MERAUX, La. – Workers on Wednesday began tearing down thousands of condemned homes in St. Bernard Parish, a blue-collar territory adjacent to New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina spared only a few structures.
The first homes to be broken into pieces and tossed into dump trucks were in the Lexington Place subdivision in Meraux, a neighborhood that once contained brick and frame homes, green lawns, barbecue pits and quiet streets.
In the subdivision, which was flooded by 10 feet of water or more, homes sit empty, their windows smashed and holes gaping in their sides. Few people navigate the streets and only a handful of residents have returned to live in government travel trailers parked outside their houses.
The demolitions are being carried out by the parish government, using federal funds. Owners of condemned homes who want to take advantage of the government-funded demolition have until May 31.
Crews demolished one home that was pushed into the middle of a street. Most of the owners' possessions were still in the home and were trucked away to the landfill along with brick, mortar and beams.
"We're in the 3100 block. His address was in the 3500 block," said Mike Pritchard, a contractor monitoring the demolitions.
Charlie Reppel, a special assistant to the parish president, said he believes about 8,000 homes will be demolished, although that number could rise. There are about 26,000 homes in the parish, which ranges over 465 square miles of wetlands, pastures and swamp land southeast of New Orleans. Before Katrina, the parish had a population of about 67,000 and about 20,000 people have returned.
Despite the devastation, Peter Guarino said he wants to rebuild his home, which did not suffer structural damage. With a government loan and insurance money, he said he'd manage.
"As bad as it looks, it's just home," he said.
On each side of him, however, Guarino's neighbors want their homes demolished, and they will be among those that crews tear down in the coming weeks. So far, about 2,900 owners have asked the parish to destroy their homes.
Reppel said the demolition work may take until the end of the year, or perhaps longer, to finish. He said the demolitions mark a turning point in the road to recovery.
"We're starting on our way back."