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Miss. coastal areas resisting new advisory elevations for rebuilding

GULFPORT, Miss.—Many local government leaders in coastal Mississippi are balking at making residents raise their homes and businesses higher above sea level as they try to rebuild.

The debate on how to rebuild safely is happening as communities try to balance the federal government's desire to further elevate structures and residents' needs to rebuild their homes without leveling their bank accounts.

New flood elevation advisory levels from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are 3 to 8 feet higher across the coast. The agency released the advisory even before it released detailed new flood plain maps to expedite the building process.

Along the Mississippi coast, where the storm surge was about 15 feet and double that in some areas, coastal cities and counties can either adopt the higher flood elevations or allow reconstruction under the current elevations, which FEMA says are outdated and understate flood risk.

It will be costlier for residents to rebuild at the new advisory elevations. But if they don't, they could pay more for flood insurance in the future, lose their properties to another hurricane and get less money if they sell in a few years.

"Are we not having a knee-jerk reaction to a 100-year storm?" Biloxi city councilman Bill Stallworth asked FEMA representatives about the new advisory flood elevations. "Basically, we're going to look at houses becoming completely unaffordable. You're looking at a house that's 15 feet in the air."

City councilman George Lawrence pointed out that many homes, including his, flooded during Hurricane Katrina for the first time since they were built 100 years ago.

FEMA is presenting the advisory elevations to governments across South Mississippi.

There's no penalty for areas that decide not to adopt them. Residents who build to current elevations will pay insurance rates tied to the current rate maps.

FEMA's David Stearrett told council members that the new elevations are based on more than 20 years of data collected since the current elevations were established. He said they aren't based on Katrina flood levels.

However, when final maps are approved, after input from local governments, those communities must adopt them or be dropped from the National Flood Insurance Program. New insurance rate maps would apply to construction or reconstruction after that time.

FEMA is using a 50 percent benchmark to determine whether a home should be torn down and rebuilt according to post-Katrina standards.

If the cost of repairing a home is more than 50 percent of its value, FEMA suggests bulldozing and starting over.

So far, the counties and towns are acting independently.

Jackson County supervisors in the Pascagoula area have adopted 4 feet as the increase in elevation, above the current flood maps for new construction. So far, Harrison County has declined to raise elevation requirements, and Hancock County started issuing building permits under the current flood elevation guidelines.

In Biloxi, the new elevations would be 18 feet on the Mississippi Sound and 16 feet on Back Bay, plus wave height, which can vary.

Biloxi Administration Director David Staehling offered an example of how post-Katrina elevations could look. A home that's now 13 feet above mean sea level would have an elevation of 18 feet.

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(Karen Nelson and Ryan LaFontaine of The Sun Herald in Gulfport, Miss., contributed. Lee also reports for The Sun Herald.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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