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New Orleans four years after Katrina

Marketplace Staff Aug 28, 2009


TESS VIGELAND: This weekend marks the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. About a year ago, I went to New Orleans and met with several families. We talked about what the storm had cost them — in money, time and emotional turmoil — while they waited for the government and insurance companies to keep their promises.

In the Gentilly neighborhood, not far from Lake Ponchartrain, I found K.C. King and his wife Kathi. In our story last year, as we looked out onto his backyard, K.C. described the damage from Katrina.

K.C. King: That’s the London Avenue Canal levee wall.

Vigeland: You’re living next to the canal.

King: Right.

Vigeland: So your house was fully underwater?

King: Yes. Nine feet for 15 days. So we decided to demolish and we did that in June of ’06.

The couple had been living out of an RV and a FEMA trailer for three years. The money to build a new house just hadn’t come through. But since our visit, the couple went ahead and built a new place. They’re pretty sure it can weather any storm. I spoke with KC from his living room this week and asked him to tell us about it.

King: It’s a different design, it’s not your average house anywhere, let alone New Orleans. But we love it, it’s got kind of a nautical motif. We found a 40-foot mast over it, Mississippi, that had drowned in Katrina and pulled it out of the mud and we’re very delighted. It’s painted blue and white with yellow accents here and there.

Vigeland: The issue that you and I discussed a year ago was the issue of elevation. Placing your home high, high above the ground. Talk to us about what your house actually looks like right now. How far off the ground is it?

King: OK. My first livable floor is 11 feet above the ground.

Vigeland: Eleven feet?

King: Eleven feet.

Vigeland: Boy, a year ago you were talking about nine feet.

King: Things happen in construction. And that’s of course, the nine feet was the high water mark for Katrina.

Vigeland: The vast majority of your neighbors built right back on the ground where their homes once were; they did not elevate.

King:Yeah, absolutely. They did not elevate everything and then of those that elevated probably 85 percent elevated just to the legal limit.

Vigeland: How much did the house end up costing you altogether? And how much of that was paid for through FEMA grants and other government money?

King: OK, all together, I think we’re looking — because it was a one-off design and caused a lot of confusion — I think we probably wound up paying over $300,000 for it. That was not the plan, but of that, about a $170,000 was paid for by grants the we received so far. We’ve still yet to receive what’s called the “FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant” and that’s, we anticipate, will be about $100,000. So given that, we’ll have covered all but maybe $25,000 to $40,000 with government assistance. For which we are eternally grateful.

Vigeland: Yeah, you know, when I was there a year ago, your frustration was palpable. You were very angry at the time it had taken for the government to get money to you. Now that you’re in the house, has that subsided? What are your thoughts?

King: Well, the memory of the frustration is there, but at least it’s not right in our face now. And the FEMA money looks like that will come along shortly, shall we say. I’m in a big hole for my life savings, being retired, that’s all there is. I’m hoping that the last drips of money will kind of put me in at least an acceptable position from that standpoint. We still have credit card debt that we never ever carried before, hoping that this additional money will come.

Vigeland: And again, just to remind folks. The levee is literally in your backyard.

King: Yes ma’am. And it’s the same as it was as the day before Katrina, in terms of maintenance and security. One of the things that’s becoming very apparent — and I think we talked about it — is that there doesn’t seem to be a concern on the part of leadership at all levels for the public safety element of flood protection. And so that’s our latest crusade here is to get people to make it a safety issue and trying to get them to use best practices. The tragedy of Katrina was we missed an opportunity. When most of hour housing stock was wet, soggy, flattened and otherwise unlivable, we could’ve made a much better effort of protecting ourselves, individually and as a community.

Vigeland: Let me ask you again the question I asked you a year ago, which is why rebuild?

King: I’d have to say it’s the culture of New Orleans. When we had the opportunity to decide “Where do we want to build?” we really did want to come back and enjoy that culture. And from where we sit, that culture pretty much survives. What we were looking for is still here in New Orleans. And two, when I looked at taking the risks and the aid that might come, it looked like financially it would be beneficial. It just took four years to get that. If I’d known it was going to take four years, I probably would’ve made another decision.

Vigeland: Well K.C., it’s really nice to get an update from you. Please give your wife Kathi my best and maybe we’ll check in again in about a year.

King: Thanks kindly Tess.

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