Hearings - Testimony
 
Full Committee
Comprehensive and Integrated Approach to meet the Water Resources Needs in the Wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita
Wednesday, November 9, 2005
 
Mr. Peter Brink
Senior Vice President for Programs, The National Trust for Historic Preservation

Chairman Inhofe and members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today on the recovery and rebuilding efforts underway in coastal Louisiana as you consider legislation on a comprehensive approach to the water resources needs of that area. As the people of the Gulf Coast move forward to restore countless historic homes, buildings and landscapes damaged by Katrina, let me emphasize the role that Congress can and should play in ensuring that historic properties in this region are afforded the maximum possible protection against catastrophic storms. This part of the country has an enormously rich history with one of the largest concentrations of historic buildings in the United States.

In addition to fostering the stewardship of our nation’s heritage, historic preservation is a powerful force in the local and state economy. In Louisiana, culture means business…and it relies upon the full development of a unique and irreplaceable heritage of historic districts, historic buildings, and places. A recent survey shows that 28 percent of those who visit Louisiana typically come to enjoy its distinctive neighborhoods and visit individual historic properties. With regard to New Orleans, 10.1 million people visited in 2004 and spent $5.5 billion dollars there; 75,000 people were directly employed in the travel industry there. As attention shifts from rescue to reconstruction in New Orleans and the Gulf Region, we must answer the question of how, and in what form, the rebuilding will happen, and how its historic fabric will be protected for generations to come. If we get the response wrong, Katrina could turn out to be among the greatest cultural disasters the nation has ever experienced and a disaster from which Louisiana may never fully recover.

For more than 50 years, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has been helping to protect the nation’s historic resources. The National Trust is a private, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to protecting the irreplaceable. Recipient of the National Humanities Medal, the Trust provides leadership, education and advocacy to save America’s diverse historic places and revitalize communities. Its Washington, DC headquarters staff, six regional offices and 26 historic sites work with the Trust’s quarter-million members and thousands of local community groups in all 50 states. As a private nonprofit organization, the National Trust is the leader of a vigorous preservation movement that is saving the best of our past for the future. Its mission has expanded since its founding in 1949 just as the need for historic preservation has grown. When historic buildings and neighborhoods are torn down or allowed to deteriorate, we not only lose a part of our past forever, we also lose a chance to revitalize our communities.

Saving Our Heritage:

In dealing with the Mississippi River floods of 1993, the Northridge earthquake of 1994, and numerous other natural disasters, the National Trust has learned that often, the first impulse of local officials is to tear down almost every damaged building in the name of public safety. We have also learned that this first impulse is almost always wrong. Obviously, some historic buildings – perhaps many of them – will necessarily be lost, but we should not lose more than we have to. Building inspectors in New Orleans are already at work and have evaluated the structural integrity of more than 50,000 of the city's roughly 110,000 homes damaged by the hurricane. While the inspectors' findings are not the final word, they indicate that thousands of New Orleans homeowners may face a tough decision between demolishing their homes and opting for new construction, or choosing to renovate.

Some unfortunate demolitions have already taken place, including the hasty razing of the Naval Brigade Hall, a significant landmark in the history of New Orleans jazz. This 102-year old Warehouse District building, which the city had declared uninhabitable, was a site on the National Park Service's jazz tour. It was torn down on Sept. 26th without permits or permission from the city or owner. This is why any building deemed unsalvageable and recommended for demolition must be reviewed by the state historic preservation officer in Baton Rouge, who will determine if the property needs a Section 106 review. This is essential for all buildings that might be considered historic.

On the legislative front, the National Trust urges the Committee to safeguard coastal Louisiana’s historic legacy by following three basic principles:

1. Provide the best infrastructure for the nation’s premier historic area – Congress should provide all necessary resources to rebuild a levee system that recognizes the need to protect the nation’s richest inventory of historic treasures. This includes the city’s levees and completing a system of hurricane protection southward toward the Gulf and in the suburbs once and for all. It should anticipate the worst – a category 5 hurricane or the drenching slow-moving storm.

 

2. The restoration and redevelopment of protective wetlands – Natural water resources must compliment man-made infrastructure to mitigate the damaging effects of future catastrophic storms. Erosion along Louisiana's coast has eliminated over 1 million acres of wetlands at an ever-quickening pace. As a result, the Army Corps' own hurricane protection levees have become more vulnerable. They were built with the understanding that they would be buffered from winds and storm surges by 40 to 50 miles of protective swamp and marsh. The communities these levees protect are now constantly vulnerable with higher surges and stronger wind-driven waves.

3. Full compliance will the National Historic Preservation Act’s (NHPA) Section 106 requirements – Thorough Section 106 review must be part of any Army Corps of Engineers work and in all federal agency actions related to rebuilding Louisiana’s infrastructure. Section 106 provides a process that requires those agencies to “take into account” the effects of their decisions and their projects on historic properties, and to work with states, tribes, and local communities to seek ways to lessen the effects of those projects. It requires a process, not an outcome. The goal is not to save every historic site but to make sure that they are considered and that their value is weighed against other public values.

Furthermore, the National Trust sees historic preservation as a critical component of revitalizing the Gulf Coast Region’s economy and making its neighborhoods whole again. We, along with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) are asking Congress to pass a package of tax incentives and grants to restore and rehabilitate historic structures affected by Katrina, and we urge your support. I will provide you with details on our proposals, but let me describe the magnitude of the situation first.

Background and Overview:

I recently visited southeastern Louisiana; the damage and loss to buildings is catastrophic, affecting federally, state, and locally designated historic treasures. In New Orleans alone the National Trust estimates that Katrina’s devastating winds, rain, and subsequent flooding have in some way affected the 38,000 designated structures across the city’s historic districts.

The scope of the crisis is so great because the Gulf Coast Region itself has one of the nation’s largest collections of historic buildings. Since the French crown established settlements to make a permanent presence close to the Mississippi starting with Biloxi Bay in 1699, the area has been home to a blend of cultures, traditions, buildings, and landscapes unlike those found anywhere else in the United States. So much of its architectural uniqueness was influenced by the convergence of a rich antebellum planter society and a powerful commercial economy driven by river, port, and Gulf. Nowhere is this more apparent than New Orleans, once the largest city west of the Appalachians and the nation’s third largest by 1830. The city contains 20 National Register historic districts encompassing half of its total area, the largest concentration of historic districts in the United States. This is why we must make every effort to rebuild and restore this area, and why we must acknowledge the special character of this entire region. Failure to do so would compound the devastation that has already occurred.

What is needed first are conscientious, comprehensive surveys conducted by experts in construction, architecture, engineering and preservation – people who can examine an older building's condition, evaluate its historic and architectural significance, and determine the feasibility or advisability of saving it. With generous funding assistance from the Getty Foundation, American Express Foundation, and other sources, the National Trust has already sent survey teams into Mississippi and New Orleans. The final decision on what buildings can – and should – be saved will be made by property owners, city officials and FEMA, but the work of the survey teams will give them the facts they need to make informed decisions and rational recovery plans.

I saw first-hand that the French Quarter and the Garden District are largely intact. That's good news, certainly, because these areas, with their imposing white columns and lacy cast-iron galleries, constitute the world-renowned public face of New Orleans. But the down-home heart of the city beats in lesser-known neighborhoods such as Holy Cross, Treme, Broadmoor, and Mid-City, where officially designated historic districts showcase the modest Creole cottages, corner stores, and shotgun houses (long, narrow houses, usually only one room wide with no hallway) that are essential ingredients in the rich architectural mix that is New Orleans. Saving as many of them as possible is essential.

I came away convinced that the vast majority of them can be saved and this conclusion is being confirmed by our survey teams as well. Most homes inspected so far, about 60 percent, have been judged to have some structural damage, but few are thought to be in danger of collapse.

Many times in recent years, when communities were devastated by earthquakes, floods, tornadoes or hurricanes, we at the National Trust have worked with local officials and our preservation partners to determine the communities' needs and figure out how we could help most effectively – whether by providing funds or technical assistance. But the unprecedented ferocity of this hurricane season has confronted us with a disaster like none we have experienced before, and it calls for solutions like none we have developed before. The NHPA and Section 106, however, should be fundamental in any strategy.

The Importance of Section 106

Historic preservation is the process of identifying places, sites and resources that have survived from our past; evaluating the meaning and value they have for us now; and keeping, using and caring for those significant places, sites and resources so they will survive into the future. The preamble to the NHPA, as passed by Congress in 1966, reminds us that "The spirit and direction of the nation are founded upon and reflected in its historic heritage;” and that “the historical and cultural foundations of the nation should be preserved as a living part of our community life and development in order to give a sense of orientation to the American people." Congress further clarified in 1980 that “the preservation of this irreplaceable heritage is in the public interest.”

The NHPA protects the rights and values of private property owners, local officials, and citizens across the United States, and gives them a place at the table when the actions of federal agencies threaten to affect their historic properties and their communities. Section 106 helps governmental agencies protect and cherish our American history as Congress intended.

Disaster Assistance Package for Historic Preservation:

To make saving historic buildings a reality, I urge Congress to provide targeted sources of federal and state funding for the preservation of storm-damaged structures. A coalition of national preservation organizations led by the National Trust and the AIA are supporting a legislative package to direct federal and state resources for preservation efforts in the disaster area. The immediate goal is to stabilize and repair damaged but savable buildings before weather and the elements lead to further erosion of the historic fabric. The first and most urgent part of these legislative measures would provide immediate federal preservation grant assistance to historic property owners and supplement any funds from insurance companies, FEMA, and other sources. We have asked Congress for a two-year $60 million “Historic Preservation Disaster Relief Grants Program” from the federal Historic Preservation Fund to be administered by the states with no federal match. Applicants would agree to rehabilitate their properties in accordance with agreed-upon preservation standards and principles. The National Trust is hoping to use a small portion of these grants – $2 to $5 million – to target key designated “Main Street” organizations with funds for preservation planning, technical, and business assistance. So much of this region’s recovery will depend on making local, neighborhood-serving, commercial districts – many of which are already designated “Main Street” communities – viable once again.

Second, the existing tax credit for rehabilitating historic commercial structures should be streamlined and adjusted to work vigorously as a targeted incentive for restoring damaged historic buildings, especially those that house critical neighborhood-serving retail in “main street” business communities. We have developed a list of recommendations that would accomplish this goal. While the existing tax credit program is commendable for its success in fostering the restoration of countless historic buildings across America, there are also a number of structural elements surrounding the program that Congress should address to make it more effective in the disaster area. National Park Service data show that last year, for example, federal historic tax incentives for commercial properties leveraged over $3.8 billion in private capital into the national economy. Louisiana ranked sixth in approved “part two” projects and Mississippi ranked 17th in this activity along with Alabama.

Lastly, taking its cue from the existing tax credit program for income-producing, commercial properties, Congress should provide a new credit for homeowners of historic owner-occupied residential buildings, which are currently ineligible for any restoration incentives. Our “Disaster Relief Historic Homeowner Assistance Tax Credit” proposal would provide a credit of 30 percent of qualified rehabilitation expenditures made by persons who substantially rehabilitate historic homes located in the Hurricane Disaster Area and used as a principal residence. It would be limited to $40,000 total per household.

These longer-term tax incentives to rebuild would infuse private sector dollars in a region desperate for reinvestment and encourage property owners to return to these devastated places.

For all these proposed grants and tax incentives, the framework and infrastructure created by the NHPA, the partnerships it establishes between the federal and state governments, and its reliance on close cooperation with local preservation organizations, can be an excellent mechanism to deliver our historic preservation assistance package that the region needs. What Congress must support, however, are these additional resources, adjustments, and innovations to make it work most effectively in responding to the disaster. The good news is that the NHPA has already created the core of any response to saving historic resources in the Gulf Coast Region. What began back in 1966 in response to a grassroots movement to protect America’s architectural and cultural legacy, has become a strong federal preservation program administered by the Department of the Interior. Its implementation relies on a strong link between the agency and the State Historic Preservation Officers in every state and the territories. Congress should utilize it as a tool.

Conclusion:

The economic role of historic preservation and the federal, state, and local resources it bears are tantamount to revitalizing the commercial stability of the region and preserving it for future generations. Rising out of its past, the Gulf Coast remains one of the nation’s most important centers of economic activity and so many historic buildings are where its people actually live and conduct daily business, commerce, and tourism. The goal of rebuilding efforts should be to allow displaced people to come home to communities that are healthy, vibrant, familiar places to live and work and federal, state, and local governments in the region – provided with adequate resources – should make every effort to save those buildings where possible. From the fishing and shrimping industries, to the Port of South Louisiana, to the heart of the country’s petrochemical industry, restoring historic structures is essential to restoring the well-being of so many communities in the states affected by Katrina. Mr. Chairman, ultimately the question of how the Gulf Coast region should be rebuilt is one that its residents must answer. Let us hope they get the chance to do so before their region's future is decided for them. This Committee’s role is critical to influencing that decision.

Majority Office
410 Dirksen Senate Office Bldg.Washington, DC 20510-6175
phone: 202-224-8832
Minority Office
456 Dirksen Senate Office Bldg.Washington, DC 20510-6175
phone: 202-224-6176