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Washington Begins Drafting Legislation to Help Save Historic Properties in Hurricane Zone

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the government and non-profit community’s reaction involved immediate human needs like food, water, and shelter. But the response is quickly moving toward long-term rebuilding, with a large emphasis on saving historic structures.

The Heritage Emergency National Task Force, a 10-year-old coalition of 40 non-profit, professional, and government agencies including FEMA and the National Park Service, has formed a Katrina response group. It will coordinate relief assistance, figure out how to aid the owners of damaged or lost properties, and help shape Congressional responses. Congress’s first response, on September 8, was to appropriate $51.8 billion to feed and house victims, rebuild schools and bridges, and to clear out rubble. Subsequent legislation is expected to address the needs of historic property owners.


The AIA, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and other members of the Katrina response group began drafting proposed legislation to protect historic properties and aid owners in the disaster area. The group’s most developed approach calls for owners of houses listed on the National Register or lying within a National Register historic district a 30 percent tax credit on qualified rehabilitation costs. This would supplement the existing Federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits for income-producing properties, typically commercial properties in “Main Street” neighborhoods. In addition, the response group has developed a dozen or so administrative proposals to help the Treasury Department streamline delivery of the tax credits in the targeted area. It also worked on a plan to supplement tax incentives with a direct grant-in-aid approach that would be administered through the State Historic Preservation Officers in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

For its part, the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers has taken charge of coordinating historic preservation offices in the three affected states, and advised officers from other states ready to send assessment teams to disaster areas. Triage teams sent to the affected areas will include preservation experts, architects, and engineers; US/ICOMUS (the U.S. National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites) was coordinating offers of assistance from disaster experts overseas.

“It’s important after any disaster to make sure historic buildings don’t get red-tagged for unnecessary demolition,” says Nancy Schamu, executive director of the National Conference. Echoing Schamu, Patricia Gay, executive director of the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans, says, “No demolitions should occur without thorough review and without consideration of the determination of owners to save their houses.”

The historic New Orleans neighborhoods built primarily before the 20th century, including the Vieux Carré, the Lower Garden District, Faubourg Marginy, and Uptown, lie on higher ground and sustained relatively little damage. Gay was most concerned about districts like Broadmoor, an early-20th-century neighborhood, and Ponchartrain Park, built in the 1950s for African American homebuyers, which she said might be lost.

Allen Freeman