Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Forty Years Later, Saving the Flooded City


Flood Street after Hurricane Betsy 

In September 1965, the levees failed.

Over topping from storm surge caused levee failures along the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal and flooded the Ninth Ward, Bywater, and St. Bernard Parish. Water rose up to seven feet above first floor level (meaning as much as eight to ten feet for elevated homes), causing widespread damage to homes, business, automobiles.

Hurricane Betsy left 81 people dead in its wake, and a city shaken out of its usual torpor.

Today, two of the areas worst affected by Hurricane --Bywater and Holy Cross (the area of the Lower Ninth Ward south of St. Claude Avenue) are two centers of architectural renovation, and examples of community recovery without excessive gentrification.

The Ninth Ward--often portrayed as poor and black (both to some extent true)--has one of the highest rates of home ownership of predominately minority neighborhoods.

How did these areas survive 1965, and what does that tell us about the future of those areas of ?

LSU professor Craig E. Colten and John Welsh looked at Bywater post-Betsy, an area where the Corps of Engineers found some 6,350 homes with as much as seven feet of water above first floor (not ground) level west. . Looking at the same area in the 1990s, these researchers found 76 percent of flooded properties "retain architectural integrity".

Two reason they site were a lack of resources to rebuild prior to the establishment of the National Flood Insurance Program (itself an outgrowth of Betsy's devastation), and the lack of post-storm regulations imposed by NFIP (such as requiring homes more than 50% damaged to be rebuilt above the flood level).

They also cite a conversion of much of the area to rental property, which may have led absentee landlords to invest the minimal amount required to return a property to the rental market.

If Colton's observation about the influence of landlords is true, that might yet hold hope for the large areas of New Orleans that were heavily populated by renters, and heavily flooded.

Colton said this week via email that, while he has not inspected the Ninth Ward's Holy Cross neighborhood, preservationists he has spoken with report "the housing
stock on high ground is in good condition. The same can be said for much
of the Bywater which I have visited." He notes that many of the homes in Bywater were elevated above the flood waters that reached the neighborhood.

What about the Ninth Ward? Residents there insist it should be rebuilt, if it can't be saved.

New Orleans, with 20 districts on the National Register of Historic Places covering half of the city, has the highest concentration of historic structures in the nation. That includes the Lower Ninth’s Holy Cross section, with its shotgun houses and gems such as the Jackson Barracks, the Doullut Steamboat Houses and St. Maurice Church.

After World War II, the Ninth Ward became a haven in racially divided New Orleans for black veterans who for the first time became homeowners. It was for the emerging black middle class what Lakeview and St. Bernard were for whites, a place to move out and get a home of their own.

Sixty percent of the Lower Ninth's housing stock was build pre-1960 (pre Betsy), according to the US Census Bureau. It also has a 59% owner occupancy rate, one of the highest in the city. That would indicate that that much of that stock survived the inundation of Hurricane Betsy.

However, the Washington Post reported on Oct. 4 that fire fighters had already begun to red tag hundreds of homes in the neighborhood, indicating they were unsafe to enter, "the first step in a wrenching debate over whether the Lower Ninth Ward should be rebuilt or whether, as some suggest, it should revert to its natural state: swamp".

Many of these red tags are likely to be found in the areas immediately adjacent to the breaches. Wherever the levees or floodwalls fails, the water came through with tremendous force, punching holes through brick homes in Lakeview and floating most buildings off their foundations in the lower Ninth.

In good news, some other heavily flooded neighborhoods are being treated on a case-by-case basis, includintg Lakeview and St. Benard Parish. Early reports that entire neighborhoods and zip codes would be condemned and bull-dozed appear to have been prepmature.

Postings in a Yahoo group Rebuild_Lakeview indicate many homeowners are being told their properties are salvagable. One local resident noted that metal items (he cited a pair of siscors) found in their home did not show the expected rust of an item immersed in salt water then exposed to air. This might indicate that the waters were less brackish than immediately feared.

This has important implications for the integrity of fasters (nails, etc.) and for electrical wiring. If the integrity of the metal parts of flooded frame homes were believed compromised, they might be condemned. Inspection of the electrical wiring is a major roadblock to the restoration of residential power, and the mandatory inspections the city and Entergy call for are hampered by the city's inability to pay inspectors.

And an article by New Orleans author and resident S. Frederick Starr in the New York Times suggests that the oldest homes are those most likely to survive. (By subscription or purchase, here).

"[S]ome of the city's vernacular buildings may prove beyond repair, most--including who neighborhoods now being characterized by politicians and developers as candidates for demolition-can and should be saved.

"In the 19th century, local craftsmen devised structural techniques that allowed houses to stand securely on the city's pudding-like alluvial soil, and to survive in the region's notoriously humid climate, with its insects, termites and mold. [They used] light balloon frames, self-reinforcing structures of two-by-four joists that could be raised above ground on brick or stone piers. For these frames they used local cypress wood, which resists both water and rot, and for secondary woods they favored local cedar, which is nearly as weatherproof as cypress, and dense virgin pine.

"The builders also used circulating air to ward off mold. Ten- to twelve-foot ceilings in even the smallest homes, as well as large windows, channel the slightest breeze throughout the house. And by raising the structures above the ground, builders assured that air would circulate beneath them as well, discouraging termites and rodents.

"All this means that wooden structures in the New Orleans area are far tougher than they may seem. Thousands have undergone prolonged flooding in the past, yet survived. The owners cleaned them up, replaced secondary wood and wallboard, fixed wiring and plastered, and were back in business."


If the older homes of New Orleans prove more resiliant than many outsiders have suggested, and if the waters were less damaging (less brackish and less polluted) than originally reported, then there is hope that we will soon see a very recognizable New Orleans emerging from the flood waters.

As it has done, time and again.

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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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