WASHINGTON — THE cogs and gears of the federal disaster-relief machinery are beginning to turn as the Midwest experiences one of the worst floods to hit the United States this century.
The Mississippi River, more than two miles out of its banks, is closed for navigation from St. Louis to St. Paul, Minn. The upper Midwest has been hardest hit so far, with 14 deaths and more than $1 billion in crop damage. Rains late in the week have made the situation worse in Missouri, Iowa, and other states, where thousands of residents have been evacuated from their homes. "I have never seen such a broad area in which flooding is going on," says John Elmore of the US Army Corps of Engineers.
[President Clinton said yesterday he will ask Congress to approve emergency money to help Midwest farmers, Reuters reports. In a radio address broadcast from Tokyo, where the president is attending this week's meeting of the leaders of the Group of Seven industrial nations, Mr. Clinton said he was keeping in touch with federal officials in Washington through Vice President Al Gore Jr., who is taking charge of the federal relief effort.
["My direction to them is simple, urgent, and clear," Clinton said. "All federal agencies delivering services to you must coordinate their actions. Teamwork is the order of the day."]
Clinton has already issued federal disaster declarations in two states - Wisconsin and Minnesota. Gov. Jim Edgar (R) of Illinois asked on July 6 that his state be added to the list, and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (D) is expected to follow suit soon. Clinton is expected to act quickly on those requests.
Once the president declares a major disaster, an official is appointed to coordinate all federal aid to the stricken areas, and field offices are set up to administer claims. The first disaster-relief office opened yesterday in Eau Claire, Wis. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also announced a toll-free hotline that flood victims can call to get the ball rolling for federal assistance - 1-800-462-9029.
The first level of federal aid is provided to flood-insurance policyholders. But only 14,900 homes, or about 20 percent of the total, have flood insurance in the areas battered by raging waters, says Jim Taylor of the US Flood Insurance Administration.
Homeowners who don't have flood insurance may quality for low-interest, long-term loans from the Small Business Administration or the Farmers Home Administration.Besides aid for individuals, the FEMA grants assistance to local governments to help them rebuild infrastructure damaged by disasters. The agency, for example, will pay up to 75 percent of the cost of debris-removal and provide grants to repair damaged public schools.
FEMA has a disaster-relief fund that it can draw on to provide aid. But with the agency still paying off damages from Hurricanes Andrew and Iniki, the fund has run low this year. As a result, Richard Krimm, the agency's associate director, says FEMA will ask Congress for an emergency appropriation to pay off the cost of the Midwest flood.