White House agrees to raise levees in New Orleans area

Many homeowners will have to raise houses by 1 to 3 feet to rebuild


NEW ORLEANS -- The White House agreed yesterday to raise levees in the New Orleans region to protect against another Hurricane Katrina-force storm, clearing the way for tens of thousands of homeowners in the below-sea-level city to begin rebuilding their ruined properties, as long as they elevate them by as much as 3 feet.

Administration officials said they had agreed to seek an additional $2.5 billion from Congress to raise the levees, a decision that freed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to release long-delayed flood maps that show how high houses must be raised to qualify for federal flood insurance, mortgage loans and state rebuilding grants.

The flood maps indicate that many houses in New Orleans will have to be raised 1 to 3 feet, but that is far lower than the 10 feet or more that might have been required if the federal government had not committed to raising the levees. Raising a house 3 feet with hydraulic jacks can cost more than $50,000, with every additional foot adding $8,000 to $12,000, experts say.

The good news for New Orleans, however, came tempered with cautions.

Federal officials had previously promised New Orleans residents that the complex system of interconnected levees and floodwalls, which failed in several areas on Aug. 29 during Hurricane Katrina, would be repaired to "pre-Katrina strength" by June 1, the start of this year's hurricane season.

But engineering estimates released last month by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers indicated that the levees will need to be raised even higher than previously thought if they are to protect against a once-in-100-years storm, prompting the need for the additional funds from Congress. Until those improvements to the flood protection system can be completed in 2010, residents will remain vulnerable to flooding in the event of another Category 3 hurricane like Katrina, officials acknowledged.

"Between now and 2010, there is a heightened level of risk," said Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, commander of the Corps of Engineers.

Even more extensive protection against Category 5 storms, the worst, which by some estimates could cost more than $30 billion, is under study and a long way off, officials said.

"This will enable people to get on with their lives," Donald Powell, the White House coordinator for Gulf Coast rebuilding, said yesterday as FEMA released the advisory flood maps.

Most of the estimated 100,000 New Orleans homeowners whose houses were heavily damaged by Katrina had been awaiting the flood maps before deciding whether to rebuild. That's because any house that was more than 50 percent damaged in the flooding must be raised according to the elevations specified in the FEMA flood maps before it can qualify for mortgage loans and federal flood insurance coverage worth $250,000.

In addition, a new state program that will give eligible homeowners up to $150,000 in federal grants for rebuilding or relocating is also contingent on compliance with the new flood maps.

New Orleans officials have declined to predict how many homeowners may decide to rebuild. Some may be deterred by the knowledge that, even when the improved levees are completed, the city will be vulnerable to a direct hit by a Category 4 or 5 hurricane.

But many other residents have strong ties to the city, and some had begun rebuilding before receiving any assurances about the strength of the levees or the availability of flood insurance.

The news that the government intends to raise the levees will be welcome in neighborhoods like the devastated Lower 9th Ward, the city's oldest black community, where floodwaters bursting from the Industrial Canal scoured dozens of blocks and pushed hundreds of houses off their foundations into crumpled heaps.

Residents had depended on the levees on either side of the canal to protect them.

"This is the only home I got, and I don't have any money to go anyplace else," said Willie Pugh, 67, who is gutting and repairing his flooded home on Tupelo Street. "I had no insurance on this house. But it wasn't supposed to flood here."

For more than six months, the Army Corps of Engineers has been overseeing construction projects to rebuild the levees, canals, pumps and floodwalls that failed during Hurricane Katrina.

But last month, after a new round of engineering studies, the Corps suddenly announced that it had underestimated how high and how strong the levees would need to be to prevent failures. An additional $4.1 billion - on top of the $3.5 billion already approved - will be needed to certify that the levees in the region will protect against a 100-year flood, Corps officials said.

In addition, 36 miles of floodwalls in the region will need to be rebuilt, officials said.

The revelations provoked dismay across the beleaguered city.

"By June 1 we were going to have higher, better, stronger levees," New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said last week. "Then they come out with this thing about we need [billions] more dollars to certify these levees, so the goodwill and the good feelings that people had were all dissipated."

Howard Witt writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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