Federal disaster relief officials say they are preparing for Midwest flooding next month at least as severe as last spring's inundation of the Upper Mississippi Valley.
"We're hoping for the best but preparing for the worst," James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said on Friday.
FEMA's resources already have been strained by three major disasters in the last year: brush fires and an earthquake in California, and flooding in nine Midwestern states.
Because soil saturation in many parts of the Midwest is greater now than it was this time last year _ and covering a larger area _ there is a potential for "serious flooding," Witt said.
He stressed, however, that it is too early to predict the rate of runoff from melted snow.
"I think we're prepared as we can be for this kind of disaster," said Witt, after meeting with officials of 12 federal agencies involved in FEMA's emergency support operations and conducting a telephone conference with emergency managers from 33 states.
In addition to the flood danger in the Midwest, unusually heavy snowfall in Pennsylvania, New York and several other eastern states could cause serious flooding in the event of abruptly warmer weather.
Maj. Gen. Stanley Genega, civil works director of the Army Corps of Engineers, said 17-million sandbags have been assembled in Midwest warehouses and special task forces have been formed to manage reservoirs and capture as much water as possible to lessen the impact of runoff into rivers that normally overflow during the flood season.
Last year, some flood victims in Des Moines complained that mismanagement of a reservoir operated by the Corps of Engineers caused unnecessary flooding of some residential areas.
Genega also said that by the end of this month the Corps will have completed initial repairs to the approximately 500 levees it controls in the Upper Mississippi Valley. By then, he added, the levees should be able to handle a normal spring runoff "pretty well."
The 500 Corps levees _ out of about 2,000 in the valley _ are in areas that contained 90 percent of the homes damaged by high water last year, Genega said. However, he said many of the levees the Corps does not maintain are in disrepair.
Larry Zensinger, director of FEMA's buyout and relocation program, said that since last spring, 2,590 properties in flood plains have been approved for acquisition and their inhabitants relocated as part of the agency's flood abatement efforts.
The cost was $65.5-million, of which $38.6-million was borne by FEMA.
"This reduces the potential for flood damage to places that have been flooded three, four or five times in recent years," Zensinger said. Last year there were more than 80,000 applications for emergency housing in the Midwest flood zones.
FEMA said it has spent more than $1-billion in relief from last year's Midwest flooding, which caused an estimated $20-billion in damage, making it the worst weather disaster in U.S. history. Of the $1-billion in relief spent, $492-million was for rebuilding roads, bridges and other public infrastructure; $389-million was for individual assistance, and $130-million was for flood mitigation.
Christopher Edley, associate director of the Office of Management and Budget, told Friday's planning session that after handling three major disasters, FEMA had "established a level of credibility" that should make it easier for the administration to approach Congress for additional emergency funding if it is needed.