New Orleans' Wrecking Ball Levels Healthy Homes In New Orleans, tens of thousands of houses damaged by Hurricane Katrina remain empty. Many homes deemed a public-health threat have been bulldozed. But some residents complain the city is knocking down salvageable homes without notifying the owners.
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New Orleans' Wrecking Ball Levels Healthy Homes

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New Orleans' Wrecking Ball Levels Healthy Homes

New Orleans' Wrecking Ball Levels Healthy Homes

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Almost two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina, tens of thousands of homes in New Orleans remain damaged and empty. Right after the storm, the Army Corps of Engineers bulldozed thousands of buildings. Now, the city has been demolishing more houses that are deemed a public health threat or are in imminent danger of collapse. But now, some residents are claiming that some of these homes are salvageable, and they're being knocked down without the owner's knowledge.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from New Orleans.

JASON BEAUBIEN: The Rev. Louis Adams had a dream. His church in the Lower Ninth Ward was going to be a beacon for struggling single mothers, alcoholics, the destitute.

Reverend LOUIS ADAMS (Holy Ground Baptist Church): This is it - over.

BEAUBIEN: What used to be Holy Ground Baptist Church is now an empty, muddy lot. It's on a block in which only one house remains standing. Empty lots stretch for blocks in every direction. The muddy, post-urban landscape is broken only by weeds, piles of debris, the occasional shell of a house or a FEMA trailer.

Rev. ADAMS: Because the others moved back in here. They'd rather move back in here.

BEAUBIEN: Reverend Adams spent most of 2006 trying to get a building permit to repair his church. In October, while he was still negotiating with officials at City Hall, a demolition permit was issued and contractors bulldozed his sanctuary.

Rev. ADAMS: And someone was supposed to have met us out here. We came. No one came. We came two days later and our church was completely demolished.

BEAUBIEN: Like most buildings in the Lower Ninth Ward, the Holy Ground Baptist Church was damaged by Katrina and the extensive flooding that followed. Adams, however, says the damage to his church was minor compared with many of his neighbors. He had the building gutted and boarded up as required by the city. He got city inspectors to re-characterize his damage as being less than 50 percent. He submitted pictures, plans and proof of ownership.

Rev. ADAMS: The procedure that the city had set up, we followed that procedure.

Ms. STACEY HEAD (Member, New Orleans City Council): We don't do good a job. I can tell you what the procedure is supposed to be. It doesn't work this way at all.

BEAUBIEN: City council member Stacey Head says the city's law to deal with property severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina, on paper is a good one. It requires public notice and a hearing before a demolition takes place. In 2006 and 2007, FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers demolished thousands of severely damaged homes. Now, almost two and a half years later, the city has taken over the task. Officials estimate that roughly 20,000 derelict structures remain. Of that group, more than 1,000 are on a list for potential demolition. Stacey Head at the City Council acknowledges that abandoned, blighted properties remain a huge problem in New Orleans, but she said the process to deal with them right now is too rushed and too chaotic.

Ms. HEAD: Perfect example is, either Thursday or Friday before New Year's, a large number of properties were put on the list for demolition consideration to be heard on Monday, New Year's Eve. I don't think that that is very good notice, when you're talking about demolishing someone's house and also destroying a treasure that you can never get back.

BEAUBIEN: Chanel Debose almost lost such a treasure. Chanel grew up in the Calliope Housing Projects of New Orleans. She went to Louisiana State University and became a lawyer. In 2001, Chanel and her husband, Stanley, bought a rambling old Victorian in Mid-City for $15,000. Stanley restored the pine floors, the leaded glass windows, the carved wooden mantels. He built the kitchen cabinets himself from scratch. Then last year, contractors hired by the city showed up at their house, shut off the gas, clipped the power lines and were getting ready to knock it down.

Ms. CHANEL DEBOSE (New Orleans Resident): What I don't understand is how do you not inquire? How do you not knock on the door? How do you not see that - to see - you know, I just don't get it. I don't get it.

BEAUBIEN: Chanel got the contractors to go away and her power restored, but their house remains on the city's demolition list. Their house flooded during Katrina. They actually escaped in Stanley's boat, and their house did suffer some damage. But you'd never know it now. Stanley has painted the outside bright yellow and restored the 100-year-old woodwork inside. Bold Afro-centric art adorns their walls.

Ms. DEBOSE: Oh, man. It is priceless. I would not sell it, even if I was Oprah rich.

BEAUBIEN: Chanel and Stanley Debose were lucky. They were in their house and were able to stop the demolition. But more than 100,000 former New Orleaneans who fled after Katrina still haven't returned. And tens of thousands of them are still waiting for state compensation so they can afford to rebuild.

Davida Finger, a staff attorney at the Katrina Clinic at Loyola Law School, has filed suit against the city of New Orleans over the demolition process. The main demand of this suit is that individual adjudication hearings be held before demolition, because in the past, bureaucratic mistakes were made.

Ms. DAVIDA FINGER (Staff Attorney, Katrina Clinic at Loyola Law School): Those mistakes weren't caught and homes were actually demolished — structurally sound homes, homes that were in the process of being rebuilt, homes that were almost totally rebuilt.

BEAUBIEN: One common complaint from people who are trying to stop demolitions is that they're unable to get information or help from city hall about the entire process. Repeated phone calls by NPR to the city's code enforcement department, which is responsible for demolitions, went unanswered.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, New Orleans.

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