Demolition Looms for Ninth Ward of New Orleans

Haven Bell stands in front of his house. i i

hide captionLower Ninth Ward resident Haven Bell stands in front of his house, which has a red sticker from the city deeming the building in danger of collapse.

Photos by Audie Cornish, NPR
Haven Bell stands in front of his house.

Lower Ninth Ward resident Haven Bell stands in front of his house, which has a red sticker from the city deeming the building in danger of collapse.

Photos by Audie Cornish, NPR
Haven Bell's house i i

hide captionBell's home took on 12 feet of water after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Despite mold and dangling insulation on the first floor, Bell says the structure is sound.

Haven Bell's house

Bell's home took on 12 feet of water after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Despite mold and dangling insulation on the first floor, Bell says the structure is sound.

Not far from the festivities in New Orleans, the Ninth Ward sits nearly silent. One of the hardest-hit neighborhoods, it was severely flooded after Hurricane Katrina. But just as homeowners are trickling back to reclaim their neighborhood, bulldozers are on the way to begin demolition.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block and today is Mardi Gras. My colleagues Michele Norris and Robert Siegel are in New Orleans. In a few minutes, Michele talks with a Baptist minister who's trying to keep his church together.

But first, a story from New Orleans's 9th Ward. It's not far from today's festivities and it's almost silent. The 9th Ward was one of the hardest hit neighborhoods, severely flooded by levee breaks after Katrina and while people are moving back into some areas of the city, bulldozers are on their way to the 9th Ward.

NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH reporting:

It was State Representative Charmaine Marchand who called the first meeting of the 9th Ward Neighborhood Association this month.

State Representative CHARMAINE MARCHAND (Louisiana, District 99): There are people outside of the lower 9th Ward and outside of New Orleans who believe that we are not coming back and every time people come down into the 9th Ward, I hear Oh, I didn't hear a bird chirp, I didn't see a child playing. Well, that does not mean people aren't coming back.

CORNISH: And one of the most frustrating things for Reverend Michael Zachary is that the neighborhood has become a destination for disaster tourism but not much else.

Reverend MICHAEL ZACHARY (New Orleans resident): Our politicians, the Governor, the Mayor is constantly showcasing the lower 9th Ward as a poor, devastated area and we're tired of people just coming down here looking at us and not spending no money. The purpose is to let people see what's going on so that we can get billions of dollars to renovate. It's going on six months, there's no power trucks, there's no entity, there's no sewage and water board. They're coming in this area, but they're constantly showcasing the area.

CORNISH: But according to Valerie Schecksnider (ph), the sluggish pace of cleanup is not just the fault of the city. Schecksnider says what's left of her house on Renee Street is scattered in pieces over the house next door and that other people in the neighborhood should welcome demolitions.

Ms. VALERIE SCHECKSNIDER (New Orleans resident): A lot of people haven't came back here to even see their house, to see it's okay, to bulldoze it down or repair it. That's holding the process up.

CORNISH: But there are lots of reasons why people may be weary of letting the bulldozers in just yet. An attorney who represents hundreds of plaintiffs, Ishmael Mohammad, sued the city two months ago when demolitions were initially set to begin. He says people, especially evacuees now living out of state, still call him with concerns.

Mr. ISHMAEL MOHAMMAD (Attorney): I don't want my home bulldozed because I'm still fighting the insurance company. I'm still waiting for FEMA to come out or I'm still trying to get my stuff out, I don't have no money to come from Colorado and do that right now. So there's real issues that people are having that others are not really respecting.

CORNISH: After the lawsuit, the city agreed to try and notify homeowners through newspapers, mailings and the internet that their property was being torn down and some 2,000 red stickers have now popped up on houses deemed in danger of collapse and they're candidates to be bulldozed as well. Hayden Bell came out to the meeting to find out how one of those stickers ended up on his door on Eugenia Street.

Mr. HAYDEN BELL (Resident, 9th Ward): (unintelligible)

CORNISH: Bell drove down from Lafayette, Louisiana where he's renting an apartment. Afterwards, his friend Harvey Fields stops by to say hello.

Mr. BELL: There's red sticker on my house for demolition.

Mr. HARVEY FIELDS: Who said? Who did that?

Mr. BELL: I don't know. The man was like --

Mr. FIELDS: Man, you're house is in solid condition. How would they want to demolition your house?

Mr. BELL: She said, no just disregard that.

CORNISH: Bell's home took on 12 feet of water after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and that water sat there for weeks. The first floor is a blackened mess of overturned furniture, dangling insulation and large polka dots of mold along the walls, but upstairs on the second floor, the walls are still white and clean and the floors appear untouched by mold. He says the structure is sound, still standing and he wants to rebuild, but he can't get that red sticker out of his mind.

Mr. BELL: Yeah, I don't know. I'm still like, well, am I wasting my time doing this? If they're going to bulldoze it why would I gut it out? You see.

CORNISH: But, as he looks across the street at the houses in rubble, he can't help but have doubts. There's no electricity in the neighborhood, so he can't use power tools or a trailer. But, Bell says he's fighting to get off the demolition list.

Mr. BELL: Got money invested. Like me, I got money invested here, I just can't just see them I'm knocking it down. My house was appraised at $110,000 a year ago. I'm not going to just walk away.

CORNISH: Nearly 120 properties lie in the middle of city streets or on sidewalks. They're supposed to be the first to go over the next few days. Meanwhile, 1,900 more homes will be listed for demolition over the next month.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, New Orleans.

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