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By Nicole Gelinas

After The Fall: Saving Capitalism From Wall Street--and Washington

Eye on the News

Nicole Gelinas
Katrina Refugees Shoot Up Houston
FEMA should help the Texas city control its crime spike.
4 January 2006

Houston had 336 homicides in 2005. The last two, which bloodied the earliest hours of New Year’s Eve, weren’t interesting, except for two facts: Both gunshot victims—Keith Hayes, 19, and Calvin Clay, 23—were former New Orleans residents, evacuees of Hurricane Katrina. And both men allegedly died at the hands of a third Big Easy evacuee, who remains at large.

This city of nearly 2 million has experienced a marked uptick in its homicide rate since more than 100,000 of New Orleans’s displaced residents flocked into town in late August and early September. While Houston’s murder rate is up 23 percent for all of 2005, it spiked 70 percent in November and December compared to last year’s levels. At least 35 percent of Houston’s December increase in homicides—five of 14 over last year’s level—directly stemmed from the presence of Katrina evacuees.

Here are a few of Houston’s homicides of the past two months, as reported by the Houston Chronicle and by the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

  • December 29: A gun battle at a run-down motel ended with one young New Orleans evacuee dead, with a bullet in the head.
  • December 19: A New Orleans evacuee was found shot to death in an apartment.
  • December 5: A New Orleans evacuee was shot to death near his car.
  • November 20: A New Orleans evacuee shot a fellow evacuee to death at a pool hall.
  • November 1: A New Orleans evacuee was stabbed to death by a Texan who, police have determined, was defending himself from an attempted carjacking at the hands of the evacuee.

Houston isn’t exclusively blaming New Orleanians for its crime surge. One city councilman recently noted that Houston had plenty of crime before Katrina. The mayor, Bill White, reasons that the higher murder rate is in part due to the sudden increase in population without a concurrent increase in police resources, particularly in the low-rent, high-crime districts many evacuees now call home. “We had criminals before the evacuation and we had some more criminals here after the evacuation,” White said in December. And police officials have noted that gang activity was a growing problem in Houston before Katrina hit.

This is all doubtless true. But it’s also irrefutable that when New Orleans was inundated with floodwaters, what flooded out of the Crescent City was a core criminal underclass that, before the storm, generated the highest urban murder rate in the nation.

The national media’s fixation on Katrina evacuees’ skin color, and the same media’s easy amnesia about the real violence that plagued New Orleans immediately after the storm, obscured a burgeoning crisis that still demands sustained attention: Katrina’s floods dispersed throughout the unprepared South the uniquely vicious New Orleans underclass culture of drugs, guns, and violent death.

This is good news for New Orleans (for now, anyway): the few citizens who have repopulated the city thus far are enjoying the newfound ability to walk around their streets without the once-pervasive fear of catching the glint of a gun. But it’s bad news for cities like Houston, which inevitably must struggle with the overspill of New Orleans’s pre-Katrina plague of violence.

Indeed, after New Orleans was evacuated, New Orleans’s FBI office sent out a bulletin quietly warning Houston and other southern cities to look out for an increase in violent gang activity—and Houston’s police chief, Harold Hurtt, has told the Chronicle since then that there’s no doubt that “gang members [from Louisiana] did relocate here to Houston.”

To combat its recent spike in violence, Houston has asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for $6.5 million. It will use the money to step up policing in those already dangerous neighborhoods that are now home to thousands of former New Orleanians.

FEMA should grant Houston’s request. Increased funding for properly managed policing will determine if Big Easy-style violence becomes deeply rooted in vulnerable evacuee neighborhoods elsewhere, or if aggressive law enforcement keeps it in check.

Moreover, officials in Louisiana and in New Orleans should view the increased crime woes of its western neighbor as a warning. As Louisiana begins to spend the $6 billon in federal grants for New Orleans’s reconstruction, it should earmark some of that money toward building a top-notch justice system—or the Big Easy’s displaced criminals will surely return home in droves from less hospitable climes.

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