NEW ORLEANS -- The five-alarm fire in Treme last October was as costly as it was spectacular. Three historic houses incinerated. Six families displaced. And the hard work of carpenter Christopher Meehan, up in flames.
"My neighbor called me and told me my house was on fire. And I had this terrible feeling. God, I knew it," Meehan recalled.
Meehan had just started renovations after buying a 150-year-old piece of New Orleans history around the corner from his home when he watched his investment go up in flames. Firefighters determined that Meehan’s two-story showcase of Greek revival architecture was at the epicenter of blaze.
As soon as he saw the destruction, Meehan knew he had been the target. As a series of police reports reveal, Meehan and several neighbors had been in an ongoing battle with drug dealers encroaching on their previously peaceful slice of Treme.
We talked to two other residents who said they called police multiple times about drug-dealing and retaliatory vandalism, but both were afraid to be quoted by name. One longtime resident, an elderly woman, said she was forced to move to another part of the city out of fear.
Meehan decided to keep fighting. But the criminal element kept fighting back. He thumbed through a list of the times he has called police after being victimized.
"My car tires had been cut twice. Someone had jumped the fence onto my property and busted out the window of my car and cut the tires. Which terrified me, because my girlfriend was at the house. It was one step from home invasion. Stuff was happening."
Then came the fire, just as Meehan was lining up insurance.
"I realized that something bad was going to happen,” he said. “Go protect everything. So I went and asked for an insurance quote."
Not enough evidence for arson case
Then-New Orleans Fire Superintendent Charles Parent was at the scene, the 1400 block of North Robertson Street, as an arson investigation was launched.
"Our investigator (is) getting background information from witnesses, talking to people in the neighborhood, to see exactly what they saw," Parent said as the charred buildings smoldered behind him.
But, in the end, witnesses did not see enough to help build an arson case. And any tell-tale physical evidence was consumed in the fire. So even though the department’s investigation pointed to arson, the damage was too devastating, too complete, to make a clear determination.
The final incident report spelled it out.
“Since there were no utilities operating, no recent work being done on the premises, and therefore no viable heat source of ignition present, the only remaining cause which could not be eliminated was the possibility of human intervention,” the report stated. “But it couldn’t be determined if the fire was intentional or accidental.”
The classification was critical to Meehan, who needed a clear determination of arson in order to qualify for the state’s Crime Victims’ Reparations Fund. Instead, he was left with nothing.
"They can say whatever they want. A house doesn't just set itself on fire," Meehan said.
The embers were still hot when Meehan felt like he was victimized yet again, this time by the city bureaucracy.
The day after the fire, the city removed the debris, not allowing Meehan the chance to salvage any material or remove the rubble on his own.
After researching the demolition, city spokesman Tyler Gamble said the debris had to be removed because it posed “an extreme hazard to residents in the surrounding area.”
Furthermore, Gamble said, there was nothing left for Meehan to salvage because the fire damage was so devastating.
"Do I want to stay in New Orleans anymore? I don't know."
Meehan said he was still coming to grips with the loss when, two months ago, he was hit again. And hit hard. The city sent him a demolition bill on May 22 for $13,652.54.
"At least you could have given me the opportunity to try and hire my own contractor, salvage out something, and at least not be hit by a $13,000-plus bill," Meehan said.
Now, the carpenter who weathered Hurricane Katrina and did his part to rebuild a broken city, is wondering whether to stick it out in Treme, his adopted home for the past 20 years. Or simply leave New Orleans behind.
"Do I want to stay in New Orleans anymore? I don't know. It's depressing at times," Meehan said. ” After losing everything in Katrina, starting all over again, then to start all over yet again. I don’t know."
But even though weeds and trash fill almost the entire stretch of North Robertson where the fire broke out, there has been progress in beating back the criminal element.
The New Orleans Police Department said it has responded to residents' complaints with a number of narcotics operations, including surveillance, undercover buy-busts and multiple search warrants.
So far, the aggressive police efforts have netted 27 narcotics arrests and five weapons seizures in the area, according to NOPD spokesman Remi Braden.
“First District Police continue to conduct multiple hours of surveillance of this neighborhood,” Braden said. “They have met with residents for their input and have made more than two dozen recent arrests for illegal drug dealing and illegal weapons in this area. Officers will continue to work with residents and appreciate their assistance in identifying criminal suspects.”