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June 28th, 2006 Ian Demsky | News Stories
 

Deconstructing For Fema Dollars

New Orleans gets a lesson from Portland on greening its Katrina cleaning.

     
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The ReBuilding Center's Mike Pagliarulo demonstrates deconstruction techniques in New Orleans.
Most Portlanders consider it a mortal sin to throw away so much as a soft-drink can, and to ask for paper and plastic requires millennia of karmic recompense.

But why confine such a "green" gospel to Portland when a piece of it can help post-Katrina New Orleans clean up in an environmentally sound way?

Rick Denhart, a deconstruction manager for the ReBuilding Center on North Mississippi Avenue in Portland, returned from a trip to the Gulf Coast last week where he and two other staffers helped train contractors how to take a condemned home apart by hand rather than with a bulldozer. Proponents of the technique, for which the North Portland nonprofit is well known, hope it may one day be offered on a larger scale in future disaster-relief efforts.

"We take a home apart piece by piece in the reverse order it was built," Denhart says.

Deconstructing homes by hand may take longer, but the environmental benefits are many, Denhart says.

About half of the building materials can be kept out of landfills, with those materials then being resold for much less than what they cost new.

Metal components can be separated out and recycled. And, in the case of New Orleans, the slow and steady pace of deconstruction instead of demolition also allows personal items to be returned to their owners and historic architectural details to be preserved.

"You have time to notice a photograph on the wall or an old china tea cup," Denhart says.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency agreed for the first time last month to allow government funds to be used for deconstruction of historic homes that have been "red-tagged" for destruction from Hurricane Katrina storm damage. Before that FEMA declaration, the only option was demolition.

Between 60 and 140 historic homes in the Big Easy are considered beyond repair and could be eligible for deconstruction, says Susan Laarman, spokeswoman for Mercy Corps, a Portland-based charity that helps with reconstruction, usually in other countries, following wars and natural disasters.

Preston Browning, program manager for Mercy Corps' reclamation work in New Orleans, says deconstruction also helps create new jobs—four or five jobs per project.

"I see it as a job-skills training program," he says. "In six months or a year, the workers are ready for an entry-level job in the trade....There's a huge need for people with building trade skills down here."

Denhart adds that deconstructing a home isn't as cheap as bulldozing it. But he says the costs are close when you figure in a tax break that homeowners get for the reclaimed materials they donate to nonprofits, which then resell them.

 
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