Executive order could make building in N.O. 'impossible,' some say

Published: Feb. 26, 2015 at 10:33 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - "This is bigger than Biggert Waters," said Michael Hecht, president and CEO of GNO Inc. Hecht is talking about the new Federal Flood Risk Management Standards created by a Presidential Executive Order on Jan. 30.

Hecht was part of a coalition of 35 states and 250 organizations that fought the Biggert Waters Act last year. That act would have caused flood insurance premiums to skyrocket. He says his coalition is back at work fighting new flood risk standards.

The standards affect any building that uses federal funds or requires federal approval. They came about after Superstorm Sandy devastated parts of New York and New Jersey, but they would apply nationwide.

"The problem is that Louisiana as a state is 90 percent in a flood plain," Hecht said. "So if you want people to not build in a flood plain, not to build in the Atchafalaya Basin, what you're really saying is you can't build anywhere in Louisiana. So this is just an extraordinary example, not only of overreach, but of true naivete in planning."

The new standard applies to any federally funded projects or any projects that require federal approval. The projects would have to adhere to one of three standards: using the "best available climate science," building 2 feet above FEMA map base flood elevations, or building to 500-year flood standards.

"To give you a sense of what that means in New Orleans if we had to build all of New Orleans to the 500-year level, it means we would have to raise all of the buildings close to the level of the levees," Hecht said.

Hecht will be in Washington next month to meet with legislators and people at the White House. Organizations like Habitat for Humanity say the new standards could raise their construction costs by more than 50 percent.

"It has the potential for being devastating," said Jim Pate, Habitat's executive director in New Orleans.

Habitat has built more than 450 houses in the New Orleans area since Hurricane Katrina. The organization builds above the FEMA flood elevations, but it is unclear what the new standards will require.

"There's this nebulous language in the executive order, there's no plan of implementation - they are now allowing for some public hearings, but we still don't know what it means," Pate said. "What we do know is that it's got tremendous potential to impact both the cost of construction because of higher flood elevation requirements, it has the potential to make the cost of any project that has federal funding involved much, much higher."

The period for public comment on the Executive Order ends April 6. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) has joined a group of senators from seven Southern states questioning the legality of the order.

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