Philip Sherwell, Telegraph (UK), August 27, 2006
Hurricane Katrina may not have pounded Houston, but a year later the city is reeling from an ugly aftermath of the storm — a surging crime wave.
The murder rate in the Texan city has soared by almost 20 per cent since 150,000 Katrina evacuees arrived in August last year. According to police statistics, they are involved — as victim or killer — in one of every five homicides.
In the gun stores and on the shooting ranges of America’s oil industry capital, business is booming as fearful locals take their defence into their own hands and buy concealed weapons licences that allow them to travel armed.
Although 9mm semi-automatic pistols are the easiest gun to carry, Jim Pruett, an arms salesman, says that his “looter shooter” — a pistol-grip, pump shotgun retailing at $370 (£200) — is also a big seller. “We’ve seen a 50 per cent increase in people taking our concealed weapons courses since the Katrina evacuees arrived,” he said. “They are scared and they want to be able to defend themselves.” Audrey Nelson, 63, a native of Trowbridge, Wiltshire, who moved to Houston 30 years ago with her Texan husband, Phil, knows all about the reality of the chilling crime statistics.
Despite the violent reputation of some American cities, the school headmistress never imagined that she would be too scared to take her dog for an evening walk around the affluent Houston suburb of Westchase. That was before thousands of Katrina evacuees were moved into nearby blocks of flats, which had previously been scheduled for demolition to make way for luxury condominiums. Just a few minutes’ walk from the Nelsons’ well-kept home, a 64-year-old man was shot dead at a car wash earlier this month when he refused to hand over money to four young men armed with a pistol. Three teenagers from New Orleans have since been arrested and the murder weapon was also traced to the Louisiana city.
“We opened our arms to these people after what they had experienced,” said Mrs Nelson, who has lived in the area for 24 years. “At my school, we collected clothes and toys and sleeping bags; anything we could to help them. But now we’ve seen what’s happened to our pleasant community and realised that many never plan to leave, the mood has changed.”
The Rev Walter Ellis, the vicar at the Church of the Ascension in Westchase, said: “There was a tremendous groundswell of goodwill and support for these people, but that is fast drying up. “This was a nice place to live with a community atmosphere before, but now car-jackings and homicides are a way of life around here. “People are scared to walk alone at night. Some are getting guns, some are getting dogs, some are getting new security fences, many just want to leave. It’s a great shame.”
In Westchase, residents do not want to talk about buying guns, fearful it will only make them more of a target. But a local business-woman said: “I always hated guns and would never touch one. I could not understand the mindset of the women I knew in Houston who not only owned and handled guns but drove around town with one in the car. “But never is a word we should not use. Six months ago, with my blessing, my husband bought a gun and went, with our 23-year-old daughter, to a class to learn how to use it, clean it and learn the laws that go with it. After another recent murder, I now have one too, although it still freaks me out.” Texas offered shelter to nearly 400,000 evacuees from Louisiana at one stage, including thousands ferried by bus from the squalid nightmare of the New Orleans Superdome. About 250,000 are still scattered across the state.
Many lost everything in the storm and are now dependant on government subsidies to support them in Texas. Sixty per cent of the evacuees are unemployed and two-thirds say they expect to make Houston their permanent home.
New Orleans has set up an office to help exiles head home, but many Houstonites suspect that there is no concerted drive to organise their return. It is a sad twist that some long-term locals are now planning to evacuate Westchase instead.