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Iowa's Katrina? Not if state does its part

Many Minnesota hearts ached in recent days as swollen rivers in eastern Iowa swallowed hometowns, old haunts and other Hawkeye State places they know well.

The toll is huge: Beautiful Cedar Rapids, a city that trusted its namesake river so well that it built its City Hall on an island, saw every downtown street submerged and a major hospital closed. The homes of 26,000 people -- 20 percent of its residents -- were flooded.

Water lapped at the stage at the iconic Hancher Auditorium at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. The Iowa River invaded 16 buildings, one-eighth of the big campus. Some 5,000 Iowa City residents were forced out of their homes.

In small towns with sweet names -- Vinton, Coralville, Palo, Columbus Junction -- ducks paddled past street signs and beleaguered homeowners discarded family treasures ruined by mud. Aerial views showed ponds and lakes where corn and soybeans should grow.

Floodwaters were receding Monday in those places, but still rising downstream in what is being called the worst natural disaster in Iowa's history. Five deaths were being attributed to high water -- a sad but remarkably small death toll for devastation whose cost is sure to run into the billions of dollars.

Paying for recovery is not a challenge for today. The basics -- restoring electricity and potable water; feeding, clothing and sheltering the homeless; seeing to security -- are worry enough now. Minnesotans can help their neighbors to the south -- and those to the east as Wisconsin copes with its own devastating floods -- meet those immediate needs with donations to the American Red Cross (www.redcross.org) or the Salvation Army (www.salvation armyusa.org).

But soon, Iowans will need to reckon with the cost of restoring normalcy to their lives. They will also have to rethink the adequacy of high-water defense mechanisms, now that their rivers have shown a destructive capacity beyond previous imagining.

Iowa Gov. Chet Culver said the right thing Monday: He expects to summon legislators into special session to marshal state resources to help pay for recovery.

As Minnesotans saw when record rain smashed their state's southeastern corner last summer, state government has a crucial role to play in recovery. Most federal aid comes with local matching requirements attached. Expecting municipalities that just lost a big share of their property tax bases to come up with matching funds on their own is asking too much.

On Friday, one Iowa legislator was already ruling out raising taxes for flood relief. With damage tallies weeks away and water still rising, that kind of preemption is almost recklessly premature. Some observers last weekend were calling this flood "Iowa's Katrina." The comparison with the crippling blow New Orleans sustained in 2005 is chilling. Unless state government does its part, the comparison will also be apt. -- Minneapolis Star Tribune

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