Damage to Crops May Cost Farmers $1 Billion, Espy Says : Relief: Agriculture secretary maintains it is too soon to gauge flood's effect on food prices. Gore says White House may overhaul disaster response.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Flooding in the Midwest could cost farmers more than $1 billion in lost crops this year, Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy warned Sunday as the Administration said it was considering changing the way the government responds to natural disasters.

Appearing on ABC-TV's "This Week With David Brinkley," Espy said it is too soon to determine what effect the flooding will have on food prices.

"We think there will be some impact, but it's too early to tell because a lot of farmers have carry-over stocks (from last year) that they'll be able to sell at a much higher price," he said.

Espy said the damage is broad and severe: "Millions of acres of unplanted soybeans, additional millions of acres of stunted corn. And we think that the (crop) yields that we will accrue will be nothing like we would expect otherwise."

The federal government is now preparing to respond with emergency assistance both to farmers and others victimized by the flooding, Administration officials said Sunday.

Vice President Al Gore, who plans to tour the flooded areas today, said the White House is looking into ways to provide quicker relief to disaster victims.

"We're looking at an overhaul of the whole disaster-response program of the federal government," Gore said on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press."

He noted, for instance, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has stationed experts from the Agriculture Department at its field centers and that an toll-free telephone number has been set up for farmers to call, giving them easier access to federal services.

Gore wouldn't say exactly how much money the federal government plans to provide for flood relief. He said the Office of Management and Budget is still working on aid recommendations to present to President Clinton.

"But we will respond, and the terms will be similar to those that were applied when the response to the victims of Hurricane Andrew was forthcoming," he said.

Critics have questioned whether the federal government is organized properly to quickly deal with natural disasters. FEMA, which is supposed to be the lead agency in such matters, has been the target of heavy criticism for its slow response to Hurricane Andrew in Florida last year.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees FEMA, called for a reorganization of that troubled agency.

On CBS-TV's "Face the Nation," Mikulski said she wants to overhaul FEMA to "get rid of the political hacks, make it an all-hazards agency and get it ready for what the 21st Century needs."

She noted that FEMA is still operating under a "Cold War framework" in which more of its money goes for civil-defense preparations than into programs that will help during natural disasters.

Mikulski said she has introduced legislation to "bring down the wall (within FEMA) between the civil-defense secret stuff and the programs that affect ordinary people."

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