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New Orleans residents race against housing deadline

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A UMNS photo by Linda Green

The Rev. Marva Mitchell talks to members of the National Black Staff Forum.
Aug. 9, 2006

By Linda Green*

NEW ORLEANS (UMNS) — Aug. 29 might be the first anniversary of the worst hurricane to hit this city and the Gulf Coast, but it is also D-Day for owners of flood-damaged homes to stop the city from possibly declaring eminent domain on their damaged property.

By that date, owners of those homes must clean, gut and board up their buildings under a controversial measure called the “Good Neighbor Plan.” The city has said the measure is aimed at defining what constitutes a public nuisance and educating property owners about their options and assistance available to them.

The Lower Ninth Ward — once home to about 20,000 of New Orleans’ citizens, mostly African American — sustained the brunt of the water damage. For the most part, the area looks the same as it did in the days following the levee break that brought high waters and destroyed homes and businesses.

The city’s measure, passed in April, gives owners of flood-damaged properties three options: to gut and board up their building; to renovate or rebuild; or to tear down, according to The Times-Picayune.

Nearly three dozen African-American staff representing United Methodist boards, agencies, commissions and conferences gathered July 20-22 in New Orleans under the auspices of the National Black Staff Forum for a “Rebuild Our Churches” summit. The staffers spent July 23-25 gutting out Brooks United Methodist Church in the Lower Ninth Ward and cleaning up the historic cemetery at Gulfside Assembly in Waveland, Miss.

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A UMNS photo by Linda Green

Nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina, homes in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward still bear the imprint of the catastrophe.

They heard from the Rev. Marva Mitchell, coordinator of the Louisiana Annual (regional) Conference’s storm recovery station in New Orleans, and others who have been working in the trenches since Aug. 29, 2005, when Katrina made landfall there.

Mitchell told the denominational staff members that if homeowners have not adhered to the measure’s ordinances by the Aug. 29 deadline, the city will declare the damaged property a public nuisance, take it over through eminent domain and demolish it.

Because of the demographics of the Lower Ninth Ward and the fact that residents remain scattered throughout the country, the city has made allowances for hardship cases and exempted some of the ward from the deadline, according to media reports.

“I serve the area that was hit the hardest,” Mitchell said. “What we are finding is in a number of cases, people in New Orleans inherit property by word of mouth, and we are running into a lot of people who have not filed succession with the city.”

She explained that those who come into the Uptown Recovery Station think they own the property where they reside, but on paper they don’t, while others have been renting the property from landlords. Recovery center staff rush to help people deal with city ordinances, rules and regulations around rebuilding their homes.

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A UMNS photo by Linda Green

Homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina still remain in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

“Many people are living in a home that is going to be demolished,” she said. “It is pretty hard to tell a person who has raised all of their children and possibly grandchildren in that house that it is going to be destroyed because it is a hazard.”

Struggling with day-to-day living in the aftermath of the hurricane, many people were unaware they must obtain permits before Aug. 29.

“In our work, priority is given to the elderly and the handicapped, but people are being hurt by this,” Mitchell said.

Volunteers and employees at the recovery center assist people in meeting the requirements for rebuilding permits, inform them of their options and the city’s ordinances and so on, but it is difficult work, according to Mitchell. Pastors, social workers and relief administrators are also storm victims dealing with their own circumstances as they help others.

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Deborah Bass
Deborah Bass of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, speaking for the staff members, said the team is determined to address legislative issues surrounding the enforcement of eminent domain and to take the issue from the local level to the federal level to ensure people are given adequate time to care for their property.

Mitchell, who herself has a damaged home, said the measure is unfair, but Calhoun Moultrie, a member of Brooks United Methodist Church and the former disadvantaged-business liaison officer for the New Orleans airport, has mixed feelings.

Calling the Ninth Ward a microcosm of the city, he noted that Katrina created “an opportunity for renewal. A lot of times, we resist change and growth.”

The aftermath of the storm has paved the way for renewal, development, levee protection and coastal protection, all which will make the region a better place to live, Moultrie said.

The difference in the Lower Ninth Ward, he pointed out, is that many residents were tenants who rented their properties from landlords. Because those landlords are either displaced, unable to return to care for those properties or are waiting to see what type of funds they can receive from the property, “there is not the movement there that you would like to see,” he said.

“There is a lot of governmental red tape,” including expropriation of property, he noted. “This sort of thing is going to happen when this type of shotgun approach is used,” he added, and “people that you did not want to hit are going to be hit.”

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Calhoun Moultrie
Moultrie acknowledged the city’s Aug. 29 measure is not a cure-all and said many people — because they are either unable or unwilling to care for themselves — will be severely impacted. But something must be done, he added.

Lower Ninth Ward residents are urging all faith traditions to assist them in the recovery efforts and to help them meet the deadline for gutting out homes.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief’s Katrina Aid Today initiative delivers services to Katrina survivors using federal funds that cannot be used for church recovery. More information about Katrina Aid Today or its partner grantees can be found at, the program’s Web site.

The United Methodist Council of Bishops has launched a churchwide appeal to help rebuild the churches lost to the storms. Information on the Katrina Church Recovery Appeal is available at

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or

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