Image: Karen Espeut, Susan Schroeder
Bill Haber  /  AP
Susan "Willow" Schroeder and Karen "Feather" Espeut, right rear, in front of their New Orleans home. Espeut and Schroeder's home appears on a list of homes to be demolished and they are trying to save it.
updated 8/12/2007 9:30:08 PM ET 2007-08-13T01:30:08

While Willie Ann Williams waited for federal aid to rebuild her home in the hurricane flooded 9th Ward, it was demolished.

There was nothing left but bare dirt.

She says a city official told her family the wood-frame house should not have been torn down, but no one has told them why it happened or what happens next.

Williams had a building permit and wanted to fix up her house once she received money from the federally funded, state-run Road Home grant program. Now, with no house to repair, she’s living in Franklinton, 70 miles away, and doesn’t know whether she’ll be able to come back, said Williams’ daughter, Vonder McNeil.

Confusion reigns with the approach of an Aug. 29 deadline — the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina — for the city to tell federal authorities which properties it wants demolished. Homes that were only damaged have wound up on a list of 1,700 condemned properties. Some houses on the list have been gutted for rebuilding or are in move-in condition.

Angry homeowners are besieging City Council members and camping out at city offices. “Do Not Demolish” signs are posted on porches, and some owners are hiring lawyers for a possible legal fight.

Homeowner Brick Mason posted his lawyer’s telephone number on his house along with the “Do Not Demolish” sign.

The process of finding and condemning unsafe homes is “not perfect, but it’s working,” city spokeswoman Ceeon Quiett said.

The city says some houses must be torn down to ensure public safety. Some houses still contain moldy debris, the city says. Residents have complained about rats, trash piles and unkempt, overgrown yards in slow-to-rebound neighborhoods. Some houses look like they might collapse at any time.

The city says candidates says demolition include buildings deemed substantially damaged and structurally unsound; those poorly constructed, built to minimum building codes and not able to withstand a hurricane’s effects, as well as “quality constructed homes”; substantially damaged homes built on slabs, below base flood elevations and not able to be safely raised; and those would that would be “structurally compromised” by gutting.

Quiett said the city’s only intent is to “get consumers to act as quickly as possible so neighborhoods can come back.”

But wide differences in the appearance of condemned properties on the list of 1,700, published in local newspapers, has fueled suspicion.

Karen Gadbois, an advocate with the community group Common Knowledge, said the process goes “beyond the boundaries of reason.” Driving past a row of 10 similar-looking houses along Bayou St. John in the Mid-City neighborhood, she tries to pick out the five that are on the tear-down list, but says there is little to distinguish them from the others.

Since April 2006, about 3,800 properties have been bulldozed by contractors hired by the Army Corps of Engineers under an agreement with the city and Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA will pay for work to tear down storm-damaged properties deemed imminent threats, but the city has until Aug. 29 to tell the Corps which properties it wants demolished.

The Corps will not contract to tear down houses after Sept. 30, so the cash-strapped city will have to pay for demolition after that, then apply to FEMA for reimbursement.

Quiett said the city feels no pressure to have houses demolished before the deadline.

Michael Logue, a spokesman for the Corps, said federal contractors won’t tear down a house if it bears a “Do Not Demolish” sign. “We’re not the big bad guys,” he said. “Our job down here is to help the victim.”

Quiett said she’s not aware of homes being torn down mistakenly. But Logue said there have been cases in which the corps has received a “do not demolish” notice from the city after a property has been razed.

In Williams’ case, her daughter says she wanted to rebuild once she got money from the federally funded, state-run Road Home grant program.

City spokesman David Robinson-Morris said he could not confirm or deny McNeil’s claim that Williams family was told the demolition was a mistake.

However, he said the case file included an inspector’s recommendation the building be demolished due to “irreparable structural damage” to the back, and that the property was deemed in imminent danger of collapse. She said a notification letter was sent, but McNeil claims none was received and disputes the characterization of the property as an imminent danger. She said a rear addition was damaged in Katrina, but had long since been torn down.

Quiett said the city is setting aside four days this month for homeowners with properties facing demolition to show proof that they’ve remediated their homes or otherwise addressed health and safety concerns.

“We have compassion in everything we do. Every act of this recovery has been an act of compassion,” she said.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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