Mercifully mild hurricane season ends; Gulf Coast worries linge

Published 4:36 pm Thursday, November 30, 2006

Even as the end of another hurricane season approached Claudia Launey was in no hurry to remove the plywood still covering her doors and windows 15 months after Hurricane Katrina devastated this city.

Launey and her husband moved back to the city’s Bywater neighborhood last month, but the flimsy sheets of wood that shroud her home in shadows reflect her fear of returning and her reluctance to endure the next storm season, which is six months away.

“I want to stay because this is home,” she said recently, “but at the same time I don’t want to stay because I’m still scared. Another storm? I’m gone for good.”

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Thursday marks the end of a mercifully mild hurricane season and it couldn’t come at a better time for Launey and many other Gulf Coast residents and business owners. A six-month season devoid of serious Gulf Coast hurricane threats for the northern Gulf Coast helped those who have started rebuilding and those, like Launey, who continue to weigh their options.

Money is a primary concern for tens of thousands of homeowners in Louisiana and Mississippi who are stuck in government-issued trailers while they wait for housing grants or insurance payments.

Federal grants of up to $150,000 are trickling to homeowners in Mississippi, where 5,700 checks have been mailed to flood-stricken homeowners who lived outside federally designated flood zones. Around 17,000 have applied for a first round of grants. More may be eligible for aid but it is unclear how many. An estimated 123,000 homeowners in Louisiana are eligible for grants, but only 28 had received a check as of Nov. 15.

Harold “Buz” Olsen, director of operations for hard-hit Bay St. Louis, Miss., said winter is traditionally the slowest season for construction. Not this year, he said. Not when thousands of homeowners, including Olsen, are finally getting their hands on long-awaited grant money.

“We’re moving in a very positive direction,” he said. “I don’t think (the hurricane season) stopped anybody from doing anything if they had the funds to do it.”

In low-lying New Orleans, those deciding where — or if — to rebuild homes or businesses also must contend with nagging concerns about the strength of levees and flood walls that failed during Katrina.

Dan Hitchings, an Army Corps of Engineers official overseeing levee repairs in New Orleans, said the city’s flood protection system is “stronger and better” than it was before Katrina. Although the work continues, Hitchings said the levees and flood walls won’t be any stronger when the next storm season starts on June 1, 2007.

“The risk that they’ll face during the next hurricane season is essentially the same risk they faced this year,” Hitchings said.

The next major step for the Corps is building up to protect against a so-called “once-in-100-years” storm, but that goal is likely years away.

Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center and part of a state-sponsored team of engineers studying levee failures, said he doesn’t blame those who are reluctant to move back to New Orleans. “Why would they want to? They’re coming back to an unsafe system,” he said. “It’s really quite sad. I personally feel the federal government has let us all down.”

Among Van Heerden’s complaints is that the Corps balked at “armoring” area earthen levees — covering them with stone or other solid material to protect against erosion.

“That’s something that could have gone on at the same time they were rebuilding the levees,” he said.

Worries about the levees are a major reason Chris Wilson won’t be coming back. Wilson, 58, moved from New Orleans to a Baton Rouge apartment after the storm. Her husband, an engineering consultant, also moved his business there. The couple is repairing their home in the city’s historic Broadmoor neighborhood, but they plan to sell it and stay in Baton Rouge.

“We don’t have too much trust in the Army Corps,” Chris Wilson said. “If another storm does come, that area will flood.”

Yet some of the most encouraging signs of progress in New Orleans can be seen in Broadmoor, west of the Superdome.

Around 60 percent of roughly 2,900 homes in the neighborhood are occupied and under renovation. “Broadmoor Lives” proclaim signs throughout the neighborhood that are at least as plentiful as “For Sale” signs.

Lee Kirzner, 53, didn’t wait for the hurricane season to end before he started raising and rebuilding his Broadmoor home, which Katrina flooded with several feet of water.

Still, a nearby bank, supermarket and several fast-food restaurants remain closed, possibly for good. A gas station has been torn down. A Walgreens pharmacy has reopened, but a Rite Aid across the street has not.

“They’re not invested in this city like we are,” Kirzner said during a break from supervising workers reframing his home. “They have no idea what’s going on here.”

Rite Aid spokeswoman Jody Cook said the company is evaluating the future of its Broadmoor pharmacy. The Camp Hill, Penn.-based chain operated 29 stores in New Orleans before Katrina. Eighteen are back in operation, including one in a trailer. Four more are slated to reopen by next summer.

“We have been and always will be very committed to New Orleans and the surrounding market,” Cook said.

Dawn Johnson, executive director of the Louisiana Retailers Association, said many businesses have adopted a “wait-and-see approach” to rebuilding, “mostly because the consumers aren’t there in certain areas. Bureaucratic red tape also is stunting growth in the private sector, she added.

“Progress is happening,” she said. “It’s just happening so slow.”

With all the construction in Broadmoor, business has never been brisker at Paul Monjure’s family-owned hardware store — a welcome change from the “ghost town” he saw when he reopened the flood-damaged store in May.

“I think it’s a viable area, but a lot of people are still grumbling about those flood walls,” Monjure said. “I think that’s why a lot of people are being careful about doing anything.”