An agreement to release $1.1 billion in federal aid to help tens of thousands of New Orleans-area homeowners elevate their homes against flooding appears near. But there's a big catch.
As many as 29,000 homeowners who got tired of waiting for bureaucrats to resolve a dispute over the money and began raising their homes at their own expense may find themselves shut out, by one preliminary estimate. That is because elevation work begun before the program kicks in is not eligible for funding.
Elevation involves jacking up a house, sinking pilings 30 to 50 feet into the ground, in some cases, and setting the home on piers 3 to 15 feet high. The job can cost $70,000 to $150,000 because it can also include building a new foundation, replacing plumbing and erecting a new porch and stairs.
Under state rules, hurricane-affected homeowners living in the 100-year flood zone — an area that has a 1-in-100 chance of being flooded in any given year — could be eligible for up to $30,000 each to elevate their homes.
The money, known as hazard mitigation funds, is for victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. It has been held up for months because of conflicts between state and FEMA rules on how the aid is to be distributed and what can be done with it. But an agreement between state and federal officials appears to be at hand.
Up to 78,000 eligible in La.
State officials believe up to 78,000 homeowners whose houses were damaged by the hurricanes in 2005 could be eligible. But some of those homeowners, like Paul Deckert, could be out of luck.
Deckert said he applied to the state-run Road Home program for federal aid to rebuild and raise his home in New Orleans' Lakeview neighborhood. But since the mitigation grant he expected to get got tied up in the squabble between the state and feds, he used his rebuilding money to raise his house. He doesn't think he should be penalized for trying to get on with his life.
"It's frustrating," said Deckert, who lives in a government trailer in front of an unfinished house now raised 9 feet off the ground. "If you took care of it because you couldn't wait any longer, because you can't fix your house until the foundation is fixed, you're screwed."
The state hopes the Federal Emergency Management Agency will relax its qualifying rules. FEMA could be forced to do so under a bill written by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said Andy Kopplin, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority.
"We hope it will pass this fall and be law," he said.
Franki Coons, deputy section chief for the hazard mitigation program for FEMA's Louisiana recovery office, said FEMA does not pay for elevation work that is under way or already completed, because it is too late to do the necessary environmental, risk and cost analyses.
'Road Home' frustrations
The logjam over the money is the latest frustration for homeowners. The Road Home rebuilding program, funded with billions of federal dollars, expects to run out of money before all claims are satisfied. The shortfall has been projected at at least $4 billion.
Some sections of the New Orleans area were swamped with 12 feet of water after Katrina broke the levees. The Army Corps of Engineers has spent billions of dollars since then to repair and upgrade the flood walls, and plans to do much more work.
But raising homes in New Orleans, where many neighborhoods are at or below sea level, is seen as crucial, too.
In older neighborhoods, houses built in the 1800s and early 1900s are raised on piers because drainage at the time they were built wasn't adequate to keep out floodwaters. The practice declined in the mid- and late 20th century as levee building and improved drainage created a greater sense of safety.
"Obviously, if we had come to the realization a year ago that this was the way to go, there would probably be more money on the street now," Coons said.
"But this was not designed to be a recovery plan," she said. "It looks forward to reduce future losses."