Friday, March 31, 2006

Sticker Shock

The Corps of Engineers underestimated the cost of upgrading hurricane protection levees by more than half.

Stunned by new estimates that almost $6 billion more could be needed to raise and repair levees to protect the New Orleans area from a major hurricane, the Louisiana congressional delegation is demanding that the Bush administration quickly request the money from Congress.

President Bush's Gulf Coast recovery coordinator, Donald Powell, told reporters that the administration will decide in the next two weeks whether to request the additional money -- nearly three times what the administration said was needed just a month ago.

Maj. Gen. Don Riley, director of civil works with the corps, said the additional money was recommended as a result of system deficiencies uncovered during recent repairs and inspections of the 169 miles of levees damaged by Hurricane Katrina, outside assessments by independent experts and new data that measure the protection required by the increased probability of a Category 3 or stronger hurricane now predicted by the National Weather Service.
But aside from the money issue, this has important implications for rebuilding behind the levees.
A new request from the president is critical to the release of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's long-awaited flood-elevation maps, which will give residents and businesses an indication about whether to rebuild in the region. Property behind the upgraded levees could see relatively minor changes in elevation requirements, subject primarily to more typical flooding. Those areas without improved levees would have to build substantially higher to account for flooding and storm surge.
Should the levees not be upgraded as needed, the FEMA flood maps may require homes to be elevated to a much higher elevation than with upgraded levees. And the impact of having to raise homes even higher goes beyond just the cost of building higher.

But to raise homes to an extent to satisfy FEMA regulations may be counterproductive. According to Liz Moule and Stefanos Polyzoides:
Uncritically accepting the FEMA maps in their entirely without any exploration of alternatives is a mistake. It is clear that there are many technologies and techniques that can be used to create a home at grade that can withstand hurricane forces. Similarly, we believe the FEMA proposed buildings on stilts need further study. Aside from their inability to create good neighborhoods, respond to ADA standards, their extravagant cost, they are vulnerable to uplift winds and may not be the safest choice for Coastal reconstruction.
As architects are well aware, no solution is perfect. Each has its own drawbacks and the trick is to balance the pros with the cons to create the most economical solution. As the federal government is founding that out, their only reaction seems to be shock.

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