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Monday, December 12, 2005

On Gulf Coast, a Conflict Over How to Rebuild - New York Times

On Gulf Coast, a Conflict Over How to Rebuild - New York TimesDecember 12, 2005
On Gulf Coast, a Conflict Over How to Rebuild

LONG BEACH, Miss., Dec. 11 - Standing on the slab that was once her Gulf Coast retirement home, Jocelyn Turnbough has a clear vision of her own Hurricane Katrina counterpunch: a new seaside estate, with a wraparound veranda, a sunroom and a small wading pool out front.

Central to this rebuilding plan is Ms. Turnbough's intention to ignore a plea from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that her new home be elevated on stilts.

"At my age, I don't want to have to go up steps," said Ms. Turnbough, 69, a retired middle school teacher. "I want to be able to walk in at ground level."

The conflict between FEMA's request and Ms. Turnbough's desires demonstrates a broad clash here along the Gulf Coast over whether to cede large swaths of land to nature, to rebuild much as it was, or to rebuild homes, at a higher price, with more robust foundations and on structures that raise them above the ground.

The debate is playing out on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, with a cast that includes storm victims, coastal engineers, mortgage lenders, the insurance industry, and local, state and federal government officials.

FEMA ignited the discussion by issuing late last month a jigsaw puzzle of 228 new maps that, when pieced together, make up the entire 80 miles of Mississippi coast and reach as much as 22 miles inland. These maps represent the biggest simultaneous proposed expansion of federally defined flood zones in the history of the 37-year-old National Flood Insurance Program. The maps for the Louisiana coast will be published early next year.

The maps for the two states, based on damage caused by Katrina and other hurricanes in the past 20 years, are advisory for now because it will take FEMA at least a year to confirm their accuracy. During this critical rebuilding period, it is up to the local governments to decide if they will honor the agency's request to adopt the more conservative and more costly standards.

But when the maps become final, the federal agency will have the power to force the hands of local governments, since it can ban cities and their residents from the flood insurance program if they do not respect the official maps.

"These are very hard decisions," said Todd Davison, FEMA's regional director of mitigation. "There is no denying that. The local officials have to balance the need to allow people to fix up houses that can be repaired and to take some hardship off of the crisis they are in, and at the same time not knowingly put people in harm's way."

The looming changes are already causing divisions along the coast.

In Mississippi, elected officials from Long Beach, Pass Christian and unincorporated sections of Hancock County have decided to allow residents to rebuild, at least for now, according to the existing flood maps. In Jackson County and communities including Waveland, D'Iberville and Bay St. Louis, local officials have agreed to add about four feet to the required minimum elevations in existing flood zones, but have declined, so far, to expand the flood zones according to FEMA's recommended boundaries.

The biggest cities on Mississippi's coast, Biloxi, Gulfport and Pascagoula, have not yet taken a formal position, but at least some elected leaders in these communities have made it clear they have objections. Only unincorporated Harrison County and Moss Point, a small city, have voted to adopt entirely the new FEMA standards.

In communities that have resisted, elected officials say they fear now is the worst time to radically increase land-use standards, forcing residents who have already lost almost everything to dig deeper into their pockets to rebuild.

"For us to hit them with an additional burden after what they have been through - to me, that is ludicrous," said Richard Notter, a Long Beach alderman and electrical engineer, who voted to reject the FEMA maps. "No one who has a heart and soul would ever vote to do that."

Many of the homes wiped out by Hurricane Katrina were built on lots that were swept clear in 1969 when Hurricane Camille hit.

Yet even with that knowledge, Chip McDermott, alderman at large in Pass Christian, said that in a community where only about 900 of 6,000 residents remain - and many of those are in trailers or a tent city - trying to plan now for the next catastrophe is hard.

"Survival right now is the main thing," Mr. McDermott said. "We are not going to have a town unless we get some people back here. We are going to be a town in name only."

Raising a new house off the ground to comply with the proposed FEMA standards would cost $2,000 to $30,000 depending on the value of the house and the type of foundation required to meet the potential flood intensity. The work could be as simple as an elevated foundation or as complex as reinforced, deep-set structural columns that would support a house entirely on tall stilts. How high the house would be off the ground would depend on its location, but the heights would be from a few feet to 20 feet, with more typical range being 8 to 14 feet, Mr. Davison said.

For years, geologists and flood plain engineers said that the rush to build along the fragile coasts of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico was the brick-and-mortar version of irrational exuberance. And with the recent surge in the frequency and violence of hurricanes, the stakes have never been so devastatingly laid bare.

More than 1,075 people have been confirmed dead in Louisiana and 230 in Mississippi, with dozens of others still missing. More than $23 billion in flood insurance claims are expected from along the Gulf Coast, from more than 200,000 property owners. The single biggest previous payout was Hurricane Ivan last year, which cost the federally backed program $1.45 billion in claims. A federal bailout of the insurance program, which is supposed to be supported by premiums, will most likely be required.

Some engineers say the only rational solution, in some sections of the Gulf Coast, is to cede these fragile areas, and not rebuild.

"It is time to cut our ties with the most vulnerable of our nation's coastal areas," said Robert S. Young, an associate professor of geology at Western Carolina University, in testimony last month before Congress.

More than $1 billion in federal disaster aid will be available in Mississippi to help buy out homeowners who live in extremely flood-prone spots, elevate whole neighborhoods in some cases or rebuild schools or community centers more robustly or in safer locations. People like Ms. Turnbough who choose to rebuild soon in areas that do not comply with the new proposals will still be eligible for flood insurance if construction predates the adoption of the FEMA mandates by their local governments.

But here along the coast, FEMA officials said, they realize they must do more. They are trying, they said, to strike a balance between protecting life and property and allowing coastal communities like Long Beach to rise again.

"There are proven techniques for building housing in these flood-prone areas that can withstand these flood forces and significantly reduce damage," Mr. Davison said.

The last time large flood zones along the Mississippi coast were comprehensively remapped was in the mid-1980's, at the end of a relatively quiet hurricane period, Mr. Davison said.

With major hurricanes like Elena in 1985, Andrew in 1992, Georges in 1998, Ivan in 2004 and Katrina in 2005, the area vulnerable to flooding in a so-called "100-year storm" is much bigger, and the projected flood depths along the coast are much deeper.

Some local officials say that the new FEMA advisory maps call for unreasonable standards that will drive up housing prices and threaten whole neighborhoods.

"This is not realistic. It's not practical. It is overkill, and we can start a push back," Mayor Brent Warr of Gulfport told the City Council at a workshop last week at City Hall, in Gulfport's devastated downtown.

Mr. Warr says he recognizes that the maps will need to change to expand the flood zone. The question, he said, is by how much. FEMA's redrawn maps would put 6,233 houses and other structures in Gulfport in the flood zone, more than twice the current number. That, he said, is just too many.

"We are going to be more conservative," Mr. Warr said in an interview. "But we have to come up with a plan that still offers an opportunity for neighborhoods to exist."

Officials at FEMA said they recognized that Hurricane Katrina was an extraordinary storm, creating a wall of water as high as 30 feet in some communities. So the flood zones in the new FEMA maps, in certain areas, are smaller than the area inundated by water from Katrina.

The conflict between the agency's advice and the stand taken by many of the local governments has left many residents confused.

James Kirby lives on 39th Street in Gulfport, about a mile and a half from the coast. After a neighborhood bayou overflowed with waters forced inland by Hurricane Katrina, the floors of his small house collapsed, his brick walls cracked and everything inside was destroyed. On FEMA's proposed flood map, his neighborhood is a tiny yellow square surrounded by blue, indicating that it was flooded and will now be included in the flood zone. Residents in these areas are generally required to get flood insurance, and those outside them typically are not.

The Gulfport City Council has not yet acted on FEMA's recommendations, and Mr. Kirby said he had not decided whether to move elsewhere, stay put and rebuild higher, or repair his home where it is.

"It's a sad situation," Mr. Kirby, 74, said. "There are no good choices."

If homeowners were insured for flood damage before the storm, they were eligible to get as much as $30,000 in extra assistance to comply with new, more demanding flood requirements. But like thousands of Gulf Coast residents who did not previously live in a designated flood zone, Mr. Kirby did not have flood insurance.

In Long Beach, where Ms. Turnbough lives, little new construction is under way. The scene is postapocalyptic, with smashed cars in living rooms and household items strewn about. Yet with the many American flags placed, after the storm, at the edges of yards, as well as hand-painted signs with slogans like "We Can Do It, Y'All," there is a sense of defiance here, almost as if residents feel they must prove that they are stronger than the storm.

Mr. Davison and other FEMA officials said future builders should take note of the few homes along the coast where property owners, prior to Hurricane Katrina, chose to build houses that were higher off the ground than required.

One such elevated house in Pass Christian is built of concrete and stands 22 feet above sea level, compared with the current 14-foot requirement.

"It survived," said John Plisich, a civil engineer with FEMA, as he stood outside the fortresslike house, surveying the slabs of destroyed homes surrounding it. Yet even this house, which was built by a structural engineer, was flooded by Hurricane Katrina's extraordinary surge.

"The coastal environment is a harsh one," Mr. Plisich said, as the afternoon sky turned dark and a heavy downpour began. "People should understand that."

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