Assessing Katrina’s Toll, House by House

In the months after Katrina, Mike Centineo, New Orleans’ director of safety and permits, has had to get his building inspectors out to visit 120,000 flood-damaged homes and rate them according to the percentage of the home damaged and the house’s elevation compared with Federal Emergency Management Agency-defined flood levels.

And the inspections need to be done as quickly as possible, out of consideration for homeowners anxiously awaiting word on what it would take to repair their homes—or whether the buildings need to be demolished.

Centineo knows firsthand the importance of making fast assessments.

On a November afternoon, he slips out of the office to meet with an insurance adjuster he has been trying to connect with for weeks. They meet at a rental property Centineo owns in the city’s Riverside neighborhood—a one-story home, split into two side-by-side apartments—where the high-water mark reaches to about half its height.

It will have to be gutted. His home, which is in the same neighborhood, didn’t do much better. Centineo has been living out of a cabin in one of the Carnival cruise ships that have been docked in New Orleans since Katrina.

But by using Panasonic Toughbooks—laptops made to be rugged enough to meet military field specifications—and customized damage assessment software, the city was finishing up initial inspections in November, months earlier than possible otherwise.

Standing outside his rental units, Centineo demonstrates how an inspector would record an assessment of the property with the Toughbooks, which were donated by Panasonic and came loaded with assessment software from Accela, a software maker based in Dublin, Calif.

When his inspectors come through a damaged neighborhood, he says, they are supposed to give an individual report on every building. But on a street like this one, lined with block after block of one-story homes, every building is in pretty much the same state as the next. The computerized system lets the inspectors use a copy of the report for one address as a template for the report on the next, so they only have to record the differences.

In a paper-based system, they would have to write up a new report for each property. Not only that, but the reports would eventually have to be entered into a computer, and he had no one to do that work.

Centineo uses the stylus-driven user interface of the PC’s Accela software to locate his property in a geo-coded property database the city has set up. A Global Positioning System satellite locator built into the Toughbook provides an alternate way of looking up the property records in a pinch.

“If we find a case where the building is totally gone, no address to reference, we can just stand by the foundation” and use the GPS, Centineo explains.

Accela programmed the Toughbooks to upload data when they came within range of the city’s wireless network.

Damage reports are also combined with flood-level and property-value information and presented to the public on the city’s Web site, giving residents, no matter where they were living, a snapshot status of their homes. The custom application pulls data from the Accela software and other back-end systems, such as the assessor’s database.

“Nobody in the world has that,” says Greg Meffert, the city’s information-technology chief.