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N. Orleans' request: just 3 feet

The city wants homes raised a yard in case of Katrina-like flooding, but many residents can't or won't comply.

February 19, 2007|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — The idea was simple: To avoid the kind of catastrophe that followed Hurricane Katrina, people rebuilding houses in New Orleans' flood plain should raise them 3 feet.

In federal guidelines and in a comprehensive plan for the city's recovery, property owners are encouraged -- financially and rhetorically -- to rebuild higher.

But many people here are ignoring the directives either because they can't afford to comply -- the cost of raising a damaged house can top $50,000 -- or they realize they don't have to.

They discount the possibility of another Katrina, or say they will rely on the rebuilt levees to avert similar disaster.

"God let Katrina happen for a reason," said Earl Fortenberry, 73. "I don't believe he's going to let that happen again. It was a warning for us. It was a wake-up call."

Fortenberry's brick and stucco ranch home was flooded by 6 feet of water from the London Avenue canal less than a block away.

The retired transit system worker said he had used up all of his savings and $13,000 in homeowners insurance to gut his house and replace the roof, door and windows. The only resident on a street of broken pavement, dilapidated homes and bare slabs, Fortenberry lives in a trailer in his backyard while he waits for assistance from Louisiana's homeowner recovery program to complete renovations.

If the government gave him enough money to raise the house, he'd do it, Fortenberry said. "But I ain't got no money, so I'm not gonna do that." He doubted the government would provide enough.

Thousands of New Orleans homeowners like Fortenberry can ignore the guidelines, announced in April, because they obtained city building permits earlier. And properties that the city has deemed less than half damaged don't have to comply.

Urban planning experts regard this checkered adherence to the 3-foot standard with mixed feelings. It has made rebuilding slightly more affordable, but thousands of properties could be vulnerable to major flooding.

The city's latest comprehensive recovery plan -- awaiting approval by the planning commission, council members and Mayor C. Ray Nagin -- recommends incentives for raising homes.

"It is our belief that flood protection is the biggest single priority in the plan," said Darren Diamond, a partner at Henry Consulting, a New Orleans-based management consulting firm that estimated costs for the city's plan.

"There are a number of people who haven't come back, and this is their primary reason," Diamond said. "And for those who have returned, they are still spooked.

"We don't want to invest all this money and then watch it all wash away again.

"So we've got to raise our homes."

New Orleans has two primary types of houses: older structures already raised on pier foundations -- many of which are high enough --and "slab-on-grade" homes, built directly onto concrete slabs.

Homebuilders and structural engineers say elevating a house could cost well over $50,000, especially for slab-on-grade homes. Most of these would need to be demolished, then rebuilt at the new height.

Of the city's 85,000 eligible raised homes, the cost to further elevate 75% of them -- the projected program participation rate -- would be about $1.2 billion, Diamond said. Of the city's 60,000 eligible slab-on-grade homes, raising a projected half of them is expected to cost about $2.1 billion.

Funding hasn't been identified, Diamond said, but New Orleans officials hope most of the money will come from federal sources.

A spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Ronnie Simpson, said it was the city's responsibility to ensure that it issued permits only to homeowners who adhered to the federal Advisory Base Flood Elevation levels.

"We want folks to rebuild smarter and safer. That's why we put out these advisories," said Simpson, who is based in New Orleans. "We want folks to plan for the future and rebuild accordingly."

Simpson said that federal grants were available for rebuilding, and that homeowners could face higher insurance premiums if they failed to comply with the federal guidelines.

The city has determined that about 60% of 130,000 properties on New Orleans' east bank have less than 50% damage, according to Bhola Dhume, deputy director of New Orleans' Department of Safety and Permits.

Dhume rejected criticism that the city had been overly lenient in issuing building permits, stressing that there was absolutely "no hanky-panky" in the permitting process.

Tracy Florez, 34, called in an independent structural engineer after city building inspectors initially assessed the damage to her brick ranch-style slab house in the Lower 9th Ward neighborhood at 78% and refused to issue her a permit to rebuild. They determined that the property, which was completely submerged after Katrina, did not suffer irreparable structural damage.

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