Over half a million people left New Orleans and moved west in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Reports now estimate that up to 300,000 New Orleans evacuees moved into Houston, Texas, swelling that city’s population by up to 10%. Just two days after Katrina forced thousands into the Louisiana Superdome, Commissioner of Education Shirley Neeley announced that Texas schools would be opening their doors to the New Orleans youth. Other reports echoed this sense of welcome and camaraderie. Former first lady Barbara Bush famously led the suggestions that many of the displaced wanted to stay in Texas.
Within months, that happy welcome had worn off. In March of 2006, Newsweek and Bloomberg joined others in reporting a rising crime wave in Houston that was expected to develop in other cities. The spike was directly linked to the influx of evacuees. Houstonians reported feeling conflicted between pride in helping those in need and angry at a perceived drain on their city’s resources. As FEMA set up permanent relocation plans for tens of thousands of the displaced, vitriol continued to increase. Marking the four-year anniversary of Katrina’s landfall, radio talk show host and Texas A&M University alum Neal Boortz had this to say about evacuees living in the Lone Star State:
Houston has slowly acknowledged, Katrina evacuees pushed up Houston’s rates for some crimes, particularly homicide, not just the raw number of offenses. Houston’s post-Katrina crime surge is an extension of the pre-Katrina violence of New Orleans’s criminal underclass…. Since Katrina, Houston police have identified New Orleans evacuees as either suspects or victims (or often both) in more than 30 Houston-area homicides. Of an evacuee population of 175,000, this works out to a per-capita annual murder rate of about 34 per 100,000, well above Houston’s pre-Katrina rate. News of violent murders committed by and against Katrina evacuees has created a bit of a backlash in Houston.
Such reports continued to gain traction, spurred by a reliance on stereotypes, readily-available anecdotes, and a general lack of data. Gary Blankinship, president of the Houston Police Officer’s Union, effectively summarized this trend in his statement: “It seems like there was more crime, and the officers talked about it, but I don’t have any actual data.” He was interviewed in response to a January, 2010, article that reported, “Contrary to much popular speculation, only modest effects were found on crime” (Varano, Schafer, Cancino, Decker, & Greene, 2010). In their study of Houston, San Antonio, and Phoenix, the authors analyzed nearly three years’ worth of criminal data that bookended Katrina’s landfall. They found insufficient support for claims that crime rates increased as a direct result of the displaced population, noting that:
Effects were neither widespread (across all crime categories), nor pervasive (across the three cities). This suggested that local circumstances, coupled by the volume of displaced persons being absorbed by any particular city play a role in increasing crime, and that disaster planning and relief efforts should be cognizant of issues of “over-saturation” in the capacity of receiving communities to adequately adjust to such disasters. Equally important was the idea that those displaced were not a criminogenic mob to be “blamed” for crime increases. (p. 47)
In presenting much-needed research on the real effects of Katrina evacuees on their adopted cities, there is a reminder of the need for perspective. Despite early hostilities, there is still potential for a positive resolution between the old and new residents in Texas. As most participants have come to accept their new situations, there are signs of change and improvement. Politically, the relocations should at least help Texas gain greater political clout, as the added population is expected to bring greater voting power to what is already the second-most populated state. Perhaps some of that added clout will support changes in how the federal government handles environmental displacement in the future.
And what about the future of those young evacuees Commissioner Neeley so readily welcomed into Texas schools? Apparently it was a good thing they wanted to stay in Texas. In April of this year, the Texas Education Agency released a report noting that evacuee students have begun to outperform their native Texan peers on state assessments.