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Landlords grapple with mess tenants aren't there to handle

NEW ORLEANS—Hurricane Katrina taught a clear lesson to people now emptying out homes on Robert Street, near downtown: "Every day should be a special occasion from now on," said homeowner Steven Byrd. "Have dinner at the table and use the good china. If you're blessed to have it, use it."

Byrd is learning that lesson from a rental home he owns here, where unused treasures sat in boxes or tucked in closets. The tenants returned once after the storms, but left overwhelmed by the sodden house. Every weekend, Byrd drives four hours from his temporary home in Natchez, La., to discard soggy cake mix and waterlogged pillows and protect whatever photos he finds.

"I would hate for somebody to throw my memories away," he said.

Landlords across southeastern Louisiana are clearing out their tenant's homes, after Gov. Kathleen Blanco lifted a ban on evictions on Oct. 25. Court dockets were flooded with eviction hearings for some of the estimated 8,000 to 10,000 absent tenants.

After an eviction notice is posted, tenants have 24 hours to remove their belongings. While some tenants' rights groups have called the process unfair to those with no means of returning home, the benefits to landlords can be great. Few apartments and thousands seeking shelter mean higher rents.

Some tenants contested evictions, while others gathered their belongings and left. Many left the messes and memories for their landlords to clean and discard.

"The landlord is not able to work around destroyed belongings or ones that have value, and I'm placed in a difficult position to decide whether they can move them out," said Jefferson Parish Justice of the Peace Steve Mortillaro, who saw about 300 cases per day last week. "I'm drained. Leaving home, putting on my pants and shoes in the morning, and knowing where I'm going, it's depressing."

Many rentals are unlivable and stagnant, requiring major repair. Legally they were inaccessible until the eviction was processed. Other tenants were evicted for nonpayment, a sticky issue in a time of lost mail, hard-to-find evacuees and limits on who was allowed into the city in September.

Curbs are filling slowly with ruined shards of what life was, what was special and what was left behind: green Christmas garland, Trivial Pursuit questions, yearbooks, Mardi Gras beads, Caldesene baby powder, baseball trophies, red high heels still in boxes, stacks of mattresses, trumpet mutes, diplomas with signatures washed away.

"We were thinking about storing it, but we can't do that forever when people call begging for apartments," said Metairie landlord Wanda Spahn, who faces an apartment filled with baby clothes and toys and a tenant she can't reach. "Everybody just grabbed stuff for a couple days. She probably never realized she wouldn't come back."

Byrd said he couldn't evict the tenants in the Robert Street house, in the city's Broadmoor neighborhood. The cold-hearted legality of the process went against his training as a social worker, he said.

Instead he promised to clean and salvage what he could. If the insurance comes through, he'll renovate.

He's the one who opens closets that release brown water around his feet and sweeps glass off muddy pine floors, not those who lived there. He pauses on the porch to watch debris collectors scoop up stuffed animals, frying pans and textbooks that were never his.

He shakes his head for the candles used at his tenants' "beautiful" wedding he attended last April and the his-and-hers mugs that never touched the couple's lips. He hates to discard the books, huge stacks of out-of-print volumes that should have been passed on to the 2-year-old boy living there.

But he had to start somewhere, he said. Even the cleaning doesn't change the vinegar smell and black walls.

"It's still like moving a mountain," he said, picking cereal bowls off the kitchen counter. "You can't even imagine water could fill up this huge volume of area, up to people's rooftops. Then the problems grow, just like the mold."

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(Gumbrecht reports for The Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): STORMS-EVICTIONS

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