Posted: Dec 29, 2010 7:25 PM by Alison Haynes
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The abandoned New Orleans warehouse where eight homeless squatters died in a fire was on a list of properties slated for demolition, a city official said Wednesday.
Jeff Hebert, the city's director of blight policy, said the city had tried since 2007 to get the property owner to fix and secure the warehouse. Property records identified the owner as Alfred J. Schorling. Efforts to reach him weren't immediately successful.
"It is in our pipeline to be demolished, but this was not a property that came up immediately on the list to be torn down," Hebert said. "In this area, we know that there are a lot of properties that are in similar shape as this one. It's a part of our targeted sweeps of neighborhoods across the city."
Mayor Mitch Landrieu said he hopes "strong enforcement" of city codes will compel property owners to comply with orders to fix blighted structures.
"There is tremendous personal responsibility that owners of blighted properties have, and strong enforcement hopefully will get them to comply," he said.
Landrieu, who took office in May, launched a more aggressive code enforcement effort in November and included in his budget plans for 2011 a $3.9 million blight program with goals including 1,000 demolitions next year.
City government estimates that there are 50,000 to 60,000 blighted or vacant properties in New Orleans. An existing blight problem was made much worse in 2005 when 80 percent of the city flooded during Hurricane Katrina.
Investigators were still trying to confirm identities of the victims of Tuesday's fire, but agencies that deal with the homeless, along with acquaintances of those who died, said they were young musicians and artists, some in their teens. They were using the building to keep warm. Authorities said they had been burning debris to keep warm.
At the scene of the fire Wednesday, a young woman was searching through debris for any of her belongings that might have survived the blaze. She said she had left the warehouse Monday only to find it in flames when she returned.
"All I did was leave and come back and now I'm the only one
who's alive," the woman said, her voice shaking. She refused to give her name or allow her face to be photographed.
She was looking for a favorite belt buckle without success, but found a pair of scissors she said she used to make dolls. She said she believed some who had visited the site after the fire may have taken some of her things.
Another itinerant friend of the victims, Rachel Park, 27, of California, said they never thought of themselves as homeless and rejected the "gutter punk" label used by some locals to describe transient youths, who are often seen begging for money or cigarettes on French Quarter Streets.
"They were all accomplished musicians or artists - jolly, happy people," Park said.
Capt. Edwin Holmes said it was among the deadliest fires in the modern history of the New Orleans Fire Department, and the worst since 32 died in a fire at a French Quarter lounge in 1973.