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For Gulf towns, anxious wait on flood plain status

New federal maps, due soon, will probably decide where Louisianians can rebuild.

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The Buras water tower is still on its side where hurricane Katrina pushed it over as though it were a LEGO toy. Schools are still closed. Water treatment is nonexistent.

Sure, a few determined survivors have returned to battered Plaquemines Parish, which looked like an inundated shrimper after sustaining four levee breaks.

But for most, the decision of whether to return is becoming more complex. Buras - and other towns in lower Plaquemines - may face a tougher road toward rebuilding if maps expected to be released this week determine that they are ineligible for federal flood insurance.

At issue: the original levees, though repaired, have proven unworthy against Katrina-size storms, and cost estimates for bolstering them have tripled, to $9 billion. That makes the maps a key to the recovery riddle, since they will guide rebuilding and factor in developers' calculations. The situation is testing the pride of Louisiana's original parish. And it's shedding light on how rebuilding will occur in the most stormwracked corners of the Gulf Coast, as communities compete for levee improvement funds.

"I need schools to send my kids to, I need a church to follow my faith, and Buras is getting none of that," says Lynda Banta, a parish councilor living in the largely unaffected Belle Chasse area. "Somebody's decided we're expendable."

This finger of gnat-infested lowland, where the levees flicker into view on both sides of the Belle Chasse highway around refineries and orange groves, is the home of oil-rig workers, refinery roughnecks, and oystermen. Some can trace their Italian, French, and Slavic heritages through the bayous for centuries. For towns like Triumph, Nairn, Venice and Port Sulphur, it's crunchtime for recovery.

The Army Corps of Engineers completed its first repairs on the Plaquemines levees on March 17, bringing them up to their original height and bolstering them with sturdier clays. But a harsh prospect overshadowed its restoration.

"Another Katrina would overtop this levee," said Army Corps of Engineers Col. Lewis Setliff during a press conference near the Empire Lock in Nairn, La.

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