March 16, 2006

Cars swamped by Katrina look set for final ride

By Jeffrey Jones

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - In southern Louisiana, thousands of
battered cars and trucks lie overturned, stuck in the mud,
lodged on fences or crushed under houses demolished by
Hurricane Katrina more than half a year ago.

But after months of wrangling and delay, the rotting
eyesores may finally be headed for the junkheap.

Louisiana is close to a $37 million contract to get rid of
abandoned and uninsured wrecks, which have become a fact of
life on post-Katrina roads, alongside gaping potholes, faulty
traffic lights and shuttered gas stations.

A question remains whether New Orleans will sign on to the
deal, expected to be finalized in the next week, or will go it
alone, John Rogers, an environmental scientist in charge of the
program at Louisiana's Department of Environmental Quality,
said on Thursday.

Under the agreement, a joint venture of bidders Tru-Source
and L&L Steel Buildings would haul up to 120,000 cars from
public property in hard-hit places like St. Bernard and
Plaquemines Parishes and store them in rural sites until
another deal is forged to dispose of them, Rogers said.

Another 30,000 could be dragged out of New Orleans if the
city opts in, but a spokeswoman for Mayor Ray Nagin, Tami
Frazier, said that had had yet to be decided.

Some estimates have placed the number of cars, vans and
trucks damaged by Katrina at 500,000.

In New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, battered Dodges and
Chevys litter the scarred streets or rot beneath houses torn
from their foundations when levees gave way.

In St. Bernard, Fords and Toyotas are stranded in front of
gutted homes, frozen in time with rings around them showing how
deep they were submerged after the storm hit on August 29.

Hundreds of waterlogged wrecks were towed and jammed under
blocks-long sections of elevated freeway north of the French
Quarter, where their windows were smashed and parts scavenged.


That is the scene that has greeted auto mechanic Jerry
Buchicchio each day since November, when he reopened his shop
beside the I-10 East overpass close to downtown New Orleans.

"If somebody needs something, they just go in there and
help themselves," he said. "With all the vast number of cars,
I'm sure they can't police it but it's still other people's

Aces Towing driver Jody Neil plucked a silver Buick, long
stripped of its wheels, from under the freeway. Markings on the
window show it wasn't just abandoned, despite its condition.

This one, like thousands of others, was written off by an
insurance firm and its former owner was paid out. Neil hauled
it away to a site outside town, where auction company Copart
Inc. will sell it for parts.

"It's just overwhelming -- so many cars," Neil said.

Swamped vehicles' serial numbers have been entered into a
National Insurance Crime Bureau database, set up to prevent
them from being fraudulently resold as having no flood damage.

Some Katrina cars have turned up at auctions as far away as
California, with swindlers trying to hide their recent past.

Antoinette K-Doe, whose gutted nightclub sits across from
one makeshift auto graveyard, takes the ugly sight in stride.

"We have other problems. Those cars to me aren't hurting
anybody," she said inside Ernie K-Doe's Mother-In-Law Lounge,
named for her late husband, an R&B singer. "It's an eyesore but
we've got enough eyesores inside our own houses."