The floodwaters are long gone from Dorothy Williams’ house, but there is one reminder of Hurricane Katrina she cannot seem to get rid of — the water-damaged car in front of her house.
“We got a bunch of people together Saturday night and were going to push it into the middle of the street and set it on fire,” the retiree said last week. “We figured the city would have to do something about it then.
“But it has four flats and the gears are stripped so we couldn’t move it.”
Nearly seven months after Katrina, the streets of New Orleans are still strewn with thousands of abandoned cars — many of them flooded-out, some stolen, some left by residents who have not returned since the Aug. 29 storm. There are seven such cars on Williams’ block alone.
“It starts off as an annoyance that you have these blighted vehicles sitting in front of your property taking up parking places,” said Nathan Shroyer, whose block is also littered with boats that were used for rescues. “But it’s more than an eyesore. People throw trash in them, pile trash on them. They’re just like blighted houses, they have the same kinds of problems.”
Vermin living in cars
Many of the vehicles have been plundered of everything of value, including the tires. Many are encrusted with the dried gray muck left over after the floodwater receded. Some have become havens for insects and rats.
Samantha Ferrigno finally got her fiance’s car towed from their driveway to the street, so her Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer could be installed in the driveway.
“We couldn’t get anyone to take it away, though, because they need proof we own it,” she said. “The registration was in the glove box, and there was 6 feet of water over the car, so that’s gone.”
Across the state, authorities are laboring to identify and find the owners — who may be in other states — and come up with places to store the towed vehicles.
“It’s a very complicated job,” said Lt. Allen Carpenter of the Louisiana State Police fraud unit. Before Katrina, “the largest vehicle removal ever was for 9-11, and that was only 2,800 cars. I’d say we have already identified and removed over 200,000 cars” statewide.
350,000 flooded vehicles
Statewide, an estimated 350,000 vehicles were flooded by Katrina and by Hurricane Rita, which hit Louisiana on Sept. 24. Carpenter said perhaps 50,000 to 100,000 have yet to be removed. In New Orleans itself, the figure is put at 20,000 to 25,000.
The state expects to have a contractor in place by April 1 to start hauling the vehicles away. The cars will be stored while the state attempts to contact the owners.
“Our goal is to have them all gone by June 1,” Carpenter said. He said full FEMA funding for the removal effort ends on that date, which also happens to be the first day of hurricane season. “We want to get them out of the way before the next storm comes.”
It can’t happen soon enough for Ecoee Rooney, a 38-year-old nurse trying to rebuild her flooded house.
“It’s almost like when we got the fridge out,” she said. “That was the first hurdle toward getting back to normal. It was such a relief. If we could get this car out of here, we’d have a party.”