Hurricane Katrina revealed fatal flaws in the way this city is built. But as thousands of New Orleanians seek construction permits, many are planning to rebuild their homes in the same place, at the same elevation, without any guarantee that the levees will hold in the next big storm.
While residents say they have neither the time nor the money to elevate the homes they are rebuilding, experts say the rush of reconstruction could lead to a repeat of the disaster. Officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency are studying safe building elevations for the city, but the agency has yet to adopt new guidelines.
"This is an unhealthy situation," said Reed Kroloff, dean of the Tulane University School of Architecture and co-chairman of a rebuilding planning committee. "We all want people to be able to rebuild. But we want them to rebuild safely."
Most of the more than two dozen homeowners interviewed recently as they applied for building permits said they will not elevate their houses — even if as much as nine or 10 feet of water flowed in during the storm.
Moreover, although these homeowners said they are counting on the city's flood-control system of levees, canals and pumping stations to keep them dry, the federal government has yet to determine just how hurricane-worthy the new flood protections will be.
So far, Congress has appropriated only enough money to rebuild the flood protections to withstand a fast-moving Category 3 storm, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps has yet to guarantee that the flood measures could withstand Category 4 or Category 5 hurricanes, though it is studying the possibility.
The city's willingness to issue building permits in the absence of new elevation guidelines and details about the levee reconstruction is a "misguided attempt to jump-start" the rebuilding process, Kroloff said.
Despite the surge in building permits, city officials have been frustrated because signs of construction in many neighborhoods are sparse.
Battle over building moratorium
A mayoral commission proposed a four-month moratorium on building permits in the hardest-hit areas to give planners and residents time to assimilate the lessons of Katrina.
The moratorium proposal drew fierce opposition from homeowners, many of whom want to rebuild quickly, or at least get a building permit without having to elevate their houses.
Mayor C. Ray Nagin said last month that he opposes a moratorium, saying homeowners should have the right to rebuild.
Greg Meffert, a city executive who oversees the building department, said: "Whether or not someone believes it's stupid to rebuild in New Orleans, because the levees might break again, that's a completely different issue." He dismissed as unrealistic the idea that houses should be built high enough to withstand another catastrophic levee failure.
"You can't assume the levees might break, because everything in the city would have to be built on stilts," he said.
But some disaster experts said that in the great rush to reassemble their houses and lives, homeowners may be perilously ignoring what Katrina taught.
"After a disaster, people want to get back to normalcy as quickly as possible — even if it flies in the face of what outsiders would consider rational," said David Simpson, director of the Center for Hazards Research and Policy Development at the University of Louisville.
Many homeowners, however, said they have little choice: Raising their houses would cost too much. Estimates for elevating a house start at $20,000 and some exceed $100,000. FEMA offers as much as $30,000 toward such projects, but many homeowners said that amount would cover only a fraction of their costs.
"It's not that we don't want to raise our home — it's that we can't afford to," said Mary Balthazar, 70. Her slab house in New Orleans East was flooded with about nine feet of water, but she and her husband were appealing a city inspector's decision that would force them to elevate it.
"If we had to raise it, we might as well tear it down," she said. "They need to fix the levees."
More room, not more height
Even those who have extra money for rebuilding are spending it on more room, not more height.
Nicole Webre, 27, and her fiance are gutting their Lakeview house. And even though it took in eight feet of water, they are not elevating it. They are building an addition.
"If the levees hadn't failed, we wouldn't even be discussing this," she said. "Once they're rebuilt, I'm not concerned they'll break again."
Lt. Col. Murray Starkel of the Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans, one of the leaders of the effort to rebuild the levees, urged caution, however.
Asked about homeowners who dismiss the possibility that another hurricane will overcome the city's flood defenses, Starkel noted that his house is seven feet above sea level — relatively high for New Orleans.
"Each person has their own risk-tolerance level," Starkel said. "Will this be the safest place to live once the levees are rebuilt? I can't say that. I don't know what nature has in store for us."
Before World War II, planners and historians said, home builders in New Orleans took extra precautions against potential inundations from the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain.
Some of the oldest portions of the city, such as the French Quarter and the Garden District, are built on higher ground, and many older New Orleans houses are built high enough that the front door is as many as 10 steps above the sidewalk. Many of these fared best during the Katrina floods last summer.
"Prior to the '50s and '60s, most of the housing in New Orleans was built raised above the ground," Tulane's Kroloff said. "The regular flooding of New Orleans didn't threaten them."
Newer sections of the city experienced some of the worst flooding, including New Orleans East and Lakeview, where the ground is lower and houses were built on concrete slabs at ground level, Kroloff said.
In recent decades, the required building elevations for new and rebuilt houses have been set by FEMA, which issues maps for cities participating in the federal flood insurance program. The elevation requirements are supposed to reflect the height a house must be to stay dry in a flood likely to happen once in 100 years.
Under the FEMA rules, new houses — and those that have suffered more than 50 percent damage — must conform to the maps' requirements. Those rules are expected to become even stricter after federal flood regulators recalculate the safe elevations in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Pleading for lower damage estimates
To avoid having to meet whatever the new requirements might be, hundreds of homeowners have descended on City Hall to appeal city damage estimates that showed their houses were more than 50 percent damaged.
A few days ago, Nadine Martin, 47, wore a broad smile after city officials agreed to lower the damage assessment for her house in New Orleans East, which was flooded with six feet of water.
The decision meant that she could rebuild the house without elevating it.
"I can't afford to raise it — I'm unemployed because of the storm," she said. She had been working for the city schools as a buyer before the widespread post-Katrina layoffs.
Isn't she worried about the flood risks?
"Life is a gamble — I could walk outside and get shot," she said, still beaming with the news that she could soon start rebuilding. "What else can I do?"
John Potts, 52, who owns a woodworking shop, was outside the Lakeview house he intends to rebuild — but not elevate. The area is one of the lowest in the city, and after Katrina, the water reached seven feet above the floor. But like many others here, he hopes that the new levee system will hold in the next hurricane.
"If it floods again," he said, "I'm out of here."