NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Signs of neglect and vandalism cover the exterior of the historic Municipal Auditorium, but it's what has been kept inside since Hurricane Katrina that could lead to health and safety risks for the City of New Orleans.
Inside the auditorium sit hundreds of thousands of bottles of water and meals ready to eat of MREs. The auditorium was used as storage during Katrina, but even as the city has tried to board the building up, squatters continue to break in.
"You can't blame the squatters and the people for wanting to stay warm and wanting to eat and wanting to drink when it's just kind of set up," French Quarter resident Michael Erminger said. "Just come on in. We've got all the food and water you could possibly want."
The supplies left inside are no secret among the homeless.
"I'll probably be back tonight to get some more, you know," one homeless man, who asked not to be named, told FOX 8.
He said dozens of people use the abandoned auditorium and its treasure trove of goods to survive.
"A lot of people live inside the building and they eat the MREs and drink the water. Whether they knew how long it's been there or not, I don't know, but they do eat them," he said. "It helps me a lot. Some times I wake up and I'm hungry and can't find no food. I know to go in there and get it."
According to the federal government, MREs have a shelf life of five years, and that's if the supply has been kept in a controlled environment. Codes on MREs found outside the auditorium are branded with a manufacturing date from 2005.
The FDA says bottled water has an indefinite shelf life but suggests it should be kept at room temperature.
There's no electricity in the auditorium, and a Google Earth image shows patchwork on the building's damaged roof is deteriorating.
"The bottled water that's in there and the MREs in there, they are going to be checked for expiration dates," Mayor Mitch Landrieu said. "We board it up every couple of days, and absent of putting armed guards out there, which in my opinion is not the right thing to do, we are going to continue to monitor it and make sure people stay as safe as possible."
Wednesday, Landrieu pointed to his arbitration with FEMA over funding as the reason for the lack of work being done on the building. FEMA offered $41.7 million to make repairs, but the mayor said it will cost close to $90 million.
"We look forward to working with the neighbors on that issue," Landrieu said. "We just have to continue to make sure that we ask people not to stay there. We'll continue to try and secure the property and we'll do the best that we can."
Landrieu hopes the arbitration with FEMA is finished by the end of the year.
There is also evidence of squatters starting fires in the auditorium and syringes openly discarded outside its doors.
"It needs to be looked into," Erminger said. "Have a professional come look at it and decide what to do with it, rather than leaving it in there to be the cheese in the rat trap that is the auditorium."