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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)

In the fall of 2005, planners from the Urban Land Institute, working with the city's Bring New Orleans Back Commission, recommended that large sections of Lakeview, Gentilly, New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward be abandoned, at least temporarily. The panel called for the government to purchase homes at pre-Katrina prices.

There were two reasons for the planners' proposals. First, the levees had proved catastrophically fallible. Even now, they are not guaranteed to stand during the strongest hurricanes. Moreover, the wetlands that once protected the city from storm surges continue to erode, and hurricane experts, including Max Mayfield, the outgoing director or the National Hurricane Center, have repeatedly warned that many homeowners are taking on unacceptable risks in U.S. coastal areas.

Second, it seemed likely that New Orleans's post-Katrina population was destined to be smaller. It made sense to consolidate neighborhoods, planners said, to prevent blight from overtaking sparsely populated, partially abandoned areas.

"What we said was that, in the areas that had gotten 10 feet of water, don't commit to rebuilding anything yet, because it probably won't happen anyway," said Joseph Brown, head of the urban design panel at the Urban Land Institute.

But Nagin, who was hearing complaints that shrinking the city's footprint was unfair, particularly to African Americans, rejected the idea. Everyone should be able to return to their homes, he said.

"I'm not ready to concede that neighborhoods need to be demolished," Nagin said at the time.

Officials in St. Bernard Parish, meanwhile, rejected closing off a particularly hard-hit 36-block section of Chalmette because they could not afford to buy out property owners.

Once the idea of neighborhood closures was dropped, many pinned their hopes for added safety on the new federal guidelines for elevating homes. "Substantially damaged" houses in the area now must be raised, often three feet above the ground. But the requirements contain enormous loopholes, and there is a huge financial incentive to avoid them.

Raising a house can cost upwards of $50,000, especially for the modern suburban homes built on concrete slabs in some of the most flooded areas. The federal government offers grants of as much as $30,000 for repairs, but in many cases much more is required.

"The vast majority simply do not have the financial resources to rebuild differently," said Greg Rigamer, chief executive of GCR & Associates and a consultant in the rebuilding.

Residents could avoid having to comply with the new guidelines by getting permits before the rules were enacted locally -- thousands in New Orleans did -- or if their houses were determined to be less than 50 percent damaged by Katrina.

Many homes, even those that took on 10 feet of water for weeks, have been designated beneath that threshold, including hundreds whose owners appealed larger initial damage assessments.

Among those slowly repopulating the once-flooded areas, many turn to God when considering what will happen in the next hurricane.

"People always say, 'I'm going to pray,' " said Bea, the Berkeley civil engineer. "And I'm thinking, 'I hope God is listening.' "

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