[StBernard] Louisiana governments threaten Katrina homes with demolition

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Mon Aug 28 21:32:24 EDT 2006

Louisiana governments threaten Katrina homes with demolition
Monday, August 28, 2006

By Chad Terhune, The Wall Street Journal


La. govts threaten Katrina homes with demolition

Eds: Via AP

NEW ORLEANS -- Mera Bercy -- fed up with the stench and the rats and the
roaches from the abandoned house next door to her home in the flood-battered
Gentilly neighborhood -- hopes the city of New Orleans keeps its word.

Officials have promised that beginning tomorrow, the one-year aniversary of
Hurricane Katrina's landfall here, they would begin moving to demolish
buildings whose owners haven't at least gutted them and cleaned up their

"Their rats and roaches are coming into my home with three small children,"
complains the 33-year-old Ms. Bercy, who gutted her home in November and is
living in a small travel trailer in her front yard as she slowly repairs her
single-story brick house. "Obviously the owner next door has moved on. But
don't punish me. If they say Aug. 29, make it stick."

Demolitions won't begin for a few weeks or even months. But New Orleans and
neighboring St. Bernard Parish -- two of the hardest-hit areas -- have set
the deadline to force tens of thousands of property owners to deal with
abandoned, blighted structures that still litter the landscape here and
perhaps kick start the area's stagnant recovery. In a vote Friday, the New
Orleans City Council stuck to the deadline but spelled out that homeowners
will have several weeks to comply with or challenge warning letters or seek
a "hardship exemption."

Katrina severely damaged more than 125,000 homes in New Orleans and St.
Bernard parishes alone, and it is estimated only about 30 percent to 50
percent of residents have returned. Many homeowners don't have the money to
rebuild as disputes over denied insurance claims drag on, and an acute
shortage of workers and construction materials is crimping efforts and
raising costs. Government red tape and property owners' concerns that
another devastating storm might wreck any repairs have also bogged down
work. Katrina survivors are watching Tropical Storm Ernesto closely as it
churns toward the Gulf of Mexico.

The demolition plan has become a flashpoint, pitting neighbor against
neighbor in many cases and signaling an important shift among local leaders
to focus their efforts and priorities on those who have already returned
versus those who may never come back. After the local government demolishes
or guts a house, officials will place a lien on the property to force the
owners to repay the cost of the work.

"People shouldn't have to live in disgusting neighborhoods with boarded-up
homes, uncut grass and debris in the yard," says Joey DiFatta, a St. Bernard
Parish Council member. Oliver Thomas, the New Orleans City Council
president, agrees. He says the time has come to "focus on the people who've
returned so they're not discouraged and leave."

Working in favor of the rebuilding effort is that $7.5 billion in federal
aid has started flowing to Louisiana homeowners in the disaster zone. Last
week, the Louisiana Recovery Authority started issuing grants for as much as
$150,000 to help cover uninsured losses. A similar $3 billion program is
under way in Mississippi.

Local officials expect that to trigger an unprecedented construction boom --
with thousands of renovations simultaneously underway across hundreds of
miles of southern Louisiana and Mississippi. Of course, that will exacerbate
the labor shortage even more. Some experts estimate more than 50,000
additional workers are needed in Louisiana and Mississippi. Already signs
begging for laborers are interspersed among thousands of placards plastering
the New Orleans area to advertise wallboard removal, mold fumigation and

To fill the gap, construction companies are offering pay incentives to
retain employees, and business groups are pushing for training programs and
improved housing options. The Business Roundtable, a Washington D.C.-based
association of 160 CEOs at leading companies, has teamed up with state and
federal labor officials to launch training efforts in Baton Rouge, La., and
Jackson, Miss. The group has a goal of recruiting and training 2,500
entry-level construction workers this year and 20,000 by 2009. The Business
Roundtable has put $5 million into the program and state and federal
officials have invested more than $20 million toward this initiative and
other worker training.

Stephanie Foster, 31, started the four-week training course at Baton Rouge
Community College earlier this month. She hopes to earn more than $20 an
hour in welding or carpentry -- up from the $8 an hour she made previously
as a fast-food cook and cleaning houses. "We have to rebuild to get our
people back. If we don't do it ourselves, no one will," she says. Billboards
and radio ads promoting the program began airing this month, and nearly 200
participants have finished the program and taken jobs at local buildiers and
bigger companies such as Shaw Group Inc. and Bechtel Group Inc.

The billions for rebuilding "mean nothing if we don't have the hands on the
ground," says Tim Johnson, a Baton Rouge consultant organizing the training.
"There will be no rebuilding without the craftspeople."

In St. Bernard Parish, the largely blue-collar community east of New Orleans
inundated with Katrina floodwaters, Bill and Kathie Lind have invested
roughly $150,000 to fix up their home and another rental property they own.
Their neighbors have done very little.

Next door on Jupiter Street in Chalmette one home still hasn't been gutted
and portions of the roof are collapsing. The Linds' neighbor on the other
side recently tore out the interior of his house and a chest-high pile of
debris fills the front yard. "Before they set the deadline no one was doing
anything," says Mr. Lind, his T-shirt drenched in sweat after clearing weeds
in his yard in 95-degree heat. "The deadline is the only thing that will
save the parish."

Many homeowners, though, remain skeptical of any government rebuilding
effort given the slow, bureaucratic response thus far to Katrina. They also
fear the government will demolish structures that are salvageable -- or
stick them with excessive liens on their property.

Others are openly hostile. The looming deadline brought out Ray Berger, a
47-year-old motel owner, to clean up his mother-in-law's house on Florida
Avenue, not far from Ms. Bercy's Gentilly home. "It's a shame it's a year
later, and you don't see any improvement," Mr. Berger said. "But how can we
get anything done when we're still battling the insurance companies? If they
tear down this house, they will catch a bullet."

Civil-rights groups in New Orleans have threatened a legal effort to block
the city demolition program. New Orleans already has exempted low-income
areas such as the Lower Ninth Ward. Property owners in New Orleans can also
comply with the deadline by getting on a waiting list for free gutting
services offered by some nonprofit groups -- a wait currently running at
four to six months as the groups struggle to recruit enough volunteers to
meet the enormous demand. It often takes a team of 10 volunteers two to
three days to gut one home.

St. Bernard will give property owners 30 days notice before starting
demolition. Homes that are structurally sound will only be gutted, officials

Joseph and Helen Moore heard about the demolition deadline in St. Bernard
Parish from their daughter-in-law and rushed back earlier this month from
their new home in Broken Arrow, Okla., to install new doors and windows on
their damaged Chalmette house -- one recommended way to get off the
demolition list. They intend to sell the house and stay in Oklahoma because
they don't consider Louisiana safe from future storms. "Why should we put
windows and doors on to make it presentable? They will just be broken out
later," said Ms. Moore, a 62-year-old Wal-Mart employee.

Last month, the parish posted a list online of more than 7,000 residential
and commercial properties it considered "blighted" out of 27,000 pre-Katrina
structures. That number has dwindled to about 4,100 as property owners
documented work they'd undertaken.

"Every day we have our screamers and criers," said Gina Hayes, director of
the Department of Community Development in St. Bernard Parish. But "our goal
is to clean up this area."

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