New Orleans Repeats Mistakes as It Rebuilds

Unlike many homes being rebuilt in the New Orleans area, this one is being put on a raised foundation.
Unlike many homes being rebuilt in the New Orleans area, this one is being put on a raised foundation. (By Ellis Lucia -- Times-picayune)
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 4, 2007

NEW ORLEANS -- By ones and twos, homeowners here are reinhabiting neighborhoods, even the most devastated ones, and many view their return as a triumph over adversity.

But experts involved in the rebuilding believe that the helter-skelter return of residents to this low-lying metropolis may represent another potential disaster.

After Katrina, teams of planners recommended that broad swaths of vulnerable neighborhoods be abandoned. Yet all areas of the city have at least some residents beginning to rebuild. With billions of dollars in federal relief for homeowners trickling in, more people are expected to follow.

Moreover, while new federal guidelines call for raising houses to reduce the damage of future floods, most returning homeowners do not have to comply or are finding ways around the costly requirement, according to city officials.

"It's terrifying: We're doing the same things we have in the past but expecting different results," said Robert G. Bea, a professor of civil engineering at the University of California at Berkeley and a former New Orleans resident who served as a member of the National Science Foundation panel that studied the city's levees.

"There are areas where it doesn't make any sense to rebuild -- they got 20 feet of water in Katrina," said Tom Murphy, a former Pittsburgh mayor who served on an Urban Land Institute panel for post-Katrina planning. "In those places, nature is talking to us, and we ought to be listening. I don't think we are."

A map of building permits in Orleans Parish, created by GCR & Associates, a New Orleans firm involved in the rebuilding, shows renovations distributed throughout the city's low-lying areas. A similar phenomenon is underway in neighboring St. Bernard Parish, which was even more devastated by the storm.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D) so far has favored allowing evacuees to inhabit their old neighborhoods as they wish.

Mike Centineo, the city's building chief, said, "Legally and morally, we're doing the right thing," but he acknowledged that most returning homeowners are not raising their houses to meet the new flood guidelines. "You wouldn't want to put people through more than they can endure. It's a catastrophe that happened. No one wants it to happen again. But they're just rebuilding as best they can."

The chairman of the federal Gulf Coast rebuilding office, Donald E. Powell, said recently that "tough decisions" about where to repopulate this half-empty city are necessary.

"The President and I believe planning decisions should not be made in Washington, but rather at the local level," he said in a statement. "However at some point, there needs to be strong local leadership, and that includes making tough decisions about the city's size and the safety of her citizens. Federal tax dollars should not be used to rebuild in places that repeatedly flood or are damaged due to Mother Nature -- in New Orleans or elsewhere."

Whatever decisions are to be made, however, none is likely to come soon. And as time rolls on, and as more houses in vulnerable neighborhoods are reinhabited, it will grow more difficult, politically and financially, to lead residents to safer areas.

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