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.
Ed Blakely, the city's newly appointed recovery chief, begins work next week. He proposes that, once the Army Corps of Engineers issues reports this spring about which city neighborhoods are riskiest, some returning homeowners be offered the chance to swap their lots for others in less vulnerable locations.
"There is overwhelming evidence that people want to come back to a safer area," Blakely said. "But right now, no one is giving them that choice. They are only acting out of their own sense that they have to be housed."
Any drive around Orleans Parish or suburban St. Bernard Parish shows that people are coming back to even the hardest-hit neighborhoods, albeit sparsely, to renovate their flood-damaged homes.
In the Lakeview, New Orleans East and Gentilly areas of Orleans Parish and in most of St. Bernard Parish, neighborhoods are strange and desolate. Some homes and travel trailers are inhabited, but they are surrounded by empty houses and occasional debris piles. Returning residents say they wonder how long their neighborhoods will seem like ghost towns.
Rochelle Krantz, 64, and her husband are repairing their home in Chalmette. On the day before Christmas, their temporary trailer is adorned with a snowman and several Santa Clauses, but most of the surrounding houses are empty, and the post-flood gloom is pervasive.
"When we come out at night to sit, it's like a cemetery . . . very, very dark and very, very quiet," Krantz said. "We used to hear kids and cars going by. . . . Now, nothing."
Sometimes complete strangers, she said, come up to ask: " 'You're coming back?' And then they say, 'You're nuts!' "
But, she said, the house is paid for.
"We'll leave it in the good Lord's hands," Krantz said.
A few blocks over, Vincent Gangi, 54, a real estate broker, is restoring a large brick house adorned with Greek-revival statues.
"I just don't think it's going to happen again -- something like Katrina happens only once in a hundred years," he said. "By that time, I'll be dead."
The controversy over how to rebuild the New Orleans region began almost as soon as the waters receded.
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.' "