Thieves targeting homes under construction
By Michelle Hunter East Jefferson bureau
William Borrouso left the comforts of his daughter's Madisonville home to move back into the second floor of his flood-ruined Edinburgh Street house in Metairie after someone pried open a door there and stole a washer and a dryer worth $2,000 in February. The house, which was under renovation, had just two plugs for electricity and no hot water.
Despite the inconvenience, Borrouso said he was adamant about returning.
"It's was like we were camping," he said. "But I couldn't afford to get anything else stolen out of my house."
Borrouso's was one of four Metairie homes burglarized on Feb. 16 by thieves who pried open doors and made off with more than $3,500 worth of big ticket items like dishwashers, stoves and washers and dryers, according to reports from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office. Three of the homes were less than one mile from one another. but it's not known if the crimes were connected.
The Sheriff's Office has fielded several reports of thieves stealing construction supplies, fixtures, appliances and even front-end loaders from homes under renovation after Hurricane Katrina. And there have been numerous complaints from residents who say they've had personal property and valuables stolen from their homes while a parade of strangers come and go to repair their storm-ravaged houses.
On March 4, deputies took a report from a Metairie man and his contractor who caught an employee trying to steal $700 worth of bathroom and kitchen faucets from his house on Veterans Memorial Boulevard. The same day, another Metairie man reported that someone had stolen three hand-cut lead glass doors worth more than $5,000 from his Clearview Parkway house while it was under construction.
And on March 22, a woman said someone broke into her uninhabitable Labarre Road home and stole $1,200 worth of light fixtures and ceiling; more than $8,000 worth of electronics and tried unsuccessfully to take her stainless steel refrigerator.
"It's basically a crime of opportunity," Sheriff Harry Lee said.
These types of burglaries and thefts are difficult to track because the Sheriff's Office does not keep specific statistics for them. Overall, burglaries in unincorporated Jefferson Parish are down since Katrina.
But Toni Wendel, president of the Home Builders Association of Greater New Orleans, said this kind of thing - especially the thefts of tools, construction supplies and appliances - is definitely more prevalent since the storm.
Wendel said she has had two break-ins at a house in Uptown New Orleans that she is renovating. Thieves took doors, cabinets, lumber and a ladder.
"There're no appliances in it because I'm afraid to put them in. I haven't set the compressors (for the air conditioning system) because they'll steal those, too," she said.
Katrina's wrath provided criminals a massive supply of construction-related goods to steal as well as vast black market of buyers willing to ignore the origins of questionable merchandise, according to Wendel.
"But if a reputable individual buys a $1,000 saw for just $50, they're just as much a criminal as the person who stole it," she said.
Fighting these types of burglaries are difficult, according to Sheriff's Office officials. Most residents can't always be home to supervise renovations, Chief Deputy Newell Normand said. Because of the demand for workers, contractors are forced to hire laborers and subcontractors they don't know. And removing valuables as a protective measure is difficult because of the shortage of storage units in the New Orleans area since the storm, he said.
Normand suggested residents get as much information as they can on all laborers working at their homes. If at all possible, remove or secure all valuables in the house. Authorities have also suggested residents report their renovation work to their local patrol district headquarters so deputies will know when and where there should be workers in a neighborhood.
And if residents can't stay home while work is being done or are forced to live elsewhere, "Have someone you know and trust to monitor the comings and goings on your property," he said.
Authorities will never be able to police every neighborhood, Wendel said. The key will have to be stronger neighborhood watches.
"The community has to come together, people looking out for people," she said.
Michelle Hunter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 883-7054.