Hurricane Katrina

Looming deadline pressures citizens to rebuild or demolish houses

MULTIMEDIA: See, hear survivors' storiesPART 1: Life bleak or hopefulPART 2: The struggle to find loved onesPART 3: Spirit of community wiped outPART 4: Daily obstructions bog down lifePART 5: Rebuild or demolish?HOUSTON: 100,000 displaced survivorsNEIGHBORHOODS: Some areas irreparable?HEALTH: Mental health problems aboundMore Katrina anniversary coverage

NEW ORLEANS — For many, the decision about whether to rebuild damaged, waterlogged houses is on hold. Homeowners are waiting out this hurricane season or for final government rebuilding rules or to see if they qualify for a new federal grant program.

In the shattered town of Buras, south of New Orleans, fisherman Dewell Walker is almost paralyzed with indecision over whether to rebuild his gutted, lopsided home. He knows he could simply give it up to the junkyard.

"I've got people waiting around for me to say, `OK, I give up,'" Walker said. He estimates that hurricane-debris haulers would clear $10,000 for carting away his home.

Before the storm, Walker, 48, crabbed each season with his fleet of 11 boats. "Now I've got pieces of about six," he said.

Many, many others are soldiering on. The number of building permits issued in New Orleans since the storm is up to 38,594, according to Brookings' figures, although it's hard to know how many of those people are actively rebuilding.

In the downtown New Orleans building-permit office, it isn't unusual to see the line of permit seekers "wrap up and down the hallways," office clerk Olicier Hills said.

Homeowners face a controversial Aug. 29 deadline to clean, gut and board up their buildings or have them declared public nuisances. If they're named nuisances, officials then can take steps ranging from sanctions and liens to eminent domain and demolition.

Those who are rebuilding often go about it with a sense of mordant humor. They are, after all, rebuilding in a city that, whatever its charms, lies below sea level, protected only by a levee system that was too weak before Katrina and is a long way from being upgraded to withstand even more powerful storms.

From his back yard, Douglas Doyle, a lieutenant in a suburban sheriff's office, stood in the shadow of a massive 17th Street Canal levee wall that failed and caused some of the worst of Katrina's flooding. He pointed to the back wall of his house.

"I'm putting French doors in there, so at least I can see the water coming this time," he quipped.

The area's rebuilding is slowed by unprecedented demands on construction workers and the difficulty of making the city's homes higher off the ground than they once were. To continue to qualify for flood insurance, many people will have to jack up their homes a few to several feet.

In Gentilly, Terrell Duncan pointed to a black mark on a light pole in front of a house on St. Roch Avenue. "That's the elevation we're shooting for," he said. "This house will be raised 8 feet."

His crew will place beams under the house horizontally and use jacks to raise it, 5 inches at a time. Once it's at the new height, concrete walls will be erected to serve as a foundation.

For those swept up in rebuilding, the excitement is overwhelming.

Sandy Holmes, a 13-year veteran blackjack dealer at the Isle of Capri Casino in Biloxi, said that when all the casinos reopened 12,000 jobs would return to residents of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Some already have reopened in neon splendor, and one will open Aug. 29, exactly a year after Katrina came ashore.

"It's like having your life back, bringing your world back," said Holmes, 60.

Wayne Fischbein almost has his world back.

Last Sept. 5, Fischbein and his wife stared at their two-bedroom house trapped in Katrina's fetid floodwaters. "I was at the bottom," he said. "I was depressed. My attitude changed."

He was driven to rebuild, as were most in his suburban Metairie neighborhood. Today he drives through his neighborhood and counts houses: 20 or more are in the midst of rebuilding, 12 have been torn down and five more will be torn down. In this area, the tear-downs will be replaced by bigger, grander homes.

From his front-yard FEMA trailer, Fischbein pulled out a computer spreadsheet that detailed rebuilding costs to date: $93,043.15. Insurance has paid, or is expected to pay, about $79,000. He has a house that's "98 percent new" - and virtually done. As soon as the electricity and air conditioning came on two weeks ago, he plopped down a mattress in a bedroom. He's waiting for the house to be finished before he brings the rest of his furniture.

"It's close - it's so close," he said. "I want to sleep in my own bed in my own house. I want to learn the new squeaks in my house."

His target date is Aug. 29.

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PART ONE: Life can be bleak or hopeful PART TWO: Survivors struggle to learn fates of loved ones PART THREE: Spirit of community wiped out PART FOUR: Daily obstructions bog down residents PART FIVE: Citizens pressured to rebuild or demolish HOUSTON: Home for 10,000 displaced survivors NEIGHBORHOODS: Some areas seem irreparable HEALTH: Mental health epidemic afflicts thousands MORE: Full Katrina anniversary coverage

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