East Baton Rouge building official Justin Dupuy is bracing to tell a lot of people they're going to have to demolish or elevate their homes.
Only two homeowners have been given notice already, but more are likely on their way, he said.
Federal building inspectors will be arriving in Baton Rouge next week to begin damage assessments, which will start the process of determining how rebuilding will proceed. On Friday, an official with the Federal Emergency Management Agency explained how those inspections will be conducted and buildings assessed.
According to the latest estimates, nearly 6,000 structures — which includes non-residential buildings — took on more than five feet of water. Each case is unique, but once a house receives five feet, the damage is "pretty substantial," Dupuy said.
Even at lower water levels the damage could be great enough that a homeowner would be federally mandated to elevate or rebuild.
All told, Dupuy estimates that between 5 percent and 10 percent of the people who have applied for building permits so far have damage that indicate they may need to raise or raze their homes. And he only oversees the city proper and the unincorporated areas of the parish. Other municipalities, like Central, have their own permitting divisions.
There are some caveats: in East Baton Rouge, homes won't have to elevate if they're already one foot above the base flood elevation level, and on Wednesday the Metro Council will vote to exempt people in low-risk flood zones from elevation standards, a measure Dupuy is 99-percent sure will pass.
Some East Baton Rouge residents will have to raise or rebuild their homes to comply with ele…
The big factor will be "substantial damage," a term indicating a structure has been 50 percent damaged. However, different agencies measure the 50 percent damage threshold in different ways.
Essentially, FEMA will come in and make broad assessments, using photos and quick visual inspections of properties. They use a formula to translate the damage into a cost estimate, which is then compared to the neighborhood's average price per square foot to determine the percent damage.
Their goal is to identify properties that are definitely substantially damaged and will have to be elevated or bulldozed as well as properties that are clearly safe to begin rebuilding.
The city-parish will follow up on buildings that are closer to the line. Dupuy wants to spot check everything that comes back in the 40 percent to 60 percent damage range. Those inspections can be more specific.
Dupuy said FEMA's general estimates are typically accurate, but there are some cases in which a homeowner may be able to argue down an assessed percentage. He recalled a woman who was once told her house was 61 percent damaged, but she came back with a property appraisal and contractor bids which showed she was actually 37 percent damaged.
"It's not a simple cut and dry thing," Dupuy said.
FEMA floodplain management specialist Angel Cabiya explained how federal inspectors perform their assessments.
First, every house is broken down into its components: foundation, exterior finish, cabinets and countertops, etc. Each is given a weighted value. For a more-or-less typical wood frame house the appliances may be rated at 4.2 percent of the house's total value, while the frame is 15.9 percent.
Then, each of the 12 components are separately graded. For example, the inspector's guide describes possible damage to a home in which the interior finish is 50 to 75 percent damaged thus:
"...Water damage at the lowest levels of the wall assembly — wall and trim, window sills and window aprons, wall paneling, wainscoting and chair rails require removal and replacement. Wall surfaces should be removed to a height of 4 feet..."
After all the categories are assigned a damage value, the assessors add up the percent damage and weigh each category to come up with the percent number for the whole house. That gets translated into a dollar amount which is compared to the neighborhood's average price per square foot, usually the number set by the tax assessor. Inspections typically last 15 to 20 minutes, Cabiya said.
He said the FEMA estimate is useful to help overwhelmed local governments expedite permitting for large groups of people who are clearly not substantially damaged or start sending notices to people who will clearly need to rebuild.
These assessments don't affect anyone's personal assistance amount. However, they can be used later on when the state starts awarding out flood mitigation money — basically a federally-funded program in which the government provides assistance to people who want to elevate or move out of areas that consistently flood.
The federal inspectors have been in Louisiana for awhile, but have been working in other communities, such as Denham Springs, where Cabiya hopes they can finish in a week or two.
The city-parish will direct the inspectors. Dupuy expects them to start with the hardest hit areas around O'Neal Lane, Old Jefferson Highway and Old Hammond Highway so they can begin to tell people if they definitely need to raise or demolish.
Dupuy said they will be dispatched to the pockets that got it worst so they can work their way back to the people in less damaged areas. With ten teams of two or three inspectors each, he expects the process to last two months but hopes all the substantially damaged properties will be addressed in the first few weeks.
People may begin reconstruction at their own risk, he said. In the last Metro Council meeting, city officials repeatedly warned elected leaders that if they don't follow federal guidelines about elevation, the entire parish could lose its ability to participate in flood insurance.
Many of FEMA's forms, instructions to inspectors and sample documents are available online at http://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/20130726-1735-25045-0007/sde_forms_combined___pdf.pdf or by searching "substantial damage estimator."
The documents currently online have been updated in the past year, but Cabiya said the two versions are "essentially the same."