ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELLE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michelle Norris. We're in New Orleans where people are waiting for important news from FEMA later this month, new flood maps. They'll tell homeowners how high off the ground they should build depending on local elevations. Being any lower than that might make flood insurance prohibitively expensive or unavailable. But even as New Orleanians await the long delayed advisory maps, the city's director of permits is approving applications by homeowners to rebuild.
SIEGEL: He is Mike Centineo and he's no stranger to FEMA flood maps. I sat down with him inside the FEMA trailer where he and his wife now live. It's hooked up to their house, and he showed me some of the old maps.
Mr. MIKE CENTINEO: I can try and show you this map, if I can get it here in our FEMA trailer (unintelligible) table here.
SIEGEL: You can hardly fit a FEMA map inside a FEMA trailer.
Mr. CENTINEO: You're absolutely correct.
SIEGEL: The existing maps were mostly drawn in 1984, but parts of them have been updated. As for the commonly held belief that if FEMA says your house isn't high enough off the ground for your neighborhood, you can't live there anymore --
Mr. CENTINEO: That's not true.
SIEGEL: You're saying if you're there already, you're okay.
Mr. CENTINEO: If you're there already, you're okay. Once you build your house and you comply, then you're a complying structure and FEMA will not penalize you for it, and you can get flood insurance. But that's the myth that a lot of people hear is that, oh my God, I got to wait for the new elevations because I don't know whether my house will qualify. If your house qualified before the storm, it qualifies now. If you get a building permit today, you would qualify today and when the elevations change, there is no difference in your rates.
SIEGEL: A keyword there, today. Once new elevations are recommended and adopted, a major construction project would have to meet new standards. In the meantime, Centineo's office has decided to err on the side of a homeowner's right to rebuild. If you can show the damage to your house was less then 50 percent, you can get a permit. And Centineo admits that his office will grade easily. If the damage appears to be less then 60 percent, that will do.
Mr. CENTINEO: The majority of the houses we looked at, we looked at from the exterior only. And we were aggressive in our evaluations, meaning that we gave everybody a little bit of a higher evaluation. We felt that it was better to have people come in, show us what they have, and make a clear determination on their property, and we knew most of them were going to pass.
But, it was better than telling everybody they failed just because they flooded, you know, right off from the front, and then not given them any opportunities. So, we felt that we worked in a system that we could. And then if you would have told everybody that, up front, that they could rebuild and all of a sudden they couldn't that would have been even worse.
SIEGEL: Some New Orleanians call this irresponsible: encouraging the rebuilding of neighborhoods that perhaps should not be rebuilt. But here's how Mike Centineo looks at things. His house, in the upscale Lakeview district is on a lot that rises a foot or more from street level. Except for the garage, the whole house is several feet off the ground. You have to walk up a half dozen steps to get to the front door. But the water was over five feet deep in his living room, and he says, if the levees had held, people would not have flooded at all if they had just built to the standards that were set in 1984.
Mr. CENTINEO: At that time, it was the best knowledge that FEMA had, it was the best engineering at the time, and you built your home and you put your life savings into it. So, all of a sudden, FEMA says, whoops, maybe we think things have changed a little bit, you have to build now a foot higher, that you shouldn't get flood insurance, our city didn't flood on a regular --
SIEGEL: But if FEMA said that, it wouldn't be just out of capriciousness, they would be saying it floods here, you know.
Mr. CENTINEO: Well, but it doesn't flood here. That's the thing. My neighborhood, none of my neighbors have flooded here. They've never flooded. I said people lived here all their lives and they've never flooded.
SIEGEL: Until the flood.
Mr. CENTINEO: Until a levee broke. And so that's the difference. If you're looking at every day life here, it's not going to flood. And if you raise an elevation one or two feet, then that's still not going to protect the government or anybody against a levee break.
SIEGEL: I can hear a listener thinking, I don't crash into other cars everyday either. I don't have car accidents everyday, it only happens to me once every 14 years, but I pay car insurance based on that risk.
Mr. CENTINEO: Well, and people here pay for insurance also.
SIEGEL: Whether they'll be able to afford flood insurance if they remain at old elevations, or whether they'll be able to afford the cost of building to new ones, are among the most important questions facing the people of New Orleans.