Arian Campo-Flores, Newsweek, March 13, 2006
In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, Houston earned a loving moniker among many of the evacuees who sought refuge there: the Big Heart. This, after all, was the city that housed, fed and mended more than 150,000 survivors in a herculean effort that won national acclaim. Houston officials mounted what is believed to be the biggest shelter operation in the country’s history, including MASH-like megaclinics that took on problems ranging from emergency care to eyeglass prescriptions. Then, just as quickly, officials disbanded those facilities to usher evacuees into more-permanent housing, offering them generous vouchers that covered rent and utilities for a year. “No other city really provided the resources and assistance Houston has,” says Angelo Edwards, vice chair of the ACORN Katrina Survivors Association. “If not for Mayor [Bill] White and his administration, a lot of us would’ve been lost.”
But six months after the evacuees arrived, the city’s heart seems to be hardening. The signs of a backlash are sometimes subtle. “You’ll hear little snide remarks,” says Edwards. “People will say, ‘The reason you can’t get a job is because you can’t talk right’.” Other times, the reaction is more venomous. Among the nasty examples Dorothy Stukes, an evacuee, cites: graffiti blaring F — — NEW ORLEANS in her apartment complex, schoolkids taunting her grandchildren to “swim in that Katrina water and die” and shopkeepers muttering about survivors’ sucking the public coffers dry. Stukes, chair of the ACORN KSA, has become so concerned that when New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin came to town recently, she begged him to hire a public-relations firm to repair the evacuees’ image. But given all that Nagin has to contend with amid his own run for re-election, that is not likely to land high on his list.
But perhaps no city has been as convulsed as Houston, which took in the greatest number of survivors. As some see it, the city is suffering from “compassion fatigue.” Public services are overwhelmed, city finances are strained and violent crime is on the rise. When city leaders in New Orleans made comments two weeks ago suggesting that they wanted only hardworking evacuees to return, some Houston city-council members erupted in protest — fearing that politicians in the Big Easy were trying to stick Houston with their undesirables. “We extended an open hand to all kinds of people,” says Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs. “If they want to return home, it’s their right.” And if they want to stay, she adds, they “need to stand up, get on their feet and get jobs.”
It doesn’t help that a small segment of criminals threatens to give all New Orleanians a bad name. Though Houston’s murder rate was already climbing before Katrina, the newcomers have added to it. Of 189 murders in the six months after the hurricane, 33 involved Katrina evacuees as either suspects or victims, according to Police Chief Harold Hurtt. Initially, the killings resulted from clashes among rival New Orleans gangs, says Hurtt. More recently, they’ve stemmed from robberies or narcotics, he says. Many cops are struck by the brazenness of the evacuees. “It seems like the face of crime has changed in Houston,” said Officer Brandon Brown one night last week as he patrolled the sketchy Fondren area of the city, where many of the arrivals have settled. “It’s more tense, more violent.” Soon after saying that, he was called to respond to an alleged assault. A New Orleans woman was accused of attacking her boyfriend, whose head she had previously slashed with a shard of glass.
There are other signs of strain. The Houston Independent School District has been flooded with 5,800 additional kids, out of 20,000 overall in area schools. That influx has forced it to spend an additional $180,000 per day of its own $1.3 billion annual budget — only a fraction of which may be reimbursed by the federal government — to educate the new students. With their arrival have come new social tensions: one near-riot between Houston and New Orleans kids at a high school in December resulted in the arrests of 27 students. Part of the problem, according to Edwards of ACORN’s Katrina survivors’ group: a hip-hop culture clash between kids who feel a need to “represent” their musical style. “Now you’ve got two sticks of dynamite rubbing against each other,” he says.
The newcomers are also taxing the area’s health-care system. Already burdened by a high proportion of uninsured people before Katrina, Houston has had to contend with thousands more. The problem will likely only get worse: on Jan. 31, more-generous Medicaid rules for Katrina victims expired. As a result, countless patients who had been receiving treatment in doctors’ offices may now turn to overwhelmed emergency rooms. “Our hospitals are struggling financially to get by, and this doesn’t help,” says David Persse, Houston’s EMS medical director. “Hospital CEOs are about to have coronaries.” Worse still, infection rates for sexually transmitted diseases are increasing — possibly an outgrowth of high rates in New Orleans, city health officials say.