With local officials often incentivized to replicate the past, experts in disaster relief say changes in federal law and regulations may be needed to reorient the system to reflect storm realities.
In the exact spot where Hurricane Katrina demolished the Plaquemines Parish Detention Center, a new $105 million jail now hovers 19 feet above the marsh, perched atop towering concrete pillars. Described by a state official as the “Taj Mahal” of Louisiana corrections, it has so much space that one of every 27 parish residents could bunk there.
But on an average day in the first half of this year, more than 40 percent of its 872 beds went unoccupied, making it one of the emptiest jails in the state, records show. And because of its isolated, flood-prone location, the jail still must be evacuated before any major storm or risk becoming an accidental Alcatraz.
There is but one reason the Plaquemines jail was rebuilt on endangered land, with needless capacity, at immense cost: The sheriff wanted it that way. But unlike most new jail construction, his project did not have to be financed through bond sales or other local revenues, with voters able to hold him accountable. Rather, because the old jail was destroyed by a natural disaster, the cost was covered by federal taxpayers, through a Federal Emergency Management Agency program that is required by law to distribute billions in aid but exerts little control over how the money is spent.
FEMA’s public assistance program has provided at least $81 billion in this manner to state, territorial and local governments in response to disasters declared since 1992, according to a New York Times analysis of federal data. But an examination of projects across the country’s ever-expanding flood zones reveals that decisions to rebuild in place, often made seemingly in defiance of climate change, have at times left structures just as defenseless against the next storm.
Other efforts have required enormously expensive engineering to ensure protection. Yet in some instances, restrictions on construction in flood plains have effectively prohibited FEMA from safeguarding its multimillion-dollar investments in new and repaired public buildings.
One of every five public assistance dollars has streamed here to this quintessentially vulnerable place, Louisiana — by far the most per capita of any state. But billions more will soon flow from Washington to the states and territories devastated by the ferocity of the past two hurricane seasons. Last year, estimated to be the costliest ever with $306.2 billion in damage, saw back-to-back assaults by Harvey on Texas, Irma on Florida, Maria on Puerto Rico and Nate on Mississippi. Last month, Florence submerged the Carolinas, damaging public structures ranging from a high school in Jacksonville, N.C., to the town hall in North Topsail Beach.
Local officials desperate to restore normalcy to disoriented communities will get to decide how to spend those federal dollars — choices made more consequential, and costly, as sea levels rise and Atlantic storms generate greater surge and rainfall because of climate change. What once seemed random climatic misfortune now occurs more predictably. Coastal scientists and disaster recovery experts agree that if rebuilding in the same place once dared lightning to strike twice, it now tempts a more certain fate.
“Human settlements have been designed in a way that reflects a climate of the past, and this increases the likelihood that disaster-related losses will continue to rise,” said Gavin Smith, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who directs the Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence, a research consortium funded by the Department of Homeland Security. “This also means we need to rethink how and where we build before the storm, as well as how and where we reconstruct public buildings and infrastructure in the aftermath of extreme events.”
For evidence, visit Princeville, N.C., a town of 2,000 on the Tar River. In 1999, a hurricane named Floyd engorged the river until it spilled over a levee, ruining the town hall, Princeville Elementary School, the police and fire station, the senior center and virtually every other structure.
“I thought, ‘Once in a lifetime,’” said Mayor Bobbie Darnell Jones, who was rescued from his house by helicopter.
Princeville was devastated again in 2016 by Hurricane Matthew.CreditJonathan Drake/Reuters
Leaders of the town, which was settled by newly emancipated slaves, rejected suggestions from state officials to move the entire community to higher ground. Instead, FEMA spent more than $5 million in public assistance grants to clear debris, build a new town hall and school, repair other buildings and replace fire trucks, a garbage truck, even a riding lawn mower, the agency’s records show.
Seventeen years later, Hurricane Matthew swamped Princeville once again. Repairs are now being made to the school, the fire house, the town hall, the recreation center, the senior center and a museum, at a cost of $2.5 million and counting (the town typically pays a 25 percent share). In mid-September, Princeville narrowly missed its third inundation in two decades, when Florence filled the Tar just shy of flood stage.
Since at least 1950, an empathetic nation has supported the impulse to rebuild in place by financing much of the cost of disaster recovery through the federal budget. But the process adheres to the American conviction that, regardless of who pays, decisions about land use and infrastructure should be made as locally as possible.
With local officials often incentivized to replicate the past, experts in disaster relief say changes in federal law and regulations may be needed to reorient the system to reflect climate realities.
Yet the Trump administration, if anything, is moving in the opposite direction. In August last year, President Trump rescinded an executive order signed by President Barack Obama that required consideration of climate science in the design of federally funded projects. In some cases, that had meant mandatory elevation of buildings in flood-prone areas. Then in March, FEMA released a four-year strategic plan that stripped away previous mentions of climate change and sea-level rise.
Despite repeated requests over five months, FEMA’s public affairs office declined to make the agency’s embattled administrator, Brock Long, or other top policymakers available for comment. Mr. Long has come under fire recently for using government vehicles for personal travel, and FEMA has been heavily criticized for its response to Hurricane Maria, which Puerto Rico estimates took nearly 3,000 lives.
The Trump administration’s approach on climate change ignores loud warnings from government agencies about the budgetary threat it poses. The bipartisan Congressional Budget Office projected in 2016, for instance, that hurricane damage would “increase significantly in the coming decades because of the effects of climate change and coastal development.” As a result, government spending for relief and recovery will outpace economic growth and devour an ever larger share of gross domestic product, the analysts concluded.
“You can’t continue this with the pace and intensity of events we’ve seen today,” said James Lee Witt, who led FEMA throughout the Clinton administration. “Somebody has got to break the cycle of damage, repair, damage, repair.”
FEMA’s public assistance program is among the largest in a menu of post-disaster programs overseen by several federal agencies. It has grown substantially more costly over time. From 1992 through mid-September, it paid for 683,035 separate projects — removing debris after natural disasters (mostly hurricanes and floods) and repairing and reconstructing public buildings, roads, bridges and utilities — according to a computer analysis of agency data by The Times. More was spent on public assistance during that period than on reimbursements by FEMA’s better-known National Flood Insurance Program, which covers losses by homeowners and businesses.
Grants have gone to every state and territory, with New York and Louisiana the biggest recipients because of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. About a fourth of the money has been used to repair and replace public buildings.
In most instances, grants cover at least 75 percent of the cost to return a damaged building to its prior state while also complying with current codes. If the cost of repair is more than half that of replacement, FEMA will pay to build anew. The program also provides grants for hazard mitigation to minimize future damage.
When structures in designated flood plains are rebuilt or repaired, FEMA requires that they be elevated to at least the 100-year flood level — high enough, that is, to withstand a storm with only a 1 percent chance of occurring in a year. Buildings that serve a critical function, like hospitals or power plants, must be raised to the 500-year level.
The agency can pay to relocate destroyed buildings if it is deemed cost-effective, but it often isn’t. In New York City, FEMA spent more than $700 million — with the city pitching in $80 million more — to repair 72 schools damaged during Sandy. But the city’s high cost of real estate and construction dictated that only one would be moved, to an adjacent site where it will be elevated, according to the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency.
Instead, the money was spent on measures that accepted the inevitability of future flooding, like raising vents, relocating electrical systems to rooftops and replacing drywall with building materials that could be easily dried and disinfected.
Since Sandy, Congress has twice amended the law that authorizes federal disaster aid, the Stafford Act, to make it more financially attractive to use public assistance grants to relocate and to rebuild more responsibly. Mr. Trump signed a bill last week to provide more FEMA funding for projects designed to diminish future storm damage in vulnerable communities. None of those measures, however, fundamentally alters the balance of power between federal and local officials concerning those decisions.
Determining how much has been spent to rebuild the same structures more than once is impossible, because of a lack of transparency in publicly available data. FEMA’s records provide a location for the grant recipient, a project number and an amount, but often only vague descriptions like “public buildings and facilities.”
But the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, recently found that the separate flood insurance program had paid $5.5 billion from 1978 to 2015 to repair and rebuild more than 30,000 properties that had flooded more than once. Claims for those residences and businesses had been submitted an average of five times.
The group’s report estimated that the number of “severe repetitive loss properties” could balloon to 820,000 if coastal sea levels rose three feet by the end of the century, which scientists consider possible. It recommended that the government restructure the program with incentives to encourage owners to take buyouts and move.
Critics see both FEMA programs as symptomatic of a disjointed and backward-looking approach to disaster planning that devotes inordinate resources to rebuilding at the expense of prevention.
“The fundamental problem is that the entire system is reactive,” said Jeff Hebert, vice president for adaptation and resilience at the Water Institute of the Gulf, a Louisiana-based research group. “It would be transformational if we took the money that we spend on disasters and instead spent it on the front end on really good adaptation.”
Among Hurricane Katrina’s victims was Lakefront Airport in New Orleans, a general aviation airport built on a jut of land reclaimed from Lake Pontchartrain. Politics drove the selection of the site in the 1930s, but it seemed a good enough idea. The airport would be close to the city center and could accommodate seaplanes, a popular mode of passenger transportation at the time.
The classic Art Deco terminal, a working monument to the romance of flight, wowed travelers when it opened in 1934. Eight murals of exotic destinations ringed the second floor of a grand atrium, their locations corresponding to the directions on a compass rose inlaid into the terrazzo floor. Three years later, Amelia Earhart slept in the visiting pilots’ quarters on her way to California for her final journey.
In 1964, the terminal acquired a Brutalist concrete cladding that made it usable as a Cold War fallout shelter, and its glamour faded. But after Katrina flushed four feet of water through the building, the authority that runs the airport decided to restore its prior glory.
It found a willing partner, up to a point, in FEMA, which provided $68.8 million in public assistance grants to repair the airport and its grounds, according to authority officials. That included $20 million for such a lush renovation of the terminal that it is booked regularly for charity galas and debutante balls.
And yet, despite FEMA’s substantial investment, the agency has been stymied by its own rules from taking steps to prevent a recurrence in the next big storm.
The airport is not much more protected from Pontchartrain’s storm surge than before. Parts are buffered only by a low bulkhead because of fears that a higher one might interfere with takeoffs and landings.
In 2015, the airport’s operator, known as the Non-Flood Asset Protection Management Authority, asked FEMA to provide an additional $65 million to build a pump system and movable flood wall that could be put into place before storms. FEMA refused, arguing in part that it would qualify as new construction, which the agency said it could not pay for in certain designated flood zones.
The airport authority lost its appeal of that decision in July by the 2-to-1 vote of a federal arbitration board. In dissent, the chief judge, Jonathan Zischkau, wrote that the decision “leaves the entire airport facility — and a considerable number of people — at risk and unprotected from future hurricanes and flood disasters.”
“Storm after storm, we know what happens without adequate flood protection,” Ms. Heaton said. “Not addressing it is insanity.”
Few places have benefited from FEMA’s largess like Plaquemines Parish, which protrudes southeast from the New Orleans suburbs into the Gulf of Mexico. And few places better embody the costly contradictions of rebuilding on endangered land.
Plaquemines was pummeled by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and again by Hurricane Isaac in 2012. Since 2000, FEMA has routed $902.1 million in public assistance grants to the parish for 1,000 separate projects, the Times analysis found, an average of $38,637 for each of the 23,348 current residents. That is barely less than the assessed value of all taxable property.
But the parish’s susceptibility to rising sea levels and subsidence is high. The United States Geological Survey calculates that 462 square miles of Plaquemines disappeared into the Gulf between 1932 and 2008. The state’s coastal planners project that 55 percent of what’s left — another 300 square miles — will disappear within 50 years without significant action.
With the exception of the New Orleans bedroom community of Belle Chasse, the parish consists largely of two narrow strips, bordered by levees, on either bank of the Mississippi River. Floodwater breached and topped the 16-foot mounds during Katrina, but they have since been repaired and fortified. Nonetheless, state scientists project that in the case of a 100-year storm, most of the parish outside Belle Chase would be submerged at least 13 feet.
A fifth of the Plaquemines population left after Katrina, according to census estimates. But because FEMA will pay to rebuild to prior size and capacity, those changes have not always factored much into recovery planning.
FEMA allowed the Plaquemines school board to consolidate and restructure its system after Katrina, including eliminating one of eight schools. But it nonetheless spent nearly $100 million to rebuild three schools on the west bank, and another $36 million to rebuild Phoenix High, the only one on the east bank.
Like the jail, the new schools are engineering marvels, red brick fortresses raised more than 20 feet on a forest of columns. But some are clearly larger than needed. Phoenix was designed to accommodate 400 students from prekindergarten through 12th grade, but enrolled only 190 this fall, according to the school board. An average of 13 seniors have graduated each year since it reopened in 2012.
School board officials said they had not been willing to bus students long distances to Belle Chasse or across the river by ferry.
“We’re obligated to provide an education for the people who are here,” said Ronald E. White Jr., the chief financial officer. “It’s not our job to say you can’t live here.”
“Plus we wanted to rebuild our communities,” said Denis Rousselle, the superintendent. “People would not come back if you didn’t have schools.”
FEMA provided enough money to replace damaged contents that the system was able to refurnish even the schools that were not destroyed, Mr. Rousselle said.
“They’ve been so generous with us,” the superintendent said. “I’ve been elated with it.”
Even before Katrina made landfall nearby, the Plaquemines jail did not come close to filling its more than 800 beds. The average population was 395 in 2004 and 274 in 2003, according to reports obtained through an open records request. But that did not stop the sheriff at the time, Irvin F. Hingle Jr., known as Jiff, from insisting that the jail be rebuilt at the same capacity on the same site.
John Connolly, a senior public assistance adviser in FEMA’s Louisiana Recovery Office, tried to persuade Mr. Hingle to make the jail smaller and move it to higher, more accessible ground. “They were not receptive to that and largely that was the end of it, sadly,” Mr. Connolly recalled. “We really did not have the leverage to insist on it.”
Because the jail site sits in a flood zone, FEMA could require that the 207,000-square-foot building be built atop columns, but not that it be moved, explained Thomas M. Womack, the director of the recovery office. “That’s just what our regulation and policy call for,” he said.
Mr. Hingle is not available to explain his thinking. He died this year at age 66 after serving a federal prison term for taking bribes from the jail’s construction manager.
Those who knew and worked with him, including his successors and other parish officials, said Mr. Hingle had hoped to revive the devastated economy on the east bank, his political base. Additionally, they said, the sheriff viewed the jail as a profit center that supported his other operations and thus expanded patronage.
Essential to his success was his ability to win contracts with federal agencies that paid top rates to house their detainees. Mr. Hingle had a deal with the Department of Homeland Security to hold up to 220 immigration and customs detainees at a daily rate of $47.19 per inmate, records show. That is almost double the paltry $24.39 paid by the state and parish.
Things changed after Katrina forced the jail’s evacuation. The federal agency now opts not to house inmates in Plaquemines, or anywhere else south of Lake Pontchartrain, said Bryan D. Cox, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Mr. Hingle, as it turns out, also made a shortsighted bet. As elsewhere, the prison population in Louisiana began to decline, enough that it recently ceded the top state incarceration rate to Oklahoma. Partly because of sentencing reforms, the number of offenders in state and local prisons dropped to 35,001 last year from a peak of 40,170 in 2012.
The state corrections system, which uses local jails to relieve crowding, nonetheless remains the Plaquemines jail’s primary supplier. The current sheriff, Gerald A. Turlich Jr., also secured a contract with the United States Marshals Service. While the jail’s average monthly census grew to 548 in the second quarter from fewer than 100 when it opened in 2015, only one in seven are there on local charges.
“Two hundred beds would have been fine, and you would have saved a lot of federal taxpayer dollars,” said Lonnie Greco, who won the sheriff’s job after Mr. Hingle’s indictment (and then lost it to Sheriff Turlich). “At one time it was a thing to build big prisons to make money, but that time is gone.”
The detention center is not so elevated that it would necessarily stay dry in another Katrina. But it was built of thick precast concrete to withstand a major storm, with backup generators and raised water tanks and circuitry, along with basketball courts, roomy living pods, more than 600 security cameras, biometric entrance scanners and video screens that inmates can use to talk to family members via Skype.
The cost of the project escalated from less than $20 million, when the plan was to replicate the old jail at ground level, to more than $100 million once FEMA ruled that the new one would have to be elevated if rebuilt in place. Jamie Saxon, the president of Morphy, Makofsky, the New Orleans engineering firm that helped design the jail and schools, estimated that the elevation and hardening of those buildings “added a 35 to 40 percent premium.”
“It seemed an awfully expensive choice,” he said.
Sheriff Turlich said that when he took over in 2016, the maintenance and operation of the all-but-empty jail was draining $2 million from the department’s $25 million budget. To help bring it into balance, he raised property tax rates by 8 percent.