Thursday, April 13, 2006

New Orleans, three feet, and politics ...

   Leading the national news today is that FEMA announced its long-awaited guidelines for rebuilding homes in the New Orleans area.  Although complicated by many details, the basic requirement is that new homes or those which were significantly damaged by hurricane Katrina probably will have to be raised three feet above the ground in order to qualify for federal assistance.   
  Three policy issues stand out.  First, the relatively mild requirements show a federal recognition that it is catastrophic levee collapse, not intense rain or wind, that poses the greatest danger.  If the levees are to withstand powerful storm surges – and floodgates like those proven to be effective in the Netherlands should do much to ensure this – even houses in low-lying areas would be safe from serious flooding if built three feet above the ground.
   Second, the rules would make it feasible to rebuild in nearly all of New Orleans neighborhoods.  Had the rules made it impracticable to rebuild in some districts, advocates would have howled that FEMA was discriminating unfairly against low-lying neighborhoods, which tend to be poorer than higher sections.  Calming citizens is a goal of all governmental authorities today.
   Third, the three-foot rule would apply even in districts above sea level, such as the French Quarter and neighborhoods near the Mississippi River that experienced little flood damage from Katrina.  While it may seem unnecessary to impose the rule region-wide, the perception of being even-handed is as important as the requirements of hydrology.    

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