US Rethinks Flood-Relief Policy

Bill to provide federal support for relocation awaits President Clinton's signature

COUNT on it. The Mississippi River will flood again sometime in the future.

And like water dripping from a faucet, the many urgent public and private decisions being made now after the Midwest's biggest flood in history will shape the range of responses and changes in handling floods of the future.

The most urgent decisions now are aimed at increasing permanent relief for homes and structures damaged by the flooding. Waiting for President Clinton's signature this week is a bill approved by Congress to raise the amount of federal money available for relocation of homes and structures out of flood plains.

The bill would provide $105 million instead of the $24 million available before the flood for relocation. Most of the additional money would be shifted from other disaster funds. More than 200 towns along the Mississippi have decided they have had one flood too many. Moving all or part of a town to higher ground is their answer.

More relocation money, combined with several other existing federal programs such as Community Block Development Grants from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development and loans from the Farmers Home Administration, still won't reach the estimated $400 million the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said is needed to relocate towns.

President Clinton is expected to sign the bill first proposed by Rep. Harold Volkmer (D) of Missouri. It will raise the federal government's buyout obligation to 75 percent of the preflood value of homes, businesses, and structures. Other federal money is available to towns to provide the remaining 25 percent.

``Just about everybody who lived in the north end of town wants out,'' says Bill Anderson, mayor of Ste. Genevieve, Mo., a town of 4,500. ``Dec. 1 was the deadline for us to make application for federal funds, about $2 million to cover 145 damaged houses. If the homeowners had flood insurance, we will deduct that.''

Many other river towns don't want a complete relocation of the entire town, either, just a removal of houses and structures standing in the lowest parts of town. The abandoned land would then be used as a park or field with no structures allowed.

``It's a competitive situation out there,'' says Scott Faber, director of flood-plain programs at American Rivers in Washington, D.C. ``Much depends on the ability of local governments to put together a strong package to dip into these various pots of federal money. If you have people who know how to get federal grants, then your town might be taken care of completely.''

Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts has introduced legislation to strengthen the under-used, 25-year-old National Flood Insurance Program. What the Mississippi flood brought out into the open was a record of poor enforcement by banks and the federal government of existing federal flood-insurance mandates.

Housing mortgages obtained by homeowners anywhere on a flood plain were supposed to carry federal flood insurance. And communities were supposed to guide new development away from known areas of flooding. Fewer than 12 percent of mortgage holders complied over the last few years. Part of the Kerry bill is to ensure ``increased compliance.''

``The insurance-based model is much better than the disaster assistance model,'' says Mark Rosenberg, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute in Washington, D.C.

``With the insurance model,'' he adds, ``people at risk are paying for it as a tangible reminder they have chosen to be at risk. But the disaster model means there are uninsured losses and everyone else in the country through tax dollars pays to help those who didn't buy insurance.''

What may be the most needed federal policy reappraisal in the wake of the flooding is just beginning to get fresh attention. No federal agency currently has sole responsibility for coordinating the programs and decisions affecting the entire Mississippi and Missouri flood plains, stretching across a dozen states.

``The flood this summer,'' says Mr. Faber, ``is partly the result of the tyranny of many small decisions when so many agencies work at cross-purposes.'' An interagency study done last year by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) discovered that 27 federal agencies and departments were involved in making flood-control decisions. ``And there is no real linkage between federal programs and what states and local governments are doing,'' says Faber. One of the results of this lack of coordination of all aspects of flood control is that over the last century, as agricultural and industrial development spread, as much as 90 percent of wetlands in three states - Iowa, Missouri, and Illinois - were lost.

The Wetlands Reserve Program, part of the 1990 Farm Bill, called for 1 million acres of new wetlands. Farmers were to receive around $700 an acre plus technical assistance in the restoration process. But lack of funding kept the program to a minimum. In fact before the flooding this year, no acquisition funds had been authorized for 1993. But when the flooding occurred, and the public debate over wetlands intensified, Congress funded the wetlands program by $66 million for 1994.

Soil experts say that damage to 40 million acres of farmland during the flooding could have been worse. Mandated conservation practices, as a result of the 1985 Farm Bill, helped minimize severe erosion.

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