Post-Katrina Rebuilders Hug Ground, Trust Levees

Leonard McKeel, left, and Edward Dorsey repair the roof of a house in New Orleans's Ninth Ward. Many residents are rebuilding their homes where they sat before Hurricane Katrina.
Leonard McKeel, left, and Edward Dorsey repair the roof of a house in New Orleans's Ninth Ward. Many residents are rebuilding their homes where they sat before Hurricane Katrina. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 26, 2006

NEW ORLEANS -- Hurricane Katrina revealed fatal flaws in the way this city is built. But as thousands of New Orleanians seek construction permits, many are planning to rebuild their homes in the same place, at the same elevation, without any guarantee that the levees will hold in the next big storm.

While residents say they have neither the time nor the money to elevate the homes they are rebuilding, experts say the rush of reconstruction could lead to a repeat of the disaster. Officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency are studying safe building elevations for the city, but the agency has yet to adopt new guidelines.

"This is an unhealthy situation," said Reed Kroloff, dean of the Tulane University School of Architecture and co-chairman of a rebuilding planning committee. "We all want people to be able to rebuild. But we want them to rebuild safely."

Most of the more than two dozen homeowners interviewed recently as they applied for building permits said they will not elevate their houses -- even if as much as nine or 10 feet of water flowed in during the storm.

Moreover, although these homeowners said they are counting on the city's flood-control system of levees, canals and pumping stations to keep them dry, the federal government has yet to determine just how hurricane-worthy the new flood protections will be.

So far, Congress has appropriated only enough money to rebuild the flood protections to withstand a fast-moving Category 3 storm, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps has yet to guarantee that the flood measures could withstand Category 4 or Category 5 hurricanes, though it is studying the possibility.

The city's willingness to issue building permits in the absence of new elevation guidelines and details about the levee reconstruction is a "misguided attempt to jump-start" the rebuilding process, Kroloff said.

Despite the surge in building permits, city officials have been frustrated because signs of construction in many neighborhoods are sparse.

A mayoral commission proposed a four-month moratorium on building permits in the hardest-hit areas to give planners and residents time to assimilate the lessons of Katrina.

The moratorium proposal drew fierce opposition from homeowners, many of whom want to rebuild quickly, or at least get a building permit without having to elevate their houses.

Mayor C. Ray Nagin said last month that he opposes a moratorium, saying homeowners should have the right to rebuild.

Greg Meffert, a city executive who oversees the building department, said: "Whether or not someone believes it's stupid to rebuild in New Orleans, because the levees might break again, that's a completely different issue." He dismissed as unrealistic the idea that houses should be built high enough to withstand another catastrophic levee failure.


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