A federal judge threw out a key class-action lawsuit Wednesday against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over levee breaches after Hurricane Katrina, saying that the agency failed to protect the city but that his hands were tied by the law.
U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval ruled that the Corps should be held immune over failures in drainage canals that caused much of the flooding of New Orleans in August 2005.
The ruling relies on the Flood Control Act of 1928, which made the federal government immune when flood control projects like levees break.
The suit led to about 489,000 claims by businesses, government entities and residents, totaling trillions of dollars in damages against the agency.
The fate of many of those claims was pinned to that lawsuit and a similar one filed over flooding from a navigation channel in St. Bernard Parish. It was unclear how many claims could still move forward.
In his ruling, Duval said he was forced by law to hold the Corps immune even though the agency "cast a blind eye" in protecting New Orleans and "squandered millions of dollars in building a levee system ... which was known to be inadequate by the Corps' own calculations."
But, Duval said, "it is not within the Court's power to address the wrongs committed. It is hopefully within the citizens of the United States' power to address the failures of our laws and agencies."
Breaches at both the 17th Street and London Avenue canals allowed flood water to inundate large areas of the city from near Lake Pontchartrain to the north to the edge of downtown.
Throughout the court proceedings, plaintiffs lawyers knew they faced a daunting task because the canals were, over time, used as flood control projects by the Corps.
"I knew we had an uphill battle. But we had to do it," plaintiffs lawyer Joseph Bruno said. "It's an outrage. Read the opinion: The judge reads through all the negligence by the Corps, but says he had to rule the way he had to."
Bruno said the plaintiffs would appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but he conceded that overturning Duval's ruling would be difficult.
The plaintiffs tried to bypass the immunity issue by claiming that the Corps used the canals as drainage projects and that the levee failures were brought about by canal dredging.
The ruling was another blow to the people of New Orleans, where loathing for the Corps continues unabated.
"This cost people's lives and property," said Gwen Bierria, 66. She is still living in a government-issued trailer on her property abutting the London Avenue Canal and is among the tens of thousands of people who have filed claims against the federal government for damage from the levee breaches.
"Anybody that calls themselves the Army Corps of Engineers should be embarrassed," she said.
Kathy Gibbs, a Corps spokeswoman, said "the Corps agrees with the dismissal of the case" but declined to comment further because other lawsuits are pending over Katrina damage.
Al Petrie, incoming president of the Lakeview Civic Improvement Association, said that few residents who returned to the neighborhood and started to rebuild based their decision on the success or failure of the levee litigation.
Still, many residents will continue blaming the Corps for the disaster no matter what the courts say, he said.
"Over time, anger tends to quiet down," he said. "It doesn't mean people are less cautious. We're still beholden to the Corps to do this right."
New Orleans activists and politicians said they will not give up on holding the Corps accountable.
"We will stick with our mission of education that this was the worst engineering failure since Chernobyl," said Sandy Rosenthal, founder of Levees.org, a group that has lobbied for overhauling the Corps.
Since Katrina, calls for a makeover of the Corps have gained momentum, and the agency, which has acknowledged mistakes, has re-evaluated its procedures for picking and designing projects.
Duval, in his ruling, agreed that legal and bureaucratic change is required.
"The byzantine funding and appropriation methods for this undertaking were in large part a cause of this failure," Duval said, referring to the politics-riddled process Congress has for funding Corps projects.
The Flood Control Act is counterproductive, Duval said, because it negates incentives for good government workmanship and creates an environment where "gross incompetence receives the same treatment as simple mistake."
Thursday, January 31, 2008
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards postponed campaign events in Alabama and North Dakota to make a major policy address on poverty Wednesday in New Orleans, where he launched his presidential bid 13 months ago.
Campaign officials said Edwards wants to highlight the fact that President Bush did not focus on New Orleans, still reeling from Hurricane Katrina, during his State of the Union address. North Dakota and Alabama are scheduled to vote Feb. 5.
In a news release, the Edwards campaign called poverty ''the great moral issue of our time.'' In recent days, it said, ''national discussion of important issues like ending poverty has given way to sniping and personal attacks between the two front-runner candidates. Ending poverty and fighting for the middle class is the cause of John Edwards' life -- and he will urge the nation to refocus on this important issue.''
Mudcat Saunders, who was campaigning for Edwards in rural Georgia, a Feb. 5 state, said Edwards wanted to refocus his campaign on poverty.
Advisers said Edwards was continuing his campaign to the 22 states holding nominating contests on Feb. 5, despite losses in the first four contests, in hopes of picking up more delegates. On Saturday, he finished a distant third in his native South Carolina, whose primary he won in 2004.
Some people close to the campaign said Edwards also was disappointed that poverty got little mention in Democratic reactions to President Bush's address, and he sees the New Orleans speech as a chance to refocus attention on the problem.
The insiders said Edwards continues to raise money at a respectable pace, although not at the level of rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
The Edwards campaign said he will attend Thursday's Democratic debate in Los Angeles. After speaking in New Orleans on Wednesday, the news release said, Edwards ''will volunteer on the Habitat for Humanity project at the Musicians' Village'' and then fly to Atlanta to address a Georgia Democratic Party dinner.
Georgia also votes on Feb. 5.
Edwards campaigned Tuesday in Jefferson City, Mo. He told a small crowd that he wants universal health care, a quick end to the Iraq war and economic policies geared toward helping the working and middle classes.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Seven months after it was created by the Legislature, the board of a French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny "management district" held its first meeting Monday. Members soon found that getting a government agency up and running can be slow going.
After taking care of housekeeping matters such as setting a tentative schedule of meetings and drawing lots to see how long each member's term will be, the 13-member board failed even to elect officers or establish committees.
With the board's next meeting two weeks away, it was left unclear whether the group will have enough time to formulate detailed plans for the next fiscal year that can win legislative approval -- and appropriations -- during the spring session.
In approving the concept of the management district last year, the Legislature gave it only $50,000, much too little to accomplish any major goals.
The idea behind the French Quarter-Marigny Historic Area Management District is that it would be a counterpart to the Downtown Development District on the other side of Canal Street, funneling money to infrastructure improvements and enhanced government services.
When New Orleans political and business leaders created the Downtown Development District in the 1970s, the French Quarter opted out. Suspicious of those backing the new group and fearful that it would have a pro-development, anti-preservation stance, French Quarter residents saw to it that the new district reached no farther downriver than Iberville Street.
In the intervening decades, the idea of extending the DDD to include the Quarter, or of creating a new agency or tax district to upgrade services in the city's most historic neighborhood, was raised several times. But it foundered each time on the shoals of Quarterites' distrust of city leaders and opposition to higher taxes, or on rivalries among the Quarter's various factions: residents versus shop owners versus hoteliers.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and with the support of Mayor Ray Nagin and the city's hospitality industry, the various factions got together last year.
They won approval for an agency that, in the words of the enabling legislation, is to help the French Quarter repair its post-Katrina "tarnished world image." The agency is supposed to revive the Quarter's slumping tourism industry "by improving the safety and quality of life of its visitors and residents, restoring its damaged or missing infrastructure, addressing its parking and mobility concerns, beautifying its appearance, and making it more appealing and inviting for its patrons," the legislation says.
Besides the traditional boundaries of the French Quarter, the district includes properties on the lake side of North Rampart Street and the downriver side of Esplanade Avenue, plus a two-block-wide swath of Faubourg Marigny centered on the Frenchmen Street entertainment and commercial district.
Among the projects the law says the agency can support are sidewalk improvements, public restrooms, incentives to utilize vacant buildings or upper floors, crime-prevention cameras, graffiti removal, "lighting and signage upgrades," solutions to parking problems, "beautifying the district," and "revitalizing and nurturing cultural and historical features, and preserving tourism."
Nagin and some others who pushed for creation of the agency expected it to affiliate with the Downtown Development District, and the legislation specifically authorizes the new board to sign a contract with the DDD for "administration, management and operation services." But that expectation grew out of an assumption that the agency would have a substantial budget.
Those planning the district rejected the idea of a special tax millage, such as the DDD imposes. Instead, under a bill introduced by Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, the board would have received almost 1 cent of the 4-cent sales tax the state receives on all purchases within the district's boundaries, amounting to nearly $7 million a year.
But for various reasons, such as the lack of definite plans for how the money would be spent, the sales tax provision failed to win support from key legislators or Gov. Kathleen Blanco's administration. It was dropped from the final version of the bill, and the new agency was given only $50,000 for the fiscal year that ends June 30.
The Legislature passed the bill creating the agency in June and Blanco signed it July 6, but it then took several months for all the organizations represented on the board to nominate members.
The New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association has two representatives. Groups with a single appointment are the Vieux Carre Commission, two groups of French Quarter residents, the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association, the Louisiana Restaurant Association, the French Quarter Business Association, the Bourbon Street Merchants Association and the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. In addition, the mayor gets two selections, one resident and one business owner, and the City Council member from District C gets one pick.
Ten of the 13 members met Monday for more than two hours. They decided to meet again Feb. 11 and then monthly through at least July, as the board tries to get established and decide what financial requests, if any, to present to the legislative session starting March 31.
Monday, January 28, 2008
Storm surge from Hurricane Katrina pushed through marsh along the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain at its juncture with the Tchefuncte River, reaching a record high 7.9 feet in Madisonville, where it damaged 40 percent of the historic waterfront town's homes.
But it still came as a surprise to Madisonville Mayor Peter Gitz to learn that the Army Corps of Engineers may recommend a voluntary buyout of properties south of Louisiana 22, which bisects the town, as part of the corps' comprehensive plan to protect south Louisiana from catastrophic hurricanes.
Gitz and others are learning what flood protection from a "Category 5" hurricane, the classification for the most intense storms, could mean for the New Orleans area. While the corps is still working on its Category 5 plan, a "progress report" obtained by The Times-Picayune offers a preliminary look at the agency's three-pronged approach to protecting the region: flood control, coastal restoration and "buyout" zones.
Part of Madisonville -- along with hundreds of acres in other wetland or low-lying areas outside of proposed levee systems -- appears so vulnerable to storm surge that a government buyout of residences and businesses is listed as one potential option.
The areas pictured also include the southernmost parts of Slidell, Mandeville and Lacombe on the north shore; Delacroix and Reggio in St. Bernard Parish; Ruddock in St. John the Baptist Parish; Lafitte and Barataria in Jefferson Parish; and a number of communities on both sides of the river in Plaquemines Parish. The report doesn't say how many buildings are in the areas proposed for buyouts.
Gitz isn't buying it. The 72-year-old mayor views Katrina as an extremely unusual event with little chance of repeating.
"I was 12 when the 1947 hurricane hit us, and it didn't cause such high water," he said. "Audrey, Betsy, Camille and all the others, we never had water over elevation 6."
The draft document, which details work the agency already should have completed, has not yet been released to the public. The corps missed a Dec. 31 deadline to make recommendations to Congress, angering the state's congressional delegation, as well as state officials and advocates for coastal restoration and flood protection.
The report includes a variety of options for levees and coastal restoration projects, all labeled as "examples" rather than concrete proposals. But the buyout proposal -- similar to a controversial plan the corps pitched last year in Mississippi -- represents new territory for the agency.
Hundreds of acres of mostly wetland areas or low ground outside of proposed levee systems are labeled for buyout based on two reasons:
-- Computer models indicate that 400-year or 1,000-year hurricanes would throw surge at vulnerable areas with enough force to knock down buildings or move them off their foundations.
-- The models show the surge would be so high that the buildings would be inundated.
The maps also recommend even larger areas, still outside proposed levees, to be targeted for raising of buildings to heights of as much as 14 feet. The corps report doesn't specify who should pay for the buyouts or building elevations.
Last year, the corps proposed a voluntary buyout, using federal money, for 17,000 residential properties across the Mississippi Coast. The proposal was quickly reduced to as few as 3,000 houses over five years after property owners and local elected officials raised objections.
The buyout and elevation strategies "provide the most definitive risk reduction by removing assets at risk," said Col. Al Lee, commander of the corps' New Orleans District office.
But corps project manager Al Naomi said the corps still must work with local stakeholders "to get a sense of what's implementable and what isn't."
Corps delays process
The corps was directed to deliver a comprehensive protection plan to Congress by Dec. 31. In a Dec. 20 letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Army Assistant Secretary for Public Works John Paul Woodley Jr. said the corps could not make the deadline but would send a progress report in about two months.
With the clock ticking on Louisiana's eroding coast, the delay raised the ire of Louisiana's U.S. senators and state officials. Most of the leading researchers studying coastal erosion have said that Louisiana must take drastic action within the next 10 years to have any hope of saving key sections of coastline, vital for hurricane protection.
"It is extremely disappointing that the corps is again ignoring the intent of Congress by delaying their report," said U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. "Bureaucratic foot-dragging leaves in lingering jeopardy both our coast and the safety of the millions of Louisianians living there."
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., echoed that sentiment.
"The administration has had years to prepare this report," he said. "Unfortunately, missing another key deadline will reinforce the fear many, including me, have -- that they haven't adopted the right sense of urgency regarding coastal protection, and that they're too focused on cost versus best engineering."
The delays stem largely from a decision by the corps to design a new, complex process for selecting which projects should be part of the plan, after being ordered by Congress not to use its traditional method of weighing the financial benefits of projects against the cost.
Corps officials say the new selection process, which they call a "matrix," is necessary to assure that the ability of individual projects to reduce storm surge risk is supported by science and engineering, that their construction and maintenance are affordable, and that they meet the political and cultural demands of the state's residents.
For the past two years, state officials have repeatedly pointed out that many of the projects have been on the drawing board for years, and that remaining scientific questions can be answered as the individual projects are undergoing design and construction.
"We don't have time to wait for their schedule," said Sidney Coffee, who recently stepped down as director of the Governor's Office of Coastal Activities and chairwoman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
Officials are frustrated
Several parish officials also are concerned about continuing to wait for a plan, and at the lack of input they have had in its direction.
Slidell Mayor Ben Morris is one of those who has yet to be contacted about proposals for buyouts or for a U-shaped levee around the city.
"It may make some sense, but I would like to see what they're talking about," Morris said of the buyout proposal. "If they want to buy out half the city, that's one thing. But if they're only interested in small areas, that's different."
Morris said he's much more worried about the time spent looking at such alternatives, instead of moving forward with projects to restore wetlands and barrier islands.
"They will already have built the Ben Morris Memorial Phone Booth by the time those are built," he said.
Morris said he is equally frustrated by the slow response to past requests from Slidell officials to help pay for a levee to protect the city's southern boundary and the lengthy study under way to determine how to protect his city from much larger hurricanes.
"I could have put a levee up there for a half-million dollars that would have done a great job during Katrina for at least some of the surge," he said. "Why reinvent the wheel when you can get a cheap fix? Then, if a permanent solution comes up 10 or 11 years from now, do that permanent solution."
St. Tammany Parish spokeswoman Suzanne Parsons Stymiest said Parish President Kevin Davis has met several times with corps officials to discuss the long-term alternatives, including gate proposals and levees in various locations. But the buyout alternative had not been discussed.
"Any plan that would come forward from the federal government, or from anyone, would have to be extremely respectful," she said. "These are people's homes we're talking about, and any decision would have to take their feelings into account."
Neither does Plaquemines Parish have time to wait for the report to be completed, said new parish coastal restoration director P.J. Hahn.
"We think we should be taking our offshore oil and gas revenue and bonding it out and leveraging that for more money to rebuild now," Hahn said. "The focus needs to stay on Plaquemines Parish because anything we do down here is going to have a huge impact on New Orleans and Jefferson Parish."
Storm speeds erosion
Corps officials say it will take several months for the agency to complete a required technical report, needed to support the final recommendations and expected to run some 4,000 pages.
Once complete, the report must undergo both a corps peer review process and an outside review by a panel of scientists and engineers with the National Academy of Sciences, which could take at least six weeks.
The corps also hasn't completed an environmental impact statement that must accompany the report and must undergo public review, including public hearings.
Woodley said he will forward the completed documents to Congress within 120 days of the completion of that process.
"Although I am painfully aware that each day of delay is disquieting to all of us that are dedicated to the Gulf Coast recovery efforts, we all realize that our decisions will ultimately be tested over time," he said in his letter to Pelosi.
Corps officials drafting the reports say the complicated process of determining how best to protect Louisiana's coastal communities probably should take at least five years, so missing a two-year deadline is not surprising.
Indeed, the dramatic damage caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to the state's coastline -- about 217 square miles of wetlands turned into open water -- has caused those planning levee and restoration projects to rethink whether they will work. In some cases, levees that were believed to be buffered by wetlands that would avoid erosion for a generation are now facing open water.
"The loss attributed to these storms exceeds the wetland losses that had been projected to occur in the entire state over the next 20 years," the report said. "Viewed in relation to New Orleans alone, all of the wetlands that were expected to erode in the New Orleans area over the next 50 years were lost in a single day during the landfall of Hurricane Katrina."
Another unresolved issue is determining the effects of Louisiana projects on Mississippi's coastline, and vice versa. The corps' Mobile District office is leading a similar study of ways to increase protection to Mississippi's coast.
Several months after Katrina, scientists realized that New Orleans area levees refocused Katrina's storm surge onto the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which might have helped increase its height at Katrina's landfall there.
Right after Katrina, a variety of federal and state officials traveled to the Netherlands and saw the massive gates that are part of its storm protection system, then suggested using similar huge gates to block surge from entering Lake Pontchartrain through the Chef Menteur and Rigolets passes.
That plan would have allowed for lower levees on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain, obviating the need for an alternative "high level" plan for higher levees along Orleans and Jefferson parishes, and allowing construction of a lower U-shaped levee around the southern edges of Slidell.
But extensive computer modeling of storm surges from potential hurricanes showed the high Netherlands-style gates could redirect storm surge to Mississippi, causing planners to reconsider.
"The longer they stay with it, the more the high-level plan keeps coming back to the forefront," said Norwyn Johnson, state Department of Natural Resources coastal project manager.
The result has been more study of a hybrid of the two plans, according to the report. In the new alternative, the corps would use weirs instead of floodgates at the Chef Menteur and Rigolets passes, and then build slightly higher levees on the lake's south shore and new levees on the lake's north shore.
The weirs would allow water to flow through during non-storm periods, or could be designed to act as gates, being in place only during storms. The part of the structure that would be solid would be lower than the Netherlands-style gates, however, to block surge from smaller hurricanes.
Surge from larger hurricanes would go over the top of the weirs and into the lake, reducing the amount of water bouncing off toward Mississippi.
Levees along the south shore lakefront and Slidell might have to be higher to take into account the surge entering the lake.
But it's still the process of running all the projects through the decision matrix developed by the corps that has frustrated state and local officials.
"How much time have we spent to develop a matrix? Two years, and what we have now from the federal government to present to Congress is not even the beginning of a real comprehensive approach to this thing," said Coffee, who now works as a consultant to the America's Wetland Foundation, which supports a public relations campaign supporting coastal restoration for the state.
"What are we going to have after another year?" she asked. "Do the math. It's too slow."
Sunday, January 27, 2008
PARK CITY, UTAH (Reuters) - Two films about people working to triumph over personal tragedy took the top prizes at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday night as the key event for U.S. independent movies honored a new generation of stars.
"Frozen River," written and directed by Courtney Hunt, won the Grand Jury Prize for best film drama, and "Trouble the Water," from directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, was named best documentary among the entries in Sundance's U.S. competition.
Hunt's movie, "Frozen River," captivated the five-member jury that included director Quentin Tarantino and actress Marcia Gay Harden, with a tale of two women overcoming hardship and embarking on a scheme to smuggle illegal immigrants into the United States in order to better their own lives.
Tarantino said the film "took his breath away." It was "one of the most exciting thrillers I am going to see this year."
"Trouble the Water" was judged the best U.S. documentary by a five-member jury for its tale of New Orleans residents uprooted from their homes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
"We couldn't have predicted the despair and outrage we felt" in making the movie, said Lessin. But she added "out of that, emerged a story that is all about survival and hope."
The Sundance Film festival, which is backed by Robert Redford's Sundance Institute for Filmmaking, is the top event for moviemakers working outside Hollywood's major studios, and its winners vault into top ranks of U.S. independent cinema.
One theme festival organizers have touted this year is the emergence of a new generation of filmmakers -- writers and directors born after the U.S. baby boom years -- who are now finding their own voices and offering stories to moviegoers.
I'm struck by the profound sense of significance and emergence of these independent filmmakers," said festival director Geoffrey Gilmore. "This is a class of filmmakers we will remember years from now."
AUDIENCES LOVE "WACKNESS"
Along with the jury prizes, festival-goers also get to vote for their favorite films, and this year's Audience Award for best film drama went to drama "The Wackness," one of the highly touted films coming into Sundance 2008.
"Wackness" tells of one summer in the life of a teenage dope dealer and his psychiatrist, who also happens to be one of the teen's best marijuana clients. That friendship helps the teen come to a better understanding of his world.
Over the 10-day festival's opening weekend, "Wackness" director Jonathan Levine was one of the new generation of directors Gilmore singled out. He accepted his award thanking the movie fans who came out in droves to see his movie.
"I guess that is what this is about, making a relationship with the audience and not necessarily a (Hollywood) studio or an agent," Levine said.
The Audience Award for best U.S. documentary was claimed by environmental film, "Fields of Fuel," which follows director Josh Tickell's research and personal use of alternative fuels.
Sundance also is a key venue for international moviemakers, and in the festival's world cinema competition, "Man on Wire," from British director James Marsh, proved to be a big winner with both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for best documentary. "Man on Wire" tells of Frenchman Philippe Petit's tightwire crossing of New York City's Twin Towers in 1974.
Sweden's "King of Ping Pong," a tale of a 16-year-old who is ostracized by his schoolmates and finds refuge in the game of ping pong, was picked best film drama by the world jury.
The Audience Award for world cinema drama went to Jordan's "Captain Abu Raed," telling of an airport janitor who delights children with fictional tales of his fantasy life as a pilot.
"With movies like this we can actually make the world a better place, I hope," said director Amin Matalqa.
Saturday, January 26, 2008
NEW ORLEANS — Thousands of people are looking for a place to live in this city. Many thousands of houses are vacant or for sale, and acres of land sit empty.
But turning potential housing into inhabited homes is proving to be a major challenge, even for a city that survived the fury of Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levees. For those who need shelter the most, these houses are out of reach.
More than 8,800 houses are for sale in the New Orleans metropolitan area — almost as many as were sold in the last 12 months, according to one of the city’s leading real estate brokerage firms. High insurance costs and the crash in the mortgage market nationwide have slowed sales here, whether people are moving out of town or opting to relocate to a different neighborhood.
Thousands more damaged houses — probably 6,000 within the city limits — are being bought by the State of Louisiana through its Road Home program, which compensates homeowners for their losses in the 2005 hurricanes. These properties will be turned over to local governments for redevelopment or resale. (By one estimate, as many as 20,000 buildings in the city are derelict.)
Meanwhile, 27,500 families, mostly from New Orleans, are still living in tiny, tinny government-issued travel trailers across the state, waiting for their homes to be repaired or for some kind of affordable housing to become available. Many other people remain in faraway cities. And hundreds — by some accounts, thousands — live on the city streets.
The housing situation in New Orleans varies almost block by block. Some areas are hotter than before the storm; others are wastelands. In some neighborhoods, new or rebuilt houses are scattered among empty lots and boarded-up homes, a phenomenon known here as the jack-o’-lantern effect.
By Lake Pontchartrain, in a middle-class neighborhood called Vista Park, a resident, K. C. King, can see a little of everything: new houses raised 10 feet above sea level to surpass new flood regulations, abandoned ranch houses with moldy furniture inside, bald lots, for-sale signs, travel trailers and one renovated house — not popular with the neighbors — that has been turned into a rental. There is even a swimming pool still full of what people living nearby say is filthy floodwater.
“In this neighborhood,” Mr. King said, “the jack-o’-lantern effect is in 3-D.”
Many reasons figure into the mismatch between the need and availability of housing, including history, geography, lingering storm damage and the impact of government programs, intended and unintended. The factor most obvious to economists is price.
“At the very low end of the income strata, we do have a shortage of housing,” said Ivan J. Miestchovich, director of the Center for Economic Development and Real Estate at the University of New Orleans.
Demand for expensive property, however, is low. “On houses more than $350,000 in price, your marketing time is 18 months,” Dr. Miestchovich said. “Over $1 million, it’s two years and more.”
Housing prices, which spiked after the 2005 storm, have been declining. The average sale price in the city dropped to $159,000 in November, the lowest level in years (though it increased in December to an average of $222,000). Even so, sales numbers have been weak for the last few months.
Part of New Orleans’s allure used to be that it was possible to live well on little because a lot of cheap, if rundown, housing was available — a result of years of slow migration from the city. Much of that housing was destroyed; many remaining properties need expensive repairs.
Construction and insurance costs have soared, and borrowers need better credit records to get a housing loan because of problems in the national mortgage market, said Mtumishi St. Julien, executive director of the Finance Authority of New Orleans.
Before Hurricane Katrina, most people in the city were renters, not owners, and more than 50,000 rental units in the metropolitan area were damaged or destroyed when the floodwaters rose. Rents at the remaining apartments shot up by almost 50 percent; a two-bedroom apartment that might have rented for $660 a month in 2004 now costs close to $1,000 a month, according to federal data.
Efforts to help replace rental housing got off to a slow start. Melissa Landry, press secretary for the Louisiana Recovery Authority, said state programs were helping to build 25,000 apartments that would be affordable for low-income residents.
The state, the city and private civic organizations like the Jeremiah Group are hoping eventually to turn those renters into homeowners, by providing subsidies, reducing construction costs and finding a way to cut the price of insurance.
Local and federal officials said they did not expect an increase in homelessness after recent decisions to demolish public housing projects and to close trailer parks run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
But people who work with the families in question are not so sure. The Rev. Marshall Truehill Jr., pastor of the First United Baptist Church, said he was so concerned about an influx of homeless families that he asked the city to convert several former school buildings into shelters.
Based on the turnout at recent forums and public meetings, one question on the minds of many people here is what will happen to all the houses, most badly damaged, that the Road Home program is buying from people who are not rebuilding.
In the city, the properties will be handled by the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, which before the hurricanes was supposed to deal with blighted properties, and by most accounts failed. Joseph Williams, a former banker who became executive director of the agency a year ago, said it had been underfinanced and understaffed in the past but was gearing up to deal with both the Road Home properties and abandoned sites.
Progress has been slow. Last fall, the agency sold 27 blighted properties for redevelopment pilot projects; a nonprofit group called Assisting Hand will break ground Friday on the first of these, in the Seventh Ward.
But what the agency will be able to do with the Road Home properties remains unclear. For one thing, it does not yet know all their locations. In addition to proposals to encourage developers to build or rebuild housing that could be made affordable, the agency is actually planning to reduce the amount of potential housing by allowing neighbors to buy adjacent properties to, for example, expand their yards.
That is what Mr. King would like to do with the house next to his in the Vista Park neighborhood — or rather, next to where his house will be when he rebuilds. He and his wife Kathi are still trailer-bound. But many details remain to be worked out, like how much the city will charge for the property.
“I’d just as soon buy it and split it with the neighbors,” he said. “But I’m not sure I can afford it.”
Friday, January 25, 2008
Thursday, January 24, 2008
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- A lively and sometimes scrappy debate on whether global warming is fueling bigger and nastier hurricanes like Katrina is adding an edge to a gathering of forecasters here.
The venue for the 88th annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society could not have been more conducive to the discussion: The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center is where thousands of people waited for days during the storm to be evacuated from a city drowning in water and misery.
Although weather experts generally agree that the planet is warming, they hardly express consensus on what that may mean for future hurricanes. Debate has simmered in hallway chats and panel discussions.
A study released Wednesday by government scientists was the latest point of contention.
The study by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Miami Lab and the University of Miami postulated that global warming may actually decrease the number of hurricanes that strike the United States. Warming waters may increase vertical wind speed, or wind shear, cutting into a hurricane's strength.
The study focused on observations rather than computer models, which often form the backbone of global warming studies, and on the records of hurricanes over the past century, researchers said.
''I think it was a seminal paper,'' Richard Spinrad, NOAA's assistant administrator for Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, said Wednesday.
''There's a lot of uncertainty in the models,'' Spinrad said. ''There's a lot of uncertainty in what drives the development of tropical cyclones, or hurricanes. What the study says to us is that we need a higher resolution'' of data.
Greg Holland, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said the new paper was anything but seminal. He said ''the results of the study just don't hold together.''
Holland is among scientists who say there is a link between global warming and an upswing in catastrophic storms. He said other factors far outweigh the influence of wind shear on how a storm will behave.
''This is the problem with going in and focusing on one point, a really small change,'' Holland said.
He had a sharp exchange Monday with Christopher Landsea, a NOAA scientist, during the AMS meeting.
While Holland sees a connection between global warming and increased hurricanes, Landsea believes storms only seem to be getting bigger because people are paying closer attention. Big storms that would have gone unnoticed in past decades are now carefully tracked by satellites and airplanes, even if they pose no threat to land.
The exchange, captured by National Public Radio, illustrates how emotional the global warming debate has become for hurricane experts.
''Can you answer the question?'' Landsea demanded.
''I'm not going to answer the question because it's a stupid question,'' Holland shot back.
''OK, let's move on,'' a moderator intervened.
The passion was no surprise to the TV weather forecasters, academic climatologists, government oceanographers and tornado chasers attending the meeting.
''One thing I've learned about coming to this conference over the years is that very few people agree on anything,'' said Bill Massey, a former hurricane program manager at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
''There's a legitimate scientific debate going on and a healthy one, and scientists right now are trying to defuse the emotion and focus on the research,'' said Robert Henson, the author of ''The Rough Guide to Climate Change.''
Whether global warming is increasing the frequency of major storms or reducing it, Henson said, lives are at stake.
''Let's say you have a drunk driver once an hour going 100 miles an hour in the middle of the night on an interstate,'' Henson said. ''Say you're going to have an increase from once an hour to once every 30 minutes; that's scary and important. But you've got to worry about that drunk driver if it's even once an hour.''
Massey agreed. ''In 1992 we had one major storm. It was Hurricane Andrew. It was a very slow year. But one storm can ruin your day.''
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
From the Times-Picayune:
A full fifth of eligible applicants who applied in 2006 for Road Home grants, including about a dozen early applicants who participated in a pilot program, have not received any of the homeowner grant money, according to data obtained Tuesday.
For months, advocates and policymakers at the Louisiana Recovery Authority have been asking Road Home officials to disclose how many of the 70,000 homeowners still awaiting grants were applicants from the first months of the program. The state asked for the data at the Jan. 4 LRA housing task force committee meeting, but the information wasn't released then. Committee member Melanie Ehrlich finally received a report last week and passed the numbers along to The Times-Picayune.
The report showed that 13,452 of the 67,255 eligible homeowners who applied in 2006 still hadn't reached a grant closing by last week, including some who were in the pilot program launched in July 2006.
State officials said about 3,000 of those cases are not the fault of the Road Home, but are cases in which the homeowner has yet to return a form indicating whether they want to rebuild or sell their property to the state. About 10,000 of the 2006 cases are in the final verification stages and moving toward closing, state officials said.
The data shows the program has made more progress with older cases. Eighty percent of the eligible 2006 applicants have gotten at least some of their grant money, compared with 70 percent of those who applied in the first three months of 2007.
In all, 19,200 of the 86,195 eligible homeowners who applied at least 10 months ago haven't had a closing yet.
Ehrlich, an applicant advocate at the Citizens Road Home Action Team, said that number was unacceptable and showed a failure of the program to keep up with older cases.
Homeowners fed up
John and Judy Drury say there's no good explanation for the fact that they've been waiting since Oct. 10, 2006.
They were told they would get the maximum $150,000 grant to fix their more than 3,000-square-foot home in Eden Isles. But then the program used three different home sizes in the calculations, and their application was held up for months without an explanation.
This is the most frustrating thing I've ever done," said John Drury, 64, who spent eight years in the Navy Reserves. "The service was a breeze compared to this. They try to put enough roadblocks up so you get disgusted and you quit."
On Friday, Drury was told he would get nothing because his outdoor porches and attached carport had to be counted in the total square footage of the home, which reduced to 45 percent the damage caused by three feet of floodwater. If the Road Home counted only the finished living space, the damage would have been 55 percent, triggering a different calculation method that would have netted the Drurys a $150,000 grant.
Pledge to help
"We know there are thousands of homeowners that are tired and frustrated," said new LRA Executive Director Paul Rainwater. "We know they need answers. We have an obligation to remove barriers and clear choke points wherever they exist to ensure that all homeowners -- 100 percent of our homeowners -- move quickly through the process and that they are treated fairly and with respect."
Suzie Elkins, director of the state Office of Community Development, the agency overseeing the Road Home, said many of the old files are not ones for which the calculations are in question, but ones requiring the applicants to take some kind of action to move the process forward.
"We're working hard, really hard," Elkins said. "Our goal is to move the homeowner as fast as we can through the system. But most of these cases are dependent on the homeowners."
To try to help homeowners who are stuck, the Road Home has contracted with ACORN Housing and Southeast Louisiana Legal Services to work directly with applicants. For those who believe they have done all they can and the Road Home is to blame for the repeated delays, the program recently introduced a new focus on case management, vowing to send letters to anyone who has been in the system more than 90 days.
Complications slow process
There are a number of issues that can hold up cases, said Mike Spletto, senior housing manager for the Office of Community Development. Thousands of applicants who want to sell their homes to the state have a clouded title or owe more on their mortgage than the total buyout grant would pay, leaving them in what's called an upside-down mortgage. Until a deal is worked out with the mortgage company, those owners can't collect a grant.
Spletto also said Road Home workers are having a hard time dealing with condominium associations that must disclose insurance settlements for individual condo owners to collect grants. Also, he said hundreds of owners of manufactured homes on leased land have been unable to document that they were living at a particular site at the time of the
A shortage of healthcare workers in New Orleans has driven up the price of labor, making hospital Medicare reimbursements insufficient, a report said.
Josh Kelley, a HealthLeaders-InterStudy market analyst and author of the report "New Orleans Market Overview," said hospital executives say rising salaries, which are needed to attract professionals and service workers -- especially doctors -- to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina are a primary cause of hospitals' financial problems.
Many workers returning to the region have jobs in the service and construction industries, which do not offer health benefits. It is this large upswing of uninsured patients and increased labor costs that have outstripped hospital Medicare payments in New Orleans resulting in major losses for the area's largest hospitals, Kelley said.
The report said most physician practices remain in New Orleans' suburbs, where medical services and the region's population are now concentrated. However, the long-term stability of healthcare in New Orleans depends on programs that draw physicians to the city.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
U.S. must improve response, he says
The nation must make major changes to the way it responds to disasters such as hurricanes or terrorist attacks, New Orleans' homeland security chief told more than 3,000 scientists Monday at the American Meteorological Society's annual meeting.
Director Terry Ebbert was a last-minute replacement for Mayor Ray Nagin, who was scheduled to recount the city's response to Hurricane Katrina for the meteorologists. Nagin had to cancel because Martin Luther King Jr. Day ceremonies elsewhere in the city were delayed, Ebbert said.
Ebbert focused on the continuing problems he said he faces weighing federal regulatory requirements against the need to save lives and protect evacuees.
He said local emergency managers are handcuffed by paperwork required by the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which calls for detailed accounting of all emergency expenses.
"They can't ask us for overtime sheets for yesterday" in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, he said. "We have got to be driven by the importance of getting the job done, saving lives."
Ebbert said he faced similar problems ensuring compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and with post-Katrina court orders prohibiting him from seizing guns from evacuees.
"I don't want to be faced with laws that say, 'Under an emergency declaration, Terry, you cannot take a weapon from any citizen,' " he said in his talk at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. "I want to be able to control the cockroaches of the world who want to take advantage of our citizens."
He called it ironic that federal law also demands that he ensure that all evacuees under his control are unarmed when they board trains or airplanes.
The National Rifle Association sued the city after Katrina to force New Orleans police to return guns seized in the storm's aftermath. The lawsuit is pending.
Ebbert said the nation remains incapable of providing the supplies and manpower needed in the aftermath of a disaster in the same way that its military can supply and move troops into battle during a war.
At the local level, Ebbert said, the greatest challenge is instilling in the public the urgency to plan in advance for disasters. Though about 25,000 people in New Orleans are expected to need assistance leaving their homes because of illness or disability, fewer than 12,000 have registered with the city's evacuation program.
Monday, January 21, 2008
IN THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER DELTA (AP) -- Service canals dug to tap oil and natural gas dart everywhere through the black mangrove shrubs, bird rushes and golden marsh. From the air, they look like a Pac-Man maze superimposed on an estuarine landscape 10 times the size of Grand Canyon National Park.
There are 10,000 miles of these oil canals. They fed America's thirst for energy, but helped bring its biggest delta to the brink of collapse. They also connect an overlooked set of dots in the Hurricane Katrina aftermath: The role that some say the oil industry played in the $135 billion disaster, the nation's costliest.
The delta, formed by the accumulation of the Mississippi River's upstream mud over thousands of years, is a shadow of what it was 100 years ago. Since the 1930s, a fifth of the 10,000-square-mile delta has turned into open water, decreasing the delta's economic and ecologic value by as much as $15 billion a year, according to Louisiana State University studies.
The rate of land loss, among the highest in the world, has exposed New Orleans and hundreds of other communities to the danger of drowning. Katrina made that painfully clear.
''I remember when I was a young boy we had a camp out in the marsh,'' said Don Griffin, a grocer and seafood dealer in the delta town of Leeville, which became an oil-drilling center for decades. ''The same places you used to have to get around with a pirogue and a push pole now you can go with a 25-foot outboard. There's no more marsh, which is your first barrier of defense for hurricanes.''
In Katrina's wake, the Army Corps of Engineers has gotten the brunt of the criticism for the disaster. Besides building suspect levees, the Corps' mission to control waterways with spillways, floodgates and other measures has played havoc with nature by restricting the Mississippi's sediment and fresh upriver water from replenishing the delta's wetlands.
There are other reasons for the disastrous wetlands loss: Human development, cypress logging, ill-advised farming on the coast, hurricanes, slipping-and-sliding geologic faults and even a South American semi-aquatic rodent called nutria imported to Louisiana in the 1930s.
But many scientists say the oil industry's 10,000 miles of canals -- enough to stretch nearly halfway around the world -- and the drilling they supported played a decisive role. Some scientists say drilling caused half of the land loss, or about 1,000 square miles.
''The whole thing was manifest destiny written large on a marshy landscape,'' said John Day, an LSU professor emeritus who specializes in delta ecologies.
The industry denies that and points to disagreement among scientists over who or what caused damage, and how much.
''I've got duck leases out there and I remember when they were covered in grass. They're all ponds now,'' said Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association. ''It's not gone because of drilling. It's because nutria ate all the grasses.''
However, a substantial body of evidence points to oil's heavy toll.
The canals, most dug to access wells by bucket dredges between the 1930s and 1970s when restrictions and mitigation requirements were lax to nonexistent, crisscross the marshy coast like a liquid maze.
In many places, they run perpendicular to the Gulf of Mexico shoreline, allowing salt water to intrude far inland. One spot is dubbed ''The Wheel'' because a series of canals looks like a wagon wheel from the air.
The muddy slop dredged from the canals had to go somewhere. Oil companies piled it where they found it, creating an estimated 13,000 miles of tide-blocking spoil banks.
R. Eugene Turner, an LSU oceanographer, has calculated that every square mile of the delta is bounded on three sides by oil-canal ridges. Turner has spent more than 30 years studying the oil industry's footprint on the delta.
''If the water is blocked from going in, the wetlands on other side is drier for a little longer and also stays flooded longer than it otherwise would be,'' Turner said. ''By drying it, the land oxidizes and dries out; and if it's wetter, it's like leaving a lawn sprinkler on and the plants are going to die.''
The damage doesn't stop with the canals. For example, U.S. Geological Survey scientists say the sucking out of the ground of so much oil and gas likely caused the land in many places to sink by half an inch a year. In oil's heyday 30 years ago, Louisiana's coastal wells pumped 360 million barrels a year, an eighth of what Saudi Arabia ships to the market today.
Oil wells also discharged about a billion gallons daily of brine, thick with naturally occurring subsurface chemicals like chlorides, calcium and magnesium, as well as acids used in drilling.
''It was poured into the marshes,'' said Virginia Burkett, a longtime researcher of the Louisiana wetlands and the chief scientist for climate change at USGS. It contaminated soils and killed plants and animals, she said, before brine dumping was finally regulated in coastal marshes in 1985.
Still, when politicians in Washington or Louisiana talk about Katrina guilt they blame the Corps of Engineers, global warming and the French for building a city in low-lying swamps nearly 300 years ago -- but not the oil industry.
''It's the elephant at the dinner table and nobody wants to say there's an elephant there,'' said Luke Fontana, a New Orleans lawyer for Save Our Wetlands, one of the state's oldest grassroots environmental groups that has fought the draining of swamps and oil company activity since the 1970s.
But the industry's legacy is getting new attention. Some contrast record petroleum profits with staggering cost estimates -- up to $60 billion -- to save New Orleans and restore the delta. In 2006, major U.S. oil companies, some of which moved offices from New Orleans to Houston, earned about $162 billion.
Meanwhile, locals increasingly ask why oil shouldn't be made to clean up its profitable mess the same as mining operations had to do in Appalachia.
Delta folks like Griffin, the grocer in Leeville, wonder why Shell, ExxonMobil and other oil behemoths aren't paying for the disappearance of his boyhood duck ponds and dune-lined islands.
''It seems that the government should hold them accountable for some of the problem,'' Griffin said from behind his cash register.
At mid-20th century, marsh-borne oil derricks towered over Leeville's shacks as far as the eye could see, replacing fields of cotton. Today, those same places, chopped up by bucket dredges, are open water. A town cemetery lies in the water, its tombs barely visible. And as Leeville goes under, New Orleans, 50 miles to the northeast, becomes that much more exposed.
The oil industry has not gone entirely unchallenged.
As far back as the 1970s, landowners and environmental groups were able to stop specific projects or force companies to clean up isolated sites. But no lawsuit or state law has compelled the industry to fill the canals or dismantle old spoil banks.
After Katrina, a class-action lawsuit blamed oil and pipeline companies for ''depriving ... New Orleans from its natural protection against hurricane winds and storm surges.'' The suit was dismissed last October.
In the early 1980s, then-Gov. David Treen proposed a coast-and-levee tax by slapping a levy of 36 cents on every barrel of oil and 6 cents on every 1,000 cubic feet of gas that crossed the coastal plain; but the measure didn't muster the two-thirds majority needed in the state Legislature.
''Today, I would recommend going to two bucks a barrel,'' Treen said. ''That would give us about $1 billion a year. I just feel like they ought to pay for some of the cost we incur.''
Eventually, petrodollars may provide relief. In 2006, Congress approved a plan to give Louisiana and other Gulf states a large portion of offshore royalties the industry now pays to the federal Treasury. By 2017, Louisiana hopes to get as much as $650 million a year.
Meanwhile, the anything-goes days for oil are over. Regulators demand the use of less-damaging techniques -- directional drilling, rerouting of pipelines, wetlands mitigation. Private landowners often ask oil companies to clean up after themselves.
''My job is to make sure they stay on their right of ways, that they don't traverse onto vegetative areas or use machinery that is harmful,'' said Forrest Travirca III, a land warden for a swath of wetlands near Leeville held by a public trust.
''It's like strip mining. A good strip miner will repair the land.''
Cruising in his bay boat through mangrove brakes and past tugboats and crew vessels docked at the offshore-drilling port of Port Fourchon, Travirca pointed out places where oil companies have patched up the land.
For its part, the industry balks at talk of paying for the damage.
''Worldwide, there's this notion that they want the oil industry to pay for everything,'' John Felmy, chief economist of the American Petroleum Institute, said during the organization's recent meeting in New Orleans. ''It's like the world considers the industry a cookie jar.''
The industry denies that drilling damaged the delta that much.
''The real question is, what damage did occur?'' said Jim Porter, president of Louisiana's chief oil lobby, the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association. ''There's no clear-cut answer on it. But there is no doubt there are many, many causes for wetlands loss and access to oil and gas operations is rather insignificant.''
In the 1980s, Porter was in charge of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, the agency that regulates drilling and coastal conservation.
Rex Tillerson, chief executive of ExxonMobil Corp., said at the American Petroleum Institute meeting that there were ''a lot of reasons'' for the delta's decline, including the unstable geology there. ''The land moves around a lot along the coast,'' he said. Geologists say there is evidence that slipping-and-sliding faults have caused land loss.
For now, the oil companies are winning the public relations battle, in part by spending $5 million on a marketing campaign called America's Wetland. ''Tell Washington to shore up America's energy coast. It fuels the nation,'' one TV ad implores, calling on Congress to spend the money it will take to restore the delta. Nowhere is oil's responsibility mentioned.
Many Louisiana politicians, including former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, have backed the campaign.
Taking the other side is a disparate group -- among them, Treen; Tab Benoit, a Cajun rock musician who talks about oil's legacy during national tours; and Walter Williams, a writer and animator known for his clay-figure character Mr. Bill, who blogs about it.
''Cigarettes were an easy whipping boy,'' said Williams. ''Oil permeates.''
In fact, the industry is resurgent in the delta where, as oil prices soar, wildcatters are turning on long-dormant wells.
Sunday, January 20, 2008
As an assortment of do-gooders, church ladies and nonprofit agencies provide the city's homeless with meals, services and furniture, City Hall is sitting on federal money desperately needed by social service providers.
Just before Christmas, UNITY, a consortium of agencies serving the homeless, whisked the last squatter from Duncan Plaza, across from City Hall. Since Nov. 20, UNITY and its partners have spent nearly $650,000 on hotel rooms, casework and services for Duncan Plaza's former residents. Half of them have been placed into apartments.
UNITY's involvement is based on a public and private partnership: UNITY provides the expertise and the caseworkers to help find permanent housing for the homeless -- saving the government from having to set up a bureaucracy to do the work -- while taxpayers help financially.
UNITY is living up to its end of the deal, but its cash coffers are nearly empty. That's partly because of delays by the city, which has not delivered $264,000 it promised for UNITY's efforts.
On Thursday, Mayor Ray Nagin said the city will make good on its obligation.
"All UNITY has to do is submit the invoices and they will get their reimbursement," he said.
According to mayoral spokeswoman Ceeon Quiett, UNITY had submitted all of the necessary paperwork as of Wednesday. The mayor said he wasn't aware of that, and that he has instructed his staff to expedite the process.
The city's $264,000 portion is slotted to come from federal Community Development Block Grant money, said mayoral spokesman James Ross.
That money is already in the city's line of credit, $15.5 million in 2007 alone, said Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the block grant program. Moreover, Sullivan said that once the city and UNITY have finished the required paperwork, City Hall can draw down on the money simply by punching account numbers into HUD's secure phone line, he said.
A severe cash crunch
At this point, UNITY has such a severe cash shortage that its director is going without a salary, its bookkeepers are paying only essential bills, and it has had to borrow money to pay for hotel rooms and make payroll.
"It's a nail-biting exercise every day to figure out how we're going to do this," UNITY director Martha Kegel said.
The agency hoped to secure a bridge loan that could give them some breathing room, she said.
Sullivan said HUD hopes to convene a meeting as early as this week with the city, UNITY, the city's recovery office and HUD.
In the past, UNITY has occasionally bailed out its member agencies, most of them small nonprofit groups, by giving no-interest bridge loans when a small nonprofit group runs into a cash-flow crisis.
"But now we're feeling the pinch ourselves," Kegel said.
The homeless people UNITY helps, many of them mentally ill, are aware of the situation, and they fear they'll get kicked out of temporary lodging provided by the agency, Kegel said.
"Their stress has been unbelievable. They're not sleeping at night, and so it's difficult for them to focus on getting apartments and jobs," she said.
Former Duncan Plaza residents have asked Kegel to assure them that they won't end up back on the streets.
"What I told them is that we would do everything in our power to make sure that didn't happen. But I can't guarantee anything," she said.
The biggest problem, Kegel said, is that nearly all the government money used for this project is reimbursement-based, so UNITY must front the cash, then submit receipts for its work. While not an unusual practice in hurricane recovery financing, it can create hardship for the city's financially lean social service agencies, Kegel said.
"We've seen that nonprofits are key to this recovery," she said. "But there's a limit to how much they can do, particularly in this city, where nonprofits are so often inadequately financed."
In this project alone, one of the subcontractors pulled out because it was financially squeezed, she said
The concerns may sound familiar to city officials, who also fretted about having enough capital for all of the city's infrastructure repairs. This summer, the Legislature created a revolving fund, financed by state bonds, that provides the city and the Sewerage & Water Board with a total of $300 million in upfront money to repair storm-damaged city buildings, streets and other infrastructure while the city waits for FEMA reimbursement.
Others waiting too
UNITY isn't the only agency waiting while the city sits on money.
"I'm sympathetic, but UNITY has only been waiting two months," said Don Everard, who heads up Hope House, a social service agency. Everard has a letter from the city awarding Hope House's transitional-housing program $40,000 in federal homeless-assistance money for 2007. To date, Hope House hasn't been paid or been given a signed contract, which it needs to bill the city.
"We know the money is there," Everard said.
It was part of a federal McKinney-Vento Emergency Shelters Grant given to the city every year by HUD. In 2007, the city received $667,000 specifically for that purpose, said Sullivan, the HUD spokesman.
Everard wrote several letters to the mayor without response, he said. He now despairs of ever getting the money. "We go into these contracts with the city, saying, 'If you supply the money, we'll supply the work.' But we can't do the work if they don't give us the money," he said.
For its work at Duncan Plaza, UNITY and its agencies have been reimbursed for roughly $61,000 of expenses, all of it from the state Department of Social Services.
Last week, the City Council asked for testimony from Kegel and other homeless-service providers about homelessness in the city and the growing colony camped under the interstate overpass near Claiborne Avenue and Canal Street.
But expanding UNITY's housing efforts to those on Claiborne Avenue apparently is too much to ask at this point. In recent weeks, as the cash got tighter, UNITY began paying only the most urgent bills. It currently is paying rent for its offices only, staff salaries and hotel bills for Duncan Plaza clients.
Everard and other emergency-shelter providers are also unable to expand their work with the homeless because of lagging payments. "The city is going to lose its partners because people just can't wait forever," he said.
Saturday, January 19, 2008
A group of former patients of New Orleans’s shuttered public hospital filed a lawsuit on Thursday in a Louisiana state court, saying that medical care for the poor is still woefully inadequate in the city and asking for a return to the level of services the hospital provided before Hurricane Katrina.
Before the storm, Charity Hospital provided nearly all the basic, specialty and emergency care and mental health services for low-income residents. Louisiana State University, which operated the hospital, did not reopen it after the levees failed and the hospital’s basement flooded.
Instead, the state reopened the smaller University Hospital, which has an emergency room for trauma cases, but has many fewer beds and clinics than the larger hospital, known as Big Charity and built in the 1930s.
The plaintiffs, some of whom were born at the hospital, said in the lawsuit, which was filed in New Orleans, that they must travel hundreds of miles for care or incur big bills for treatment that had been free at Charity.
The lawsuit, which has been supported by some local politicians, doctors and law enforcement officials, argues that the university’s closing of the hospital was illegal without specific approval from the Legislature.
But Dr. Fred P. Cerise, vice president for health affairs at the university, said the state buildings department had made the decision to close the building.
“We happened to agree with it,” Dr. Cerise said, adding that university officials had planned to replace the building well before the storm and is pushing for a new, state-of-the-art hospital.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs, who are seeking class-action status to represent what they estimate are 100,000 uninsured residents in and near New Orleans, said they would ask a judge to require an evaluation of the old building.
But S. Stephen Rosenfeld, a Massachusetts lawyer who is working with local lawyers on the case, said the goal was not so much to reopen the building as to impel the state to develop a plan to restore medical services.
“This is about investing money in a system that works,” Mr. Rosenfeld said.
Dr. Cerise acknowledged that reopening clinics had gone much more slowly than the state had hoped, but he said that by the end of February the university would open three neighborhood clinics, a large clinic in a former department store downtown and a mental health emergency room.
Friday, January 18, 2008
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- The Federal Emergency Management Agency, responding to concerns about formaldehyde in trailers issued to hurricane survivors, said Thursday that it would offer refunds to people who bought them after their initial use.
The federal government began selling trailers in 2006 through online auctions and to victims of the intense 2005 hurricane season. Sales were suspended in July last year because of the fears about formaldehyde, which can cause respiratory problems.
Hundreds of people in Louisiana and Mississippi are suing manufacturers, accusing them of providing FEMA with trailers that contained high levels of the toxin after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which devastated much of the Gulf Coast.
FEMA said that 10,839 travel trailers and park models were sold by the federal General Services Administration at an average price of $6,936, and that 864 trailers were sold directly to hurricane victims.
The agency said it would e-mail buyers to notify them of the refund option. Buyers have 60 days to request a refund, FEMA said.
FEMA will take back the trailers once a refund is issued, but it's not clear what will happen to them after that.
U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt, who is presiding over formaldehyde cases filed on behalf of 723 people, met with attorneys on both sides Thursday in New Orleans.
Henry Miller, a lawyer for FEMA, said the agency has received only 20 formaldehyde-related claims that it considers ''legally sufficient.''
FEMA says the trailers won't be used as temporary shelters for disaster victims until safety concerns are addressed.
In late December, government scientists began measuring formaldehyde levels in hundreds of FEMA trailers. Preliminary results are due next month, and a final report is expected to be released in May.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
NEW ORLEANS: A United Nations official who has toured parts of Louisiana and Mississippi devastated by Hurricane Katrina says the thousands of victims of the storm resemble poor people displaced by natural disasters in other parts of the world.
''Whether you're displaced in a rich country or a poor country, what remains the same is you need to get the help, the assistance of the authorities, of the communities, to be able to restart a normal life, and the people I have met are not there yet,'' said Walter Kalin, the UN secretary general's representative on the human rights of internally displaced persons.
Kalin spoke Wednesday, a day when he also saw hard-hit areas of the two states. He met Tuesday with evacuees in Houston.
The United Nations' human rights committee has been critical of the Bush administration's efforts to help people displaced by Katrina, particularly those without the financial means to rebuild.
Federal officials deny that evacuees have received inadequate aid, noting that billions of dollars have been spent to house hurricane victims in apartments, trailers and other homes.
Since Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005, the government has spent more than $7.7 billion on housing for about 1.4 million households, according to figures from the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding.
Many evacuees will continue to be housed until March 2009, said Tara Wall, a spokeswoman for the federal coordinator's office. She said the government has also set up programs to help displaced evacuees return to New Orleans.
''We are constantly working with state, local and federal partners to restore, rebuild and improve the quality of life for displaced New Orleanians -- and we've made great strides,'' Wall said.
Kalin said his mission was to encourage American officials to abide by a set of UN principles on ''internally displaced persons'' that say ''you must start with the most needy, you have to find ways to reconstruct housing that is affordable.''
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
After a year of steady growth, New Orleans' rate of repopulation nearly flatlined late last year, according to a report released Tuesday.
The Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, which determines whether households are occupied by monitoring their mail delivery, found such deliveries in November to be at 70.5 percent of the city's levels before Hurricane Katrina.
In July 2005, the month before the hurricane, there were 198,232 households actively receiving mail, the report said. As of November, there were 139,744 such households.
The city's population grew steadily between August 2006, when about half of households were occupied, and September 2007, when the percentage reached 70 percent. But it barely climbed in the following two months, the report found.
Homelessness and migrant workers attracted by rebuilding jobs make the city's population difficult to determine. But the center's numbers are roughly consistent with those of an urban planning firm that tracks utility hookups to estimate the city's population, which it recently put at about 65 percent of pre-Katrina levels.
Allison Plyer, the data center's deputy director, said the city must act now to lure back residents.
''We'll see how it goes over time,'' Plyer said, ''but I think the city and the state really, now, need to prioritize affordable housing, public transportation and child care. If not, it will be very hard for the volume of workers needed to be able to come and work.''
Just 39 percent of the city's pre-Katrina child care capacity is currently available, according to the report.
A spokesman for Mayor Ray Nagin did not return a call for comment Tuesday.
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
The Louisiana Supreme Court will hear arguments Feb. 26 to decide whether homeowner insurers must foot the bill for water damage done to the property of thousands of their south Louisiana customers when the levees broke after Hurricane Katrina.
Individual homeowners, thousands of whom have sued to force their insurers to pay up, are hoping the justices affirm rulings by lower courts in favor of 91-year-old Uptown resident and Holocaust survivor Joseph Sher, whose insurer denied most of his claims by saying they were caused by "flood" and therefore not covered by his hazard policy.
Sher sued Lafayette Insurance Co. in Civil District Court and won a jury verdict that put the firm on the hook for the cost of repairs to his house.
Lafayette tried unsuccessfully to get the verdict overturned by a five-judge panel of the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal. The company is now appealing to the state Supreme Court.
On the key question of whether the water from levee breaches constituted a "flood," the 4th Circuit judges ruled 3-2 that the word "flood" in Sher's policy was ambiguous.
The panel majority said that when doubt about the meaning of a policy exists, the court must find against the issuer of the policy.
In August, however, three Texas judges on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the opposite way in a different case.
The federal judges said flatly that a flood is a flood, regardless of what causes it. Manmade failure of the levees didn't change the basic fact that a flood "is precisely what occurred in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the 5th Circuit said in a decision now on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But in the view of lawyers for homeowners trying to win flood-damage compensation from their insurers, the 4th Circuit's opinion on a question of state law supersedes the federal appeals court's decision.
Others say it would take a ruling from the state Supreme Court to force the federal courts to reverse their interpretation of Louisiana law.
Either way, an expected decision by the state Supreme Court on the Sher case would likely set the lasting precedent for all claims of this kind.
The success of the Sher case so far has given hope to hurricane victims who have argued in their own lawsuits that flooding from levee failures is not a "natural disaster" but a manmade event that should have been covered by most homeowner policies.
It also could bolster a lawsuit filed by the Louisiana attorney general on behalf of about 165,000 Road Home applicants against nearly every insurance company operating in Louisiana. That lawsuit says the insurers underpaid all Road Home recipients by interpreting homeowner policies to exclude coverage for the water damage caused by the levee breaches.
The insurance industry is watching warily to see which way the Louisiana Supreme Court comes down in the Sher case.
Failure by the court to decide in Lafayette's favor would "send a chill through the marketplace" and hurt the overall recovery from the 2005 storms, one insurance industry spokesman said in November.
Monday, January 14, 2008
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has pledged $2.2 million to replace the ruined contents of Louisiana Technical College's Slidell campus, which has been closed since Hurricane Katrina.
The money will go toward replacing furniture and equipment for the college's culinary, nursing, welding, automotive, drafting and computer technology programs. The items were destroyed after the storm inundated the campus off Canulette Road with more than 7 feet of water.
Steve Zeringue, senior compliance officer for the college, said the money will be "of great benefit" to the school.
The residents of St. Tammany Parish need all the equipment necessary to train for job opportunities," he said. "FEMA has been very cooperative. They've done a good job addressing our needs."
Sending a team to the inundated campus after the storm, FEMA initially estimated the damage to be $160,000, Zeringue said. After school officials provided a more detailed list of the furniture, computers and technical equipment destroyed in the storm, FEMA came back with the revised cost of $2.2 million.
The school will relocate north of Lacombe to a consolidated educational campus that will include Delgado Community College, Southeastern Louisiana University and the University of New Orleans, as well as an advanced studies high school.
St. Tammany Parish will finance construction of the colleges through a bond issue and repay the debt through lease payments from the universities, which will be given ownership of the buildings once they are paid off, officials have said.
With plans to open the campus in two years, parish officials are waiting for final approval from the Legislature to start construction, said parish spokeswoman Suzanne Parsons Stymiest.
Rough estimates have the construction costing $30 million.
"It may take three (years) but this is a project that (Parish President) Kevin (Davis) is fully committed on, and he is pressing everyone to move forward as quickly as we can," she said.
Sunday, January 13, 2008
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- The sign on the gate in front of the pretty blue house announced the good news to a neighborhood that has had little since Hurricane Katrina: "There's a doctor in the house. Make your appointment NOW!"
Earl Davis paused to take in the words, then headed up the ramp and through the door - destined for his first doctor visit since returning to the city five months earlier. The family practitioner who treated him as a boy, and then saw his own kids, left after the storm and isn't coming back. Hundreds of other doctors have gone the same route.
Medical centers devastated by floodwaters remain closed, with the number of beds available to the sick cut in half.
Charity Hospital, which for generations provided care to the poor and uninsured, sits like a darkened tomb on a downtown street, plywood blocking the main entryway, window shades twisted and broken.
But the blue house at the corner of St. Claude Avenue and Egania Street is open for business, dispensing free health care to anyone in need.
The Lower 9th Ward Health Clinic is its official name now.
"A medical home," Patricia Berryhill calls the facility offering primary care.
Before Katrina, this was Berryhill's own home. The living room where her kids congregated after school serves as a waiting area now, its walls painted a peaceful powder blue. The bedrooms are exam cubicles, the kitchen a file room and office.
Berryhill, a registered nurse, still spends almost every day at 5228 St. Claude, working as medical director of the clinic, lording over it as she once did her household.
Another registered nurse, Alice Craft-Kerney, runs the business side as the clinic's executive director. She grew up in the Ninth Ward, and rode out Katrina in her brother's house a mere three blocks away.
The story of how these neighborhood women and nurses gave a home - and themselves - to help a community they cherish is one of faith and perseverance but, most of all, friendship.
It is also the story of health-care delivery in post-Katrina New Orleans, where clinics have cropped up in corner groceries and old department stores, and Good Samaritans are stepping in to mend broken bodies and souls.
They met on the night shift at Charity Hospital. Berryhill, 57, was a veteran with more than three decades of nursing experience, and Kerney, seven years her junior, often sought her out for guidance. They shared laughs and advice, and came to lean on each other. If one had trouble starting an intravenous line she would call the other for help.
Their professional relationship blossomed into a personal friendship. Even after Berryhill transferred to University Hospital, Charity's sister facility, Kerney would stop by her home in the Ninth Ward just to say hello. When Berryhill remarried, Kerney helped her plan the wedding.
In 2005, when Katrina struck, Berryhill was managing the high-risk obstetrics and gynecology unit at University Hospital while Kerney was a supervisor for trauma, surgery and the prison ward at Charity. Berryhill was assigned to the medical team that stayed behind during the storm; Kerney was delegated to another group that was to relieve the first.
Eventually, both wound up evacuated from the city - and they returned to a health care system in shambles. Charity, its basement flooded, was closed. University was shuttered for more than a year, though doctors temporarily offered care from a tent. In some neighborhoods, medical workers took to bicycles in search of patients.
"Pre-Katrina there was an inadequate number of beds," says Kerney. "Charity Hospital was the safety net that would take all of the medically indigent. With Charity being closed and so many of the private sector hospitals closed, it put a tremendous strain on the health care system."
Berryhill put in for retirement and considered teaching. Meanwhile, she had to look for a new place to live. Her home on St. Claude Avenue, where she'd lived 28 years and raised four children, was structurally sound on the outside but wrecked inside. She rented a townhouse and considered refurbishing and renting her home below the going rate, to try to help another family.
Kerney was furloughed but found work for an agency doing per-diem nursing wherever she could. She reconnected with Berryhill, who offered a room while Kerney's house was repaired. Kerney declined, but would soon turn to her friend with an offer of her own.
At the beginning of 2006, Kerney met some folks working with Common Ground, a volunteer organization established in the aftermath of Katrina that has provided an array of services to people returning home, everything from first aid and legal assistance to shovels, hammers and manpower to help rebuild homes.
Michelle Shin, the coordinator of services in the Lower Ninth Ward, told Kerney about a group that wanted to donate as much as $35,000 to help rebuild a family's home, but Shin and Kerney envisioned some type of project that would instead benefit the entire community. Shin suggested a clinic, immediately asking Kerney: "What do you think about spearheading it?"
"I wouldn't want to do it without my friend Pat," the nurse replied.
Kerney called up her old comrade to get her on board, and when Shin learned that Berryhill's home was sitting empty, the idea was hatched for renovating it to accommodate the clinic.
"I prayed on it," says Berryhill, who then asked her children what they wanted her to do with the house.
"`Do what the Lord calls you to do,'" they told their mom.
The renovations got under way the summer of 2006, with volunteers from Common Ground hoisting crowbars and hammers to tear out walls and erect new ones. Kind souls came out of the woodwork to help: an air conditioning business donated duct work and units and provided free labor, a New Orleans-trained doctor who heard of the project asked for donations to be sent to the clinic in lieu of wedding gifts.
But the project was not without hiccups as the two nurses suddenly had to learn contracting and management on the fly. On the day of the clinic's grand opening - Aug. 30, 2006, a year after Katrina struck - city building inspectors shut down the operation because the home had been renovated using a residential permit rather than commercial.
New paperwork was filed and additional accommodations made for the handicapped, and last March 1, the clinic reopened.
Kerney and Berryhill vividly recall the first patient who came through the doors: A woman so ill that she passed out and lost control of her bodily functions. The nurses suspected the woman was suffering from severe respiratory problems due to the mold and mildew, but her condition was too dire for their small shop. They called 911.
The incident only proved to Kerney, "We were sorely needed here. Every day."
"Fill all this out. Sign it for me. And I'm gonna need a picture ID," the woman at the reception desk tells Earl Davis.
Clipboard in hand, Davis finds a seat while his wife, Jessica, scans the waiting room, admiring the shelves stacked with children's books and a plastic bin filled with Ziploc bags, each one stuffed with notepads, glue and erasers. She reads a sign: "Kids Please Take One."
"That's neat," she says. "This is one of the good things, apparently, that's derived from Katrina. To go ahead and give this piece of property to help put back into the community ..."
A former medical lab employee, Earl Davis was in a car accident years ago and injured his back and hand. After learning that his family doctor would not return to the city, he began searching for a new primary care physician for himself and his family.
The couple live in Arabi, about a mile east of the clinic, and after passing by on several occasions they decided to drop in.
"They should be commended for what they're doing," he says. "It's definitely needed."
Today, the clinic is one of several dozen scattered across the city but one of the few offering free care. Another is the Common Ground Health Clinic in nearby Algiers, where patients begin lining up long before the doors open. Hypertension, uncontrolled diabetes, asthma, depression and anxiety are the biggest problems among patients at both clinics.
Noah Morris, a 24-year-old street medic who helped start the Common Ground clinic in the days after Katrina, still puts in 12 hours a week without pay at the facility, housed in an old grocery store. Dr. Michelle Carley, a family practitioner who lives in Baton Rouge with her six children, commutes one day a week to the clinic to volunteer.
"When you drive past Charity Hospital ... and you see that it's gone, and then you drive to a corner grocery store in Algiers and you see what's left, the enormity of what's been lost in this city, it's just overwhelming," Carley says. "What we've been reduced to is just trying to help people willy-nilly."
There are plans for new hospitals, but no one expects a system as extensive as the one pre-Katrina. Folks like Morris, Carley, Kerney and Berryhill believe neighborhood clinics like theirs will be the future of health care - in New Orleans and, possibly, other American cities.
Kerney and Berryhill are already scouting for a larger site, but staffing has been a problem, as it is for public and private hospitals and the other clinics around town. Their nurse practitioner found a better-paying job. During a recent week, a volunteer doctor from Pennsylvania arrived with his sister, a registered nurse in Maine, to pitch in.
Still Kerney and Berryhill, who share a devout faith in God, believe they will find a way to sustain their endeavor.
"You have to walk by faith," says Berryhill. "It's only faith that's brought us this far, and faith will certainly lead us on."
"It's not perfect," she adds, and then Kerney interjects: "But we're doing the best we can."
The project has, at times, put their friendship to the test, as any venture that brings together strong wills and strong minds can. But a true friend, says Berryhill, "is a lasting thing ... someone that's there in good times and bad times."
"We are two different human beings, but we have the same vision," she says. "We have a heart for people."
Saturday, January 12, 2008
BATON ROUGE -- Despite her demands for immediate action, Gov. Kathleen Blanco will leave office Monday without seeing construction begin on the first of 534 planned alternative housing units for hurricane victims.
Mississippi, which was one of three other states to receive a slice of a $388 million federal Alternative Housing Pilot Program, has placed occupants in 1,223 housing units in that state's three coastal counties. That's at least a quarter of the units Mississippi is planning as part of its two-year program.
In a Nov. 3 letter to Louisiana Housing Finance Agency President Milton Bailey, Blanco ordered construction to begin by the end of that month and forbade any ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The state officials and private contractors who spent much of last year bickering about the "Louisiana Cottage" project still refuse to commit to a construction start date, but all parties said this week that groundbreaking at Jackson Barracks, the first location for the project, is imminent.
A spokesman for the project manager, the Cypress Group of Baton Rouge, said the next step is for his consortium to finish devising its construction schedule and solicit proposals from the remaining subcontractors.
"We've got a substantial amount of planning and engineering work that will occur," Ben Dupuy said Friday. "The good news is that everything is moving forward with all deliberate speed."
Several other long-lingering hurdles have finally been toppled.
Work orders issued
The Louisiana Housing Finance Agency, the state department charged with administering the federally financed program, has issued work orders and approved all the subcontracts of Cypress' principal partners, which include the Shaw Group as construction manager.
Federal environmental regulators have cleared Jackson Barracks, the Louisiana National Guard headquarters that was inundated during and after Hurricane Katrina, for construction.
A third-party project monitor, Grace & Hebert architects of Baton Rouge, is in place, and Dupuy credited the firm with helping smooth feathers that had been ruffled last year as the Cypress Group, Blanco, FEMA and Louisiana Housing Finance Agency board members and staff offered competing and sometimes caustic versions of why the project has lagged.
At Jackson Barracks, where 75 residences eventually will serve employees of the state Military Department, Lt. Gen. Hunt Downer said the state National Guard has been ready. "We're just waiting on Cypress and LHFA," he said Friday.
And on her last day in the administration, Kimberly Robinson, a Blanco adviser who represented the governor on the project, said her boss remains angry that the project stalled so badly.
"The governor is not pleased with the progress that has been made on this project," Robinson said. "We are pleased to know that the sites that have been identified are at least ready for construction. .Â¤.Â¤. We are pleased that we worked out the details and cut the red tape that was causing so many delays."
Mississippi got more
Blanco, who has seethed about the project from the beginning because Mississippi received $281 million compared with Louisiana's $75 million, selected the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency as the lead agency after FEMA announced the award amounts in December 2006.
Cypress had already been selected as the project developer by the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which identified the proposals that were submitted to the federal officials who judged competing proposals from the five Gulf Coast states. Cypress was the only Louisiana proposal to get financing.
Congress approved the plan as a way to test alternatives to the FEMA travel trailers that still serve as housing for some Gulf Coast families displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
Besides the Jackson Barracks site, the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency board has approved plans for 85 units at a Lake Charles site and 80 units in Baton Rouge. An initial Baton Rouge site is facing some environmental regulatory roadblocks but remains in consideration, said Jeff DeGraff, an agency spokesman.
DeGraff and Robinson said officials are looking at a second Baton Rouge site, the Renaissance Village tract that still serves as a FEMA trailer park.
The Lake Charles site is owned by the city, where the City Council has not yet approved transferring the land to the state housing agency. Dupuy said Lake Charles officials want the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency to approve plans for the structures eventually to be sold to occupants, rather than simply serve as rental units.
The housing agency controls the selection process of occupants.
The remaining cottages not accounted for in the approved sites could end up in New Orleans, pending talks between the housing board and the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority about thousands of tracts of private land that the authority has acquired since Katrina.
Robinson said the units are not likely to be placed on individual parcels because it would increase the per-unit cost. She said the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority is examining contiguous units that could be combined.