NEW ORLEANS -- As crews begin inspecting thousands of rotting houses and preservationists begin efforts to save them, city and federal officials say that 30,000 to 50,000 of the city's houses will probably have to be demolished.
That number, though smaller than in some earlier predictions, nonetheless represents up to a quarter of the city's housing stock. A few weeks from now, when giant track excavators begin tearing into homes that once sheltered families and nest eggs, the city will experience one of the most painful moments of its ordeal. "Really, the whole scope of this thing is hard to get your mind around," said Allen Morse, who will be in charge of the demolition effort for the Army Corps of Engineers. "It's going to be a huge task."
Already bright red-orange stickers blaring "unsafe" have begun to proliferate on houses, signaling what is becoming a passionate debate over demolition.
Of the city's 180,000 houses, 110,000 were flooded, city officials say, and half of those sat for days or weeks in more than 6 feet of water. If as many as 50,000 homes are beyond salvaging, many of the others could be saved with expensive repair jobs, but large numbers of homeowners might not have the resources to rebuild. As a result, the number of demolitions could soar beyond 50,000.
The Corps of Engineers is being careful not to make predictions about the scope of the job. "The word demolition is not even being discussed around here," said Kelley Aasen, the corps official in charge of the mammoth task of inspecting every house in New Orleans for obvious structural damage. "It's triage, right now."
Yet as building inspectors fan out around the city, taking the first steps in deciding the fate of the 110,000 homes, a picture is beginning to emerge on the Corps of Engineers map: Red dots are sprouting in the Lower Ninth Ward, and the area below Lake Pontchartrain is a field of yellow, meaning structural damage is suspected. Houses marked with either color face a tenuous future.
By midweek, about 30,000 inspections had been completed, with 7,000 houses tagged yellow and 700 red, corps officials said. Most of the hardest-hit areas have not yet been inspected.
City officials say it will probably not be necessary to destroy entire neighborhoods, speaking instead of city blocks. There had been earlier discussion of ending the city's preservation-review process and allowing bulldozers to plow through some of the most historically significant neighborhoods in New Orleans. That idea aroused consternation. But those fears ended when city officials promised that historic houses would get special consideration and that deluged neighborhoods such as the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East would not be wiped out.
"There's a recognition that the New Orleans housing stock is really pretty sturdy, and there should not be the necessity for wholesale demolition once thought," said Camille Strachan, a trustee emeritus of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a New Orleans lawyer. "I think that as the hysteria subsides along with the water, there will be a lot more rational decisions made."
But questions remain about a process that is certain to change the face of this city for good. No one is certain when the demolitions will begin in earnest, what will happen to houses without flood insurance or whether homeowners, facing the demolition squad, will resist en masse.
In practice, it will be very difficult for many homeowners to save their flooded houses. About half of them did not have flood insurance, meaning they must foot the entire cost of restoration themselves - a crushing burden in a city where nearly a quarter of the residents were below the poverty level.
Federal flood insurance guidelines will also require that thousands of damaged homes in floodplains be elevated by a foot or more, a fearsomely expensive proposition for which there is limited federal assistance.
Homeowners will be given the final say on whether their houses will be torn down, but they will have a limited time to decide whether to renovate or demolish. After that, the city can order an unsafe house to come down.
"At some point, we have to have a cutoff," said Michael Centineo, director of the city Department of Safety and Permits, "when it becomes a public nuisance; when it becomes a blight."