An extremely disturbing story in today's Washington Post details how a lack of organization and a rash of political cowardice has led residents of New Orleans to rebuild in the same vulnerable neighborhoods, employing the same risky construction techniques:
After Katrina, teams of planners recommended that broad swaths of vulnerable neighborhoods be abandoned. Yet all areas of the city have at least some residents beginning to rebuild. With billions of dollars in federal relief for homeowners trickling in, more people are expected to follow.
Moreover, while new federal guidelines call for raising houses to reduce the damage of future floods, most returning homeowners do not have to comply or are finding ways around the costly requirement, according to city officials.
"It's terrifying: We're doing the same things we have in the past but expecting different results," said Robert G. Bea, a professor of civil engineering at the University of California at Berkeley and a former New Orleans resident who served as a member of the National Science Foundation panel that studied the city's levees...
Mike Centineo, the city's building chief, said, "Legally and morally, we're doing the right thing," but he acknowledged that most returning homeowners are not raising their houses to meet the new flood guidelines. "You wouldn't want to put people through more than they can endure. It's a catastrophe that happened. No one wants it to happen again. But they're just rebuilding as best they can."
The chairman of the federal Gulf Coast rebuilding office, Donald E. Powell, said recently that "tough decisions" about where to repopulate this half-empty city are necessary.
"The President and I believe planning decisions should not be made in Washington, but rather at the local level," he said in a statement. "However at some point, there needs to be strong local leadership, and that includes making tough decisions about the city's size and the safety of her citizens. Federal tax dollars should not be used to rebuild in places that repeatedly flood or are damaged due to Mother Nature -- in New Orleans or elsewhere."
Whatever decisions are to be made, however, none is likely to come soon. And as time rolls on, and as more houses in vulnerable neighborhoods are reinhabited, it will grow more difficult, politically and financially, to lead residents to safer areas...
But Nagin, who was hearing complaints that shrinking the city's footprint was unfair, particularly to African Americans, rejected the idea. Everyone should be able to return to their homes, he said.
"I'm not ready to concede that neighborhoods need to be demolished," Nagin said at the time.
Officials in St. Bernard Parish, meanwhile, rejected closing off a particularly hard-hit 36-block section of Chalmette because they could not afford to buy out property owners.
Once the idea of neighborhood closures was dropped, many pinned their hopes for added safety on the new federal guidelines for elevating homes. "Substantially damaged" houses in the area now must be raised, often three feet above the ground. But the requirements contain enormous loopholes, and there is a huge financial incentive to avoid them.
Raising a house can cost upwards of $50,000, especially for the modern suburban homes built on concrete slabs in some of the most flooded areas. The federal government offers grants of as much as $30,000 for repairs, but in many cases much more is required.
"The vast majority simply do not have the financial resources to rebuild differently," said Greg Rigamer, chief executive of GCR & Associates and a consultant in the rebuilding.
Residents could avoid having to comply with the new guidelines by getting permits before the rules were enacted locally -- thousands in New Orleans did -- or if their houses were determined to be less than 50 percent damaged by Katrina.
Many homes, even those that took on 10 feet of water for weeks, have been designated beneath that threshold, including hundreds whose owners appealed larger initial damage assessments...
It's stunning that given the level of attention to this disaster, such a foolish reconstruction plan is being allowed to go forward. And while it's no surprise, it's still pathetic that the city's local leadership supports it. If there is anything that Mayor Nagin has demonstrated, it's that he is incompetent, and cannot be trusted to protect the city from natural disaster. The city's policy on reconstruction demonstrates that reputation will remain intact.
Perhaps the new Democratic Congress can demonstrate its commitment to oversight by finding out why the Bush Administration isn't doing everyhing it cann to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not wasted, while simultaneously endangering more lives.
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