BY PAUL BARTON
Enquirer Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - At first glance, helping regions recover from natural disasters would appear to be an issue safe from controversy in Congress.
As the cumulative price tag for the suffering nature has brought in the 1990s grows, questions mount about whether the money is being spent wisely.
A string of floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes and other calamities has hammered the nation with an unprecedented amount of property damage, as well as considerable human tragedy. This year the story has been the devastating floods along the Ohio River and in the Upper Midwest, as well as tornadoes in Arkansas and other states.
So far in 1997, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the main source of federal disaster assistance, has allocated $69 million to help with flooding in Kentucky, $39 million for Ohio and $14 million for Indiana.
Year after year, the disasters have resulted in a continual demand in Congress for special spending bills to deal with them. From 1986-1996, FEMA dispensed more than $18.5 billion in disaster assistance.
And the number of presidentially declared disasters keeps growing, jumping from 29 in fiscal year 1995 to 72 in 1996.
This year, a $5.5 billion disaster-relief bill remains stalled in the Senate.
Final action on this year's bill has been held up until next week, when the House is expected to pass its version also.
The bill got bogged down as the Republican majority, instead of dealing with disaster relief as a separate issue, sought to combine it with controversial measures to prevent future government shutdowns and change Census Bureau sampling techniques for the year 2000. The attachments to the bill have outraged Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio. To hold up legislation "when people are hurting and suffering and kids are out of school and the houses have been destroyed, is something that I just find unconscionable," Mr. Glenn said.
Some think Congress should do a better job of planning so that it doesn't have to draft a special bill each time a disaster occurs. "It ought to be budgeted," said Rep. John Boehner, of West Chester, the chairman of the House Republican Conference.
"Every year there is going to be a natural disaster somewhere in the country and we ought to budget for them."
FEMA provides three main types of assistance to help after events such as this year's floods:
Individual assistance grants for housing repair and temporary shelter, as well as disaster unemployment assistance and crisis counseling.
Public assistance to state and local governments to help with the rebuilding of infrastructure and public facilities.
Hazard mitigation funds to help local areas rebuild in a way that will make them better able to withstand future disasters. For flooded areas, hazard mitigation means trying to elevate homes and buildings or at least the appliances within them.
As the cost of disasters continues to grow, FEMA officials say they plan to put increasing emphasis on mitigation efforts.
They contend that was one of the main lessons of the widespread Mississippi River flooding of 1993.
"Many people are living in harm's way," said Vallee Bunting, director of emergency information for the agency.
The question of whether people should be living in flood plains "is an issue that is going to be getting increasing scrutiny," she said, adding that FEMA officials don't feel it is right for American taxpayers "to repay the same disaster costs for the same towns year after year."
The agency already requires that communities devastated by floods enlist in a national flood insurance program so that residents can get flood insurance.
If a homeowner refuses to participate in a flood insurance program and gets flooded out again, FEMA assistance will be more limited the second time, Ms. Bunting said.
"They would not be eligible for further federal assistance, except humanitarian assistance, such as temporary housing to move people out of danger," she said.
Meanwhile, a growing number in Congress question the way FEMA distributes aid.
Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, questions whether FEMA applies the same rules for assistance in every state, especially in regard to requirements for local matching funds.
"It's a little bit too subjective," he said of disaster assistance. "What I get complaints about is, 'We were wiped out in our community. Why do we have a different standard applied just because the president goes and visits the Dakotas.' "
Similarly, a 1996 General Accounting Office study found "decisions made in determining eligibility following one disaster are not . . . codified or disseminated to FEMA personnel to serve as a precedent in subsequent disasters."
But Ms. Bunting insisted the agency does apply assistance eligibility criteria consistently.
"We do not have the luxury of setting up criteria for one state that would not be (available) to another state," she said.