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President Seeks Flood Relief Funds

Disaster: Clinton wants $907 million to help ravaged areas. The money would help cover cleanup, loans, levee maintenance and repairs at such places as Yosemite.


WASHINGTON — President Clinton on Wednesday unveiled a request of $907 million in emergency disaster relief for flood-ravaged parts of California, and key lawmakers promptly called upon Congress to approve the funds without delay.

The California funds would make up nearly half of a $2-billion national disaster relief package that Clinton submitted to Congress as an emergency supplemental spending bill.

Proposing the money as emergency funds makes passage easier because it frees Congress from budget rules that would otherwise require legislators to offset the new spending with cuts in other parts of the federal budget.

"This is great news for California," said Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento), whose Northern California district was wracked by recent floods.

The emergency supplemental bill will first be considered by the House Appropriations Committee, where Fazio is a senior Democrat.

The money would help cover cleanup costs and government reconstruction loans as well as emergency levee maintenance and repair. It includes $176 million for Yosemite National Park--matching amounts that park officials had estimated were needed to repair campgrounds and other facilities.

"Many Californians are putting their homes, their businesses and their lives back together," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). "At critical times like these, it is important that Americans pull together to support one another."

Alluding to a prevailing Washington sentiment that California gets more than its share of federal assistance, lawmakers from the state have been hammering the point that California should not be neglected in its time of need.

"We can't let regional differences and parochial interests defeat this relief effort," Fazio said. "This bill would provide relief for a number of communities throughout the country that have been tragically affected by natural disasters in recent months."

The bill would also finance efforts to fix damage from severe winter weather elsewhere in the West, tornadoes in the middle of the nation and flooding in the Midwest.

In California, the money would include $208 million for repair of roads and bridges by the U.S. Department of Transportation, $21 million to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for relief to farmers, and $5.5 million to the U.S. Department of Commerce's fish hatcheries programs.

After last fall's election, some state officials had worried that California might be neglected by the administration now that Clinton no longer needs to worry about reelection and the state's 54 electoral votes. Those fears were intensified by the departure of several high-ranking Californians from Clinton's staff.

But the disaster relief request seemed to allay some of those fears. "Californians in Washington should be encouraged by the fact that the administration is paying this attention to our disaster-ravaged state," said Tim Ransdell of the California Institute, a Washington think tank.

Meanwhile, the director of civil works for the Army Corps of Engineers, Maj. Gen. Russell Fuhrman, told a House committee that the corps hopes to complete repairs to the state's levees by November, but he warned that over the "longer term . . . in many cases the wisest choice is not to rebuild what was there before, to place it once again in the path of the next flood, but to perhaps move development out of the flood plain."

The engineers will decide on replacing levees after having "fully considered a range of alternatives," Fuhrman added.

The corps has estimated that in addition to $200 million needed to restore the state's river systems to pre-flood conditions, an additional $350 million is required to upgrade 200 miles of levees and stream beds. Without that reinforcement, the corps has said, a storm as powerful as the last one could again wreak flood havoc throughout Central California.

With damage estimates still mounting, state officials have placed losses from this winter's floods at $1.8 billion, with damage spread over the 300-square-mile area that was inundated by the January deluge.

More than 23,000 homes and 2,000 businesses were damaged or destroyed, and eight people died from torrents bursting through river levees on the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems.

"This flood was as large as any flood in California's history," said Tom Mullins, spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Services. "It will take enormous resources, in dollars, to repair the damage."

To date, aid has gone to victims mainly in the form of temporary housing funds as well as loans and grants provided by the federal Small Business Administration to repair uninsured homes and businesses, Mullins said.

Fiore reported from Washington and Vanzi from Sacramento.

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