Advisories to raise houses also raising blood pressure
Damage estimate key to future for many local homeowners
Friday, April 14, 2006 By Gordon Russell and Brian Thevenot
Sometime soon, Leonard Lewis plans to head to the eighth floor of City Hall to challenge an inspector's assertion that his Mid-City home suffered flood damage that will cost more than half its value to fix -- a determination that will make the difference in whether he must raise his house.
Lewis' house sits 4 feet above the ground, a foot higher than the "3 feet above grade" recommendation laid out by the federal government in new advisory elevations announced Wednesday. His problem is that his lowest floors are 18 inches below what the government calls "base flood elevation," defined as the minimum standard needed to protect a home from a 100-year flood.
Nearly eight months after the storm, he is paying rent for an apartment as well as the mortgage on his unlivable Mid-City home. He has no interest in raising it.
The home, at Banks and South Salcedo streets, had never before flooded in the century between its construction and Hurricane Katrina.
Now, Lewis' quandary rests on a difference of 18 inches and 4 percentage points: Because inspectors determined his house is 54 percent damaged, it is considered "substantially damaged," costing him the "grandfather" status that previously allowed his home to sit below the base flood elevations adopted in 1984 and still qualify for subsidized rates in the federal flood insurance program. To keep those lower flood insurance rates, he now must meet that standard -- by raising his home 18 inches.
The cost of elevating it? Contractors estimated it at $45,000, significantly more than the $30,000 in federal aid available to Lewis to defray the cost. That will eat into his insurance settlement, making it impossible to do other work he has planned, including wiring, insulation and niceties to ensure the house retains its historic character. If he wins the appeal, the home would not be considered badly damaged and would be freed from the elevation requirements.
More than the cost, it's the time and hassle of raising the house that Lewis would rather avoid, not to mention fears it might weaken the structure.
"I'm afraid of what that does to the strength of the house," he said. "And it's a great old house, so I'd like to redo it in a way that keeps its character. Lifting it takes away from that. I'm not at all unique. I'd say 80 percent of Mid-City is in the same boat I am."
While Wednesday's announcement didn't much change the bureaucratic rules governing Lewis' house, it did clear away the fog of uncertainty and opened the path for him to deal head-on with a dilemma that brings him no less angst. Thousands of others remain in Lewis' unenviable position. About 40 percent of the homes on the east bank of New Orleans are assessed as "substantially damaged" by Katrina's floodwaters, according to federal figures, and the vast majority of them must be elevated to meet base flood elevation requirements.
While new advisory standards announced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Wednesday did not change the 1984 elevations, about 75 percent of the New Orleans homes with flood insurance already were below that standard. Once they suffered severe flood damage, it triggered the requirement to raise them.
In addition to affirming the 1984 base flood elevation standards, FEMA also recommended that substantially damaged buildings be "3 feet above grade," or the ground around the building. FEMA advised owners to meet the higher of the two standards. While the "3 feet above grade" recommendation does not have the force of law unless local governments adopt it, officials from the Louisiana Recovery Authority have said they will require owners of substantially damaged homes to meet the advisory standards to qualify for up to $150,000 in federal rebuilding assistance.
Likewise, homeowners who want to tear down and rebuild must meet federal elevation requirements in the new construction.
St. Bernard officials have said the parish will move quickly to make the advisories law. No announcement has been made in New Orleans.
Right to appeal
While the citywide estimate is that 75 percent of homes with flood insurance are below the base flood elevation, the proportion is likely even higher in low-lying city neighborhoods built before the federal flood program was established, most of which flooded during Katrina. Owners of houses that fit that definition and also received substantial damage -- defined as repairs costing more than 50 percent of the price to rebuild it -- already would have had to elevate their homes to continue qualifying for subsidized federal flood insurance.
Of course, there's a well-documented loophole for New Orleanians who face the prospect of having to elevate their houses. Homeowners who bring pictures of their properties to the eighth floor of City Hall can argue to have their damage assessment reduced, and they're generally successful.
If the damage figure goes below 50 percent, the homeowner can obtain a building permit and be grandfathered in at the current elevation. That means the homeowner can continue to buy flood insurance without being penalized for the home's low elevation.
So far, more than 6,000 homeowners have successfully had their damage assessments dropped to below 50 percent, or about 10 percent of the 56,000 homeowners who initially fell into that category.
The alacrity with which city bureaucrats generally grant such reductions sparked speculation that a stampede of homeowners would descend on City Hall after the new advisories were announced, given that many residents would presumably rather not spend the money to elevate their homes.
But there was no evidence of any rush for permits Wednesday. It was a typical day on the eighth floor, not even as busy as usual, administrators said. Mike Centineo, director of safety and permits, said he expects that as residents digest the new advisories, more homeowners will come to dispute their damage assessments. But he doesn't expect a tidal wave.
Not waiting, or worried
Other residents scoffed at the new advisories.
"I really don't give a crap if they tell me to raise the house," Lakeview resident Susan Mahaffey said of FEMA. "The $30,000 to $50,000 I'd need to raise it would pay for insurance for a long time."
Mahaffey's gutted house sits about 2½ feet below base flood elevation, and about 3 feet off the ground. She's fighting a 52.5 percent damage assessment of her Florida Boulevard home, which took on 6 feet of water, but plans to rebuild at its current height regardless of whether her protest succeeds.
A check of damage assessments on the city's Web site indicated Mahaffey may already have won her battle: The city lists her house just under the threshold, at 49.6 percent damaged.
On Pauger Street, Michael Johnston said he can't sit around and wait for federal, state and local officials to figure out a plan -- not while he's stuck sharing a FEMA trailer with three children, his father and two dogs, -- one of whom, a retriever named Zeus, has a skin infection.
"My dad and I usually get along fine, but we get on each other's nerves sometimes in that little trailer," he said.
As for rebuilding, Johnston already has gutted his slab home that took on about 6 feet of water and has no plans to raise it -- not when the information he hears keeps changing.
But others have gone ahead and elevated their homes, even before knowing of the new requirements. Vera Triplett, vice president of the Gentilly Civic Improvement Association, said some residents have already raised their homes higher than FEMA now recommends, in some cases 6 or 8 feet off the ground.
St. Bernard decides
In St. Bernard Parish, where nearly every house flooded, government officials said they plan to give the FEMA flood advisories the force of law in about two weeks, making elevation standards mandatory for all owners of homes with more than 50 percent damage.
Mike Hunnicutt, St. Bernard Parish director of community development, said the advisories could affect as many as 10,000 of the parish's 27,000 homes. Hunnicutt said his office has seen a steady stream of owners trying to certify that their damage is less than 50 percent in the past few months.
Leah Asevedo of Meraux, who is temporarily living in a two-bedroom trailer with eight people in Mandeville, came to Hunnicutt's office Thursday to learn about rebuilding her Munster Boulevard home. Asevedo said she is not sure exactly how the advisories affect her house, which has an initial damage assessment of 60 percent to 100 percent damage even though it remains structurally sound. The one-story slab house, on relatively high ground, already complied with FEMA's 1984 flood elevations. She said it would be a heavy burden if she is required to raise her home 3 feet.
"Depending on if we can get help, we may not be able to afford it," said Asevedo, who said she would wait until after the 2006 hurricane season to rebuild.
'Just common sense'
Overall, New Orleans officials breathed a sigh of relief over the new rules. Homes that have crossed the 50 percent threshold must indeed be raised -- if the homeowners plan to rebuild them -- or a new house must be built higher off the ground. But that's fair, said city technology chief Greg Meffert, who supervises the safety and permits department.
"It's just common sense to rebuild in line with flood standards that have been around three decades," Meffert said.
And there's money available to do it: FEMA provides at least $30,000 to raise homes to meet elevation standards. Although much has been made of people trying to game their damage percentage to escape the prospect of raising their homes, Meffert thinks few such cases exist. People generally want to rebuild their homes higher and safer, he said.
"There's an assumption that's false: that everybody wants to rebuild under the elevation levels and try to get away with it," he said. "In the end, if they decide to rebuild, they want to rebuild safely. So tell me why I don't want to take the money and raise the house?"
If the city adopts it, the new "3 feet above grade" advisory could have a big impact, ironically, in high and dry areas, so-called "B" flood zones, which are concentrated near the river in neighborhoods like Uptown or the French Quarter and sprinkled on ridges throughout the city. While structures that stayed dry after Katrina would be exempt because they suffered no damage, FEMA now recommends building new homes and business in those areas 3 feet off the ground -- which makes no sense, Meffert said.
"If you built a new condo building or hotel, you'd have to build it 3 feet high, even though the CBD and the French Quarter had no standing water at the end of the day," he said.
City officials plan to negotiate an exception for "B" flood zones with FEMA officials, Meffert said. "It's a pretty obvious exception, places that didn't take on water," he said. "I don't expect we'll have any trouble convincing FEMA."
LRA: Follow the rules
For owners of substantially damaged homes, thumbing their noses at FEMA elevation recommendations, or gaming their damage percentages to avoid them, may spark another problem with another, more important bureaucracy: the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the agency handing out the federal rebuilding money.
Assuming the money is approved by Congress, as expected, the LRA plans to hand out grants of as much as $150,000 to help homeowners rebuild or buy them out of their property. Those with homes exceeding 50 percent damage won't get a dime unless they agree to raise their house, said Drew Sachs, an LRA consultant with the firm of James Lee Witt and Associates.
And homeowners with badly damaged homes who try to get their official assessments below 50 percent will only be hurting themselves, Sachs said.
Homes under the substantially damaged threshold won't qualify for the $30,000 available to help them comply with the new elevation, he said. More important, the value of low-lying houses could plummet as other residents take the high road.
"I can tell you from experience, people whose homes are below the flood elevation level, particularly after a big event, can expect to see significantly lower home values compared to their neighbors with raised houses," he said. "It's self-destructive."
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Steve Ritea and Karen Turni-Bazile contributed to this story.
Brian Thevenot can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3482. Gordon Russell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3347.