New Orleans starts to raze homes

March 07, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW ORLEANS --Shortly after noon yesterday, in the ruined moonscape of the Lower 9th Ward, a track excavator's giant teeth bit into the top of a broken, displaced house, and the long process of clearing the city's most devastated area finally began.

It was a moment of fearful anticipation for New Orleans, the first demolitions of flooded homes in the six months since Hurricane Katrina. Three were razed yesterday in a process that was long delayed by legal challenges, physical obstacles, and the difficulty in getting money to search for bodies that almost certainly remain in some of the houses.

Army Corps of Engineers officials estimate that 12.5 million cubic yards of debris from demolished houses will have been removed in Orleans Parish alone when the process ends, roughly a year from now, representing up to 25,000 houses. About 120 houses, nearly all in the Lower 9th Ward, are set for immediate demolition.

Yesterday's work was a tiny step - barely 200 cubic feet of house. Yet when the crunching and biting began - mouthfuls of rafters deliberately chewed, walls methodically crushed - it was like a wrenching echo of the distant storm. The owner of the house, Herbert Warren Jr., a retired longshoreman, tried to remain stoic as the home he had lived in for 44 years was carted away.

There was no one to protest this first demolition among the thousands expected, in what has become the emblematic core of the city's destruction. The destructive force of Katrina is as vivid and mud-drenched on these blocks of squashed "pancake houses" as it was six months ago, seeming to dwarf what government contractors could do.

Before the work began, dogs sniffed around the edges, the result of a renewed, federally funded search for bodies that coincided with the demolitions. Dr. Louis Cataldie, the state emergency medical director, declined to speculate on how many bodies are likely to be found as the demolitions proceed, but said that some of the 400 to 500 people still missing are probably dead.

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