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New Orleans Agrees to Notifications Before Demolishing Ruined Buildings

By Adam Nossiter
THE NEW YORK TIMES


NEW ORLEANS

A federal judge on Tuesday approved a settlement in a lawsuit over the first demolitions of homes ruined by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, after city officials agreed to provide advance notice to homeowners.

The settlement means that the city could begin demolishing ruined houses — a deeply emotional and symbolic act here — within a few weeks.

A group of advocates for improved housing in damaged neighborhoods had filed suit against the city in December, demanding that homeowners be notified before any demolitions began. The group dropped its lawsuit with the city’s agreement to provide that notification, and on Tuesday Judge Martin L.C. Feldman of U.S. District Court signed an order dismissing it.

The standoff had become the first symbolic confrontation over the redevelopment push here, with officials moving to clear rubble from the most heavily damaged area — the Lower Ninth Ward — and community advocates resisting them, in the name of local residents. Houses, or remains of houses, were set to be bulldozed with no warning to the owners, the advocates charged; officials countered that they simply wanted to clear piles of debris that posed safety hazards.

A neighborhood demonstration, news conferences and a court challenge over the demolitions had filled the first weeks of the new year, initial salvos in what is shaping up as a contention-filled effort to transform this limping city. Advocates had engineered a confrontation with bulldozers earlier this month in an area where many homes are no more than piles of rubble, insisting that residents be given a chance to pick through them for their possessions.

The fight ended without fanfare, however, in what the judge said Tuesday was a compromise. For 123 of the most heavily damaged structures, almost all in the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans officials have agreed to give seven to 10 days notice before bulldozing. The city will publish an advertisement over three days in the New Orleans Times-Picayune listing the addresses of the affected properties, will post a warning on the its Web site and will try to contact the owners by mail.

The warning will specify that officials intend to “demolish or haul away” the structure or its remains. Owners have a right to challenge the demolitions during the seven- to 10-day window.

For 1,900 other houses less seriously damaged, but still considered in imminent danger of collapse, the city will give 30 days’ notice.

The fight was touched off late last year after a New Orleans official, Greg Meffert, told reporters 2,500 homes were to be demolished. Activists immediately sued, saying New Orleans had made no effort to contact anybody on the list. Officials, in turn, responded with various explanations, blaming the Federal Emergency Management Agency on the one hand for at first not providing lists of displaced residents, and saying on the other that some houses were so battered — particularly those near the levee break on the Industrial Canal — that it was impossible to determine their addresses.