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FEMA rule means La. department can’t rebuild

By Chris Kirkham
The Times-Picayune (New Orleans)u

LAKE CATHERINE, La. — Along a remote strip of highway at the eastern edge of Orleans Parish, the rugged members of the Fort Pike Volunteer Fire Department have chased emergency calls in the waterfront community of Lake Catherine since 1956.

Since 2005, their base has been a concrete slab and two FEMA trailers; the rusted ruins of their firehouse still sit in the marsh across U.S. 90. After more than two years of paperwork from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a project to build a 19-foot-high home for the department was set to begin last month.

But those plans are now at a standstill, along with more than 60 other FEMA-financed rebuilding projects in vulnerable coastal areas across the state. New flood maps recently released by the agency show the Fort Pike department is in a high-velocity flood zone — an area most prone to coastal flooding.

FEMA is prohibited from using federal money to replace hurricane-damaged structures in those areas because of the risk of future flooding, a rule the agency picked up on after years of ongoing project designs in the flood zones. So at this point, the Fort Pike department’s alternatives are to abandon the project or move the building to a less risky site miles away from the community it has served for decades.

“They’re not telling me they won’t build the fire department, they’re just telling me they won’t build it here,” Chief Joe Perez said. “But it’s needed here.”

‘It’s not pretty’
The new development throws into question dozens of FEMA-financed Louisiana rebuilding projects totaling more than $80 million, in some cases causing frustrated local governments to go back to the drawing board. The work ranges from a fire station and school gymnasium in Grand Isle to new hangars at Lakefront Airport to virtually all plans to rebuild public buildings in Cameron Parish.

The federal government’s retreat from new investments in risky coastal areas could leave the viability of many historic communities in question.

“There are certain key institutions that if they’re not there, people just know there isn’t what we as Americans define as community,” said Shirley Laska, who has worked on rebuilding issues in coastal communities as director of the Center for Hazards, Assessment, Response and Technology at the University of New Orleans. “This issue has been talked about since the 1980s, and throughout all that time it was always ‘the future.’ Well, the future is here, and it’s not pretty.”

Repairs possible
Local FEMA officials say they have a clear directive not to replace flood-damaged structures in the vulnerable flood zones, which appear as “VE” zones on the map and are subject to strong storm surges during hurricanes.

“The VE zones represent a pretty high-risk area, and it’s incumbent upon us as stewards of the taxpayers’ money to make sure we recognize that risk when we invest your money and mine in projects that may be destroyed,” said Jim Stark, assistant administrator for FEMA’s Gulf Coast Recovery Office and director of the Louisiana Transitional Recovery Office.

The agency hasn’t officially pulled money from any projects, and FEMA officials pledge to work with affected local governments to move planned projects to areas with lower risk. Projects already under construction will be allowed to proceed, Stark said, and repairs — not rebuilds — to damaged facilities are still possible.

But many officials in affected areas are fuming. They say FEMA shepherded them through the design phases of projects for the past two years and that they were informed only recently of potential problems.

Perez, of the Fort Pike Volunteer Fire Department, had to stop contractors about to pour the concrete foundation for the firehouse this month. Inside the cramped FEMA trailer being used as a temporary firehouse, he pointed to reams of drawings and forms he has been filling out since May 2006 for the planned firehouse.

The department has already spent $70,000 in FEMA money on architecture and design plans, Perez said.

“We did everything in their regulations and specifications and codes,” he said.

Airport plans halted
At New Orleans’ Lakefront Airport, plans to rebuild four hangars flooded by Katrina are also now on hold.

“We’ve gone through three years of bringing FEMA along, and within a three-week period they’ve really set us back a lot,” said Gerard Gillen, the chief engineer for the Orleans Levee District, which is overseeing the hangar project.

FEMA officials acknowledge local officials’ frustrations and said they are exploring possible exceptions to the rule that would allow emergency services such as fire and EMS stations to be rebuilt near the communities they serve. Although FEMA developed the flood maps and is responsible for public assistance financing, agency officials said the provision barring “new construction in a coastal high-hazard area” did not become apparent until recently.

“When that came to light, it cast a shadow, if you will, on what you can do with Katrina and Rita,” said John Connolly, a FEMA public assistance officer. “It was an omission on our part. . . . It was not an act of malice. Literally, it was a case where we did not pick up on it.”

Map in dispute
Extremely vulnerable communities such as Cameron Parish and Grand Isle now face tough choices. With nearly all of their land in high-risk flood zones, moving the construction sites is not a realistic option.

At risk in Cameron are a library, two fire stations, a high school and temporary buildings to replace the schools, all of which were destroyed by Hurricane Rita and damaged by Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Cameron is disputing the flood map determinations and has hired an engineering firm to run models showing the area is less prone to flooding.

“We know that we have to elevate. We know that we have to secure and build a sustainable community, and we’re willing to do that,” said Ernie Broussard, Cameron’s director of planning and development. But he said he fears that “the message you’re sending to future homeowners or developers is that the whole parish is a high risk.”

Several other coastal parishes are appealing the FEMA maps. FEMA says it is willing to explore setting up temporary government facilities in Cameron on a case-by-case basis where they are most needed during the appeals process.

“If through an appeal the area is determined to be outside the V-zone, the project will have only been delayed, the need will presumably remain the same, and the project can be built with a better understanding of the risk,” former FEMA administrator R. David Paulison wrote to Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., in a January letter regarding Cameron.

The exact number of projects affected by the flood zones has not yet been determined by FEMA.

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, the state intermediary for financing the FEMA projects, and the Louisiana Recovery Authority released a list of at least 33 projects significantly at risk last week. The list included another 30 projects in the flood zones that could also be at risk but are still under review.

Even the projects on that list are at odds with the understanding some parish officials had about their projects. Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, for example, said he had been told many projects in his parish would be grandfathered in because contracts were awarded.

But more than a dozen Plaquemines projects appear on the state’s list.

Copyright 2009 The Times-Picayune Publishing Company

Mayor Donna Holaday presented the city’s desire to operate its own ambulance service staffed by firefighters already trained as EMTs