Spell it Mi$$i$$ippi

August 20, 1993

As high water slowly subsides in the vast Mississippi basin and the clean-up begins in a stretch of Midwest America almost eight times the area of Maryland, the nation is gradually facing up to the costs incurred and the lessons of the Great Flood of '93. This is a mammoth calamity and it can be approached from many vantage points: political, economic, ecological or just plain human.

On the personal level, there is no getting away from the tragedies that beset the washed-out farmer, the home-owner whose dwelling is a mess of sludge, the workers suddenly jobless or the businessmen facing property and sales losses. Thousands are hurting and they need help.

But in the dry upper reaches of macro-economics, flood costs of $14 billion should be easily absorbed in a $6 trillion economy. Laura D'Andrea Tyson, chief of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, dismissed the impact as only "slightly depressive" considering that just a narrow "ribbon" of the continental land mass is affected. To which one Midwesterner remarked: "Some ribbon!"

Food prices will rise only marginally. Rail and barge traffic is moving toward normal. Emergency aid from a dozen different federal coffers (Congress approved $5.7 billion in emergency aid, with billions more to come) is flowing to flood victims.

The political task is to make sure, in the words of Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Robert Byrd, that "disasters are not spending opportunities" for legislators ever-ready to tap the federal till. Lawmakers refused to offset the new spending with cuts in existing programs. One set of Midwestern senators even tried to get Uncle Sam to increase payouts to uninsured farmers for losses they incurred back in 1991 and 1992.

The Mississippi-Missouri floods have exposed shortcomings in federal programs. Crop insurance should become mandatory; farmers are now tempted to opt out in anticipation of federal aid if emergency strikes. Congress also should examine a proposal under which a small charge on homeowners' insurance everywhere would go into an emergency fund to offset the costs of natural disasters. That could prevent knee-jerk resort to deficit spending.

On the environmental front, the nation should reexamine its techniques in trying to harness mighty rivers to make sure flood plains and wetlands are preserved or restored in sufficient volume to absorb high water. Great care should be used in assessing schemes for future dams and levees.

One bright note: the Federal Emergency Management Agency responded much more quickly to this disaster than it did to Hurricane Andrew. And there was better coordination among the host of government agencies involved. This is a sign the nation not only should learn from experience but actually can learn.

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