President Clinton toured flood-damaged sections of Oregon, Washington and Idaho on Wednesday, promising speedy federal assistance to the muddy victims of the worst winter storms to hit the Pacific Northwest in 30 years.
In sunny weather that was in sharp contrast to last week’s storms, the president surveyed the damage from the jump seat of a military transport helicopter, peering down from an open hatch at long stretches of watery devastation along the Columbia and Willamette Rivers - inundated houses, smashed cars, tree-strewn streets, flooded fields and farms - the detritus of a flood disaster.
Then, dropping down on several communities, he saw the damage close-up and spoke face-to-face with flood victims, praising them for their determined efforts to clean up the devastation and make their lives whole again.
“I pledge to you that I will do everything I can to see that we move as quickly as possible to do as much as we can, everything we’re allowed to do within the law,” Clinton told residents of Woodland, Wash.
Woodland was one of the towns hit hardest by a series of winter storms that swept through in late January and early February, forcing thousands of people to flee their homes when the raging rivers swamped low-lying areas.
“Keep your spirits up,” the president urged the flood victims. “This will pass. It will get better. We’ll do everything we can.”
At least eight people died in the flooding, which in recent days has begun to abate. Emergency officials say the flood damage will probably exceed $500 million.
More than 7,000 applications for federal disaster aid have been received and are being processed.
Washington Gov. Mike Lowry, who accompanied the president on part of the aerial tour, called the flooding “clearly the most expensive natural disaster in the history of the state - at least $300 million, at least 2,600 residences lost.”
While on the ground in Woodland, on the Columbia River in southwestern Washington, the president watched as homeowners and business people worked to clear the post-flood sludge from underfoot, from walls and from furniture and other possessions.
“You always wanted to have an indoor pool, didn’t you?” he asked gently, trying to cheer up Douglas Jungnickels, the owner of a badly flooded house where waters had reached chest high last week.
Jungnickels, a retired trucker, chuckled, then turned serious. “To see you out here with ordinary people like us,” he told the president, “is going to give people faith and comfort.”
In Boise, the president said he has authorized another $4 million in disaster aid to rebuild roads and clear debris in Idaho, plus $500,000 for people left jobless.
He said he will press for supplementary funds from Congress and may temporarily exempt ravaged areas from some environmental regulations in order to speed up rebuilding.
“If you work together and keep doing what you’re doing, we’ll get through this,” he told North Idaho county commissioners, patched through from Coeur d’Alene via a speaker phone.
“We’ll do everything we can at the federal level to make you whole.”
Gov. Phil Batt detailed the estimated $100 million in damage: 146 homes destroyed; 748 seriously damaged; 65 businesses damaged; 330 miles of washed-out roads.
The numbers are nowhere near complete.
In Portland, Clinton promised that the federal government would help storm victims with the cleanup “until it is finished.”
Clinton made no estimate of how much disaster aid the federal government might ultimately funnel into flooded areas, but he said it would undoubtedly require a special congressional appropriation.
Meanwhile, he said, for starters a quick, emergency infusion of $70 million was being sent to help pay for the most urgent clean-up and repair efforts.
The Pacific Northwest is viewed by Clinton political strategists as particularly important to his re-election, especially Oregon and Washington.
The strategists believe that if Clinton can carry them, as he did in 1992, he can offset some of the losses expected elsewhere in the country, notably the South, where he may not be as strong this year as he was in 1992.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
MEMO: Changed from the Idaho edition.