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Editorial: Federal aid for Lake Ontario flood disaster is welcome

Residents of the Lake Ontario shoreline got some welcome news this week, as the Trump administration approved a disaster declaration for an area that was torn up by spring floods. It was the right thing to do. Historic levels of rainfall this year caused terrible destruction along the lake’s south shore.

It’s well accepted that it is Washington’s job to help when natural disasters strike, whether it is a hurricane in South Texas, a spawn of tornadoes in Oklahoma or an earthquake in San Francisco. Only the federal government has the financial muscle to help put a devastated area back on its feet.

Nevertheless, an important question arises for the future as climate change exerts ever greater influence in predictably threatened areas. Knowing with near certainty that the number and severity of storms will increase and that water levels are going to rise, there needs to be a re-evaluation of taxpayers’ liability.

That rethinking may conclude that changes will range between unneeded and significant, but the inescapable fact is that those costs are going to rise and it will be necessary to delineate responsibility. That’s true whether it’s Olcott or Oyster Bay, on Long Island Sound.

Lake Ontario was inundated this year as persistent, heavy rains raised the level of this inland sea, which is a way station for water draining from the other four Great Lakes. That water then careened down the St. Lawrence River, flooding parts of Montreal Island, and put the lie to claims that the lakeshore’s misery was caused by Plan 2014, a new protocol for managing the lake’s water levels. Plainly, this was a matter of too much rainfall.

Indeed, that is the reason it was appropriate for Washington to pitch in. The disaster declaration came on Tuesday after prodding from influential officials, including Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. Collins personally lobbied President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence for the designation.

That counts for a good start on what Washington should do, but it’s only a start. The designation applies only to state, local and tribal governments, as well as some nonprofit groups, and it covers flood damage in only six counties, including Niagara.

Still under review are similar declarations for Monroe and Cayuga counties and whether individuals should benefit from government help. Our view is let’s help them. Waterfront property owners assume some obvious risks when they buy where flooding is possible, but this year’s rains were so beyond the ordinary and the damage so pervasive that the country should offer relief to all the counties and as well as to individuals.

Going forward, the question that needs to be asked is what the continuing role of government should be, given the great likelihood that climate change will produce more seasons like this one. How often should taxpayers be asked to rebuild areas that could routinely be washed away?

There won’t be an easy answer. Rising water levels affect not only areas such as Lake Ontario, where rain is the problem, but coastal cities such as New York and Miami Beach, where rising sea levels are a predicted threat.

There is also the problem of hurricanes. Should any re-evaluation also take in coastal areas that could be wiped out by these storms? They, too, are expected to become what they were this year: more frequent and more fierce. How is the nation going to protect those areas and fund their recoveries?

These are important matters to consider, since they are either upon us already or directly ahead. One approach is to prepare now for a future of rising waters, and that is another of the benefits of the administration’s disaster declaration: It makes the state eligible for federal funding for hazard mitigation projects on a cost-sharing basis.

The world is changing and the country needs to prepare for it. It also needs to help those in trouble today. Collins, Schumer and the Trump administration did well by their constituents with the federal disaster declaration.

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