WATERLOGGED Des Moines served as host for a two-day flood-relief conference last week. Officials gathered from nine Midwest states affected by this summer's historic flooding.
Henry Cisneros, United States secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), organized the "flood summit," which was also attended by Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy and James Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The focus, Secretary Cisneros says, was "on how to get people back into their homes."
At least 45,000 houses were destroyed by the flood, and 80,000 citizens were displaced. On Thursday, the first day of the conference, Cisneros distributed $125 million in federal aid. That is about half of the money Congress appropriated to HUD for flood recovery. The rest will be released when final damage estimates are in. "We're talking about a month or so," Cisneros says.
HUD has waived the 25 percent state and local matching requirements for this aid, but officials in the Midwest are still waiting to hear if FEMA will waive those fees. About $100 million is at stake for local governments.
"The president will make a decision on the waiver soon," Secretary Espy said Thursday. "I'd be very surprised if he doesn't do it [waive the matching requirement]."
During the flood summit, Espy discussed the idea of buying some flooded towns or leasing farmland along river banks instead of rebuilding levees. This proposal is being studied by a multiagency government group, headed by the Army Corps of Engineers. Victims frustrated
During a public forum, some frustrated flood victims spoke their minds and tried to get some answers. Cisneros, who sported a necktie with houses on it, listened patiently to the often heartbreaking stories of loss and the subsequent confusion in dealing with local officials.
A farmer from outside Des Moines told of losing the farmhouse that had been in his family for generations. "My mom and dad were married in the archway, and there were flood waters in it the year I was born," he said.
Water stood in the house for two weeks this time. Local officials offered the farmer a loan, but he declined it. "There's no way I was going to sign for $30,000 or $40,000 of borrowed money, and then have the house flood again. We're starting over."
Rodd Marquis, who lives in a flooded section of Des Moines, stood up to question the amounts of money being distributed by FEMA. "They gave $9,000 to one family that had insurance and jobs, but a woman on Social Security only got $800 even though the damage was the same," Mr. Marquis said. "There are so many discrepancies."
Cisneros listened attentively and tried to match up citizens and local officials attending the meeting. But some flood victims were not impressed. "They're trying to tell us what we want to hear," Marquis said.
With school starting this week, many families are struggling to gain some stability. "There are a lot of logistical nightmares just to get the kids to school, " says Janice Kuhl, who oversees the Des Moines public schools counseling program. "We're consulting with parents and teachers on how to cope with it all." Still more rain
Another deluge over the weekend caused hundreds of evacuations in Des Moines. Ten inches of rain sent crews scrambling to secure the levee around the city's water-treatment plant, which was shut down for 12 days during the height of the flood last month.
Before the latest rains, workers were replacing the levee's sandbag topping with 5-1/2 feet of clay and soil, creating a small mountain around the water-works building.
The ground is so saturated in the region that downpours turn streets into rivers. Flash flooding has interrupted the cleanup efforts and restarted sandbag teams. The American Red Cross opened three shelters on Sunday.
"We're not quite out of the woods yet," says National Weather Service forecaster Dan Smith.