Wednesday, April 12, 2006

FEMA to NOLA: Drop Dead

The announcement today of new flood advisory maps effectively condemns tens of thousands of homes on the New Orleans area, and seems makes it official that the levees can't be relied upon in calculating flood protection.

The advisories will require homes built slab-on-grade to be elevated 1-3 feet if they are damanged more than 50% to qualify for future flood insurance, which will likely elevate the cost of reconstruction or renovation far beyond payouts for flood-insured homes, even including the mitigation payments that will pay a small part of the cost of elevating homes.

In a latter concession to some home owners, which the Times Picayune says was targeted at older residents, some homes might be allowed to rebuild or renovate at current elevations, but would have to be elevated when they are sold in the future. While this might allow some residents to return, it would effectively confiscate the value of the homes, which could not be sold without being elevated.

The target of 1-3 feet seems odd, unless one assumes this incorporates additional funding for levee armoring. This would appear to imply that, with the approval of additional funds for levee armoring, the city will end up with a Category Three system susceptible to overtopping. It is also the amount of water we could wind up with in some neighborhoods with gated drainage canals in a significant tropical storm.

Federal recovery czarina Donald Powell also announced today that the White House would request $2.5 billion "to improve levees", presumably the funds requested by the Corps for armouring the levees so they could be certified by FEMA. Without the additional funds, FEMA flood maps would be drawn as if there were no protective levees. That additional funding would indicate that FEMA is making assumptions that we have survivable Cat 3 levees.

This seems, from a distance, to be an eminently reasonable decsision. It is not

Currently, FEMA may provide grants of up to $30,000 to elevate homes, but elevating a slab-on-grade home can cost twice that amount. In the Ninth Ward, where may lower-middle-class black homeowners did not carry flood insurance and just barely qualified for mortgages, reconstruction will likely be impossible.

In much of the rest of the city, this may be the decision that tips the scale against rebuilding, as it could add as much as $50,000 above and beyond any assistance grants to the cost of reconstruction, or more for rebuilt homes, pricing many survivors out of the local housing market.

The ugly arithmetic is laid out here in a Times-Picayune article headlined "Future of slab house construction in question." Kinch of Building Big Easy explains how this will likely play out in an excellent post here. To extend his thoughts, one of two things can happen. The city can start ramping down the damage estimates and face charges of being "corrupt" and "crooked" and cheating the system.

Or we can abandon Lakeview and Gentilly, New Orleans East and St. Bernard, except for lakefront enclaves for the weathly who can afford the new elevations, which is essentially what Mr. Powell announced today.

In a single day, Bush and Powell and FEMA have done what Osama bin Laden only dreams of: they have wiped off the map a vast swath of a great American city.

flood elevation

You may be right in your interpretation. It's a pretty confusing scenario, overall... but my overall feeling was relief, actually, that somebody finally said something.

I don't really expect that they will ever say, frankly, that the city is not subject to flooding again someday...
well, someone else, a scientist, at the AAAS meeting in St. Louis, said it's not worth rebuilding, read here for more
Why should we give the benefit of the doubt to houses designed by developers from elsewhere for companies looking for a quick buck? Because they were built in the 50s and 60s? Have you driven through Lakeview? On streets that resemble the Zephyr from Pontchartrain Beach?

I love Lakeview, but the design was stupid. Let's do it right this time.

I'm no FEMA fan, but I really think we have to change.
In my eternal focus on the odd and ephemeral, I'm fixated on your calling Mr Eyebrows the Czarina. Nice touch. I call him the Katrina Kaiser myself.

Being serious for a nano-second, I don't think anyone should ever build a slab house in this climate or elevation. And they should be avoided in rebuilding. In short, I agree with the giant Fleur de Lis guy...
Sorry Tom, but:

1) The only parts of New Orleans 10 feet below sea level are the bottom of the drainage canals. None are 15 feet below sea level.

2) There aren't going to be 30 foot swells up against the levees. If you dig back far enough in my blog, you can see a photo of the "sea state" along the New Orleans east levees and it's nothing like that. The water would be too shallow there to support those kind of wave hieghts.

I don't now what kind of science program this was, but it didn't do much to Advance American Science.

Mr. Clio, slab-on-grade construction is problematic. I agree. The real issue is that the federal government is dragging its feet trying to do as little to help as possible, and is now making the situtation worse. How is it going to make elevated homes affordable to build again?

Point well taken. You're absolutely right about the feds' slothful response and lack of forward-looking thinking.

I hear that private contractors et al are coming up with some cool, low-cost raised designs. Let's see where that goes.
"I hear that private contractors et al are coming up with some cool, low-cost raised designs. Let's see where that goes."

Probably nowhere, those don't sound like FEMA approved contractors.

Did you notice that the scientist at wunderphul was Kusky--whining about how they tried to kill the Sixty minutes story? I don't remember anyone trying to kill the story. The problem was that a scientist saying the city couldn't be saved was "balanced" by a booster saying it should be saved.
No, I didn't notice it was Kusky. I sent an email (blind copying John at 3rd battle), asking for a correction and an apology for broadcasting his patent nonsense.
Well I just totally lost it on that guy Tom's blog. I think the name of the blog says it all "Whatever" - guess it must be nice to be so laissez-faire. Or maybe he would have no problem with losing everything he owns and then be told his city is "exterminated" and he'll have to move "somewhere else". Hey, not a problem!
Grrrrr.....guess I'm losing it tonight.
Actually, Andy Kopplin of the Louisiana Recovery Authority asked 60 Minutes not to air Kusky's crap, but they refused.

Houses that are less than 50% damaged are grandfathered, right? So this is only really a problem for homes that are slab homes which are more than 50% damaged, right?

A home which is a total loss, it's not so much of a problem, right? If you gotta rebuild from scratch, you rebuild on piers. It's those tweener homes that are the real issue. More than 50% damaged, but not totally demolished.

My wife knows of several low cost, storm-resistant building technologies that are ideal for this kind of thing, that can seriously reduce the construction cost of a new pier & beam house, but getting people to adopt new techniques is hard in every city, and face it, in New Orleans people are especially resistant to new ideas. They'd rather keep doing the same shit over and over. It's why the schools are so lovely, for instance.

Letting people rebuild slab homes is not the answer. The real issue is getting the federal government to fully reimburse people because of the negligant engineering that led to the disaster, and making sure people have the means to build elevated homes.
Agreed: the issue isn't the merit of slab-on-grade construction. The issues are 1) compensation for the levee failure and 2) how to begin to build elevated houses again. People are desperately trying to weasal themselves to less than 50% because they can't afford to rebuilt, even with flood insurance, because of the cost of new construction. What we need is for the government to make homeowners whole for the losses they caused.
Mr. Clio and Ray, do you now where to go for info. on the new construction methods.

Hate to be a wet blanket, but it sounds like they're for new construction rather than elevating existing houses. Still a major improvement, but it doesn't help a lot of people.
Kusky pissed me off so much, again, that I'm getting ready to unload a rant on his ass.

And adrastos, bstjdavid, and cl10 have it right. Redo it right this time.
Czarina jumped off the page at me too. LOL. But your last paragraph kind of knocked the wind out of me and made me feel sick. Then the discussion that followed and the comments I read over at Tom's made me feel hopeful. *sigh*
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