Houston solved the first long-term crisis Katrina caused—what to do with thousands of desperate citizens washed out of their homes—because elected local and county officials carried out Shea’s style of determined competence on a mass scale with military precision. The city augmented its own resources with volunteers from churches, temples, corporations, and charities to take in what amounted to a new population equal to 10 percent of its own citizenry over seven days, and to place two-thirds of these evacuees into housing within weeks.They have worked hard to get the evacuees into housing rather than keeping them holed up in hotels waiting in some sort of housing limbo. However, this has caused new problems because many of the evacuees are concentrated in apartment complexes in one area of town. And there they have brought with them all their gang violence and criminality from New Orleans.
Moreover, some evacuees gravitated toward the apartment complexes simply because they aren’t different from what New Orleans’s underclass is used to: low-rise housing projects where young men gather in courtyards. As Michelle Bullock Brefect, a graduate of New Orleans’s public housing whose older brother was shot to death in a project more than a decade ago, put it: gang members “go where they’re comfortable.”Crime has skyrocked in these areas. Homicides are up 52% from the rate last year. And many of these murders involve Katrina evacuees. Houston officials have reacted by toughening up policing in these areas and coming down hard on those convicted of crimes. And these New Orleans guys just aren't used to the "Texas way" of taking care of criminals.
Worsening an already explosive situation, the evacuees didn’t group randomly; in some complexes, they roughly sketched out the same neighborhoods they had fled. Free to choose their own Houston apartments, New Orleanians got on their cell phones to find out where friends and family members were staying. Compounding matters, Houston and FEMA awarded housing vouchers to any adult from the hurricane-hit area, not just to those who’d been renters or homeowners there. As the housing authority’s Buddy Grantham told me, young people who’d been living with their mothers in New Orleans suddenly got a once-in-a-lifetime chance.
All this good police work actually has an effect in Houston, because, in contrast to New Orleans, it has a functioning prosecutor’s office, complemented by judges who actually sentence criminals to prison. Says Lieutenant Lopez of New Orleans suspects: “They’re not used to being policed. . . . A lot of them are surprised—and after a few weeks are surprised that they’re still in jail. They’re not really aware of how Texas works.” Concurs Bernazzani: “The HPD does not experience the frustration that the NOPD experiences. . . . There is a sense that the revolving door is closing as individual cases are resolved” in Houston.The evacuees are also facing a more pleasant surprise -- the schools in Houston are better than those in New Orleans. And parents are quite pleasantly surprised at the expectations of their children in their new schools.
How much more effective is Houston’s criminal-justice system than New Orleans’s? In New Orleans, according to its nonprofit Metropolitan Crime Commission, 7 percent of those arrested for a crime ultimately served prison time, compared with 58 percent in Houston. In New Orleans, only 12 percent of those arrested for homicide are ultimately incarcerated for that crime; in Houston, it’s 47 percent. In New Orleans, 18 percent of robbery and 12 percent of drug-distribution arrestees ultimately serve prison time; Houston’s numbers are 60 and 71 percent. Compared with national averages, Houston’s results aren’t stellar, but the city’s obvious superiority to New Orleans demonstrates how poor policing, poor prosecution, and poor sentencing nurtured the Big Easy’s criminal underclass.
Stasia Marie Davis, who evacuated from New Orleans East and was about to start work as a teacher’s aide when I spoke to her, says that her two high school–age daughters had been in gifted programs at a New Orleans public school but “are struggling to keep up” at Houston’s Westfield High School. “In New Orleans, they are preparing them for the tourism business. Here, they are preparing them for college,” she told me.What we could be seeing happen in Houston is a controlled experiment to find out if different approaches to crime and education can make a difference in these people's lives. It would be proof that the fault lay in New Orleans government and not in its citizens. We could be seeing one more example of a crisis becoming an opportunity.
Ariane Daughtry, a Catholic Charities caseworker from New Orleans now working with evacuees, notes that she paid $250 a month in New Orleans to send her son to private school, but in Houston he’s thriving, even playing the violin, at a public school where nearly all the kids can read and do math at grade level. William Coleman, who has custody of his grandchildren, told me that the Houston school the children attend call the house if the kids are late or absent: “They didn’t do that in New Orleans,” he marveled.
Mayor White says he’s open to suggestions for Katrina’s next phase. This is a perfect opportunity not just for Houston’s local charities—including faith-based groups—but also for national social-entrepreneurship groups to help evacuees who aren’t used to working, or who are difficult to employ, such as convicted felons or illiterates. Even more ambitious social entrepreneurs could help New Orleanians learn that the “normal” New Orleans culture of single motherhood isn’t normal at all. The ultimate challenge for philanthropists and policymakers is to ensure that a new generation of single mothers doesn’t set loose another generation of unsupervised violent young men to prey on another city.It will be fascinating to revisit this story five years from now and see if Houston did indeed find a solution to the supposedly insolvable problems facing New Orleans. And city leaders nationwide can learn for this laboratory of democracy.
Houston’s openhearted outreach to New Orleans in its hour of need was an extraordinary gesture, and it saved lives. But Houston will have accomplished a truly heroic task if it can redeem the undereducated, underpoliced, and unmarried underclass that made New Orleans a disaster long before Katrina.
Houston approaches this task with a crucial advantage: its leaders and citizens don’t instinctively see big government as the solution—only good government.