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Home Elevation Program Meant To Lessen Flood Damage


In the 10 years since Hurricane Katrina ravaged Louisiana's shoreline, residents who live near waterways have a new mantra - high and dry. Many are embracing home elevation. Jesse Hardman, of member station WWNO, reports.

JESSE HARDMAN, BYLINE: Kim Reeves is going through her checklist on a home renovation job in Louisiana's Palquemines Parish, which hugs the Mississippi River along its last few miles before the Gulf of Mexico.

KIM REEVES: I'm going with a stucco color that is going to mimic the stucco color on the front of his house that he has now.

HARDMAN: But Reeves isn't the decorator. She's an engineer. She's describing the 12-foot stilts now elevating a two-story home. Reeves has to crane her neck to take in the miniature brick mansion. It's right next to a levee on the west bank of the Mississippi River. Three years ago, Hurricane Isaac sent five feet of water through the house. After that, the owner secured a federal grant then elevated the home. In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Isaac, and the scary flooding this summer in Texas, engineers like Reeves are in demand. Just in New Orleans, some 50 companies specialize in home elevation. Reeves spends most of her days driving. She goes from job to job where homes are going up from three to 18 feet in the air. The work is an antidote for flooding. After a flood, Reeves is among the first on the scene, registering the extent of the damage.

REEVES: You see all their mattresses and their personal belongings sitting out there on the side of the road waiting to get picked up for debris. It's depressing.

HARDMAN: Federal grants kicked off the home elevation boom after Katrina, which, in some parishes, damaged almost every building. It costs around $150,000 to raise a home.

CHAD MCGUIRE: And to me that's just not great government policy.

HARDMAN: Chad McGuire is a professor of environmental policy at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. McGuire says the U.S. government's disaster relief, which includes subsidized insurance, encourages people to live in risky floodplains.

MCGUIRE: To continually incentivize individuals to develop, build and then live in these areas.

HARDMAN: Betty Jane Adams steps in an elevator. There's only two stops - her carport and then - 11-and-a-half feet up - her new house. Adams is 73. She lives in tiny Chauvin, La., a short drive from the Gulf of Mexico. The original house on Adams's property took on nine feet of water from Hurricane Rita. After that, she lived in a FEMA trailer.

BETTY JANE ADAMS: Nobody down here is in a position to move away. It takes money to buy elsewhere. Me, I couldn't, so I chose to stay.

HARDMAN: Adams became a project for the Terrebone Readiness and Assistance Coalition. Director Peg Case says the Adams home is among some 1,000 buildings in Terrebone Parish elevated since Katrina.

PEG CASE: To me, that's like watching an evolution to watch that happen within a 10-year period. It's very uplifting.

HARDMAN: Now, when Betty Jane Adams looks out from her front porch, she feels secure up even higher than the levee next to her house. These days, it's the low-lying neighbors who are bugging her.

ADAMS: I think the problem they have with me is jealousy. I have this house and I didn't have nothing before. All of a sudden I got a nice house and I think it's killing them.

HARDMAN: Adams says the neighbors who waffled and didn't elevate their homes will have to wait for the next storm to hopefully blow in some new funding. For NPR News, I'm Jesse Hardman in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jesse Hardman