NEW ORLEANS – The city agreed Friday to wait two more weeks before beginning the wholesale demolition of thousands of storm-damaged homes while a federal judge decides whether to hear a challenge from community activists.
However, the city reserved the right in the meantime to clear away perhaps 100 smashed homes that were pushed by the floodwaters into the streets.
The city says as many as 5,500 homes and businesses on the east bank of the Mississippi River may need to be razed because hurricane damage has made them unsafe. Mayor Ray Nagin has asserted that the city can demolish homes without the owners' consent if they pose an imminent danger to the public.
But community activists filed a lawsuit last month, disputing the city has such authority.
Opponents of the demolition also worry that some residents have not had an opportunity to gather their belongings from their damaged homes, and that the demolitions would destroy black neighborhoods, marking the beginning of efforts to push out the city's black population.
A federal judge will hold a hearing Jan. 19 on the city's request to move the case from state court to federal court. If the judge agrees to take the case, he will then decide whether to let the demolitions go forward.
The delay was the second agreed to by the city since the lawsuit was filed.
"The people of New Orleans deserve to know what's going on and they deserve to know their homes will be protected while the court figures this out," said plaintiffs' lawyer Bill Quigley, a Loyola University School of Law professor.
Franz Zibilich, an attorney for the city, denied any ill intent by the city. "The city's intention is not to destroy property, believe me," he said.
Katrina's storm surge ripped giant sections of the five-mile concrete Interstate 10 bridge and tossed some pieces into the lake. Other sections shifted by as much as 5 feet.
Nagin's administration was blasted Thursday by City Council members who said it would be unconstitutional and un-American to demolish homes without owner consent.
"The last time I checked, this is still America," said City Council President Oliver Thomas. He threatened to stand in front of any bulldozers that tried to crush homes in the Ninth Ward, warning: "You got to be a bad dude if you're going to bulldoze me."