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FEMA Director Tours Davenport Devastation

Floods: Allbaugh tries to soothe hurt feelings about his comments on whether the Iowa area deserved any aid. But he refrains from promising disaster relief.

April 27, 2001|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DAVENPORT, Iowa — As the flooded Mississippi River began slowly receding Thursday, Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Joe Allbaugh toured this area: eyeing the devastation, salving feelings hurt by comments he had made earlier in the week but also suggesting federal disaster-relief policy was up for review.

Allbaugh--who infuriated Davenport residents when he wondered aloud whether they deserved federal aid because the city has been flooded several times but never has built a permanent flood wall--spent 1 1/2 hours inspecting the still-inundated town of 98,000 people. He also took a look at Moline, Ill., on the other side of the river.

Local leaders here carefully designed Allbaugh's bus tour to show him not only the damage, but also the changes they have made in recent years to mitigate problems when the water rises. Those include buying out dozens of properties in the flood plain and turning much of the riverfront into easily cleaned-up parkland.

Clearly attempting to unruffle feathers up and down the Mississippi, Allbaugh said it had become clear to him that many cities "have learned their lessons from the '93 flood. They were prepared . . . to handle this in a much better fashion." He declined to promise federal relief this time around, however, saying he had not yet reviewed a request from Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. Illinois Gov. George Ryan is planning to request federal aid as well.

Iowa state officials have reviewed six of the 10 counties affected by the flooding and placed the damage estimate so far at $4.7 million. That figure is certain to climb because there still are four counties to consider--and because the river will stay well above flood stage for several more weeks.

Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota also will continue to tally the cost of the flooding over the next several weeks, with total figures likely to rise into the tens of millions of dollars.

More than 30 counties--most in Wisconsin and Iowa--have been declared disaster areas by state officials. (In North Dakota, flooding of the Red River has caused at least $3 million in damage.)

As the crest of the Mississippi moved south of Davenport on Thursday, most communities on both sides of the river held up well. Although rains in Minnesota will send another crest downriver, the worst is almost certainly over.

President Bush dispatched Allbaugh to Davenport after a public spat with Mayor Phillip Yerington in which Allbaugh said: "How many times will the American taxpayers have to step in and take care of this flooding, which could be easily prevented by building dikes and levees?"

Yerington called the remark "insensitive" and said the city, which brings in an estimated $100 million a year from its unobstructed waterfront, is as deserving of aid as any place hit by a natural disaster.

Both men appeared entirely friendly Thursday. Both also seemed to hold their ground.

"We're not asking for anything more than our fair share when it comes to disaster cleanup," Yerington said.

"FEMA cares and FEMA will be there to help," Allbaugh pledged while adding that he did not regret his earlier remarks. "I was talking about the whole country," Allbaugh said, hinting that disaster relief may well be in for some change under the Bush administration.

The White House has suggested that it plans to alter the course set by President Clinton, shifting more cleanup and prevention responsibility to states and cutting federal spending.

Clinton's FEMA director, James Lee Witt, had managed to restore the image and clout of the once-rusting agency through quick, massive relief efforts and an easing of the bureaucratic nightmares involved in such things as applying for low-interest loans. (Although on Thursday, Vilsack said his state had just recently finished the paperwork from the devastating 1993 floods.) And Bush had high praise for the agency when Allbaugh was sworn in March 5, saying: "A lot of change is needed in Washington. But in this agency, standards are already high." He called FEMA "the federal government at its best."

Then Bush proposed cutting FEMA's budget by 20%, planning--among other things--to trim the National Flood Insurance Program. That especially irks people here, both in principle and in the plan's specifics.

Under the administration's proposal, those who file two or three claims that together are worth more than the property--and those who file four or more times in a decade--would be phased out of the program.

There now are about 10,000 people nationwide who would be allowed to file one last time before being dropped.

Davenport has endured three massive floods in eight years, people here point out, but no one could have predicted such messes. Two of the floods were considered 300-year events. Before 1993, the last serious swamping came in 1965, 28 years earlier.

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