Louisiana population rebound

is post-Katrina bright spot

WASHINGTON - Louisiana appears to be rebounding from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, gaining 50,000 residents in the year ending July 1, according to Census Bureau population estimates released today.

After the storm hit in August 2005, the bureau estimated the state lost 250,000 residents. Despite the most recent gain, the state is far from returning to its pre-Katrina population level of 4.5 million.

Nevada regained the title of fastest-growing state, having increased in population by 2.9 percent to 2.6 million. Nevada had held that title for 19 years in a row before being bumped off by Arizona last year. Arizona is the second-fastest-growing state, according to the current estimate.

Only two states lost population. Michigan's population dipped by three-tenths of a percent and Rhode Island saw a decrease of four-tenths of a percent.

Cops: Marine was taking teen back to Camp Lejune with him

PITTSBURGH - A Marine traveled to Pittsburgh for a Christmas Eve encounter with a 13-year-old girl he had met online, authorities charged.

Lance Cpl. Johnathan Plaisance, 20, was arrested Christmas Day in Harrisburg after the girl's parents reported her missing.

Plaisance had been communicating online with the girl for several months and brought her a diamond engagement ring, police said. He may have thought she was 15, police Cmdr. Thomas Stangrecki said.

The pair stayed at a motel before boarding a bus to North Carolina, where Plaisance is on active duty at Camp Lej eune, police said.

Police traced the relationship after examining the family computer and the girl's account on the MySpace social networking Web site, Stangrecki said. FBI agents joined the case and helped track them to a bus station in Harrisburg where police arrested Plaisance on Tuesday night.

Texas girl riding new bike

struck, killed on Christmas

SAN ANTONIO - A 7-year-old girl was struck and killed by a pickup truck while riding her new bicycle in front of her home on Christmas morning, police and family members said.

Jacueline Solis rode the pink and purple bike into the truck's path as it accelerated from a stop at an intersection, police Sgt. Charlie Delgado said. Jacueline, who got the bike as a Christmas gift, died at the scene.

The driver was not speeding and won't face criminal charges, police said.

"She was only supposed to ride on the sidewalk," said Maria Guerra, Jacueline's aunt.

More than 50 people held a candlelight vigil in Jacueline's memory Tuesday evening. "She was just out caroling up and down this street last night," said Raul Guerra, the uncle of the girl's father.

Trouble with F-15 fighter jets putting strain on air defense

FRESNO, Calif. - The grounding of hundreds of F-15s is straining the nation's air defense network, forcing some states to rely on their neighbors' fighter jets for protection, and Alaska to depend on the Canadian military.

The F-15 is the sole fighter at many of the 16 or so "alert" sites around the country, where planes and pilots stand ready to take off at a moment's notice to intercept hijacked airliners, Cessnas that wander into protected airspace, and other threats.

The Air Force grounded about 450 F-15s after one of the fighters began to break apart in the air and crashed Nov. 2 in Missouri. An Air Force investigation found "possible fleet-wide airworthiness problems" because of defects in the metal rails that hold the fuselage together.

Compounding the problem, another fighter jet used for homeland defense, the F-16, is in high demand for Iraq operations. And the next-generation fighter, the F-22 Raptor, is only slowly replacing the aging F-15.

But air defenses have not been compromised, said Mike Strickler, a spokesman with North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, which is operated by the U.S. and Canada. "We can be anywhere at any time," he said.

Tanked on Christmas Eve

DES MOINES, Iowa - Robert Schoff, 77, spent part of Christmas Eve stuck upside down in the opening of his septic tank, with his head inside and his feet kicking in the air above. "It wasn't good, I'll tell you what," Schoff said Tuesday. "It was the worst Christmas Eve I've ever had."

Schoff reached into the tank Monday in an effort to find a clog, but he lost his balance and got wedged into the opening. Schoff hollered and screamed for help, but it was an hour before his wife, Toni, walked by a window and saw his feet in the air.

She called 911 and two Polk County sheriff's deputies yanked her husband out of the tank. *

- Daily News wire services