The Times-Picayune: Victims of New Orleans Fire were Sheltering in a Death Trap: An Editorial

Published: Wednesday, December 29, 2010, 6:22 AM Updated: Wednesday, December 29, 2010, 6:45 AM

By Editorial page staff, The Times-Picayune

The fire that killed eight young people who were squatting in an abandoned 9th Ward building early Tuesday morning shows that blight and homelessness are ills that can turn deadly.

Two people who survived the fire said that the occupants of the warehouse-like structure at 2827 Prieur St. were burning trash in a large barrel to stay warm during the overnight cold.

The survivors escaped narrowly from the blaze, which burned two-thirds of the structure down to the slab. The rest of the occupants perished, and authorities were struggling Tuesday to identify them.

The large death toll makes this blaze the most deadly in New Orleans since the Upstairs Lounge fire that killed 32 people in 1973.

Teresa Reiger, pastor of St. Luke’s Assembly of God on Franklin Avenue, said that the building’s occupants had eaten meals and taken showers at the church. She described them as people who were drawn to New Orleans’ music and vitality.

Their deaths are all the more tragic because they were avoidable. Homeless shelters provide a warm, safe place to sleep. When forecasts call for temperatures or a wind chill factor of 38 degrees or below, the city activates its freeze plan, which allows shelters to house more people than usual. The plan also provides transportation to shelters through the Multi-Service Center for the Homeless, Emergency Medical Services and the New Orleans Police Department.

During cold weather, UNITY of Greater New Orleans scours areas where they know homeless people stay to offer them the alternative of going to a shelter. That group is especially alert for elderly and disabled homeless people.

The victims of Tuesday’s fire were young. They might not have thought they needed to go to a homeless shelter, despite the below-freezing temperature and lack of utilities.

Not every homeless person is willing or able to seek out a shelter, and even proactive efforts like those of UNITY won’t find everyone.

An empty house or building, on the other hand, is easy to find in a city where so much blighted and abandoned property exists. Sadly, such an alternative can become a death trap on a cold winter night.

© 2011 NOLA.com. All rights reserved.

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