This terrible and interminable saga continues to be a serious object lesson in the need for public leadership to protect communities from natural disasters with all of the tools at their command; and a deep reminder of the importance of establishing a culture where law and order prevail over crime and disorder.
The Most Dangerous City
Two years after Katrina, New Orleans desperately needs law and order.
28 August 2007
This week, President Bush will visit New Orleans to mark the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, as will Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton, and Republican candidates Mike Huckabee and Duncan Hunter. The White House will probably release a fact sheet detailing how many billions of dollars the government has spent on Gulf Coast recovery. The Democrats, no doubt, will call for more money and action. Here’s hoping at least one political visitor will be brave enough to say the truth: that while many New Orleans residents are courageously taking the initiative to rebuild their homes, they cannot build an effective police and prosecutorial force on their own.
To understand how New Orleans is doing two years later, consider a few recent stories. This past weekend, seven family members and friends were enjoying a quiet evening outside their home in a tranquil neighborhood on the city’s east side, which was badly flooded by Katrina. Then, according to New Orleans police, gunmen forced them into their house, robbed them, and shot them all, killing two. It was the neighborhood’s second such crime in two weeks. Previously, gunmen had murdered a couple, Anjelique Vu and Luong Nguyen, leaving their infant and toddler unharmed.
“The slayings . . . were the latest in a series of armed home invasions and robberies in eastern New Orleans,” wrote the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “Several crews of gunmen . . . have robbed and shot workers . . . and homeowners in the area, where many residents are rebuilding their flood-damaged homes.” Also last week, gunmen lined up six laborers and shot three, killing El Salvadoran Julio Benitez-Cruz. (New Orleans has experienced a post-Katrina influx of Hispanic laborers, both legal and illegal, who are tempting targets for criminals because they carry so much cash from contracting jobs.)
In fact, since Katrina, New Orleans’s murder rate has been higher than that of any first-world city. Depending on fluctuating estimates of the city’s returning population, it’s perhaps 40 percent higher than before Katrina and twice as high as the rate in other dangerous cities like Detroit, Newark, and Washington. Families trying to make a home in this environment live in fear, even while many have taken to rebuilding their homes with their bare hands.
As Reverend Nguyen The Vien, pastor of one of eastern New Orleans’s churches, told me earlier this year, “We’re here and we’re rebuilding”—with or without federal assistance. Indeed, Nguyen and his parishioners seemed to treat the subject of government help almost as an afterthought: it may help pay the bills if it ever arrives, but it’s not expected. After Katrina, neighbors fixed up Nguyen’s church under his direction so that they would have a “home base” for eating, sleeping, and showering. Then they set to work rebuilding houses, one by one. Residents of many other neighborhoods—white, black, and Asian—have done the same. As New Orleanians have found out the hard way, the work is backbreaking, but not impossible.
What individual New Orleanians can’t do by themselves is fix the city’s long-broken attitude toward criminal justice. Over and over again during my February trip to New Orleans, I heard how demoralized residents feel when they buy and install new appliances, pipes, and furniture for their flooded-out houses, leave for a day or two, often to temporary homes—and return to find their hard-earned new handiwork ripped out and stolen.
For generations now—and this is the city’s deepest problem—New Orleans has hobbled along without a real law-and-order presence. Criminals graduate from petty crimes to burglary to drug-dealing to carrying illegal weapons to gang robberies to murder, and face few consequences at any stage. The police, and especially the prosecutors, are ineffectual. Since Katrina, things have gotten much worse, in part because criminals, finding life difficult in cities that enforce the law, have returned to the Big Easy in numbers disproportionate to those of law-abiding citizens. Mayor Ray Nagin doesn’t try to fix things, perhaps because, as he often says, he believes crime is a social problem, rooted in a lack of opportunity for poor youth.