Louisiana’s population is in a holding pattern.

“That’s what these numbers say to me- not a great deal of change, but many other areas of the country are facing the same challenges that we are,” Rigamer said.

 
 
 
 
 

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Many Entergy Louisiana customers will see a refund on their January bills. Entergy Louisiana spokesperson Mike Burns says this is good news for everyone, as it comes just in time for the cold weather when customers will be using energy to heat their homes.

“Most Entergy Louisiana customers will be sharing a onetime refund of more than $70 million and a $9.4 million ongoing rate decrease,” Burns said.

Burns says the refund of about $40 is based on an average customer who uses about a thousand kilowatts a month. He says the refunds will appear on Entergy Louisiana customers’ January bills.

“A onetime refund of $37.73 on their January bill and a monthly rate reduction of about 43 cents,” Burns said.

Entergy customers in north Louisiana and those who live in southeast Louisiana, but not the city itself, will get the refund and the small rate reduction. Burns says the refund was approved by the Public Service Commission Wednesday. He says it allocates the $140 million cost for replacing steam generators at the Waterford 3 nuclear plant in St. Charles Parish.

“This is the result of an agreement reached between Entergy Louisiana, the LPSC staff, and customer groups,” Burns said.

 
 
 
 
 

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The ACLU of Louisiana has sent a letter to the Grant Parish Police Jury in regards to a nativity scene set up in front of the parish courthouse. Executive Director Marjorie Esman says the display only caters to one faith.

“The law is very clear that governments can’t have something like that because it really discriminates against people who are of different faiths,” Esman said.

Grant Parish District Attorney Jay Lemoine says the court house has been decorated for years with both religious and secular symbols. He says the nativity scene in front of the courthouse isn’t the only holiday decorations on display.

“There’s also garland and lights in other parts and other areas of the exterior and inside there are wreaths and a large Christmas tree and other nonreligious secular symbols,” Lemoine said.

Esman says while they aren’t recommending any specific changes to the decorations, there are several ways the parish can make the display more inclusive.

“They can make it a little more secular by adding Santa and reindeers or even a menorah, things like that they could do to make it come in compliance with the law and make it more respectful of other faiths,” Esman said.

Esman says the ACLU received a complaint from someone who sent a picture of the scene. Lemoine says they are happy to discuss the decorations in a civilized manner with anyone who has concerns, but that’s not what happened.

“There was a gentleman from out of town that was here that complained to several in the courthouse, really in quite a rude and vulgar manner at different times. He was quite hostile,” Lemoine said.

 
 
 
 
 

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Louisiana will become the first state to equip all State Troopers with body cameras. State Police Col. Mike Edmonson says they hope all troopers in the state will have body cameras before this summer. He says they plan to start rolling out the first round of body cams after the holidays.

“We’re going to do this right after the first of January. We’ll put cameras on every one of my State Troopers that are deployed in the New Orleans area in that detail. So we’ll have that up first,” Edmonson said.

Edmonson says law enforcement around the state are changing their training methods to better prepare officers for the field, and the footage from these cameras will help improve their methods. He says from a training perspective, this is a homerun.

“We can look at a State Trooper’s deployment or actions in a traffic stop. Are they in a safe position? Are they talking to the individual? How are they talking to them? This will be a continual training that we can look at,” Edmonson said.

Edmonson says tensions between law enforcement and the public have been high in Louisiana since the police shootings and ambush in Baton Rouge last summer. He hopes these new cameras will improve transparency between police and citizens.

“When we can show them videos based on a police officer’s actions, to me that’s a win situation because it shows us that we’re being transparent, we’re being honest,” Edmonson said.

The cameras will be paid for through the existing State Police budget at a cost of $5.3 million over 5 years.

 
 
 
 
 

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Governor John Bel Edwards calls 2016 a challenging year, but also very rewarding and positive as well. Edwards says he entered office and immediately addressed an unprecedented budget deficit by making cuts and raising revenues through tax increases.
 
"I would much rather be the governor presiding over a state with a surplus and come in and announce tax cuts," Edwards said. "That's not the situation I found myself in." 


Edwards says the most difficult day in office came on July 17th when a gunman shot six Baton Rouge law enforcement officers, killing three of them. He says the two historic floods were also challenging.
 
"56 of our 64 parishes declared major federal disaster areas this year, because of flooding. And the flooding in August actually resulted in the deaths of 13 individuals," Edwards said.
 
Edwards says the goals for 2017 include addressing long-term structural budget reform so that Louisiana has a fair and predictable tax structure. He says his administration also plans on tackling criminal justice reform.
 
"That will align our criminal justice practices in Louisiana with those other southern conservative states who've reduced their incarceration rates, improved public safety and saved money." 

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Michelle Southern reporting. 
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries confirms the first sighting of a wild cougar in the state since 2011. It said a trail camera picture sent to the department in November out of Morehouse Parish is authentic. Maria Davidson is LDWF's Large Carnivore Program Manager. She says this is unusual as there is no cougar population here.
 
 (photo courtesy LDWF)


"But they are by their very nature prone to long range dispersal," said Davidson. "A male cougar can and does disperse great distances. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles."

Davidson says it's not likely that this animal will remain in any one area longer than it would take to consume a kill and there is little chance the cougar would still be in Northeast Louisiana.

She says when they've documented photos like this in the past, the animal commonly can show up somewhere else very quickly.

"They can cover a couple hundred miles in just a matter of a week or two and be somewhere completely different," said Davidson. "It would surprise me if he was in the same place."

Davidson says it is quite possible that this cougar could have been photographed on other trail cameras placed at deer feeders. She says they encourage people to report any physical evidence of cougar sightings.

"We could find some scat that we might be able to collect some genetic material from that would enable us to track where that animal originated from," said Davidson.
 
 
 

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What does Amazon’s new sales tax collecting policy mean for customers? State Revenue Secretary Kimberly Robinson says not much will change. She says even though customers haven’t seen the taxes on their purchase totals, Louisiana law has always required consumers to pay taxes on items they purchase online.

“One thing I want to make sure is clear is that the use tax is already due. This is not a new tax. I don’t want anyone to start thinking the state’s put a new tax on me,” Robinson said.

Robinson says people are supposed to self-report sales taxes on their online purchases. She says lawmakers put in place methods to collect online sales taxes beginning in July of 2017. But she says Amazon has gone forward with voluntary compliance.

“We enacted two provisions during this year’s legislative session, and when we started down that path, Amazon came in, and they were willing to talk about it,” Robinson said.

The mega online retailer announced earlier this week it will collect sales taxes on purchases made in Louisiana beginning January 1st. Robinson says this means a level playing field for in-store retailers, who have been collecting state sales taxes for decades. She says it’s also good news for the state budget.

“We’ve talked for years about the amount of money the state is missing out on as a result of online purchases because everyone doesn’t realize that the use tax is do. So we should see an improvement in collections as a result of this,” Robinson said.

 
 
 
 
 
 

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