Storm anniversary is deadline for home gutting

Monday, August 28, 2006

NEW ORLEANS -- Bari Landry sees signs of life all around her in Lakeview, a neighborhood that was flooded by Hurricane Katrina a year ago. However, Lakeview still is crowded with signs of the disaster: deserted houses, windows and doors standing wide open and roof-high weeds.

City officials have set Tuesday -- the storm's first anniversary -- as the deadline for homeowners to gut or otherwise clean up their properties.

Landry is among those hoping the deadline will spur a cleanup that will lead to more redevelopment and repopulation after the exodus that followed Katrina.

"The city needs to do what it needs to do," councilman Arnie Fielkow said Friday at a meeting during which the City Council approved some exemptions to the deadline.

People who don't comply with the deadline after being put on notice face a range of possible penalties, from liens being placed on their property to the seizure or destruction of homes.

That the city has a long way to go to recover was evident Sunday during various observances for the anniversary.

NAACP President and CEO Bruce S. Gordon was among activists who took a walking tour of the still devastated Lower Ninth Ward on Sunday morning. He criticized the slow pace of recovery and said state, local and federal governments were still failing neighborhood residents.

"None of us should feel good about where we stand now," Gordon said during dedication of a granite monument to the neighborhood's storm victims.

The death toll in Louisiana from Katrina is close to 1,600, including nearly 300 who died in other states shortly after fleeing the hurricane.

In the badly flooded Mid City neighborhood, congregants of the First United Baptist Church were still worshipping under a tent outside their battered building.

Their electric keyboard, head-high fans and microphones were powered by a generator. A baptismal tub was set up under the blazing sun, and the preacher hopes to have new members to baptize as early as next week.

"I think the anniversary spurred people to make some progress," the Rev. Marshall Truehill Jr. said. "Progress makes hope."

Other remembrances in and around New Orleans included a gospel concert at the Morial Convention Center, where thousands of evacuees suffered stifling heat and waited for food and water in the days following Katrina, and a silent charity auction at the downtown casino that police used as a staging area after the storm.

Also Sunday, Gov. Kathleen Blanco activated the state's Emergency Operations Center in case Tropical Storm Ernesto veered west rather than continuing on a path toward Florida.

Early forecast tracks indicated a threat to New Orleans late next week but the tracks had shifted to the east by Sunday morning, centering on Florida and moving Louisiana out of the expected danger zone.

Blanco said the state was prepared for whatever the storm did, but added: "One of the things we don't want to do is overreact unnecessarily and put unnecessary strain on our people."

The Lower Ninth Ward, one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by Katrina, is exempt from the gutting deadline, although residents will be expected to take care of their damaged houses by an unspecified future date.

Others may be exempt, too, if they have an "acceptable" excuse, such as being on the list for a gutting service that hasn't gotten around to their property yet, according to the ordinance.

Enforcement could begin any time after Tuesday.

That bothers Patricia Jones, who works at a recovery center. She said many people remain displaced or are waiting for checks or direction from city officials before deciding what they should do. And she wonders how the city will handle the open-ended deadline for the Lower Ninth, where she lived before Katrina.

"The city hasn't even done their part in a year," she said, noting that many public schools remain closed and housing is still in short supply.

That's not an excuse, Lakeview resident Jim Roy said. Residents aren't being asked to rebuild by Tuesday, just to clean up and secure houses that could become health hazards. Roy said the city might be providing too many exceptions that may hinder the intent of the measure.

"Give people a hard and fast date or they delay, delay, delay for one reason or another," he said.

Associated Press writer Cain Burdeau contributed to this report.

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