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12/9/2005
06:05 PM
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New Orleans Residents Want Homes, But Data Is A Start

Since Katrina, city inspectors have scrambled to get information posted online.

As a New Orleans homeowner sitting in Houston or New York or St. Louis contemplating returning home after Hurricane Katrina, there's a basic question to be answered: Is my house still standing?

Answering that question fell to the city's Department of Safety and Permits, whose inspectors had to make the call if a house was wrecked, needed work, or was ready to be reoccupied. Mike Centineo, director of safety and permits, did the math and didn't like any of the answers: He had only 17 of his usual 43 inspectors available, and around 92,000 homes in the city needed review. Centineo wanted to get the job done quickly, but Federal Emergency Management Agency officials advised him it would take 100 inspectors three months to do the job, using a paper-based system.

Inspectors have deemed 5,529 buildings severely damaged, 86,393 moderately damaged, and 35,472 undamaged.

Inspectors have deemed 5,529 buildings severely damaged, 86,393 moderately damaged, and 35,472 undamaged.
The pieces for an alternative started coming together as power returned to the city, and the department brought online its permit and property-mapping software, Accela Automation, from Accela Inc. All the city's parcel information was stored remotely by the application in an Oracle database in California. Using Accela Automation and mapping software from ESRI, the city had overlaid its parcel data on the map before the storm. If inspectors could collect damage data, they could use the software to put an indicator--a red flag for severe damage, yellow for moderate, and green for no damage--on each parcel. And they could make that data accessible on the city Web site, www.cityofno.com, for refugees to look up a home's status.

But first, Centineo says, they needed to conduct the inspections. FEMA suggested paper forms and data-entry staff to upload the data using Accela. Before they even started, Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a 50% cut in all departments to save money. "Putting data into the database after the fact is cumbersome and can be inaccurate. The data-entry people have to interpret the inspector's comments in his own handwriting," Centineo says. "And I didn't have any data-entry people." Paperless became the only option.

Accela solicited a donation of 25 Panasonic Toughbook laptops, running Accela's client software with an XML version of FEMA's disaster-inspection form. The laptops also had wireless connectivity, so that as inspectors returned to the office or reached a hot-spot, the data would upload to Accela automatically. The Toughbooks had another key attribute: a geographical positioning system. Neighborhoods "are an extreme mess," Centineo says, with debris covering streets, street signs washed away, and some homes knocked far off their foundations. The GPS let inspectors match their location to the map, even when the address they were at was unclear.

Hard work
With 23 additional inspectors from California, they worked seven days a week for 10 weeks. The map now shows 5,529 red-tagged homes, 86,393 yellow, and 35,472 green. One of the yellow-tagged homes, with salt water and mold damaging everything on the first floor to a height of 6 feet, is familiar to Centineo. "I'm just one of 92,000," he says of his house.

The additional data let the city add services to the Web site, so property owners can enter their street addresses, check status, and drill down to the detailed inspection report. It also offers estimates of material costs for some repairs and has a tool for triggering a claim for homeowners with federal flood insurance. And Centineo and Accela implemented an online system to request building permits.

As of first week in December, residents were straggling back--the department had issued 373 building permits online, with more being issued daily at the city office. IT systems have helped. But with almost 92,000 damaged homes out there, the real work of rebuilding lies ahead.

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