New Orleans: residents resist demolition in Lower Ninth

From Reuters, Jan. 5:

New Orleans residents and supporters angrily confronted demolition workers in one of the city’s hardest-hit neighborhoods on Thursday amid heated debate over the proposed razing of houses destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

Officials said the demolition workers were merely using a backhoe to clear debris in the poverty-stricken Lower Ninth Ward, a process that has been ongoing to clear streets and sidewalks, but residents said the sight of the heavy equipment in action raised fears their homes will be bulldozed without their permission.

The confrontation cut to the heart of one of the biggest concerns in New Orleans — what to do about thousands of houses severely damaged by the Aug. 29 storm and the flooding that followed.

After inspecting some 128,000 New Orleans homes on the east bank of the Mississippi River, the city last month identified some 2,500 houses as dangerously unstable and in need of being razed. No demolition of houses is slated to begin at least until after a court hearing on Friday.

Thursday’s debris clearing in the Lower Ninth Ward was routine, said Master Sergeant Ronnie Garrard, liaison officer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the clean-up.

“This is considered debris by the city,” he said.

But angry residents saw it otherwise.

“The difference between a home and debris is nothing in this community,” Ishmael Muhammed, an attorney for the residents, said while standing with a crowd of locals on a street in the Lower Ninth Ward. “Until you can figure out that issue, there can be no demolition.”


Many of the ruined houses are in the Lower Ninth Ward, where hundreds of structures were pushed off their foundations by water rushing through a breach in the nearby Industrial Canal.

Much of what remains in the Lower Ninth, one of the city’s poorest areas, is nothing but heaps of concrete, collapsed roofs and overturned cars. Broken possessions — from children’s toys and torn photographs to shattered crockery and damaged sports trophies — lie strewn across the yards.

Homeowners who filed suit say they do not want the demolition to proceed without court hearings or their consent. Ward residents, some of whom don’t have insurance, say they want more time to try and salvage their belongings.

City Council President Oliver Thomas said residents, many of whom have left the city and not returned, should be notified before the demolition can proceed.

“I don’t understand how you take away the only thing a person really has without their approval. There has to be a better process,” said Thomas. “Nobody’s going to touch my family’s stuff unless we say it’s okay. You’d better be a bad dude if you try to bulldoze me.”

A state court order blocking the demolition expires on Friday, when a hearing is slated in federal court.

A spokeswoman for the New Orleans mayor’s office did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

The city has said about two-thirds of New Orleans’ houses have been found to be sound but with structural damage.

See our last post on Katrina’s aftermath.