After the Flood: Officials Look for New Answers

Should flood-plain areas be off-limits to settlement in the future?

RIGHT now, in Grafton, Ill., the mayor and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are discussing a plan to move the community's 918 residents to higher, safer ground - permanently.

With the wrath of the flood of '93 being felt in nine Midwestern states, Grafton is not alone. Fifty-foot river crests have left many who call the Mississippi River Valley home wondering if the benefits of living on such rich, fertile land outweigh the possibility that their homes could be destroyed by the water that surrounds it.

Last week, Rep. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois gave flood-plain residents hope by introducing a bill asking Congress to authorize a federal assessment of flood control along the upper Mississippi.

The United States Congress on Friday passed a $5.7 billion flood relief bill. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy said the disaster package gives his department $2.7 billion for disaster claim payments, and he promised to have checks in farmers' hands within two weeks of receiving the applications.

Ultimately, Representative Durbin and 13 of his congressional colleagues hope federal funds will provide a more extensive protection system for areas north of the Ohio River, similar to the one Congress constructed along the lower Mississippi after heavy flooding in 1927.

But is protection enough? Though levees, reservoirs, and dams have formed a complex infrastructure system in attempts to control the river's water levels, the past two months have taught flood victims that the weather is, above all things, unpredictable.

"Adding levees to some urban communities would have done some good but most of them already had pretty good flood protection," said Gary Duihouse, chief hydrologist with the US Army Corps of Engineers in St. Louis. "This was just too much for them."

Durbin's bill includes a provision calling for evaluation of flood-plain development. But for the people who already live there, relocation is not a viable choice, the bill's sponsors agreed.

"There's no use thinking about less population in the flood plain," says Rep. Neal Smith (D) of Iowa. "When these things happen, you can't just keep telling people they ought to move."

People should never have been allowed to live in the flood plain in the first place, says Louise Cumfert, a disaster expert at the University of Pittsburgh. "The only way to deal with the problem now is to get people and property out of there," she adds.

But, based on past responses to natural disasters, relocation is highly unlikely, says Saundra Schneider, a law professor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. "The problems evident now aren't going to be rectified six months down the line," Professor Schneider says.

Environmental groups have long decried population growth in the flood plain, charging that it has destroyed the river's wetlands and left no land to sponge up excess water. The levees constrict the river, squeezing it into man-made boundaries and "creating a false sense of security," says Kevin Doyle, president of American Rivers, a conservation group.

IF the bill passes and Congress authorizes the US Army Corps of Engineers to perform the assessment, rigid environmental laws will have to be considered in making infrastructure improvements. Yet, environmental groups tend to forget that the levee system is often effective, points out Army Corps spokesman George Halford.

"The environment is a large part of our mission, but so is protecting people," Mr. Halford says.

House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington said last week that he would appoint a commission to consider how flood protection systems can be improved to avoid another disaster of this magnitude. But, as the debate heats up in Washington, people living in the heart of the flood plain are already thinking about rebuilding on the same land they've always lived on.

"FEMA gave us a handbook telling us relocation is one of our choices," says Paul Arnold of Grafton. "But people were born here and they've always lived here. They don't want to move."

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