City spurned offer of cash for cars
Abandoned vehicles can be hauled away
Sunday, March 19, 2006
By James Varney Staff writer
Katrina turned New Orleans into an auto junkyard and the flooded cars are still everywhere, mementos of the storm and of the city's continuing failure to clean itself up. Advertisement
Almost seven months after Hurricane Katrina, the Nagin administration still dickers over details of a contract that would gradually rid the cityscape of these vehicular eyesores -- at a cost of $23 million over another six months.
Which makes it of more than passing interest to discover that the largest car crusher east of the Rockies, K&L Auto Crushers of Tyler, Texas, offered in October to do the job in 15 weeks and actually pay the city for the privilege of hauling the junk away. How much? How about $100 per flooded car. With an estimated 50,000 vehicles on the street at that time, the city would have netted $5 million, rather than shelling out four times that sum, as it plans to do now.
K&L's Dan Simpson said he first made his pitch five weeks after Katrina, on a piece of paper that he slipped to Mayor Ray Nagin at one of his boisterous post-flood town hall meetings. Simpson said he'd bring in between five and 10 mobile crushers. Working them six days a week at scattered sites around the city, K&L offered to crumple and haul the vehicles and handle the "remediation," or environmental disposal of gasoline, oil and other hazardous wastes and do all the paperwork.
The city held back, apparently concerned it didn't have the legal right to remove the abandoned cars, he said.
Law allows for removal
But the law is on the city's side, according to lawyer and Tulane Law professor Vernon Palmer. Palmer cites city ordinance 66-101, a measure enacted during the Moon Landrieu administration to cope with a glut of abandoned cars that had accumulated over several years.
"They were talking about 2,000 or 3,000 cars, and that was considered a crisis," he noted dryly.
The ordinance is still on the books, and it states that "junked, abandoned, and wrecked vehicles," can be crushed and dismantled and sold for scrap 15 days after a certified letter is sent to its last known owner, Palmer said. History shows the law, which essentially turns the junkers into potential cash and leaves the solution to market forces, worked.
"It's not a very complicated way to deal with this," Palmer said. "Once operators knew they could get the scrap value of the cars, that quickly got the job done and they disappeared pretty fast. It seems to me that if you had a contractor operating within the guidelines of the ordinance it could be done."
"You could clear this all up right away if the mayor or the governor would simply issue an executive order saying get rid of them," Simpson said. "The small independent tow guys know where the cars are and they'd go out and get them."
Environmental permits would have to be obtained and the skein of paperwork attached to cars could take time to unwind, but those considerations apply just as forcibly, whether the city is collecting money for the scrap metal or paying millions to have someone haul it away. "We'd clean up after ourselves and move on," Simpson said. "They could have someone from the Environmental Protection Agency sitting right there watching the whole operation if they wanted."
K&L isn't the only outfit offering the service. "We've had lots of crushers call up and say, 'Hey, we want to take care of your problem,' and I say, 'Well, I appreciate that,' " said Lt. Alan Carpenter, who heads the State Police's auto insurance fraud division.
Crushing still an option
Simpson said the outline of the K&L proposal still stands, although adjustments would be in order, in part because the price of scrap metal has fallen from about $160 to $120 per ton. Meanwhile, the number of junkers on city streets also has fallen, to somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000, as insurance companies remove cars they've totaled out. In addition, K&L would no longer use portable crushers, Simpson said, but would require that the cars be brought to specific staging areas, as is contemplated in the contract still being negotiated by the city.
Nonetheless, the bottom line still looks like a million dollar profit compared to a $23 million payout.
The elapsed time since the storm may also work in the crush-plan's favor. Most of the cars left in the city are most likely uninsured or only carried liability policies. That presumably makes them less valuable and their owners less likely to oppose destruction of the vehicles.
"What the hell have people been doing for six months?" Simpson asked. "There are people who take an interest in their property and they have taken care of this already. If you've abandoned your car and left it sitting there for six months, why would you suddenly want it tomorrow? Because somebody else did all your work for you?"
Executive order needed
One way the work could be done would be through executive orders, issued either by Nagin or Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Simpson said he asked Blanco's staff to make such a move soon after Katrina, and Carpenter said the State Police urged Nagin to do the same. But in the first months after Katrina, when politicians were taking heat for government's response and issues of private property and possessions were badly tangled, no one was willing to cut through the red tape.
Nagin's press office, most of whom had traveled with him to Atlanta this weekend, did not respond to an e-mail asking about Simpson and his plan.
Denise Bottcher, Blanco's spokeswoman, said she was unaware of any earlier discussions between Simpson and the governor's staff.
While various players in the scrap metal industry have expressed interest in Louisiana's post-Katrina possibilities, Bottcher said she has not been privy to any recent discussions about transforming flood-ruined cars into moneymakers.
"Everybody was really sensitive at the time," Carpenter recalled. "But now it seems a little long-winded to me. These contracts need to be issued and these cars have to be removed, and if people just moved forward on this it could be done in weeks rather than months, I believe."
. . . . . . .
James Varney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3386.