New Orleans Residents Await Guidance on Flood Zones

By Michelle Roberts | April 4, 2006

Audrey Celistan desperately wants to return to New Orleans and rebuild the three-bedroom brick house she lived in for 42 years before Hurricane Katrina drowned it in more than 10 feet (3 meters) of muddy water.

Lucky for her, Celistan has homeowner’s and flood insurance. Even better, the checks arrived in January.

But like thousands of other homeowners, she is afraid to do much because federal officials have not yet issued new flood advisories for New Orleans and adjacent parishes.

“I don’t want to make the mistake of investing the money I’ve been given, and the next hurricane season, I’m flooded out again,” said the 74-year-old who received US$180,000 in insurance money but fears it will not be enough if she needs to raise her home’s elevation. “It’s kind of folly, not to know and be on sinking sand.”

Across the New Orleans area, homeowners face a similar dilemma seven months after the Aug. 29 storm. Even with enough insurance and savings to start over, many are reluctant to start expensive reconstruction until the Federal Emergency Management Agency issues advisories that will tell them what they need to do to mitigate the risk of flooding again.

FEMA has delayed the advisories several times since the start of the year as researchers incorporate new post-Katrina data, agency spokeswoman Nicol Andrews said. They are now expected in the next week or so.

The issue is not flood insurance or building permits. As long as homeowners follow the existing maps – last revised in 1984 – they will be grandfathered into the federal flood insurance program. But surrounded by rotting drywall and the painful memories of Katrina, residents say they are afraid to invest financially or emotionally before FEMA gives them some advice.

The advisories do not have force of law until they are incorporated into official flood maps, a process that will likely take another year. But many residents want guidance now.

FEMA has flood maps for every square inch (centimeter) of land in the United States, and it was working to update them all by 2010. Katrina pushed Louisiana’s advisories to the top of the priority list, FEMA officials said.

The maps and advisories rarely garner as much attention elsewhere as they do in New Orleans, where at least 80 percent of the land is already part of a designated flood plain. The city, which sits on the silty delta of the Mississippi River, is sinking as the ground compacts, and Katrina drastically changed the city’s landscape.

Ray Leach, a south Louisiana homebuilder, said he has more than half a dozen home contracts with owners who have plans but do not want to start construction until they see the new flood advisories.

“It’s been frustrating because answers are coming very slowly,” Leach said.

Many people are afraid to make decisions without the advisories because elevating a home an extra 2 or 3 feet (about a meter) can boost the price roughly 5 to 10 percent, Leach said. Raise it more and costs quickly spiral.

Celistan, who has been living in a rented apartment in Baton Rouge while she decides what to do next, said she will not be able to afford to rebuild if the advisories recommend she substantially elevate her home in Pontchartrain Park, a neighborhood close to the lake of the same name.

“That poses a big concern. If I need to raise my house, I’m not going to be able to afford that,” she said.

Andrews said FEMA understands that residents are anxious to see the new advisories, but officials want to ensure they are accurate.

“It’s important in making people feel comfortable and safe in their decisions to come back to New Orleans. We get that,” she said.

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