N’Orleans Risin’! Opportunity to help lift homes in flood devastated Lousiana

This entry was posted Monday, 25 January, 2010 at 6:13 pm

Climate Change is certainly going to be a factor in the future of New Orleans, South Louisiana, the Gulf Coast and coastal communities around the world.  Increased water temperatures are already increasing storm intensity, the number of storms and the amount of water dropped per event.  Thermal expansion and sea level rise are already contributing to wetland and beach erosion, and the settling and loss of the wetlands has New Orleans already under sea level by 4-5ft in some areas.  Rates of wetland loss have been confirmed by aerial photographs reaching close to 10 miles per year in parts of the Delta.

There is no place better to see human impacts on the environment than in the Mississippi Delta, where Corps of Engineers have diked the River and have kept wetlands and Delta from flooding.  Barrier islands are not being renourished and have all but disappeared in the last two decades.  Corps claims that to open the flood gates will reduce ship traffic and endanger their levee system.  What has been found is that when those flood waters are allowed to flow back into those wetlands, an immediate revitalization occurs in plant communities and ecosystems.  Of course, this may be partially due to the high nutrient load from Midwest soil erosion and heavy industrial agriculture– a testament to vastness of the  system that links much of our country!

It is shocking to see from aerial photographs and LANDSAT imagery that once a hundred miles of robust wetlands and barrier islands protected New Orleans and buffered it from storms.  Saltwater intrusion from ditched petroleum service canals and pipelines have contributed to wetlands loss.  The rapid rate of wetland loss and subsidence will make much of the delta area uninhabitable, and thus long term defensibility and development strategy become critical.  The question is, have those in charge created a master plan and do they include the ceding back to nature areas that should not have been built on in the first place and likely indefensible from future catastrophic storms, given these factors of change, engineering feasibility and increasing budget constraints?

During the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and surrounding parishes were badly flooded after dykes collapsed and pump stations were abandoned.  Many of the dikes were built to fail, not installed deeply enough by contractors for the Corps.  These problems have since been improved but unlikely to be capable of stopping severe storm surges of a Class 4 or 5 Hurricane.  Without rebuilding wetland buffer regions, most of these areas will flood again. Thus lifting homes will be an important solution.  However lifting homes 15 feet above flood stage entails another problem that of exposure to hurricane force winds.  Thus, these raised homes must have storm windows, doors and shutters as well as improved roof systems.  They also should be clustered together into islands that are more defensible, with diking and native landscaping.  Such a strategy will help build more sustainable neighborhoods and communities.

What is interesting and sad is that most of the areas that were hammered by the floods were low-income, minority communities, like the Lower Ninth Ward, Orleans and St. Bernard Parrish.  Since 2005, very little redevelopment has occurred.  However, according to locals, 2009 has seen a surge in rebuilding.  Unfortunately, many community activists want redevelopment, but at what cost?  New Orleans and surrounding areas have had a long history of environmental justice issues, with the communities suffering from some of the highest cancer blooms in the country along River Road, where the largest density of petroleum refineries are located.  The disparity between rich and poor has been enormous, and gang violence, drugs and mafia crime rates some of the worst in the country. Yet the African-American, Cajun and Creole communities have an incredibly rich history and culture, the source of some of the world’s best music, greatest food and most fun loving people very closely connected with their natural world.  Lower Ninth Ward alone is the home to a dozen world-renowned musicians. Who says they can’t rebuild?

The Forest Foundation’s President has been asked to assist in sales for RAM JACK USA, a national home elevation company with years of experience repairing foundations and elevating beach homes.  Utilizing funds from the Federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) and extension of the Road Home Program of 2008, the goal will be to write contracts to elevate and improve homes for as many homeowners as possible and apply for the maximum amount of money allowable for each home.  RAM JACK USA has a system to raise homes that is state of the art, using metal helixes that increase surface tension, and avoid having to drive traditional wood pilings.  These systems are more efficient, can handle higher loads in a more cost effective manner and are safer to install.

The appropriation for grants to elevate and remodel is on a three-year time-table. The money, close to $750 million dollars and up to $130K per home, is to be provided to eligible homeowners or returned to the Feds.  So everyone is on the fast track to get this money spent.  In the three parishes where RAM JACK will be active, there are 83,000 eligible homeowners. RAM JACK currently has the capacity to complete 30 homes each month, but our goal is to write 60 contract applications per month by June 2010.  Gearing up will be a challenge, but local and out of state contractors will be hired to reinstall plumbing, electrical, stairs, lifts for handicapped and elderly, raise HVAC units, etc.  This has the potential to push an enormous amount of capital into these communities and the multipliers could be substantial, increasing jobs and ideally directing the flow of funds into important markets.  The key is to capture as much of this revenue as possible and make it work for broader, long-term, community based sustainability goals.

The plan is for Foundation President, Marc Dreyfors, to liaison with some of the local NGOs working in these three Parishes, who are already on the ground.  Some of these groups already have large grants for redevelopment, and a broader strategy with which it would be fundamentally important to align the contractors.  Hooking up with these groups and being less random about where and what are houses are lifted, may help focus on neighborhoods that have already been identified for redevelopment, improving the efficiency, reducing blight, improving living conditions, creating secondary jobs and promoting long term sustainability and use of this funding (i.e. our tax dollars).

$30 million in potential matching funds and 5000 additional homes that may be eligible for lifting have been identified. Additional funding can be leveraged to help broaden the home improvements to include not just soft costs cover by HMGP and the $7500 of additional funding for improvements (IMM), but possibly a range of home improvements, including energy efficienct appliances and fixtures, insulation, roof storm brackets and other quality of life improvements. Importantly, if contractors are already at the site, the marginal costs of the improvements will be small and can be leveraged to improve efficiency, the projects standing in the community and total cash revenue generated.

New Orleans and the Delta region is like no other place on the planet, with its diversity of  culture, history and ecosystems.  The Forest Foundation President, Marc Dreyfors, family is originally from the region and spent many years visiting the area while his Sister went to Tulane and UNO, and her husband went to LSU.  Mr. Dreyfors spent a summer working the Louisiana Swamp exhibit at the Audubon Zoo and was lucky to be taken out into the vast wetlands to hunt and out the the Chandelier Islands to fish.  Mr. Dreyfors comments, “This a great opportunity for The Foundation to use its knowledge acquired in sustainable and small business development in Durham and globally to help one our national and world’s treasures.  Lots of our friends have been down to New Orleans to help with rebuilding, and believe this project, if done well may afford an enormous impact on the long-term viability of the region.”