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New Orleans home demolitions under way

Herbert Warren, 77, watched the demolition of his home of 43 years on Monday as New Orleans began clearing houses that were damaged beyond repair by Hurricane Katrina.  NBC News' Ron Mott reports  from the Lower Ninth Ward.
Herbert Warren, a former longshoreman, stands where his home used to be in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans on Monday. Warren's home floated onto the next street over and crews on Monday began the slow and difficult job of demolishing homes wrecked beyond repair by Hurricane Katrina, starting with his. Alex Brandon / AP
/ Source: NBC News

NEW ORLEANS, La. — As he stood over what was once his kitchen, now just an open space scattered with broken cinder blocks and weeds, Herbert Warren, 77, reflected on more than four decades of life in the Lower Ninth Ward.

“All of it’s gone,” said Warren, who raised eight children in the house on Roffignac Street. 

Floodwaters from a breached levee snapped Warren’s home from its foundation and carried it a block away.

It was demolished on Monday, part of the first group of houses taken down by the city after months of delays prompted by protests and court filings.

Activists had sued in December to stop the bulldozing out of fear homeowners wouldn’t be notified or have a chance to pick through their belongings. City officials agreed in January to a notification process, saying they wanted to quickly tear down only homes that posed an imminent threat to safety.

Quiet start to a noisy job
Amid little fanfare, the bulldozers cranked up. Save for a few observers from groups protecting the rights of absent homeowners, it was a quiet start to a noisy job.

In all, the city has marked 123 homes for this first phase of demolition, all but a half dozen of them in the hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward. The city says all of the homes slated for removal are in public rights of way, either in the middle of a street or on sidewalks.

The demolition of Warren’s house got off to a slow start. Work crews waited for hours before getting a final on-site sign-off from a city official. Authorities say Warren’s home was used as a training exercise for contractors who have been hired to raze severely damaged homes, taking care to remove hazardous materials during the process.

“Each crew is basically learning as they go,” said Bob Anderson, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is helping to coordinate the tear-downs. “They may have never done a demolition before." Anderson added that a total of 25,000 homes are likely to be demolished.

Cautious demolition
Christopher Hamilton, who lives in the Lower Ninth Ward and owns a handful of rental properties in the neighborhood, said he was pleased work had begun but also thought the delays prompted by the protests were appropriate.

“Because now the government and the Corps has to be more careful rather than quickly move without considering particulars,” Hamilton said.

Before the crews break the houses apart and haul them away, canine search-and-recovery teams inspect the properties for signs of human remains. On Sunday, during a missing-person check on a home in the Lakeview section of the city, the body of a man in his 50s was discovered in an attic.

Taking memories and moving on
Back in the Lower Ninth Ward, Warren quietly watched the demolition.

“I’m not upset at all because I couldn’t pull it back over here and set it on my ground,” he said of his home of 43 years. “It’s got to be moved out of the way. So, I’m just proud in a way that they are doing it instead of asking me to do it.”

Warren said the house, which he built on his longshoreman’s wages in 1962, provided a stable full of memories that can’t be replaced, but that he had come to terms with the loss.

“The house had gone bye-bye,” he said, explaining why there were no tears in his eyes while looking at the bulldozers gnaw his home to pieces.

On Monday, Warren bid it adieu. And then moved on.