EDITOR'S NOTE: Maggie Lineback is producing this New Orleans update, while Kris Gutierrez reports; stay tuned to FNC for updates on this demolition story and information on the predicted hurricane.
NEW ORLEANS, La. — When friends ask what New Orleans is like now, I tell them it's fine. If you stayed in the French Quarter and parts of downtown, you might never know anything happened.
Restaurants and bars are open and buzzing. Hotels have good business. The streets have activity, but aren't jammed. But, if you travel 10 or 15 minutes out to the Lower Ninth Ward and it's a different story. The impact of Katrina is clearly evident. Many homes and buildings still carry the graffiti of the hurricane; spray-painted "X"s mark that a building has been searched by rescuers. A gas station where we've stopped — one of the few business that's open in the area — has blue tape on the wall marking where the water level was. There are flooding photos above the tape. It's hard to fathom that the place where I'm buying a Coke was under water almost two years ago.
We are doing live shots in an area where the Army Corps of Engineers is taking down houses. Homeowners can petition the city for demolition. There are also homes the city says are too hazardous to remain standing. There may be mold or a house off its foundation. The Corps tell me that in order to be eligible for demolition, a house must be 70 percent damaged. Then, the home is evaluated to see what hazards there are and what mitigating factors there might be. So far, the Corps says there are about 15,000 homes in Orleans Parish that can be demolished, and about 3000 already have been.
The photographer I'm working with says this neighborhood used to be full of houses, one after the other — it's a switch to look at it now. Many homes have already been leveled; just a concrete slab remains, or maybe a set of front steps leading nowhere. There are vast tracks of overgrown land dotted with crumbling houses. There is an occasional home that's been rebuilt or is being rebuilt.
I'll tell you what it reminds me of — the ghost towns out West, where entire communities just up and left. There's still stuff from the dilapidated houses — mostly trash. But, I also spotted a Virgin Mary statue outside one home, and the crew found a basketball, which they soon put to good use between our live shots. I look at the abandoned houses and wonder who might have lived there … and where are they now? Mayor Ray Nagin, in his State of the City speech, said that about 62 percent of the pre-Katrina population is back in New Orleans. They are obviously not here in the Ninth Ward.
One man I talked with said the thing that people living outside New Orleans can't grasp, is how truly vast the damage was. “It's not like when your house burns down and you can go stay with a friend or relative. Because your sister's house has damage. Your neighbor’s house has damage. Everyone's house has had some kind of damage,” he said.
As for the damaged home in front of us, it will take the Corps only a couple hours to demolish it, and then they will move on to the next one. For many residents, it's like they are clearing a path to the future. For others, they are ripping up memories, board by board, brick by brick.
Maggie Lineback is a FOX News Channel producer.