Peering into a flood-damaged Lower 9th Ward house that should have been empty, four officers found squatters.
There were two men -- armed with a semiautomatic handgun and a civilian version of military's M16 assault rifle. A drug stash was nearby.
The intruders would ultimately find themselves in the custody of New Orleans police and National Guard troops at the close of the mid-May episode, more than two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina left the house in shambles. But the officers who got them to surrender were sent out by a program that few would associate with gun-toting law enforcement: the Road Home.
Financed by $4.6 million in federal housing grant money, Corporate Security Solutions employs 60 private security officers to patrol 8,100 Road Home properties in 22 southern Louisiana parishes, parcels that homeowners decided to sell to the state rather than rebuild or renovate. These buyout properties represent 7 percent of 115,000 Road Home grants paid so far. State officials estimate that when all is said and done, there will be about 9,000 total buyouts.
The officers patrol each night from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., following scheduled routes and responding to calls from neighbors. Each month, they find hundreds of trespassers entering the state-owned properties. Some are out to steal copper wire; some are dealing drugs; and some are simply looking for shelter.
The fact that few residents know the security team exists is a good sign to the public officials who have overseen the security company's contract since September and soon must consider whether to renew it for another year.
"No news is good news," said Joe Williams, a board member of the Louisiana Land Trust, the state-created, federally financed nonprofit that holds Road Home properties until they can be transferred to local parishes for redevelopment.
--- Board scrutiny ---
By and large, state officials, property maintenance contractors and community groups agree the security force is one of the more effective parts of a high-profile recovery program often marred by controversy.
Still, there are questions about whether taxpayers should be paying $100,000 a week to supplement normal police patrols. At the Land Trust's latest public hearing, held July 11, new board member Donald Vallee, head of a New Orleans landlord association, asked why the state should use any federal money to field an extra security force.
"They're doing a good job, but the question is: Do we need it?" Vallee said during his first board meeting.
As time goes on, the structures are supposed to be demolished or restored, lessening the need for constant surveillance, Vallee said.
The latest Corporate Security Solutions status reports indicate its officers have checked on all 8,100 Road Home properties sold to the state, including just two in Acadia Parish and one in Iberville Parish. But about half of the properties are just vacant lots. There would be even fewer dwellings to secure, except FEMA stopped paying for demolitions before the Road Home could buy most of its parcels.
The Land Trust has been negotiating with FEMA to try to get the federal agency to pay for removing more buildings on the state-purchased properties, but so far there has been no agreement.
Vallee says his skepticism is merely an attempt to intensify the board's scrutiny over contracts. But Al Sterling of H&O Investments, one of the firms cutting grass and removing debris on the Road Home properties, said his crews rely on the security forces for protection.
"It makes me nervous and uncomfortable to think what would happen if we don't have the security forces we do now," he said at the Land Trust meeting.