NEW ORLEANS — Nearly three-fourths of New Orleans homeowners applying for federal grants say they'll rebuild their Katrina-damaged homes in flood areas even though city restrictions are unlikely to prevent their houses from being wiped out if the levees fail again.
The restrictions, which say that the city's homes must be raised at least 3 feet to avoid flooding, have come under fire from some local officials and government watchdog groups. They say 3 feet of elevation is not needed in areas that did not flood after Hurricane Katrina, and 3 feet is too low in areas that saw 20 feet of water.
Even the Federal Emergency Management Agency says thousands of houses could flood again if they are rebuilt under the new rules. "If there is another catastrophic event, flooding will occur," says Doug Bellomo, a deputy director of risk analysis at FEMA.
The Louisiana Recovery Authority, which controls billions in federal relief money, expects about 53,000 New Orleans homeowners to apply for federal grants. The grants provide up to $150,000 for uninsured losses, and residents can use the money to rebuild or relocate.
So far, 14,534 New Orleanians have applied for grants; about 10,634 have said they want to rebuild where they were.
"The taxpayers are going to be subsidizing unwise construction," says Robert Hunter, director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America. About $7.5 billion is available to homeowners.
The New Orleans City Council adopted the 3-foot rule on Sept. 1 to avoid losing millions in federal grants. The recovery authority has said parishes that don't adopt the rules will be excluded from receiving some of the relief money.
St. Bernard Parish, where all but 50 homes flooded, is considering rejecting the rules. "Our goal is not to adopt them," says St. Bernard Councilman Craig Taffaro. "We don't agree with the science."
Paul Rainwater of the recovery authority says the rules are "not perfect," but will help residents get much-needed flood insurance.
The second paragraph sums up the contradiction in the government's regulations. The second problem is that, while residents will get government grants to repair their homes, it does not include enough to cover the cost of raising it three feet.
It is possible to get a FEMA grant of up to $30,000 to rais a home. However, that amout is about what it costs to raise a house that is already raised on piers. If your home is a slab-on-grade (BTW is the type of house most likely to flood), the estimated cost to raise it could be as much as $100,000.
So when homeowners are contemplating taking out a loan for approximately $70,000 versus purchasing flood insurance, it may be that the premiums are lower for a non-raised house compared to the mortgage payment.
Rita Coolidge would be proud.