Too Much of a Good Thing

July 15, 1993

Americans associate the fragility of urban life with the great cities on the edges: the New York blackout, the San Francisco earthquake, the Big One coming to Los Angeles. The violence of nature comes from without: the tropical storm roaring toward Florida. The main problem with water is its absence in the great Western desert. What the Middle American corn-belt worries about in midsummer is drought.

Water is the earth's most precious commodity. The Mississippi drainage area is a fortunate part of the world. Des Moines is the nation's 94th-ranking metropolitan area with fewer than 400,000 souls, close to nature, where people feel secure. Catastrophic flooding is what happens in Bangladesh.

The disaster that brought President Clinton from the Hawaiian beaches to the heartland ends those comfortable stereotypes. More than 100 miles from the mighty Mississippi or Missouri, Des Moines fell victim to the raging Raccoon River and others no more famous. The Army Corps of Engineers' pacification of the Mississippi below the Ohio would have been unthinkable for every minor tributary above. And so New Orleans is safe, apparently, while Des Moines is swamped by waters that mingle its drinking supply with its sewage.

Nature stays ahead of those who take it for granted. The flooding from the rains hitting the Upper Midwest menaces health, destroys crops, knocks out economic life, isolates and strands, tarnishes and sullies.

President Clinton responded with vigor. The much-maligned Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) stands ordered to cut the red tape and respond to distressed people and businesses more effectively than after Hurricane Andrew.

The request for $2.48 billion in flood assistance the White House submitted to Congress involves FEMA, the Department of Agriculture, Federal Highway Administration, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Commerce Department, Small Business Administration and Army Corps of Engineers. Mr. Clinton is staking his reputation on how well they cooperate to get the job done.

The flood will not damage the country economically nearly so much as Hurricane Andrew did along the southeastern coasts. Many farmers have lost their crop for the year, but the nation has not. The greatest danger is to public health. Efficient emergency management appears to diminish that. But for those who lose their worldly wealth, their dreams or their lives, the flood is a catastrophe.

At its best, the flooding has made neighbors of strangers, brought untold acts of selflessness and heroism and cooperation in the sand-bagging brigades, the radio stations, the boat ambulances. An emergency brings out the best more often than the worst in people. There is that consolation.

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