For Gulf towns, anxious wait on flood plain status

New federal maps, due soon, will probably decide where Louisianians can rebuild.

The Buras water tower is still on its side where hurricane Katrina pushed it over as though it were a LEGO toy. Schools are still closed. Water treatment is nonexistent.

Sure, a few determined survivors have returned to battered Plaquemines Parish, which looked like an inundated shrimper after sustaining four levee breaks.

But for most, the decision of whether to return is becoming more complex. Buras - and other towns in lower Plaquemines - may face a tougher road toward rebuilding if maps expected to be released this week determine that they are ineligible for federal flood insurance.

At issue: the original levees, though repaired, have proven unworthy against Katrina-size storms, and cost estimates for bolstering them have tripled, to $9 billion. That makes the maps a key to the recovery riddle, since they will guide rebuilding and factor in developers' calculations. The situation is testing the pride of Louisiana's original parish. And it's shedding light on how rebuilding will occur in the most stormwracked corners of the Gulf Coast, as communities compete for levee improvement funds.

"I need schools to send my kids to, I need a church to follow my faith, and Buras is getting none of that," says Lynda Banta, a parish councilor living in the largely unaffected Belle Chasse area. "Somebody's decided we're expendable."

This finger of gnat-infested lowland, where the levees flicker into view on both sides of the Belle Chasse highway around refineries and orange groves, is the home of oil-rig workers, refinery roughnecks, and oystermen. Some can trace their Italian, French, and Slavic heritages through the bayous for centuries. For towns like Triumph, Nairn, Venice and Port Sulphur, it's crunchtime for recovery.

The Army Corps of Engineers completed its first repairs on the Plaquemines levees on March 17, bringing them up to their original height and bolstering them with sturdier clays. But a harsh prospect overshadowed its restoration.

"Another Katrina would overtop this levee," said Army Corps of Engineers Col. Lewis Setliff during a press conference near the Empire Lock in Nairn, La.

Plaquemines, which comprises the mouth of the Mississippi, dates back to 1682, when the French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle stuck a cross into the silty lowlands nearby. But since the levees and subsequent suburbs were built in the mid-20th century, the area has experienced a rough stretch in the past 40 years, as hurricanes Betsy, Camille and Katrina (the worst of all) threatened to return it to swampland.

Reinforcing the lower levees of Plaquemines would cost $3 billion for an area with less than 2 percent of the southern Louisiana population. In contrast, nearby Algiers contains 13 percent of the region's population, but the cost would be $129 million to storm-certify its levees.

Moreover, only 1,000 out of 14,000-odd people that lived in the lower part of Plaquemines Parish have returned. Statistics like that have given momentum to comments by some politicians that parts of the region should be returned to the swamps.

"It's easy for people from the outside to say that the decision seems simple: it's not a good place to live, so don't go back," says Jeanne Hurlbert, a sociologist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. "Plaquemines is a place like many in southern Louisiana where the communities are strong, multigenerational, and where you're asking people to give up a way of life in a place where they've always lived."

But by focusing simply on levee height, government engineers and politicians may be missing an opportunity for "broader thinking," says David Daniel, president of the University of Texas at Dallas and the chair of an external levee review committee organized by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

After all, one local high school, destroyed by hurricane Camille, was rebuilt on stilts. It survived Katrina intact. High-ground evacuation sites and "armored" levees that would not break even while overtopped may enable areas like lower Plaquemines to endure another major storm. Some of the stilts may have to be 35 feet high, however.

"You may design for the mother of all storms and you get the grandmother of all storms," says Dr. Daniel. The committee's much anticipated risk analysis for the region is expected June 1 - the kickoff date for the new hurricane season.

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