- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 26, 2001

Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Joe Allbaugh brought a peaceful end yesterday to a cross-country war of words that began when he harshly criticized the city of Davenport, Iowa, over its refusal to construct a flood wall that would protect it from rising waters.
Mr. Allbaugh, who made a "constructive and cordial" phone call yesterday to angry mayor Phil Yerington, is scheduled to pay a visit today to waterlogged Davenport, where his pointed comments about the city two days ago sparked outrage among residents and local officials.
"I think that there is a point of no return," said Mr. Allbaugh on Tuesday. "I dont know if its two strikes, youre out, three strikes, youre out. But it is not fair to the American taxpayer to ask them time in and time out to pay for rebuilding. This country as a whole needs to take some steps to think about mitigation."
Davenports mayor reacted fiercely to Mr. Allbaughs comments. A fiesty former cop who was not happy about the pressure from Washington, particularly as exhausted locals battled a rising Mississippi River that crested yesterday afternoon, Mr. Yerington proved he could give as good as he got.
"We dont whine or cry when our money goes to hurricanes or those in Tornado Alley," said Mr. Yerington about Mr. Allbaughs remarks, made at a White House news conference. "We pay our share of the load, and I feel sometimes like the people in this area have been singled out and are punished just because we happen to live along the river."
With three 100-year-magnitude floods in Davenport since 1993, the city has been hard hit by Mother Nature. But its refusal to compromise the aesthetics of the river front by constructing a flood wall left Mr. Allbaugh indignant that residents were compromising American taxpayers who must foot the bill for their disaster cleanups.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says it has spent $20 billion in the past 10 years to help communities that must repair and rebuild after natural disasters. Through a nationwide program called Project Impact, introduced in 1997, FEMA has worked to help trouble-prone areas mitigate potential losses and plan for future disasters. Nearly 250 communities are involved in the project and 2,500 businesses have joined in to help them.
In Davenport, levees held as the Mississippi River crested yesterday at 22.3 feet, just short of a peak predicted at 22.5 feet. It likely will not be until May before the water recedes and damage can be assessed.
Fewer than 100 dwellings have been flooded along the citys river front, and the city has purchased 52 houses in low-lying areas, said Mr. Yerington, who defended his citys efforts at damage control and the desire of residents to live in flood-prone areas.
"I would challenge anyone from FEMA to go to them and say, 'You cant live here," the mayor said. "They will eat them alive."
Rep. Jim Leach, Iowa Republican and a Davenport native, will travel with Mr. Allbaugh today to review the flooded areas firsthand.
Mr. Leachs spokesman Bill Tate said a flood wall for the city was authorized through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1970s. During the 1980s, however, the federal government reduced its role in such projects, making them more expensive for localities. In 1984, Mr. Tate said, the city withdrew from the flood wall project because of the expense and fears it would ruin Davenports beautiful waterfront. Now it is the only community along the Mississippi River without protection from rising waters.
"In the communitys defense, there have been both private and public steps taken to mitigate the problem," Mr. Tate said. A large packing plant there paid for its own flood protection and homes and businesses have been moved away from the river in an attempt to avoid the kind of large-scale damage that occurred there in 1965 and in 1993.
"There have been significant advances in the kinds of technology that are used to create these flood barriers so they can be put up and taken down and do not block the river," Mr. Tate said.
"I think it is time and I think Mr. Leach will encourage the community in looking at these technologies and see if there is something that can provide both the protection that is needed and not completely wall the city off from the river, which is an important part of the economy and its cultural and recreational life," he said.
As Mr. Allbaugh sought to end the rift with the mayor, who called himself a hip-shooter, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union (NTU) said that the FEMA head was right to speak his mind.
"Its strong medicine but its needed medicine," said the NTUs Pete Sepp, who called for a more focused debate among residents over the true cost of living in such areas.
"The question becomes how much should a community bear for locating itself in a disaster-prone area versus how much the nation should bear for that community," he said. "It is potential natural disasters that represent one of the biggest unfunded taxpayer liabilities on the governments back."
While the federal government has been willing to bail those residents out repeatedly, states now are much more capable than they were 30 or 40 years ago of providing their share of help, he said.
The federal government could also help by providing equitable tax treatment to private insurers, especially for their catastrophic reserves, Mr. Sepp said. That would provide more affordable disaster insurance to those who live in disaster-prone areas, he said.
Fast-melting snow that coincided with heavy rain caused the Mississippi River to spill over its banks, first in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and now in Iowa and Illinois as the water flows downstream.
The river also crested yesterday 35 miles downstream from Davenport at Keithsburg, Ill. Water rose to 20.7 feet at the town of about 750 people, but town officials said their levees were in good shape.
In Iowa, at least 1,115 homes have been damaged, according to the state Emergency Management Division. Gov. Tom Vilsack made a formal request Tuesday for federal disaster aid, which could include low-interest loans, housing assistance and cleanup aid.


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