Monday, January 16, 2006

A tradition of flooding

I've written before about how eagerly many people in New Orleans are repairing their flooded homes. A good thing you might say.

But most are just building back the same way it was before. Forgive me for saying this, neighbors and friends, but I think that's crazy.

I can't blame homeowners, who typically don't understand the science and engineering that goes into a hurricane protection system, the development of building codes or the establishment of a base flood elevation. They're just eager to get back home, and looking to protect their real estate investment.

No, the blame falls on city and federal government. The feds via FEMA run the federal flood insurance program. They establish rules, collect premiums and declare the minimum elevations for construction in flood-prone areas.

And the city issues building permits, which includes certification that structures comply with the rules and minimum elevation requirements handed down by FEMA.

So here's what's happening. The rules say that as long as your house is above the base flood elevation, you can rebuild just the same, no questions asked. I guess that's fair, but I sure wish the city and FEMA would at least encourage homeowners to raise their houses. I mean, as long as you're renovating it, and you've been bit by flooding once, why not elevate? If your house is the biggest investment of your life, and for most people it is, why not invest in protecting it?

The rules for houses below the base flood elevation are a little different. As long as your house is not damaged 50% or more by flooding, no problem, you can rebuild just the same, no questions asked. And no matter that you're below the required elevation, you can still get flood insurance. Such structures are "grandfathered." Again, I think we should at least be vigorously encouraging people to elevate their homes.

But why aren't we requiring people to raise their homes? Because anything less than half destroyed is not serious enough? If you worked in a factory and you lost an arm or a leg in the machinery, would you want the factory boss to say, "No problem, just go back to work. Unless you lose TWO OR MORE limbs there's no cause for concern"?

Just because Hurricane Katrina only put enough water in your house to destroy 45% of its value means nothing regarding future storms. A hurricane could come as early as this summer and cause even more flooding.

The final scenario involves homes below the base flood elevation that were damaged an amount equal or more than 50% of their value. The city will not issue a building permit to such homes, and even if you could get one, it is likely you could not get flood insurance. The good news is that these homeowners could get additional money above the basic coverage of their flood insurance policy to take measures to protect their homes from future flooding. Finally, a rule that makes sense to me, a rare event in my experience with the city and FEMA.

But here's the kicker that started off today's blog: There are a lot of homeowners who simply do not want to elevate their homes. Those that were given an initial assessment of 50% or more damage by city inspectors are now getting their damage assessments lowered. That's right, they've been going to city hall to appeal the damage assessment in droves, and I guess I should not be surprised, city hall is granting almost all appeals.

What this means is that most of flood-damaged New Orleans that is being rebuilt, is being put back just the same as before.

Now, I'm a huge proponent of better, higher, 1 in 10,000 year levees as anyone who visits here regularly knows.

But c'mon guys. We can't put all our eggs in one basket. We can't just blindly trust the levees to work all the time in all situations. We can't demand the federal government to pay for 100% of the hurricane protection and refuse to spend any of our own money to raise our houses by two or three or eight feet.

This, to me, is cheap and short-sighted. It's lunacy on a massive scale.

Don't take my word for it. Here's what Dr. Marc Levitan, a civil engineering professor at LSU and a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers told The Times-Picayune:

"If you build to base flood elevation, there's an alarmingly large chance that you'll be flooded at some point... You're just asking for problems. I strongly urge communities to seriously consider adopting local flood plain ordinances that take the FEMA maps as a minimum and add to that."

Dr. Levitan agrees with me that FEMA's 100-year flood standard is way too risky and urges building ABOVE the base flood elevation. And yet, as I noted earlier, there are many, many homeowners eagerly rebuilding their homes below the base elevation.

They're "grandfathered," which is a nice sounding term that serves to preserve tradition.

In this case, a tradition of flooded homes and businesses.


Editor B said...

I agree that our leaders should be urging elevation for many homes. But also keep in mind that elevating slab houses is generally not considered cost-effective. I'd seriously consider elevating if we didn't have a slab foundation.

Mac The Badger said...

also, the federal government's money IS our money being spent to protect our homes. We're free to jack our homes up or not. I wish we were also free to have more participation in jacking up the levees, but as it stands we are at the mercy of the corp of engineers, or the lowest bidding contractor.

Tim said...

b, True, it is not cost-effective to raise every home. But once flooded, it's even less cost-effective to repair it and move back in. I see this as a classic, "Pay me now or pay me later" problem.

mac, Yes, the fed gets its money from us, but that's ALL of us in all 50 states. We need to convince the rest of America that we are willing to shoulder some of this responsibility ourselves. Also, we are not at the mercy of the Corps of Engineers. The State or the Parish can tell the federal government to take a hike at any time if we want to do it ourselves. Unfortunately, we need their money, don't we?