Dennis Persica: NOLA relearning lessons about home construction

BY DENNIS PERSICA

Special to The Advocate

On Easter, a crew arrived at a work site down the block from my house to start putting up a home. The lot had a house on it once, but no one had lived in it since the great flood of 2005, and it was finally demolished late last year. That there were people working to get a new house rising from the ground that day seemed as good a metaphor as any for a holiday devoted to rebirth.

It looks like this house will be about 12 feet off the ground, towering over the nearby slab-on-grade ranch- style homes that survived the flood. We’ve learned since that horrific event to build smarter and build higher.

In my neighborhood alone, the number of the original slab-on-grade ranch-style homes from when the subdivision was first built is about equal to the number of empty lots. Where people have rebuilt instead of repairing, the slab home is not the design of choice.

Fifty or a hundred years from now, urban experts may point to Katrina as having tolled the death knell for suburban conformity — especially for slab homes. I know that once every lot in my neighborhood has a home on it again, the place will look a whole lot different from how it looks before the storm.

There is an economic cost now for anyone who wants to build a home at street level. It comes in the form of higher flood insurance rates. It’s extra money a homeowner has to pay but it doesn’t go toward tangible things such as appliances, flooring or cabinetry. Think of it as a kind of administrative penalty for building at ground level, or as gamble that only pays off if you face catastrophic flooding. Again. You win this bet only by losing first.

We hope — perhaps naively — that the post-Katrina flooding was a once-in-a-lifetime event. It will never happen again, we think, especially since the catastrophe led us to improve the hurricane protection system while we were repairing it. However, we shouldn’t forget the other times the area has flooded that weren’t hurricane-related. New Orleanians of a certain age remember May 3, 1978, as a high-water mark — literally — when there was widespread flooding across the metropolitan area just from rain. The floods of May 1995 also stick in the mind.

While those events may seem like nothing after Hurricane Katrina, they taught us lessons that we would be foolish to forget.

Before World War II, New Orleans seems to have found the right way to build homes for this area. High ceilings gave the heat a place to go in summer; windows let in breeze; awnings kept out sunlight; shutters did too, and protected windows from wind-borne objects. Elevating homes just a few feet off the ground on piers facilitated airflow, which also aided cooling, but more importantly, kept water from getting into homes during not-so-unusual street flooding.

We ignored those lessons in the suburbanization that followed the war. Suburbs both within the city and outside it sprung up quickly to meet the demand of returning veterans, who, flush with government assistance, were eager to get a start on a home and a family of their own. Homes were built at ground level in the fashionable “California ranch” style, with floor plans that varied only slightly from one neighbor’s house to another’s.

Now, we’ve learned some new lessons — or relearned some old ones — and let’s hope we don’t forget them again.

Dennis Persica is a New Orleans-area journalist. In his weekly column he shares his thoughts and observations about people, places and issues in the New Orleans area. Persica’s email address is dpersica@gmail.com.