NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - The recovery of New Orleans slowly drags on two years after Hurricane Katrina but one thing back in full swing since the killer storm is crime, particularly murders.
The drumbeat of violence that made New Orleans a U.S. murder capital before Katrina slowed after it struck on August 29, 2005, but the pace picked up as people returned to the city.
So far in 2007, police say 136 people have been murdered in New Orleans, compared to 161 for all of last year. August has been particularly bloody, with 19 killings in a 14-day period ending August 25, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported.
New Orleans, beset with an explosive mix of poverty, drugs and guns before and after Katrina, is no stranger to murder.
It has had one of the nation’s higher per capita murder rates for years and peaked in 1994 with 425 homicides. In 2004, the year before Katrina, there were 265 killings.
City leaders say fear of crime ranks up there with fear of another Katrina as reasons only about 60 percent of the pre-storm population of nearly half a million has returned.
A study released early this year by the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a local watchdog group, found almost 80 percent of those surveyed in New Orleans’ Central City area were afraid of crime, more than before Katrina.
Crime is a constant topic of conversation in New Orleans, where many say they are arming themselves for the first time.
“There’s a general sense of a need for greater security and self-responsibility since the government is failing,” said attorney Stephen Rue, who recently took a gun-handling class required for a state permit to carry a concealed weapon.
“We’re just hoping it doesn’t turn into the O.K. Corral,” he said.
“This city and this region’s survival depends on getting a handle on violent crime,” said U.S. Attorney Jim Letten at a conference this week. “Katrina didn’t create the problems we face today, although it certainly exacerbated them.”
Katrina flooded 80 percent of New Orleans when its powerful storm surge broke the levees that protect the low-lying city.
Most economic indicators such as hotel bookings and tax collections have come back to about 70 percent of what they were before the storm, according to recently released city and tourist industry figures.
But there are still many empty homes and buildings in the hardest hit areas because the owners chose not to return or are waiting to see if things including security and levee protection improve, officials say.
Earlier this month, police released figures showing that violent crime overall was up 12 percent for the first half of 2007, compared to the same period for 2006.
Letten blamed the violence in part on “the resurgence in this city of people who are involved in the drug trade and who are trying to basically build turf for themselves” by shooting it out with drug dealers already in place.
But he also alluded to what many people believe is the crux of the problem: poor performance by local prosecutors.
Many criminals are coming to New Orleans “because they do not fear consequences of the local criminal justice system,” Letten said.
Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan has been accused of allowing too many criminals back on the streets by failing to prosecute them effectively or on a timely basis.
He has blamed police for giving him poorly investigated cases and the unwillingness of many crime witnesses to testify. A study released in 2005 by the Metropolitan Crime Commission found that, in 2003-2004, only 12 percent of those arrested for murder went to prison.
Letten’s office has taken the extraordinary step of filing federal charges in many violent-crime cases so that suspects will not go free if state charges fall through.
Police superintendent Warren Riley said the district attorney’s office, after much public criticism, has improved in recent weeks, but he makes the point that crime is the result of deeper social problems that neither police nor prosecutors can resolve.
“Until we educate our youth, until we lower our poverty rate, until we lower our illiteracy rate, until we improve our society, we’re going to have these problems,” he said.
“We are in fact breeding a criminal element.”
Additional reporting by Russell McCulley