Louisiana Parish Readies to Demolish Homes

St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana says it will demolish 4,000 homes that were never reclaimed after the flood from Hurricane Katrina. The owners of these homes have not responded to efforts to reach them. Now the local government is ready to take action.

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Officials in New Orleans are about to start tearing down many homes, and it's the same story just down river in St. Bernard Parish.

Thousands of homes may be affected. They have owners but they've never responded to letters or phone calls. The doors of the houses are still sealed from the storm.

And now officials across the region are saying time's up. NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.

LAURA SULLIVAN: Lenor Duplessis(ph) loves her new kitchen.

Ms. LENOR DUPLESSIS (St. Bernard Parish Resident): Everything is new. We have all stainless steel appliances. That's something new.

SULLIVAN: Five months ago, Duplessis, her husband and two children were the first people to move back to Moss Lane in St. Bernard Parish. Any sign of the nine feet of water that submerged this house is gone.

There are new walls, new floors, and outside a new porch. The house next door has some new things too.

Ms. DUPLESSIS: Snakes and rats have taken over the house. Snakes in this yard. Rats come from the side of the yard and just work their way in the front door like they own the place.

SULLIVAN: The neighbor's blue colonial, like the one across the street, is frozen in time.

Ms. DUPLESSIS: I mean, you can see it's not gutted. You can see pieces of furniture in the house. The high grass is tall as the house. The front door; you can't see the front door.

SULLIVAN: Lenor Duplessis used to know these neighbors. The man next door called to say he's not coming back. The others don't seem to be either.

Ms. DUPLESSIS: They have not come back to their homes. And their houses are gorgeous homes. Who abandons a house that expensive? I mean, this is a two-story house worth 150 or more.

SULLIVAN: Parish officials say the homes are not only a health hazard, but they're keeping people from rebuilding. The Parish plans to start demolishing them by the end of the month.

Mr. DAVE PERALTA (Parish Administrative Officer): It's now over a year. You know, decisions have to be made to keep this parish going.

SULLIVAN: Dave Peralta is the Parish Administrative Officer. He called friends and relatives and sent letters to everyone's forwarding addresses offering to connect them to non-profits who could gut and board up their homes for free. But of the 7,000 letters and phone calls, Peralta says 4,000 people never responded.

Mr. PERALTA: They could have put in for demolition. They simply have not done a thing.

SULLIVAN: Were you surprised by the number of people who didn't respond?

Mr. PERALTA: Yes. Because I can't imagine that they'd just walk away from everyone, not only from a financial situation but a moral situation, again an obligation to the people who live next to them. We're not asking you to be responsible for a multitude of homes. We're not asking you to do that. Yet by the people not coming back, that's what they're asking us to do. They make us the responsible party for their home, and that's not right.

SULLIVAN: Peralta says a few people told him they just can't bear to see their homes again. Even though ruined homes have been selling to new owners, and even though he warned them that the financially strapped parish will eventually come after them for the cost of demolition.

Across the parish border, the city of New Orleans have come up with a different strategy to deal with abandoned homes. New Orleans home inspectors like Rudley Thibodeaux(ph) are going door to door with warning letters.

Mr. RUDLEY THIBODEAUX (New Orleans Home Inspector): I can look in the window and I can see the sheet rock and stuff in the floors. They probably should clean this up, but I'm not going to write this particular house up. Because right here they went and got a building permit.

SULLIVAN: Just a few doors down, Thibodeaux was surprised to see homeowner Gino Asconi(ph) knee-deep in electrical wiring.

Mr. THIBODEAUX: Hey, how're y'all doing, man? I'm Inspector Thibodeaux with the city. We're just kind of passing...

SULLIVAN: Three weeks ago, Thibodeaux had this house on the abandoned list. Asconi explains to Thibodeaux that for the past year he's been on the road with a band. He raced back and started gutting when he heard the city could tear his house down.

Mr. GINO ASCONI (New Orleans Resident): I heard about it, rumors that if they have a house that's un-gutted or un-boarded up, that they're going to start blighting the properties and what-not. I didn't even know there was a notice, but I knew there was an ordinance or something from the city saying that you had to get your property boarded up.

SULLIVAN: Gino Asconi looks at his neighbor's ten-feet-high grass and ruined home. Asconi says he's the one getting annoyed.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News, New Orleans.

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