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Oh, What a Lovely Contrast This Time! : Federal response to flood debacle is a vast improvement

August 01, 1993

No one had to ask "Where are the feds!" when the Mississippi River overflowed, ruining crops, businesses, homes, bridges, roads and everything else in its path. To their credit, President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore have toured the devastated area and delivered help from Washington.

The President's team at the Federal Emergency Management Agency also has responded quickly and with vigor. Although FEMA director James Lee Witt has been on the job only a few months, he is scarcely new to emergency response. He directed Arkansas' office of emergency services before moving to Washington. His experience has paid off. FEMA has delivered effective emergency relief--in sharp contrast to the agency's checkered, often disappointing response after the Los Angeles riots and Hurricane Andrew.

SALVAGE JOB: More help is on the way. On Friday the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a White House request for $4.7 billion in flood aid. Washington must respond at that level to help farmers and business owners salvage what is left of their livelihoods.

Cities also need emergency grants--not loans--to repair damaged water treatment systems, sewers, bridges, streets, schools and other elements of infrastructure. The flood has burst so many local budgets that few municipalities will be able to put up the matching funds required for federal disaster aid. Washington should waive that requirement in the hardest-hit areas.

Homeowners also need help. As many as 30,000 homes have been lost to the flood despite the heroics of volunteers who have sandbagged levees and done whatever else they could to stanch the rising waters. Unfortunately, only 15% to 20% of the houses damaged by the ravaging Mississippi River were insured; in contrast, 75% to 80% of the homes in Hurricane Andrew's path were covered, putting a lot of the rebuilding expense there on insurance companies. In the Midwest, much of the task of rebuilding will fall on homeowners who have lost everything. They will need a helping hand from Washington, and from their fellow Americans.

CHARITY FACTOR: The President recognizes that the federal government, constrained by swollen federal deficits and the nation's competing needs, cannot do everything. During a recent telethon, he urged Americans to reach into their pockets. Neighbor helping neighbor is an American tradition. More than a dozen charities, led by the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund and the Salvation Army, are funneling donations to the flood zones.

The floods have killed 43 people and caused more than $10 billion in damage in eight states. Those figure could grow because, after two months, the flooding continues.

After the waters finally recede, Washington will need to decide what levees to refinance, what dams to rebuild. Those decisions can be made later, after all flood victims have food, drinking water and shelter.

Washington has more work to do to provide lasting relief and to encourage reconstruction along the Mississippi. But President Clinton and FEMA deserve credit for a swift and steady response to this national emergency.

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