Acknowledging the damage wrought by El Nino in California, the Senate has agreed on a disaster assistance fund containing $190 million for the state's storm-torn roads, levees, farms and military facilities.
The disaster aid, expected to win final Senate approval sometime today, is included in a catch-all emergency spending measure that also underwrites the deployment of military personnel in Bosnia and the Persian Gulf. The bill will be taken up by the House next week.
The disaster assistance has been eagerly awaited in California, where El Nino-related storms have caused an estimated $500 million in damage and prompted disaster declarations in 41 of 58 counties.
And the rain continues.
"This is not over," said Fred Messick, spokesman for the governor's Office of Emergency Services in Sacramento. "It's still raining."
Nonetheless, 1998 has been a relatively mild year for the state. Past floods, fires, ice storms and earthquakes have regularly put California's annual disaster damage toll well above $1 billion.
The new federal funding would expedite rehabilitation projects ranging from Sacramento's washed-out Suisun Marsh levee to San Diego's battered Interstate 15.
"Californians who have been devastated by this year's floods are in desperate need of resources to restore and rebuild their roads, their homes, their businesses and their lives," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
Boxer won Senate approval of an amendment that would waive a $100-million annual cap for each state's emergency highway money. California will exceed that limit by $26 million because of heavy damage to freeways and local roads caused by the record-setting rainfall.
Among the hardest-hit roadways are California 1 in Monterey and in Ventura County, Interstate 15 in San Diego, and California 25 in San Benito County, all of which suffered significant damage from flooding.
Part of the disaster aid would go to California agriculture, which has been severely affected by the storms. Among the most heavily damaged crops, according to state officials, have been strawberries, alfalfa, wheat and celery. Ranchers have lost an estimated 2,400 milk cows, 54,000 chickens and other poultry and 250 sheep, according to state estimates.
The disaster bill earmarks $2 million in emergency loans for California farmers and ranchers, $2.4 million for lost milk production and cattle and $3.1 million for damage to watersheds.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would receive $25 million to clear and maintain navigational channels in Marina del Rey, Port Hueneme in Ventura County, Oceanside Harbor in San Diego and other California sites.
Additional funds would go toward repairing national parks and wildlife refuges.
Among the most needy sites is the still-closed Pinnacles National Monument in the Salinas Valley, which would receive $1.5 million to rebuild bridges, trails and parking lots. Also heavily damaged is the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which needs new roads, levees, fences and water systems.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which provides aid to homeowners and businesses, would receive $1.6 billion to restore disaster accounts depleted in recent months and pay for any damage through the 1998 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
The wide range of disasters covered in the bill--ice storms in the Northeast, tornadoes in the Southeast, flooding in the West, a typhoon in Guam--has generated strong support for the measure in both houses of Congress.
Even so, some lawmakers have grumbled about the spiraling cost of cleaning up after storms and natural disasters, and there is growing interest in revamping the impromptu way that the federal government handles disaster relief.
"This body has been very generous . . . and we have opened the floodgates," said Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), chairman of the subcommittee where funding originates for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "For the future, we ought to limit the disaster aid to those truly in need . . . those who cannot help themselves."
Also included in the bill is nearly $2 billion that would fund the U.S. troop presence in Bosnia and the Middle East. Some senators criticized the outlays because of the open-ended nature of the deployments.
In the House, the Appropriations Committee approved an amendment this week that would ensure that none of the Persian Gulf funds can be used for "the conduct of offensive operations by United States Armed Forces against Iraq."
Unlike their Senate colleagues, House appropriators identified cuts in the budget to cover the emergency spending--including $250 million from Clinton's Americorps program and $1.9 billion from housing programs.
* COMMUTING NIGHTMARE: When it rains even a little on Los Angeles roadways, driving frustrations pour. B1