NEW ORLEANS – On paper, by the numbers, it looks as if David McFarland should never rebuild his flood-ruined home in New Orleans East.

After all, McFarland’s neighborhood of modest homes set on concrete slabs lies more than 5 feet below sea level in the best of times, and when Hurricane Katrina smashed the protective floodwalls last Aug. 29, the water rose nearly to his first-floor ceiling.

A team of urban planning experts has urged the city to postpone redevelopment of low-lying neighborhoods like McFarland’s in favor of areas less prone to flooding. A blue-ribbon rebuilding panel appointed by New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin issued a map suggesting McFarland’s neighborhood is so vulnerable it should be turned into a park.

But McFarland, 47, a chauffeur, has no time for planning experts or blue-ribbon reports. He’s too busy single-handedly gutting and rebuilding his house, at a cost he estimates will exceed $100,000.

“The people who are saying this should be turned into green space don’t know what they are talking about,” McFarland said, as several neighbors, taking a break from their own renovation efforts, nodded in agreement. “This is my home. No one is going to tell me I can’t rebuild my home. I was born and raised a mile from here.”

Scattered all across the city, handfuls of determined New Orleans homeowners have settled like pioneers in the blighted landscapes that used to be their neighborhoods, gutting their rotted homes to the studs and painstakingly rebuilding the interiors.

In the hardest-hit areas, such as New Orleans East, the Lower 9th Ward and Lakeview, these homeowners are working on faith: faith that their neighbors will return, that nearby grocery stores and schools and dry cleaners will reopen, that they will be able to get new flood insurance – and that the city won’t ultimately write off their neighborhoods as hopelessly susceptible to flooding.

The rebuilding is encouraged and abetted by the Nagin administration, which is eager to repopulate a city that, by most estimates, is still missing more than two-thirds of its 485,000 former residents. City inspectors have issued some 16,000 building permits to help owners of flood-damaged houses beat impending changes to state and federal rules that might require them to elevate their homes.

But critics charge that politicians are skirting hard choices about which neighborhoods the strapped city can afford to rebuild and supply with essential services such as police and fire protection.

“It is a disservice to people right now to let them rebuild everywhere,” said Ed McMahon, a senior resident fellow with the Urban Land Institute, the Washington, D.C., think-tank that recommended redeveloping the city’s highest ground first. “The tragedy is that they are likely, after a lot of hard work and personal investment, to find they can’t get insurance, they can’t get a mortgage, there won’t be stores and city services for them.”

Nagin’s hand-picked Bring New Orleans Back Commission, an expert panel convened to draft a plan to rebuild the city, foresaw such a danger when it recommended last month that the city impose a four-month moratorium on issuing rebuilding permits, to give neighborhood groups time to assess the viability of their areas and implement development plans.

The mayor welcomed the neighborhood planning, but rejected any moratorium and refused to declare even the worst-hit areas to be off-limits to resettlement.

Instead, Nagin said he expects that the individual rebuilding decisions taken by each of the more 100,000 homeowners in the city who suffered flood damage will eventually shape the contours of post-Katrina New Orleans. Homeowners left stranded in neighborhoods that don’t achieve a new critical mass can take advantage of government buyouts, he said.

“It’s private property, man,” Nagin said in a recent interview. “You can’t tell people not to rebuild. But you can let the market forces do their work.”

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Politics, as well as market forces, appear to be driving Nagin’s reluctance to deliver bad news about the future of some city neighborhoods.

Many of the city’s lowest-lying neighborhoods were predominantly African-American, and most of those former residents remain displaced far from their homes. There is widespread concern in the black community, which before Katrina comprised 67 percent of the city’s population, that the city’s white power brokers hope to change the balance of power in New Orleans by discouraging blacks from coming back.

Nagin, who is black, must stand for re-election in April, and two formidable white challengers, a prominent local businessman and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, are among at least 10 candidates in the race to unseat him. When he was first elected in 2002, Nagin did not carry the black vote, and he is loath to alienate black constituents by refusing to issue rebuilding permits.

The permits are especially valuable now, before the Army Corps of Engineers releases updated “base flood elevation maps” for the city in coming weeks. The maps predict the height of a worst-case, once-in-a-hundred-years flood – levels that are certain to rise based on the experience of Hurricane Katrina. But until the new maps are issued, older maps from the early 1980s, with lower base flood elevations, remain in force.

Those maps are important to owners whose homes city inspectors determine were more than 49 percent damaged. Any home in that category must be raised above the base flood elevation to qualify for coverage under the National Flood Insurance Program, a federal plan that provides up to $250,000 in flood insurance.

The new base flood elevations will also partly determine whether flooded homeowners can receive compensation under a new state plan outlined last week by Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

According to the plan of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which officials expect will disburse up to $10.4 billion in anticipated federal funds, flooded homeowners will be eligible to receive grants capped at $150,000 to rebuild their homes or relocate to other neighborhoods in the state – but the rebuilding funds will be contingent on homeowners elevating their homes to meet the new flood standards.

“As a matter of state policy, we are requiring that people rebuild safer and stronger and smarter,” said Walter Leger, chairman of the Recovery Authority’s housing committee, whose own home in St. Bernard Parish was destroyed in the flooding. “But don’t tell us we shouldn’t rebuild these neighborhoods at all. You know, people shouldn’t build houses on mountainsides in California or near fault lines, but nobody makes that argument.”

Some New Orleans homeowners report that city inspectors have been flexible in their damage designations, often lowering damage estimates below the crucial 50 percent threshold when homeowners appeal – and thus sparing them the cost of elevating their homes in order to be eligible for flood insurance.

That was McFarland’s experience.

“It was easy to get a permit,” he said of his experience at City Hall. “They said my damage was at 50 percent. But then I brought them pictures to show them why it was less than that, and they agreed.”

So far, officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the flood insurance program, say they see no intention on the city’s part to skew damage estimates in homeowners’ favor.

“It’s a fine line they walk between expeditious recovery and sensible recovery,” said Butch Kinerney, a FEMA spokesman in Washington. “But we’ve been watching the situation closely. We’ve sent high-level people down there to work with inspectors. To date, we have not found any incidences of gross neglect or abuse of the system.”



(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): KATRINA-REBUILD

AP-NY-02-24-06 1935EST



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