New Orleans: More than a year and a half after Katrina hit in late August 2005, violent crime pervades the city
In 2004, the year before Katrina, New Orleans suffered 265 murders, yielding a murder rate of 56 per 100,000 residents – already 4 ½ times the average for similar-size cities. In 2006, the year after Katrina, the flood-ravaged, much smaller city logged 162 murders – a rate of at least 77 per 100,000 people, even assuming the most generous quarter-by-quarter repopulation figures available. (New Orleans has recovered less than half its pre-Katrina population of about 470,000.)
In the first 64 days of 2007, New Orleans's murder rate scaled even higher – more than 87 per 100,000 residents. Such a rate in New York City would mean nearly 7,000 murders a year, well over the 2,262 it experienced at the height of its violent-crime crisis 17 years ago.
Other violent-crime indexes – from assault to armed robbery – have moved in a similar direction.
All this suggests that New Orleans' bad guys are coming back to the city in disproportionate numbers. That shouldn't come as a surprise. The hoodlums, mostly members of an entrenched underclass, are impulsive and mobile, while working- and middle-class New Orleanians face big roadblocks to returning.
Relentless crime was the main reason New Orleans had lost 22 percent of its pre-1960 peak population (mostly middle-class young people, black and white) long before Katrina. But the hurricane took a slow process of decline – more middle-class hemorrhaging, more disorder, fewer livable neighborhoods – and fast-forwarded it to urban nightmare.
First, New Orleans' "legacy drug dealers" – as James Bernazzani, special agent in charge of the city's FBI office, classifies those who were dealing before Katrina, almost invariably single-parented young black males – learned a lot during their months away. In Houston, Big Easy dealers met new suppliers and have now "flooded New Orleans with drugs," Mr. Bernazzani says.
Many dealers and other criminals haven't returned to their old blighted neighborhoods, since four-fifths of New Orleans' public housing remains closed and some of the city's poorest tracts are still flood-ruined. Instead, they've spread out to neighborhoods that were already struggling before the storm, as well as ample pockets of Uptown, and made those places much more dangerous.
Some returning criminals take advantage of abandoned housing on half-occupied streets; others crowd with relatives in legal housing. "You have families living doubled up, people who have serious problems," says Al Mims Jr., a Central City native who came back to New Orleans a week after Katrina. "Before Katrina," he explains, "you had [drug] rivals who stayed miles apart. Now, it's like having Wal-Mart and Kmart across the street from each other."
It's not just the violence; New Orleanians also face a dispiriting crush of property theft as they struggle to rebuild. In recovering neighborhoods, criminals wait for a returning resident to install new appliances into his damaged home, and then steal them when he returns to his temporary housing at night.
Quality-of-life infractions are endemic, too. Residents all over the city complain of blatant drug use and open-air drug sales.
Intensifying the city's crime woes further, family relationships that were tenuous pre-Katrina – in underclass neighborhoods, mothers and grandmothers raised children alone, with few exceptions – are now completely broken.
David Bell, chief justice of New Orleans' juvenile court, tells me that 20 percent of the kids who appear before him today – for the most part, 15 or younger – are utterly without parental supervision; he calls this a "tragic story no one is telling."
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