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Penny-wise, flood-foolish

April 08, 1997

Even though the federal government spent more $12 million in West Virginia alone last month to help the victims of flooding, President Clinton has proposed saving $1.21 million in his 1988 budget by eliminating 200 river gauges on rivers around the nation. If this isn't a case of penny-wise and pound-foolish, we'd like to know what is.

In the past seven years, 360 gauges were eliminated nationwide, and the next round will begin Oct. 1, if the Congress acts favorably on the president's proposal.

Is the president stupid? Doesn't he know, as American Society of Civil Engineers' President Edward Groff told The Associated Press, that without such monitoring, the nation would "experience increased losses from floods" in both life and property?

No, the president (or whoever wrote this budget line for him) is not stupid. Call us cynical, but as we look at the facts - a steady pattern of increased upstream development leading to increased downstream flooding - we believe that the executive branch knows very well how necessary such devices are.

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Executive branch officials must know, for example, that between 1989 and 1994 the Federal Emergency Management Administration spent $6.5 billion for the repair of roads, bridges and public buildings damaged by floods. The feds know what the problem is and are aware that the gauges are part of a vital early-warning system. They just doesn't want to pay for them, and hope that the states will do so instead.

Rep. Bob Wise, D-W.Va., says he'd like FEMA to use his state as a pilot for a flood-prevention program that would eventually reduce costs by paying people to move out of flood-prone areas.

That's one part of a necessary strategy, but deciding who's eligible and how the value of the property will be determined for relocation purposes will take time. In the meantime, it's vital that Wise and other members of Congress whose states are prone to flooding see to it that the river gauges remain in place. Isn't it cheaper to warn people to get out of harm's way than to pay them after the damage has been done?

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