February 5, 2006
Rebuilding New Orleans, One Appeal at a Time
By ADAM NOSSITER
NEW ORLEANS, Feb. 4 — Every day the line snakes down a spartan corridor on the eighth floor of City Hall here, as hundreds of people clutch a piece of paper inscribed with a fateful percentage that could force them to abandon their home.
The number is always over 50, and it means a house was so damaged in the flooding after Hurricane Katrina — more than half-ruined — that it faces demolition, unless the owner can come up with tens of thousands of dollars to raise it several feet above the ground and any future floodwaters.
But there is a way out, and that is why so many people stand in line every day, collectively transforming this half-ruined city. "What you need to do is talk to a building inspector and get that lowered below 50 percent," a city worker calls out to the crowd. And at the end of the line, in a large open room down the hall, that is exactly what happens, nearly 90 percent of the time, New Orleans officials say.
By agreeing so often to these appeals — more than 6,000 over the last few months — city officials are in essence allowing random redevelopment to occur throughout the city, undermining a plan by Mayor C. Ray Nagin's rebuilding commission to hold off on building permits in damaged areas for several months until more careful planning can take place. That plan, greeted by widespread opposition, including from the mayor himself, is now essentially dead.
House by house, in devastated neighborhoods across the city, homeowners are bringing back their new-minted building permits and rebuilding New Orleans. As many as 500 such permits are issued every day, said Greg Meffert, the city official in charge of the rebuilding process.
And there is no particular rhyme or reason to who gets a permit, or consideration of whether their neighborhoods can really support its previous residents. One city building inspector, Devra Goldstein, called the proceedings on the eighth floor "really fly-by-night, chaotic, Wild West, get-what-you-want."
The floor, she said, represents "a plan by default."
It is also testament to the fierce desire of many displaced New Orleanians to re-establish themselves, no matter the odds.
"They told us, if things look close, chances are we can get the assessment lowered below 50 percent, and we can start rebuilding," said George Aguillard, a 65-year-old retired longshoreman waiting patiently in the largely African-American crowd at City Hall.
"At my age, there's no starting over in a new house," said Mr. Aguillard, a resident of the flooded Pontchartrain Park neighborhood. His damage assessment came in at 52.13 percent.
But there may be a steep price to the city's largess in allowing so many people to move back into flood plains without having to elevate their homes. Past federal flood insurance directors say the practice violates the program, which established the 50-percent rule to guide safe building in flood-prone areas. Most communities have adopted it as a minimum standard, say officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which runs the flood program.
In exchange for heavily-subsidized flood insurance for residents, the program expects cities to insist on flood-resistant construction. Some cities that violate the flood rules have been ousted from the insurance program, putting thousands of residents at huge risk.
"They should be suspended, absolutely," said J. Robert Hunter, a former head of the federal flood-insurance program who is now director of insurance at the Consumer Federation of America. "You can't fake it," he said. "I sympathize with these people. But you shouldn't say 'well, you're poor, therefore you can build in a dangerous place where you can be flooded again, and killed.' "
He added, "You can't destroy the flood program to achieve a short-term goal."
Another early director of federal flood insurance, George K. Bernstein, was equally critical, saying the practice of reducing flood damage percentages was "just ripping off taxpayers."
"If New Orleans is phonying the damage reports so as to allow inadequate construction, they ought to get thrown out of the program," he said.
FEMA officials say they are keeping a close watch on New Orleans, but consider the city to be following the rules.
"I understand they have a process in place," said Michael Buckley, deputy director for mitigation at FEMA. "I wouldn't characterize it as a process to change the determination." Mr. Buckley said he was "not aware" of any large-scale downsizing of damage assessments.
But up on the eighth floor, the downward revisions are over in a matter of minutes. "It was pretty smooth," said Charles Harris, an Orleans Parish sheriff's deputy who had four feet of water in his eastern New Orleans home, and whose percentage of damage was changed from 52 to 47. "They were really helpful. I thought it was going to be a combative thing. I was ready to put on my shield. It wasn't like that at all."
"It was basically an in-and-out process," said Kevin François, an air-conditioning repairman with a house that was rated as 52 percent damaged, as he left City Hall with a number several points less than 50.
Mr. Meffert, the city official, said the initial assessments sometimes contained errors. Homeowners have to justify any changes to their damage assessments, he said, and must provide the details of their rebuilding plans. "What's swinging the vote is, 'I'm going to do it this way,' " he said.
But some leaving City Hall here are still in a pugnacious mood, despite the friendly reception. "I didn't give them a chance," Florestine Jalvia said proudly, having brought her assessment down to 47 percent damaged from 52.5 percent. A tougher stand on rebuilding would have probably engendered the same kind of reaction as the now-defunct four-month moratorium idea. "I think the city is trying to avoid a major public fight," said Ms. Goldstein, the building inspector.
Out in the once-flooded neighborhoods, there is feverish activity, at intervals. Those hard at work scoff at the commission's idea of holding off on rebuilding until it becomes clearer which areas have a chance of coming back.
"I'm not listening to that, man," said Kristopher Winder, as he finished gutting his mother's house in the Gentilly neighborhood. He had brought it back down to its frame. Down the street, signs in front of one house carry defiant messages: "We're rebuilding, and don't try to stop us!" reads one, and "There's no place like home" reads another.
"I thought, when they said that four-month thing, I thought that was crazy," Mr. Winder said. "I was mad. I thought it didn't make no sense."
"I'm working on this house," he said. "She's going to be up and running in three to four months."