Houston Grumbles as Evacuees Stay Put

Times Staff Writer

Almost a year after Hurricane Katrina caused the country’s largest mass migration since the Dust Bowl, as many as 150,000 evacuees still live in this city, and increasingly many are indicating that they no longer plan to go home.

To many Houstonians, that’s overstaying the welcome.

Houston’s homicide rate has shot up 18% since the storm, and police statistics show that one in every five homicides in the city involves a Katrina evacuee as suspect, victim or both.

More than 30,000 evacuee families in Houston still live in government-subsidized housing, and a Zogby International survey sponsored by the city found that three-fourths of the adults receiving housing help were not working, raising questions about how they will survive when federal aid runs out.


Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Houston Mayor Bill White opened their doors to neighbors needing shelter in the nightmarish aftermath of the storm that devastated New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast.

But privately, Texas leaders quickly began to fret that the bedraggled masses that accepted their invitation were overwhelming the state. In December, White declared that “Houston is full” after more than 250,000 evacuees, including hundreds of families rescued from the fetid Louisiana Superdome, filled the city’s housing to the brim.

White and other civic leaders remain committed to helping hurricane victims rebuild their lives, and become Texans if they choose. But in the crowded, apartment-lined neighborhoods here where most evacuees wound up, the famous Texas hospitality is wearing thin. Many residents are fed up with rising crime, and some are upset that evacuees could end up being a financial drain on the city.

“It’s time for them to go home,” said Victoria Palacios, the manager of an EZ Loan store in southwest Houston that has been held up four times in the last year, crimes she is convinced evacuees committed because of the distinct accents of the robbers. “Ever since they came here, we’ve been getting robbed.”

The challenges facing Houston as Katrina’s Aug. 29 anniversary draws near illustrate the lasting imprint that the storm left throughout the South. Estimates vary, but as many as half a million people remain scattered far from their former homes in Mississippi and Louisiana.

A Gallup Organization survey sponsored by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, due to be released soon, found that 251,000 evacuees still live in the state. Of adults, 59% were unemployed, and 54% were still receiving housing subsidies. Eighty-one percent were African American, and 61% of the households had earned less than $20,000 a year before Katrina.


Texas officials estimated that the state had housed as many as 400,000 evacuees from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which lashed the Gulf Coast on Sept. 24.

The federal government is reimbursing much of the cost Texas is incurring, and last week, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that it would provide an additional $429 million in emergency funding.

But Texas officials are concerned that the lingering presence of so many needy people will strain services such as mental health programs, which are in high demand among still-traumatized evacuees.

In Houston, two-thirds of evacuees receiving housing assistance planned to stay, the Zogby Poll found. City leaders are planning for a future that assumes many of them will.

“People were waiting and hoping the situation would change in New Orleans, but many are realizing they may be here for a while,” said Cindy Gabriel, a spokeswoman for Houston’s Joint Hurricane Housing Task Force. “We’re looking at them as Houstonians at this point.”

Houston is considering adding two seats to the City Council to better represent the augmented population, which has surpassed 2.1 million people, according to some estimates.

Houston Police Chief Harold L. Hurtt is pushing to hire 400 additional officers to deal with the city’s evacuee-fueled crime wave.

In the meantime, police officers are routinely working overtime shifts to increase patrols on the city’s most dangerous streets.

“We’ve had some out-and-out criminals coming over here” from New Orleans, said Capt. Dale Brown, who heads the Houston Police Department’s homicide division. “Most evacuees are clearly law abiding. But there is no getting around the fact that some of these people were committing violent crimes in Louisiana, and they are committing them here.”

Homicides involving Katrina evacuees continue to be common. Earlier this month, for example, Rolando Rivas, 64, was plunking quarters into a self-service car wash early in the morning when four young men pulled a pistol on him and demanded his money. He resisted, and was fatally shot. Police later found the murder weapon on a 16-year-old near the same car wash. The gun had been stolen in New Orleans. Three teenage evacuees from New Orleans have been arrested.

This year through Aug. 14, there have been 252 homicides in Houston, including 56 that involved Katrina evacuees. At the same point last year, there had been 194 homicides.

Police officials said they have not seen increases in all crimes, but robberies, assaults, and other violent offenses have gone up since evacuees boosted the city’s population.

Many of the neighborhoods where evacuees wound up were already plagued by crime, police said, and the added presence of gangs from New Orleans housing projects, with long-standing beefs against one another, has only worsened tensions.

“It took them a couple of months to figure out the town,” Houston police spokesman John Cannon said of the Crescent City gangs. “But once they figured out where their enemies were hanging out, that’s when we saw the spikes.”

While Houston struggles to assimilate the thousands of evacuees, New Orleans is realizing that it must persuade its people to come back if it has any chance of rebuilding into a major American city.

Many evacuees say they would love to return to New Orleans, but cannot imagine taking their families back to a moldering city where crime is out of control and affordable housing is hard to find.

Trying to challenge that perception, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin will visit Houston on Tuesday to make a pitch to evacuees that it is safe to come home. He is also visiting other cities around the country with large populations of New Orleans expatriates.

But for a growing number of evacuee families, such pleas come too late: New Orleans is already in their past.

“We were not planning to stay, but there were no facilities for us to go back to in New Orleans. It just wasn’t possible,” said Nathan Thomas, 59, a former New Orleans art teacher who recently moved into a new house with help from Habitat for Humanity and Oprah Winfrey, who has helped build and furnish 65 homes here. “We have gone back since, and the place is just uninhabitable.”

Thomas has not yet found a job, but his wife, Esther, a former 911 dispatcher, is training for a similar position with the Houston police, and he is optimistic that there are opportunities for him in the nation’s fourth-largest city. His three children and 10 grandchildren are all settled in Texas now, as are many of his friends and relatives from the New Orleans East neighborhood.

“Everyone is moving here,” said Thomas, who is taking care of his 3-year-old grandson, Jamal. “Even though you do have some housing in New Orleans, the cost has skyrocketed. An apartment that used to cost $520 a month now costs over $1,000.”

Louisiana is counting on The Road Home, a $7.5 billion housing aid program for victims of Katrina and Rita, to bring back evacuees. But nearly a year after the storms, not a single dollar has been sent to the more than 100,000 families that applied for the assistance.

The grants include up to $150,000 to help homeowners rebuild. It could be at least another year before the money, which was approved by the federal government only about a month ago, is all disbursed.

“We are going to work hard to give as many people as possible the option to go home,” said Michael Byrne, the program’s director. “We know we have a lot to overcome -- this community was devastated -- but we want to win people’s faith back.”

For some business leaders in Houston, particularly in the southwest neighborhoods where most evacuees live, compassion is giving way to concern that crime is only going to get worse when federal housing assistance ends.

Mandy Kao, who owns more than 1,000 apartment units with her husband, is spending an average of $1,000 to repair apartments after evacuees move out -- money that is not refunded by federal subsidies. Their property firm has been sued by evacuee tenants who moved out of apartments without giving notice, then claimed they left Rolex watches and other expensive possessions behind.

But Kao, 37, has not been discouraged and has been credited by grass-roots groups with helping evacuees restart their lives. For example, she is considering starting a child care center in one of her apartment buildings so evacuees, many of them single mothers, could go to work. Unless others step up to help, she said, she worries that the future for southwest Houston will be dire.

“If we drop the ball, and fail to help these people get back on their feet again -- I don’t even want to think about what might happen,” Kao said.

“Unfortunately, things are already deteriorating.”



Storm diaspora

Location and number of storm evacuees are ever-changing, and different government sources have different totals. Here, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, are the top 10 metropolitan areas for Katrina-Rita relief applicants as of Aug. 10:

*--* Metro area Applicants 1. New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, La. 394,359 2. Houston-Baytown-Sugar Land, Texas 314,045 3. Baton Rouge, La. 177,286 4. Beaumont-Port Arthur, Texas 132,741 5. Gulfport-Biloxi, Miss. 92,800 6. Mobile, Ala. 84,481 7. Jackson, Miss. 82,919 8. Lake Charles, La. 75,693 9. Houma-Bayou Cane-Thibodaux, La. 67,290 10. Pascagoula, Miss. 59,101


Source: FEMA. Graphics reporting by Tom Reinken