WASHINGTON (AP) _ Officials at the federal disaster-relief agency that was criticized last year for not responding quickly enough to Hurricane Andrew insist they're doing better now.

James Lee Witt, the Arkansan now heading the Federal Emergency Management Agency, promised swift and compassionate aid to victims of the widespread and devastating flooding in the Midwest.

Witt told reporters Wednesday that he and other officials were moved by the suffering they saw while inspecting the hard-hit areas.

''This is a tragic situation,'' said Witt, who toured Wisconsin over the weekend. ''I talked to several victims that lost everything they had because they're homes were terribly damaged by the water.''

Witt took over as FEMA director in April after President Clinton nominated him as man who would revitalize the agency. FEMA had been criticized in Congress and elsewhere for spending much of its $12.5 billion budget over the last decade preparing secret plans in case of nuclear attack while neglecting prompt responses to natural disasters.

Witt headed emergency services for Arkansas when Clinton was governor of the state.

FEMA officials couldn't say Wednesday how much aid they expected to deliver because damage estimates were still coming in.

But officials in parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota - so far the only areas declared eligible for disaster relief - estimate damage at about $11.5 million, said Richard Krimm, acting associate director of FEMA.

Losses suffered by farmers unable to plant their crops have already hit the $1 billion mark, said Bruce Weber, acting administrator of the Agriculture Department's Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service. He said damage to crops already in the ground has not been estimated.

Damage estimates are expected to go much higher as flooding continues in Illinois, which asked Clinton for a disaster declaration late Tuesday, as well as Iowa, Missouri and South Dakota, where federal inspectors are assessing damage.

''As I looked through my information this morning, I saw a very rare event,'' said John Elmore, chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' operations and readiness division. ''In fact, I have never seen such a broad area in which flooding is going on. Almost all of the upper Midwest now has some flooding.''

The Mississippi River from St. Paul, Minn., to St. Louis probably will remain closed to barge and other traffic until at least July 25, Elmore said.

FEMA provides grants and low-interest loans, disaster unemployment benefits and temporary housing to individuals who have suffered losses. The agency also will rebuild public works, reconstruct buildings and remove debris from public areas.

The Agriculture Department said Tuesday it will make low-interest loans available to affected farmers.

As the damages rise throughout the region, FEMA expects to ask Congress for more money to pay all claims, Krimm said. FEMA still is paying for damage caused by such 1992 disasters as Hurricane Andrew, which struck Florida and Louisiana, and by Hurricane Iniki, which hit Hawaii.

Portage, Wis., Mayor Jerry Kutzke said he had no complaints about FEMA so far.

''I would imagine it will take some time to get some help, but I can't criticize them,'' Kutzke said. ''Our's was minimal damage compared to a lot of other places in Wisconsin, and in the South.''

Most flooding damage caused by the Wisconsin River amounted to flooded basements, he said.