As High Waters Hit Midwest Again, US Government Helps to Rebuild

THE widest, deepest, longest, costliest flood in Midwest history won't dry up.

Heavy rains last week put cleanup and rebuilding efforts on hold in parts of Missouri, Kansas, and Illinois. The estimated $15 billion in physical damage will go up a notch. And now at least 30 soggy towns want to remove all or part of themselves from harm's way and relocate to high ground.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy said the federal government might buy dozens of flooded towns and convert them to wetlands. But more than 30 communities in several states are not waiting. Grafton, Ill., flooded out too many times to count, applied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for funds to relocate.

In Iowa, 15 counties want to relocate portions of towns. In Valmeyer, Ill., more than half of the 346 homes were damaged. The town voted to relocate last week. Len DeCarlo, a spokesman for FEMA, said the agency might buy out property owners there so they could move, instead of paying higher insurance claims.

President Clinton has raised the percentage of damage costs the federal government will pay. FEMA will reimburse states for 90 percent of disaster costs, up from the previous 75 percent.

All federal and private levees will be repaired and made higher, according to the US Army Corps of Engineers. The federal government pays four-fifths of repair costs.

To the Corps, the system of levees that protected many towns and property along the rivers prevented even more flooding. Virtually every privately built levee was breached, but only 10 to 15 percent of federal levees broke.

Brig. Gen. Stanley Genega, director of civil works for the Corps, says that the $25 billion spent on levees, flood walls, and reservoirs since 1937 have prevented $200 billion in flood damage.

Environmentalists say that because of the way the river has been channeled and engineered over the years, floods are more intense and frequent than before. Add all the agriculture and development in the flood plains, environmentalists say, and the result is the massive flooding of 1993. The river reasserted its natural cycle and character.

``We need to think about ways to reunite the river with its natural flood plain,'' says Scott Faber, director of flood plains for American Rivers, ``and not pay billions every 10 years or so.''

To do this the federal government would have to compensate farmers for hundreds of thousands of acres of land, and pay to relocate towns. ``I don't see the advantage of converting many acres of farmlands into wetlands and forgoing tremendous agricultural benefits,'' says Gary DyHouse, a hydrologist for the Corps in St. Louis. ``If you eliminate [just] residential development in the flood plains, you eliminate a very large percentage of the flood damages this year.''

The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) was $18 million in the hole when the floods hit. Drained of more than $300 million by damages from Hurricane Andrew and two other storms, and with $210 billion worth of policies in effect, the program needs reform.

NFIP was supposed to mandate the purchase of federal flood insurance when homes were bought in a flood plain. What happened along the Mississippi indicates a lack of enforcement. In the upper Mississippi River valley, only 18 percent of eligible properties are part of NFIP.

Federally chartered banks were supposed to mandate flood insurance, but hundreds of thousands of mortgage holders let policies lapse. Many homeowners in flood plains think floods won't hit them. Also, nearly half of all mortgages come from private mortgage companies, all exempt from the mandate.

``A portion of the population say a flood won't happen to me,'' says Marc Rosenberg of the Insurance Information Institute in Washington, D.C. ``But if it does, I won't worry; there's disaster assistance. The well-publicized presence of disaster assistance discourages the purchase of unpopular flood insurance.''

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