Thursday, June 15, 2006

3000 Homes To Be Condemned

3,000 properties in Hancock County may have to be CONDEMNED
Owners have walked away without signing right of entry

HANCOCK COUNTY - Some are tucked away along bayous and back roads in this sprawling county. Others are more obvious, scattered and squashed beside main streets and avenues.
Thousands of property owners here have essentially walked away from their Katrina-clobbered homes, leaving the government to sort through the mess.

John Martin, a debris specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said more than 3,000 properties in Hancock County have been left untouched, and legally, the corps and FEMA are handcuffed when it comes to cleaning them.

Because the property owners have not yet signed the corps' "right of entry" form, government debris haulers do not have legal permission to enter and clean the private properties.

With the federal debris deadline looming, FEMA and the corps have sent maps to local officials asking to have each of the 3,000 properties condemned. This would allow government bulldozers to scrape them clean before it's too late.

Barring a last-minute extension, federal contractors will pull out after the June 30 deadline, and the county and cities will have to figure a way to remove what's left of the refuse on their own.
Before cleaning private property, state law requires local governments to petition residents within 300 feet of the property, and give two-weeks' notice for a public hearing to determine whether the land is "a menace to the public health and safety of the community."

Legally cleaning one piece of private property is a tedious task, but 3,000 in less than 60 days might just be impossible.

"Just on this one map alone, there must be 1,000 different parcels in one area," county attorney Ronnie Artigues said, pointing to one of several debris maps. "We can't just condemn the entire county."

Instead, Artigues suggested starting with "obvious debris fields," areas such as Cedar Point in Bay St. Louis, south of the CSX railroad in Waveland and along the Jourdan River, where rubble is sprinkled for blocks and debris still dangles from trees.

The maps that were given to local governments show only "high debris areas," not exact locations of properties that are unclean and still lack a signed right of entry form.

Supervisor Steve Seymour said he wants building inspectors to drive down every street and back road of the nearly 450-square-mile county, making a list of the destroyed properties.
Mickey Lagasse, the county's building official, agreed to send out six inspectors this week, or as soon as the county, the cities, FEMA and the corps agree on a clear definition of the word "destroyed."

"We can start tomorrow, but first we need to know exactly what destroyed means," he said.
During a meeting this week, officials from the corps, FEMA, and the county all seemed to have different ideas of what a destroyed property looks like.

Some said if a roof is lying on a pile of bricks and splintered wood, the house is destroyed. Others said a missing roof and a toppled wall could also be features that qualify a house as destroyed.
FEMA has used a 50 percent destruction standard to determine whether a house is salvageable. Under the rule, if FEMA inspectors believe it will cost more than 50 percent of a home's worth to restore it, the home is consider destroyed.

But, with the rising costs of building materials, some local leaders say many older homes in the county's low-income areas could have been considered destroyed even before the Aug. 29 storm.

In an effort to seek clarity, FEMA has offered to send six of its inspectors to ride along with county inspectors starting this week to pinpoint destroyed and neglected properties, and begin condemning each one, separately.


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