Everyone who evacuated before or after Katrina knows the answer to that timeless musical question, do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? That's why so many are so worried. They fear the New Orleans they have loved for so long may be lost forever. Specifically, New Orleanians miss their old neighborhoods. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the routines, the rhythms and the traditions -- from jazz funerals to Mardi Gras Indian rituals to St. Joseph Altars. Displaced New Orleanians miss all that and more. We at Gambit Weekly miss our old Mid-City neighborhood, and we share the concerns of our readers. Still, we remain cautiously optimistic that the city we miss so much will be back. Smaller at first, perhaps, but still New Orleans. But it won't happen automatically. Most of all, it probably won't be part of some comprehensive federal plan. We in New Orleans have to make it happen ourselves. With luck, Uncle Sam will fix the problem that the federal government created -- defective levees. That's a tall enough order for Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers. It will cost billions and take years, but it must be done. Locally, we should focus our attention on the neighborhoods of New Orleans. That's where New Orleanians can make a difference. Culturally speaking, each of us carries a neighborhood plan in our head and in our heart.
But there's a catch. We first have to have a place to come home to -- the physical space that used to be our neighborhoods. And, we have to be allowed to rebuild or redesign what was there before. That may not happen.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been inspecting homes across the metropolitan area to determine the extent of flood damage in affected neighborhoods. Under FEMA guidelines, if a home that was built before 1984 is deemed "substantially damaged" as a result of Katrina's floodwaters, and if that home is below the parish "base flood elevation," then the homeowner could be required to raise the structure to base flood elevation -- or risk losing flood insurance. FEMA defines a "substantially damaged" residence as one that needs repairs costing more than half the home's pre-Katrina value. It's important to note that the home's value does not include the value of the land beneath it.
By way of example, let's say a piece of property would have sold for $150,000 before Katrina, and that the value of just the home would have been $120,000. If such a home would cost more than $60,000 to repair -- and if it is below the parish's base flood elevation -- the homeowner might have to jack up the house or tear it down and start over at a higher elevation just to get flood insurance. "Base flood elevation" is the minimum height necessary, in FEMA's estimation, to spare a home from a 100-year flood. That elevation varies from parish to parish, and FEMA can from time to time adjust it, as happened in New Orleans in 1984. Theoretically, homes built after that date had to be built at base flood elevation or higher. As a practical matter, a lot of homes in New Orleans may be targeted for raising or razing. Or both.
What can homeowners do? If they believe the FEMA damage assessment is overstated, they can consult contractors and structural engineers and get independent opinions and bids for repairs. Spending a few thousand dollars now could save tens of thousands in jack-up costs -- or the heartache of tearing down a beautiful home that might have been saved.
Which brings us back to the neighborhoods. If flood protection is everyone's number-one, then neighborhood preservation is going to require more balancing of interests than ever. What used to be battles between commercial and residential interests, or arguments about density and green space, will now become pitched fights over whether any examples of a neighborhood's unique architecture can be preserved at all. Our biggest fear is that New Orleans will see a "land rush" as developers push for whole areas to be leveled and made available for "modern" redevelopment.
Don't get us wrong. We're all for making New Orleans better than ever, especially in ways that good engineering can improve a city's livability. But, as noted above, it's going to require a keen sense of balance. Any plan for repopulating and rebuilding New Orleans must start with the preservation of our neighborhood cultures. The keepers of the flame for those cultures are the residents themselves -- black and white, rich and poor, all faiths, colors, nationalities and personalities.
In the course of writing and editing this week's installment of our three-part series, "The Road Back," we found a curious mix of optimism and fear. People want to come home, and they believe New Orleans can and will be rebuilt. What they fear is that the rebuilding process will claim Katrina's final victims: New Orleans' neighborhoods and their unique cultures. If that happens, the entire world will miss New Orleans -- forever.