For residents of New Orleans, especially the flood-ravaged lower Ninth Ward, it was welcome news: By raising some homes three feet off the ground, residents in the whole city can rebuild knowing they are eligible for federal flood insurance in the event of another Katrina.
In a much-awaited move that has been painted as a key piece of the rebuilding puzzle, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Army Corps of Engineers on Wednesday released a new flood plain advisory for the flooded areas that, along with a $2.5 billion proposal to build stronger and taller levees, will make it easier for displaced residents to decide whether to rebuild. The wait of such guidelines and worries that some homes may have to be raised by as much as 10 feet have hampered the recovery, experts say.
But the announcement may be worse news for destroyed communities outside the city. Where New Orleans is likely to be better protected in the future - thanks to plans for storm gates that will keep lake water from rushing up shipping canals and straight into the city, as happened after Katrina, parts of St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes would remain at risk during big storms like Katrina, Corps of Engineers officials have said.
Meanwhile, some officials hailed Wednesday's announcement as a step in the right direction, giving residents a crucial piece of information to help them decide whether to return to close-knit communities that have existed for centuries.
"This is not intended to give false confidence," says Dan Hitchings, director of Task Force Hope, which is overseeing all of the Corps of Engineers' rebuilding efforts in the wake of Katrina. "It's really about trying to get people the facts and information they need so they can make individual decisions."
Though the flood plain advisory is intended to assure people that New Orleans will be rebuilt, many residents nonetheless feel distrustful of a federal government that had built a levee system that failed miserably against the terrifying storm.
"You've got two sets of forces [at work among residents]: One is desperately wanting to come home, and the other is a distrust of the government," says Stephen Klineberg, a Rice University sociologist who has studied how floods affect people. "Most people still predict that New Orleans will not go back to what it's once been."
In St. Bernard Parish, Wednesday's announcement was disturbing news to members of a citizen recovery committee who had been told that homes would have to be raised by two, not three, feet - a difference of perhaps tens of thousands of dollars in construction costs. One committee member also noted that the actual maps have not been released, only an "advisory," and that flood lines may change. The maps are expected to be available next year.
"This is one more thing that's keeping people from coming home," says committee member Ron Chapman, a Chalmette, La., boatbuilder who has decided to stay. "Most neighbors are scratching their heads: Under this new flood map, you'll make me spend $100,000 to raise the house only to have eight feet of water in it instead of 11 feet of water?"
So far, fewer than 10,000 of 67,000 prestorm residents have returned to St. Bernard Parish, says Lynn Dean, another boatbuilder and a parish councilor. He has decided to give up on St. Bernard Parish and move his boatyard to Houma, La., instead.
"When the government tries to tell everybody how to build houses, all you get is political [maneuvering]," he says, adding that the new maps are a politically expedient solution that leaves tens of thousands of residents in the lurch.
What Mr. Dean would like to see is a new way of thinking about storm protection, including manual flooding of some low-lying areas to allow Mississippi River silt to build natural erosion protection. Reviving some 40,000 acres of dead cypress swamps, which served as an "expressway" for the storm surge from the Gulf, would also better protect the area, he says.
So far, the US government is focused on the levees. Congress still needs to debate the $2.5 billion request to reinforce them.