Government Recommends Building Up in New Orleans

Nedra Alexis stands in front of her house with her son, Glenn.

Nedra Alexis stands in front of her house with her son, Glenn. The family bought the place three years ago. Now they'll have to tear it down and rebuild to comply with FEMA guidelines that houses be built at least three feet off the ground. Jeff Brady, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Brady, NPR

Federal recommendations say that new buildings in New Orleans and surrounding parishes need to be built at least three feet off the ground. The recommendation also covers buildings being rebuilt after substantial damage from Hurricane Katrina.

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New Orleans homeowners finally know the rules if they want to rebuild.

The government released its analysis of the flood risk in different areas, and it said many houses must be high enough to survive a hundred-year flood. For many, that means raising homes at least three feet off the ground.

And that requirement will soon be changing the shape of New Orleans, because people who ignore it could miss out on cheap flood insurance and other federal help.

NPR's Jeff Brady reports from New Orleans.

JEFF BRADY reporting:

After Hurricane Katrina, the federal government decided to reexamine flood maps for New Orleans and four nearby parishes.

David Maurstad is with FEMA, and he runs the National Flood Insurance Program.

Mr. DAVID MAURSTAD (Administrator, National Flood Insurance Program): Rita and Katrina left many wondering, including state and local officials in Louisiana, whether the current flood maps in place for their communities were still good estimates of their risk.

BRADY: Apparently they weren't, because the recommendation is to raise new buildings and those that received substantial damage at least three feet off the ground. And that's only high enough if promises to rebuild and bolster levies and flood walls surrounding the region are carried out.

Maurstad did not specifically say why the team chose three feet, but he said the team wanted to make sure the team came up with a new recommendation that would give people the confidence to rebuild.

Mr. MAURSTAD: We did this by reviewing historical flood data, by determining what physical changes have occurred--subsidence and the loss of coastal barriers for example.

BRADY: And, the Maurstad says, the team used newer mapping methods to more accurately predict places at risk of flooding.

But there are some places that fall under the new requirement, even though they didn't flood after Katrina. Mike Centenio heads the New Orleans office that issues building permits. He says in those places, the requirements would fall primarily on new construction.

Still, he worries that will change the character of those neighborhoods.

Mr. MIKE CENTENIO (city Safety and Permits Director): This would even apply to our central business district and the Vieux Carré, our French Quarter, which is an historic district. There's no exceptions in this. And that's one of the things that disturbs me a little bit, is that the areas that were proven not to flood, even under the worst-case scenario that we received, really should be considered a little bit separate in this.

BRADY: Out in some of the hardest hit neighborhoods, its not clear if the new direction from the feds will be enough to encourage homeowners to rebuild. In Gentilly, Nedra Alexis and her family are living in two FEMA trailers placed in front of her four-bedroom, two-bath house.

It sat in five feet of water, which destroyed some of her daughter's most prized possessions from high school.

Ms. NEDRA ALEXIS (Gentilly district, New Orleans): All her memories, cap and gown, everything is just gone.

BRADY: Like a lot of homes in town that were constructed after World War II, hers was not built off the ground on blocks--which means it'll be difficult to meet the new three-foot elevation requirement.

Ms. ALEXIS: See there's bricks. And cement. And it's just flat on the foundation.

BRADY: On the ground.

Ms. ALEXIS: Yes. So they would have to raise the whole house up. And what if they raise the whole house and house cracks, you know? So it's whole--I don't know.

BRADY: Alexis says she and her husband probably will just tear down this house and start over with a new one that's three feet off the ground.

She says it's good to hear the federal government plans to go ahead and bolster nearby levees. The Bush Administration will ask Congress to allocate 2.5 billion dollars for that. But that work likely won't be finished until 2010.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, New Orleans.

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