As reconstruction began after the August floods, one of the most pressing tasks was determining which property owners, under federal flood insurance program rules, would have to elevate damaged homes.
After the flood, FEMA quickly sent in assessment teams that estimated the number of homes "substantially damaged." In Baton Rouge and the unincorporated parts of the parish, FEMA counted approximately 3,250 such properties.
Those estimates weren't binding, meant only to guide local authorities, who make the final determination.
Now, a year after the flood, the official city-parish count stands at 187 homes that must be raised or rebuilt higher.
There are reasons why a FEMA-flagged home may not end up being labeled substantially damaged by local governments. For example, while FEMA contractors focus their inspections on high-risk areas, they don't check if individual homes are already in compliance. Some houses always get knocked off the list if they're already elevated high enough.
Panic followed the inspectors into the flooded neighborhoods.
Nevertheless, the low count by the city-parish — along with the corresponding small numbers in indicators like home elevations — has raised eyebrows.
"All you have to do is look at the numbers and see that something is askew," said Rod Scott, a Louisiana-based contractor and consultant for the International Association of Structural Movers.
The city-parish decided early on to intertwine its substantial damage inspections with its construction permitting process. Some have questioned the wisdom of that and worry problems in the post-flood rebuilding process will come back to haunt the city-parish in the form of safety issues and federal sanctions.
Running damage inspections through the permitting process is not ideal because when people realize they may have to jump through extra hoops to get back into their flooded homes, they might try to slip under the radar, said Tim Trautman, a Charlotte, North Carolina engineer and local floodplain manager of the year for the Association of State Floodplain Managers.
"You're essentially incentivizing people not to get a permit," he said.
And in East Baton Rouge — excluding Baker, Zachary and Central, which have their own procedures for post-flood rebuilding — those permits trigger the substantial damage inspection process.
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People must get the appropriate permit if their repair work hits any of several benchmarks. They need a remodeling permit if they replace more than one entire wall of drywall, and need a separate electrical permit if the water rose above the meter or lowest socket. Other permits are required for changing water heaters and air conditioning units or doing work that touches gas or sewer lines.
At last count, 35,126 homes flooded in the city of Baton Rouge and unincorporated areas of the parish.
About 14,000 flood-related permits have been issued — which mainly breaks down to about 9,400 residential remodeling permits, 3,300 electrical permits and 1,000 commercial remodeling permits, according to the city-parish website. The fact that the total includes electrical and other permits makes it difficult to tell how many individual structures were involved, since one home could have multiple permits.
Getting one of those permits flagged a home for a substantial damage review by the city-parish.
Under FEMA rules, a house is considered substantially damaged if it is in a high-risk flood zone, took damage equal to at least half its value and is not already compliant with elevation standards. Homes that are substantially damaged must be elevated or knocked down and built higher to protect them from future floods.
City-parish Development Director Carey Chauvin said permit applications "were evaluated in some format for percentage of damage," though he did not specify the formats. Chauvin said the inspections division created a special flood permit application that property owners filled out. Information from that application and other sources was used in determining whether a house was "substantially damaged."
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Metro Councilman Buddy Amoroso said there was general confusion on permits from the beginning. First, officials told the Metro Council that unless people were ripping out an entire wall's worth of drywall, they wouldn't need a permit. So that's the message they took back to their districts, where homeowners were frantically trying to put their houses in order, he said. But then the directive changed, and homes that took on 3 feet of water would need to be inspected for an electrical permit, Amoroso recalled.
"The process is broken. They have to do a better job getting these permits out," Amoroso said.
Capital Region Builders Association Chairwoman Carol Smith said that as she understood it, the city-parish didn't require a permit unless the structure of a building was being changed. For example, permits weren't required for people just pulling out drywall, doors or soggy cabinets. And while electrical permits were recommended in homes where wiring may have been damaged, that wasn't enforced, Smith said.
Councilman Matt Watson is worried about the inherent safety problems with non-permitted work, especially by unlicensed repairmen who may not know how to handle the aluminum-coated wiring in old Baton Rouge homes or properly clean electrical equipment exposed to floodwater.
"I am all for holding feet to the fire," he said.
Chauvin said building standards were no different after the flood than before. He said he knows people are doing off-the-books construction, but noted his office covers a huge and populous geographic area, and he doesn't have the staff to make house calls to everyone in the community like authorities did in Denham Springs or Central.
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"We've had conversations with FEMA. It is not their expectation that we go knock on doors," Chauvin said.
It's still the responsibility of the homeowner to get required permits, he emphasized.
Following substantial damage rules is an essential requirement for communities that participate in the federal program that allows people to purchase flood insurance. Property owners in Baton Rouge qualify for flood insurance because the city-parish complies with federal floodplain management standards.
In the coming months, FEMA will conduct an audit to determine adherence to those standards. The agency has the ability to assess fines on policies — or in rare circumstances revoke coverage — if a locality doesn't hold up its end.
Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome has met with FEMA officials, and no issues have been brought to the city-parish's attention, Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Rowdy Gaudet said.
Trautman, the North Carolina stormwater engineer, said when FEMA does its audit, it will probably check on properties that were flagged by FEMA but not deemed substantially damaged by the city-parish.
The agency performs periodic audits of localities and can put them on probation if they find deficiencies in their procedures, during which time all policyholders have to pay an extra $50 fee on their premiums.
Though it is rare, a locality that does not adequately address the issues after a period of time can be suspended, meaning no one can buy National Flood Insurance Program insurance and the local government cannot receive federal disaster aid.
About 20 years ago that happened in Lauderdale County, Mississippi, where the city of Meridian is located, said county consulting engineer Terrell Temple.
The community had a floodplain ordinance but no real permitting office, so there wasn't paperwork to back up whether new houses were being built in the floodplain, and if they were, whether they met elevation standards, Temple said.
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FEMA yanked the county's insurance while it spent a few months investigating. It turned out there were about 25 to 30 houses that needed to be checked, and all were built to the correct elevation.
"It was more a matter of documentation than anything else," Temple said.
FEMA spokeswoman Stephanie Moffett said that after any catastrophic flood, local governments might not have the capacity to enforce codes, so the agency offers assistance. That occurred after the August flood, she noted.
FEMA and the state government are still offering technical assistance and "intend to continue to monitor compliance," she said.