• ,

This Mold House redux: Beware the unkindness of strangers

NolaVie editor Renee Peck wrote This Mold House for The Times-Picayune for four years after Hurricane Katrina. She is reposting a number of her favorite columns in conjunction with the 10th anniversary of the storm. This article originally was published in The Times-Picayune InsideOut section on May 20, 2006.

In the latest bizarre chapter of my life post-Katrina, this really happened.

At 5:30 on a recent weekday morning, someone knocked at my door.

My bedroom door. Upstairs.

I opened it to find a twentysomething blond woman standing at the top of my stairs holding a beer.

"Is Percy here?" she asked.

"Percy?"

It turns out that an enterprising pick-up artist had discovered the outdoor hiding place of our door key. At the time, we were living in an apartment Uptown, and had been leaving it handy for the myriad workmen who have been tromping through our empty house for the past seven months.

He helped himself to same, and had been coming over at night -- and bringing his waitress girlfriend with him, claiming that the house was his. He had to hide the key, he told her, because his sister sometimes needed to drop by.

She had slept in my bed, washed her clothes in my laundry room and helped herself to a Gatorade from my new refrigerator, all in the wee hours of the morning. What really irritated me was that she had gotten to use my new front-loading washer and dryer before I did.

On this early morning she had plucked the key from its hiding spot to let herself in.

I don't know who was more horrified to discover Percy's perfidy -- her or me.

We moved back into our home a couple of weeks ago, and Percy presumably has moved on to a more available borrowed bachelor pad. Nothing was stolen or damaged except our naiveté. We've changed the locks on our doors and no longer leave concealed keys for the workmen's convenience.

Anyone these days is a potential victim of identity theft. But I never thought that, if it happened to me, it would not be my credit card that was stolen, but my address.

Safety tips for homeowners

One unwelcome aftermath of Katrina is the incidence of squatters who take up residence in other people's homes. It has become enough of a problem that the state Legislature is considering a bill that would make unauthorized entry of a dwelling during an emergency or disaster a crime, punishable by up to a year in jail and/or a $1,500 fine. Currently, it can be hard to charge a squatter with burglary or breaking and entering, since so many homes are empty or accessible. And trespassing is a misdemeanor.

Here are some steps that homeowners can take to thwart looters and squatters in the post-Katrina era:

  • Don't give out keys to your home, unless you know the person well.
  • Don't hide keys outdoors, especially while workmen are coming and going.
  • Install outdoor motion-sensitive or timer-controlled lighting.
  • Install deadbolt locks. Exterior doorknobs and locks can be bought singly or in pairs; if you want them keyed alike, buy packages with matching serial numbers on the back. The same key will fit all locks with the same serial number.
  • Keep a current home inventory of valuables, with serial numbers.
  • If you aren't living at home, drive by at night or in the early morning to check on your house.
  • Don't allow workmen to "lock up" when they leave; meet them at the house and do it yourself.
  • Consider an alarm system (although ours is inoperable because we don't have a telephone land line).
  • Trim trees and shrubs so that doorways are easily observed.
  • If you have neighbors, ask them to keep an eye on your place. Let them know if and when someone will be living there.

 

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]