Damned if you do, damned if you don't!
If you want to avoid raising your house, get a building permit now!
That's just about the upshot of a discussion held between members of the New Orleans City Council and the Louisiana Recovery Authority at a public meeting on Thursday intended to clarify problems that will emerge if FEMA's new elevation advisory is implemented.
Because the new elevation guideline issued by FEMA in April is still only a recommendation, not a requirement, homeowners can only be forced to comply with the 1984 building standards, according to Walter Leger, chair of the LRA Housing Task Force. Consequently, if a house was damaged to more than 50 percent of its fair market value, but its elevation can be shown to be in compliance with 1984 flood insurance requirements, the owner could conceivably avoid the cost of raising the house.
Leger quoted Governor Kathleen Blanco in saying that "pioneers will not be punished" if they start rebuilding their homes before new FEMA guidelines are adopted, but he encouraged homeowners to raise their homes whenever possible to minimize the risk of future flooding.
Both Leger and Councilmembers expressed ongoing confusion about the logic in requiring all substantially-damaged houses to be raised three feet, irrespective of whether those homes sustained more than three feet of flooding, or storm damage other than flooding.
Leger said his house sustained 14 feet of flooding, so if he were to follow the FEMA guideline to raise his house three feet, his house still might flood to 11 feet if it were hit with a similar flooding event in the future.
Adding to the confusion, FEMA base flood elevation measurements may be far out of date due to subsidence. One homeowner said her house is currently 0.39 feet above the 1984 Base Flood Elevation, but a recent engineering survey shows that her house sank 18 inches since the last survey was completed 18 years ago. She wants to raise her house ten feet, but complained that her insurance company won't pay her for Increased Cost of Compliance because she already meets the 1984 requirement. She can't be compensated for raising her house until the city adopts the new three foot elevation guideline, and she argued that three feet won't be enough in a few years as subsidence continues.
Councilman Arnold Fielkow questioned whether FEMA was using good science in coming up with the three foot guideline, or if it just threw out a number to give New Orleans homeowners something to work with so they could start rebuilding.
A couple of discussions emphasized the fact that homeowners wouldn't have to raise their homes if the federally-managed flood protection system hadn't failed, and if it were fixed to keep the city from flooding in any future storms. (George W. Bush's lack of a commitment to Category 5 storm protection and coastal restoration is the equivalent of saying back to New Orleanians, F.U.F.F., and passing the cost on to individual homeowners -- it's what we might call "conservative compassion").
Leger made clear that on some future date, the Louisiana Recovery Authority would ultimately have to adopt and start enforcing the elevation advisory. Until that time, even though the LRA is supposed to follow federal guidelines, all the LRA could do in distributing Road Home rebuilding grants was to recommend raising homes when they're rebuilt.
7/16/06 update: Note that there is a process to exclude historic properties from the requirement to raise. This applies to buildings that are in historic districts, or which are declared historic by an official entity. This consideration merits further research, of course -- I just wanted to make sure I wasn't remiss in mentioning it.
Community Gumbo -- How high will New Orleans residents have to raise their homes? (podcast and pictures)
Louisiana Recovery Authority, Louisiana Speaks: Pattern BookUrban Design Associates (UDA) has developed a comprehensive toolkit of ideas to be used by homeowners and businesses as they rebuild. Available as a PDF download, or free at New Orleans area Lowes locations.
Louisiana Recovery Authority
New Orleans City Council
Tags: Hurricane Katrina | Katrina | New Orleans | Louisiana | We Are Not OK | America's Wetland | Neighborhood Planning | Rebuild New Orleans | Corps of Engineers | FEMA | NFIP