New Orleans residents resist bulldozers

With a cell phone crooked in her ear and scores of activists cheering her on in the 2000 block of Reynes Street, lawyer Tracie Washington sent a backhoe and its crew packing from the Lower 9th Ward Thursday morning...

It was more than a seemingly symbolic victory for Washington and her group, the Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund, which is representing homeowners in the Lower 9th Ward and will ask a federal judge today to stop up to 2,500 demolitions of homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters. The teardowns apparently are being contemplated by Mayor Ray Nagin's administration.

Washington and her colleagues raced to the corner of Reynes and Galvez streets after a tipster called in an SOS that the bulldozing had begun -- in clear violation of an agreement the city made Dec. 28 not to demolish any homes until a hearing in Civil District Court, she said.

"The order says no bulldozing," Washington said of the court-sanctioned agreement, which expires today. "If you're demolishing part of a home you're bulldozing. We want this stopped."

A phone call to the city attorney's office made the hard-hats disappear for the day and led to the scheduling of a meeting today before U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman.

"Now we're going to federal court to ask a judge to stop it," Washington said of all demolitions ordered by the city and not at the owners' request. "It's obscene."

More than four months after the levees collapsed, New Orleans has yet to develop clear rules of engagement for what housing advocates call "bulldozing" -- the city's removal of badly damaged homes in hard-hit neighborhoods including the Lower 9th Ward.

The city on Thursday released a list of more than 1,900 homes it says are in imminent danger of collapse, many in the Lower 9th Ward. But Nagin insisted Thursday that the city is going after only the most severely damaged homes on the list, and only for reasons of public safety. The Lower 9 has become a living museum, he said, drawing sightseers and other traffic to lots still holding threadbare, rickety structures.

"We are only going to move forward on those that are wrecked, those that are severely damaged or in the public's right of way," Nagin said. He fixed that number at less than 100, and said he expected them to be gone by this weekend.

Precisely which homes are slated for demolition -- and when they'll be knocked down -- is unclear, thanks to mixed signals coming from City Hall.

Two weeks ago, Chief Technology Officer Greg Meffert, who oversees the Department of Safety and Permits, said that inspectors had marked 5,534 homes citywide with red tags, indicating the buildings are unsafe to enter.

Of those, Meffert said then, roughly 2,500 -- the structures deemed in imminent danger of collapse -- would be demolished within weeks by crews under contract with the Army Corps of Engineers.

Meffert took a different tack Thursday before the City Council, in an appearance Nagin characterized afterward with a smile as "kind of cute politically." When council members grilled him on the city's demolition plans, Meffert said that only about 120 homes were to be torn down immediately. Most of those homes, he said, were ripped from their foundations and stand in public rights-of-way. He said the first ones to be torn down are not in the Lower 9th Ward.

Meffert emphasized to council members that no homes would be torn down without the consent of their owners.

Part of list released
But after he spoke, Chief Deputy City Attorney Evelyn Pugh reminded the council that city law allows structures deemed in imminent danger of collapse to be torn down without consent, or even notification, of the owner. A Nagin spokeswoman later also said the city does not need an owner's permission to demolish some homes.

After Meffert announced the planned demolitions in late December, The Times-Picayune requested copies of the lists of all buildings marked with red tags and all those slated for immediate razing.

But no list was released until Thursday, when the city gave the newspaper the addresses of 1,957 properties in what officials called the Red Danger List. Officials said the group was essentially a winnowed-down version of the initial 2,500 endangered properties Meffert cited earlier.

The list released Thursday is available at www.nola.com, the Web site affiliated with The Times-Picayune.

City officials could not say which of the 1,957 are in public rights-of-way and thus scheduled for immediate removal. The city has yet to provide the full list of red-tagged properties.

Late Thursday, a Nagin spokeswoman said the list of properties recommended for demolition will not be finalized until it is reviewed by Safety and Permits Director Mike Centineo.

The city's demolition plan will be submitted shortly to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to interim City Attorney Penya Moses-Fields. It will cover removal of structures in public rights-of-way, demolition of properties in danger of collapsing and, in some cases, demolition of homes that may not be in danger of collapse but that the owner wants demolished, she said.

Give FEMA the bill
Moses-Fields added that the plan will be designed in hopes of receiving full reimbursement from FEMA. That agency has said it will pay for 100 percent of debris removal only through June 30.

Washington and other lawyers, including Bill Quigley, filed a lawsuit against the city last month on behalf of all citizens whose homes faced the wrecking ball, in hopes of putting a leash on demolition work. But the matter moved into federal court this week after the city asked for a new venue.

Judge Feldman, a President Reagan appointee, may begin to outline today just how far the city can go in razing homes without homeowner authorization. Nagin has said the city is following the law and not infringing on residents' rights.

Advocates opposed to razing see it differently. On Thursday they led television cameras and reporters to the Lower 9, where the yellow crane Washington faced was on the street, near the corner of Reynes and Galvez.

"They are doing similar work all around here," activist Robert Caldwell said. "This is happening without the owner's consent."

The machine seemed to be collecting rotting boards piled up where lawns once were. But to Washington and her circle the materials were not storm debris ready to be discarded, but rather someone's property.

Residents themselves seemed divided on the matter.

Leroy Fair, a retired merchant seaman who lost his home at 1241 Tupelo St., shook his head as the activists cheered Washington.

"Part of cleaning up is demolishing damaged houses," said Fair, 63, who has moved to Houston. Fair, who described his family as "pioneers" of the Lower 9th Ward, disagreed with Washington's push to stave off demolition work.

"It don't make sense, there's too much devastation," he said. "People hold on for sentimentality."

'It's unfair'
But other nearby families who want to stay and rebuild expressed outrage at the city's razing plan.

"I will not stand to have any homes demolished," said Monique Cook, a teacher who grew up in the Lower 9th Ward, where her mother and aunt own homes. "It's unfair and a conspiracy."

State Rep. Charmaine Marchand, D-New Orleans, said her family has already gutted its Lower 9th Ward house and that more and more residents are reconsidering earlier decisions to abandon nearby homes.

"I will rebuild and nobody's going to tell me any different," Marchand said Thursday at a news conference called by the Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund, which does not want a sliver of debris hauled away without property owners' consent.

City Council President Oliver Thomas, who grew up in the Lower 9th Ward, blasted the mayor's plan as callous.

"The last time I checked this was still America," he said. "Nobody's going to touch my family's property unless you're going to bulldoze me. And you better be a bad dude if you're going to try to bulldoze me."

Thomas was joined at the news conference by Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis, who made a not-so-subtle dig at Nagin.

"We can go to the courts as a refuge and haven to seek justice," she said. "It's not left to the executive branch that has kept blue roofs out, FEMA trailers out, the Red Cross out -- everything out that helps."

Willard-Lewis also said, "I take this personally because I am an African-American in this great city . . . Canal Street is not the Mason-Dixon line. We are not a divided city, we are one city."

By Gwen Filosa
Gordon Russell and Bruce Eggler
Time Picayune/www.nola.com

For more information on resistance to bulldozing in the lower 9th ward visit
http://www.commongroundrelief.org/