Bracing against the floods


AS MENACING floodwaters of the Mississippi River slowly pull back, the debate over federal flood programs continues to rise.

There are two major elements: federal flood insurance and the approach to dealing with the threat of future flooding.

President Bush aims to reform the subsidized insurance plan that has paid out $10.5 billion since 1968. He wants to phase out coverage for repeat claimants and raise rates to reflect the history of damages.

Other changes proposed by Mr. Bush include tightening building-code requirements for new construction and requiring coverage for public buildings.

Buying up oft-threatened properties in the flood plain is another important way to reduce repeat claims. Since the record 1993 Mississippi flood, federal and state efforts have acquired 13,000 flood-prone homes and demolished them for open space.

President Bush wants the states to pay more for this program, proposing a 50-50 split instead of the current 75-25 ratio. That's unwise because it will discourage participation, which can lead to higher federal taxpayer costs down the road.

Increasing natural buffers is important, the goal of the Wetland Reserve Program that spends $160 million a year to convert farmland to marsh sinks. Sadly, Mr. Bush plans to eliminate that 16-year-old program.

Instead, the administration leans toward construction of dams and levees. Two new Corps of Engineers' projects in Missouri alone will cost $120 million. Unfortunately, they won't just protect long-existing structures, but will spur further development and create more disaster-relief liabilities.

Davenport, Iowa, is under federal pressure to build a permanent flood wall, which its citizens have rejected in favor of preserving its distinctive riverside view. That's fair enough -- if federal taxpayers don't have to keep picking up the tab for flood damages, which has happened eight times in the past four decades.

Placing the flood-insurance program on sounder footing, weeding out the multiple repeaters, is good policy. Insurance is better than a major disaster grant effort. Even more important is preventing development in the ever vulnerable flood plain.

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