New Orleans' Deconstruction Zone

Green Project workers salvage what they can from a severely damaged home in New Orleans.
Green Project workers salvage what they can from a severely damaged home in New Orleans. (By Daniel Weiner -- The Green Project)
By Martha McNeil Hamilton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 17, 2005

Bienville Ancar stood in the cold rain watching a crew pull his house apart by hand, hoping that the careful act of salvage would turn up remnants of the life he led before Hurricane Katrina.

If the house were bulldozed, "I wouldn't have no chance of retrieving nothing," Ancar said on the day the work began. "This gives me an opportunity to see if I can salvage anything."

The piece-by-piece dismantling of Ancar's flattened house in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans is the first step in a project designed to save as much as possible from homes destroyed by the historically ruinous hurricane and the collapse of the city's levees. The goals are to help keep reusable and recyclable materials out of landfills, to help save architectural details that make New Orleans beautiful, and to help families recover something of what was lost, said ReClaim New Orleans project program officer Preston Browning.

Its success will depend on whether it can build community and political support quickly for projects such as the one underway in Ancar's yard.

"I moved into that house after I was married," said Ancar, 53, a New Orleans native. "The business was always there."

The business is a small auto repair shop where Ancar has worked since he was 10 years old. He hopes he can reopen it once the house is cleared away. Ancar also was hoping that the deconstruction crew would uncover birth certificates, tax records, estimate books and the keys to all the cars parked on the lot.

Ancar and his family left before Katrina hit, fleeing to Baton Rouge, La. A hurricane-spawned tornado pancaked the house and left it leaning dangerously against his next-door neighbor's house. Ancar said he hopes to move a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer onto the lot and reopen the business.

"My spirit is kind of down, but I've been trying to keep my head up," said Ancar, who said he had dropped his insurance coverage about two years ago after the mortgage was paid off.

Reopening the business is a race against time, he said, because the zoning in the neighborhood has changed since his auto repair shop began life. "If it's closed six months, they take you off the records. I'd lose my business livelihood."

The ReClaim project is in a race against time, too, as bulldozers begin to be deployed across the city to make room for new construction and as looters pick through ruined houses for resalable materials. "People are coming into areas that are not occupied and literally taking windows and doors and mantelpieces out of houses they don't own and selling them to people who advertise that they will buy building materials," said Barbara A. Caldwell, director of New Orleans' Green Project, which is one of the partners in the ReClaim project, along with the nonprofit groups Mercy Corps and the ReBuilding Center, both based in Portland, Ore.

"These materials need to stay in this area for lots of reasons," Caldwell said. "We don't want the termites to be transferred to other parts of the country. There could be larvae in there." Formosan termites, which arrived in the United States in the mid-1960s, are voracious pests that swarm over New Orleans each spring, causing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage.

"Also, at the Green Project, we're firm believers in keeping our culture, and that includes our architectural culture," she said. "I don't want to see what happened in our community land up on someone's mantel in New York as a souvenir."

The Green Project started as a paint exchange in New Orleans in 1994. It grew from a grass-roots organization to a nonprofit building-materials sales center open six days a week. Homeowners who were renovating or cleaning out a house to be sold would donate drawer pulls and claw-foot, cast-iron bathtubs, and contractors would drop off leftover shingles or tile, which were resold.

Mercy Corps, a relief organization that responds to humanitarian crises, is providing $110,000 initial funding for the project. The ReBuilding Center in Portland, a reuse and deconstruction center that has been operating for more than seven years, helped pull it together and has provided staff members and training for the New Orleans effort.

"There's huge potential down there," said Shane Endicott, executive director and founder of the ReBuilding Center, which sent three staff members to New Orleans to help train others how to take apart a house. The project hopes to hire workers from the storm-hit areas and train them in skills they can transfer to the construction industry. "If you come in and bulldoze everything and grind it up and throw it in the landfill, you're throwing away tons and tons of opportunities to rebuild lives," he said. About 85 percent of most buildings can be salvaged by deconstruction, Endicott and others said.

Once the house comes down, the owner decides what to do with the materials -- whether to reuse them, sell them or donate them to a project such as the Green Project.

The ReClaim project has been scouting for individuals who will agree to a hands-on approach to having their houses demolished. The first several projects will be done at no cost to homeowners with the funding supplied by the Mercy Corps, according to Browning. At the same time, Browning and others have been talking to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about whether there are opportunities to work on a larger scale. Once major demolition contracts are let, the ReClaim project hopes to become a subcontractor, paid by the contractor. But it could be an uphill struggle in an area where the pressure is immense to clear the way for rebuilding quickly.

The slow deconstruction process -- it takes about five days -- isn't for everyone. Some homeowners are so depressed and eager to move on that they just want a bulldozer to come and be done with it.

But others, when they realize that something can be salvaged from the ruins of their former homes, take comfort in that, said the Green Project's Caldwell. "Just to know that their house might live on makes them feel better," she said. "We hadn't anticipated the psychological benefits. That's a little lagniappe to what we're doing."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company