FEMA Sets Guides for Rebuilding New Orleans

FEMA releases new federal advisories and recommendations about which areas of New Orleans are vulnerable to flooding in the future. The advisories will require that many houses be raised several feet to qualify for insurance. Residents plan to use the guide to decide whether to rebuild or relocate.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris. New Orleans and the surrounding area got some long-awaited news today. The federal government finally set out a key requirement for people who want to rebuild homes and businesses destroyed when the levees broke and flooded the area. FEMA announced how high off the ground any new or substantially damaged structures will have to be rebuilt. We'll hear from the New Orleans official overseeing the city's rebuilding in a few minutes. First, NPR's Jeff Brady is in New Orleans, and he has details.

JEFF BRADY reporting:

Seven months after Hurricane Katrina, there are neighborhoods in New Orleans where the recovery has not even started. Drive through and it looks like not one shovel of muck has been removed. That's because homeowners there aren't sure if they'll be able to return, so why clean up the place in the meantime? But today, President Bush's federal coordinator of Gulf Coast rebuilding, Donald Powell, interjected some certainty into the lives of the residents of those neighborhoods. He announced the release of maps that detail what each homeowner will have to do.

Mr. DONALD POWELL (Federal coordinator, Gulf Coast rebuilding): This will enable people to get on with their lives, to seek building permits, obtain flood insurance and ask for mortgage applications.

BRADY: Essentially, Powell says homes that are protected by levees and were damaged by Katrina will have to be elevated three feet off the ground.

Mr. POWELL: The good news, in my view, is that it's not dramatic type elevations that one might think. Up to three feet from grade I think is perhaps the most dramatic.

BRADY: All this is based on a Bush Administration promise to rebuild and bolster levees surrounding the area. The plan is to build levees stronger than before, but not able to withstand the most severe storms. For damaged homes outside the levee-protected areas, they would have to be raised another one to three feet above where they sit now. Local officials have been critical of the federal government for not releasing this information sooner. Less than half of New Orleans' pre-Katrina population has returned to the city. For many of them, the uncertainty is the reason. Once the feds decided to release the maps, city council member Cynthia Hedge-Morrell says officials with the various agencies never bothered to alert her. Hedge-Morrell says she learned about the announcement an hour and a half before it happened.

Ms. CYNTHIA HEDGE-MORRELL (Vice president, New Orleans City Council): The press conference was scheduled in Algiers. We were on the phone with a conference call trying to get some understanding. Nobody has been emailed or seen a copy of the maps. We don't know what impact it's going to have on our parishes, in our district.

BRADY: Hedge-Morrell went onto the FEMA website to find the maps, but an hour after the press conference they still weren't available. The way in which the federal government released the information concerns her.

Ms. HEDGE-MORRELL: If you want to be this sneaky about what you're doing, that kind of leads me to believe that there's something you're afraid we're not going to like.

BRADY: In addition to the maps, the Bush administration announced how much the levee rebuilding and bolstering will cost. The current estimate is $4.1 billion. That's what the administration will ask for from Congress, though Donald Powell said today that Louisiana likely would be required to pick up some of the tab. The current plan does not include one tough decision that still has to be made, whether to repair and improve levees throughout Plaquemines Parish. That could cost more than a billion and a half dollars. Since the area is sparsely populated, there are questions about whether that would be a good investment. Powell said a decision will come later, after more research.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, New Orleans.

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