Herbert Warren Jr. watched as an excavator scooped out the innards of the small wood-frame home he bought in 1962 and where he raised eight children.

The home, swept off its foundation by Hurricane Katrina, was demolished Monday as New Orleans began the slow and emotional job of tearing down houses that last year's hurricanes wrecked beyond repair.

"The thing is, we thought we had it made, and then this!" said the 77-year-old retired longshoreman, who evacuated with his wife to Houston. With no plans to rebuild on the land where he lived for much of his adult life, Warren said he was uncertain about his future.

The demolition is a key step in the cleanup process that could also lead to the discovery of more bodies. Dogs trained to find bodies will search the sites as houses are disassembled. The official count of deaths directly related to Katrina in Louisiana is 1,080.

On Monday, three homes were torn down — the first of 118 planned — in three of the worst-hit neighborhoods, where flooding lifted buildings off their foundations and blocked streets.

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.