NEW ORLEANS -- On one block of Vicksburg Street in the Lakeview neighborhood, Al Petrie's and his investors’ four houses stand as markers of the stages of this city's recovery in the years after Hurricane Katrina.
There is an imposing brick townhouse, with a first floor 9.5 feet up in the air, which he built after levee breaches following Katrina swamped much of the city and his original home. Three other houses, however, are more modestly elevated at 2 feet, 3.5 feet and 4.5 feet.
"We made the decision immediately that, regardless of what they were going to say, we were going to build up to where the house flooded," said Petrie, a 62-year-old financial consultant and real estate investor. The townhouse sits on the lot of a heavily damaged duplex Petrie had owned and is catty-corner from where his old house was. That home got six feet of water, even though it was raised 3.5 feet, and Petrie demolished it after a city assessment of substantial damage would have required elevation.
But, next door to the townhouse, there is the two-story home Petrie built in 2003 to the then-existing elevation guidelines of about 3.5 feet off the ground. Like another building on the street just 2 feet off the ground, the house was large enough that it didn't qualify as so damaged that it needed to be raised, allowing him to just repair the structure.
“And this is to suit the market,” Petrie said of a nearby two-story duplex 4.5 feet off the ground that his real estate partnership built on Vicksburg a few years after Katrina. While the house complied with higher elevation guidelines of the time, it also fit market pressures to not to raise homes a full story up.
Elevation is now very much on the minds of people in the Baton Rouge region after the historic floods last month. Many people with property that flooded are looking to get back in their homes, as local leaders continue to dial back floodplain and elevation rules to federal minimums to ease their constituents' return.
Petrie and his three-story townhouse in Lakeview -- the one built 9.5 feet high -- drew some national media attention in mid-2006 as a symbol of the faith early returnees had in a city many still doubted could rebound from utter devastation.
Today, as New Orleans has come back with a $14 billion levee system, the early outpost where Petrie’s and his brother’s families lived for a few years after Katrina serves as another kind of symbol.
It’s a high water mark for policies and attitudes that shifted drastically in the decade after that storm. While some homeowners elevated, even building houses perched way above their neighbors, many sought to just repair existing structures. As people came back into the city in the months after Katrina, many challenged FEMA damage assessments to ensure they could do just that. And now, eleven years after Katrina, requirements are actually lower thanks to updated flood maps, which take into account the new levees and drainage improvements.
Paul Rainwater, a lobbyist and a former top official in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration who was also heavily involved in the post-Katrina recovery beginning under Gov. Kathleen Blanco, said the changing reality on the ground is the reason the Louisiana Recovery Authority adopted more than 200 policy changes during its years funneling billions in federal recovery money to homeowners and businesses.
“What is reality today will be different tomorrow, so you have to be careful what sort of policies you pass, and what sort of programs you put together and what kind of restrictions (you adopt) because it’s all sort of negotiable. You don’t quite know where things are going end up,” said Rainwater, who served as the LRA’s hazard mitigation director during the first year after Katrina and later became its executive director.
Slow moving storm
To be sure, the historic flooding in Baton Rouge last month and in New Orleans 11 years ago happened for very different reasons.
Storm surge from Katrina, a Category 3 hurricane, flooded 80 percent of New Orleans after overtopping and breaching U.S. Army Corps of Engineers levees plagued by design and maintenance flaws.
In contrast, climatologists say the Baton Rouge region was hit with an intense, but unnamed, rain system that didn’t even rate as a tropical storm but caused record flooding across the increasingly populous Amite River Basin, which doesn’t have the same federal levee infrastructure.
But, still, the New Orleans experience bears a resemblance to the current situation in the Capital City region. With tens of thousands of slab-on-grade or somewhat-raised homes flooded after Katrina -- homes similar to those in many flooded neighborhoods across Baton Rouge -- leaders at the local and state level grappled with tough questions of how to smooth the way for people to come back but still ensure residents weren't rebuilding in harm's way.
Area leaders around Baton Rouge already have an eye on easing the path to return. Baton Rouge and Ascension officials in recent weeks moved to loosen parish rules that had been tighter than FEMA minimum standards, set that way years ago to reap the benefit of lower flood insurance rates.
They have already eliminated requirements that homeowners build to the “record inundation,” an as yet unknown height that local officials feared could be even higher and more expensive than that required for base flood elevations.
Just last week the Metro Council in East Baton Rouge also shifted elevation requirements to the FEMA minimum by eliminating a city-parish rule that would have required some flooded properties in locations not deemed to be at highest risk to elevate. The change spares 32,000 flooded homes -- an estimated half of those that flooded in the parish -- from a possible elevation requirement.
FEMA officials announced late last month the agency won't tinker with flood insurance rate maps in this region after the flooding, which likely means that recently tweaked local rules will govern rebuilding -- at least initially.
But plenty of homeowners are worried about elevation requirements. In badly hit Denham Springs, homeowners have crowded into City Council meetings, fearing what the mandates will mean.
Still, some are considering other options. In the heavily hit northeast Ascension Parish community of Lake, Jeanette Miller, 62, said she is ready to get her insurance money and start demolition. She said she doesn’t see the point in elevating to whatever the benchmark ends up being because she knows she is below the existing standard.
Near the Henderson Bayou floodgate that was overtopped in last month’s high water, her 32-year-old home, which narrowly avoided the historic 1983 flood while still under construction, is where Miller and her now deceased husband raised their kids. It holds so many memories, she said, but took on a lot of water and needed a lot of work even before that.
Miller said she can’t see spending $100,000 or more to raise her old house, when she could tear down it and put up a new, elevated manufactured home in the same spot without much debt.
“Who wants to start over at 62?,” she asked.
A question of assessment
As is now the case in the Baton Rouge area, local enforcement of damage assessments was an important factor in the early days after Katrina. In Orleans Parish, as in East Baton Rouge, Ascension and Livingston, the threshold for “substantially damaged” is set at the FEMA minimum: when the cost of repair is 50 percent of or greater than a home’s market value.
At a minimum under FEMA rules, substantially damaged homes in the 100-year floodplain have to be built to the base flood elevation, though, in some cases, local rules set the mark even higher and expand the area where they apply.
City officials in New Orleans agreed to reconsider and often lower early damage assessments after Katrina that had put homes over the substantial damage threshold. That allowed many people to rebuild without elevating.
News accounts in mid-January 2006 quoted city officials reporting that they had reviewed 250 appeals of damage assessments per day for the prior month and approved about 90 percent of them.
Marla Nelson, coordinator of the University of New Orleans’ Urban and Regional Planning master's degree program, noted that the early talk after the storm revolved around shrinking the city’s footprint and turning parts of the city into green space. But that discussion prompted a backlash as residents and elected officials fought to preserve their neighborhoods.
“It was very much a political response just because people were so concerned and then you know, before any other decisions could be made, hey, they got the permit and 48 percent damage,” Nelson said. “That is my understanding on why we had so much slab-on-grade rebuilt, and, you know, I think it was an expedient choice to allow people to come back, but we know looking at what happened elsewhere in the state this time around that’s not good longer term.”
One long-term effect, she said, was those homes that didn’t elevate, but just renovated, began paying more in flood insurance.
A precise number of homes and businesses elevated in New Orleans since Katrina isn’t readily available. The existing data suggests more homes and businesses were torn down and rebuilt than were elevated, while many more were repaired as is.
According to the New Orleans Data Center, 134,000 housing units were damaged and later flooded in New Orleans, 70 percent of all occupied homes at the time.
Since Katrina, city repair and renovation permits for elevation totaled 4,968, city spokesman C. Hayne Rainey said. Meanwhile, 22,168 demolition permits have also been issued in the same time period.
Amid that post-storm turnover, the city has issued 8,003 building permits for new single-family homes and single units in multi-family structures, plus another 1,388 permits for new duplexes, Rainey said.
Assuming every one of the permits for elevated structures and the demolition permits reflected a home flooded in Katrina, which they most certainly don’t, that still would be only 20 percent of the city’s flooded housing stock, leaving the vast majority that were updated as is.
Michael Centineo, now retired city floodplain administrator and director of safety and permits when Katrina hit, defended New Orleans' assessment process after the storm. He disputed that the city just handed out reductions to homeowners who objected to their initial damage assessments.
He said the damage assessments were made with a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers team and applied FEMA’s own methods.
Centineo said that at the recommendation of the Corps, the assessments were made more conservative and failed more people at first than more thorough assessments might have done. Residents were given the chance to challenge later with photos and other documentation.
“That way it protects the system, but we can still review each one on a case-by-case basis,” Centineo said.
Though some FEMA officials questioned the process, a subsequent check by the agency found no wrongdoing.
Don E. Powell, the federal recovery coordinator who spoke for then-President George W. Bush on Katrina, warned state officials early on that Congress would not give Louisiana billions in recovery money unless the state adopted new base flood elevations, Rainwater said.
This time around, Gov. John Bel Edwards is also asking Congress and President Barack Obama for help, requesting $2.6 billion in aid, some of which would assist homeowners with rebuilding.
After Katrina, the LRA required that New Orleans and other affected areas adopt higher advisory base flood elevations if they wanted to be eligible for disaster recovery money from the state, said Jeff Hebert, the former LRA director of community planning and now New Orleans’ chief resilience officer.
The advisories shifted base flood elevations up for several years after Katrina. These new elevations served to push up target elevations for those who built new or tried to rebuild severely damage homes, if they could not revise the damage assessment.
But now city officials say that under the new FEMA maps that New Orleans is adopting this year, the minimum elevation is generally at a lower level that reflects greater protection from the new levees and other improvements.
“You’re talking huge sums of money that was put into that program and then what eight years later, they’re telling you now you can build lower. So, that’s the crazy part, right?” Centineo said.
The public money put into elevations after Katrina included not only a $30,000 grant through the Road Home, but also a $750 million pot expected to supplement the initial elevation amount. That provided as much as $100,000 more per home, although the program took years longer than expected to come online.
Thousands of residents who got the $30,000 grants through Road Home did not elevate, several audits have found. Due to the structure of the federal program behind those grants, residents had to promise to use the money for elevations, but it was left to local governments to enforce it. Critics said the grant wasn’t enough alone and often the money was lost to unscrupulous contractors or residents were forced to use the grants to pay off mortgages.
The state has since reached settlement with federal authorities. While some people will have to pay back the money, others will be able to keep it if they can show it went to other rebuilding costs, said Pat Forbes, executive director for the state Office of Community Development.
Roland Barthe, an accountant and president of the Pines Village Homeowners Association in New Orleans East, said he saw the slow pace of elevation in his own heavily hit neighborhood off Morrison Road.
Barthe, 69, estimated that about 15 percent of his neighborhood of houses built on slabs, which date from the 1950s, are now elevated. But he said it was a slow process that didn’t start until five or six years after people started returning to Pines Village and restoring their property.
“For the most part, I would say maybe 50 percent of the homes were back by that time and they had already restored their homes and were back in their homes,” said Barthe, one of the few who didn’t have enough damage to be required to elevate.
Another group of more than 38 houses were bought out, demolished and then rebuilt to higher elevations under a special program with a developer and are now occupied under a kind of lease-purchase program, he said.
Hebert, the city resilience officer, said that the city shifted from home elevations several years ago and has focused on more regional improvements like upgraded pump stations and rain gardens to detain rain runoff before it hits the drainage system.
“We have been putting our money in more drainage, more green infrastructure and things like that either to slow or detain water instead of just en mass elevations, because what we found, on a cost-benefit basis, is by investing in large infrastructure, you’re lowering the risk of a larger area than doing one-off elevations,” Hebert said.