Hurricane Katrina was devastating. The Washington Post claimed that there were “more than 1,300[bodies found]” due to hurricane Katrina. The Big Easy became a mere skeleton of its former self. The population, some of which were generational New Orleanais, was relocated around the country. USA Today reported that, “Houston received about 240,000 evacuees.” As the population of New Orleans shifted to Houston, reports from the media began to raise fears in the residents of Houston that the crime rate in Houston was increasing due to the evacuees. Beginning with such eye-catchers as “eight gang members who moved here from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina have been arrested as suspects in 11 slayings,” the story was to mark the beginning of a witch hunt and basis for countless newspaper articles. The media put a spotlight on the Katina evacuees by showing them in an unfair light, giving the impression that the murder rate in Houston grew by an enormous amount, and that those increases in crime were due solely to the Katrina evacuees. In fact, the rate of crime only increased by a small amount, and it was not entirely due to Katrina evacuees. The FBI Uniform Crime Report is an official year end tally of crime throughout the United States by year. According to the report, “…in 2005 there were 62 more murders in Houston than in 2004, the rate for rape dropped by 36, aggravated assault dropped by 412 from the previous year, theft was down in Houston by 2,276, grand theft auto was down by 1,155, and arson was down by 7”.
The same report released for the year 2006 found that “in 2004 there were 105 more murders through all of 2006, rape was down by 54, aggravated assault was down by 417, theft was down by 1,661, Grand theft auto was down by 470, and arson was down by 134”. According to this tally, murder increased by a small amount and a lot of the crimes such as theft, aggravated assault and burglary actually decreased in post-Katrina Houston.
The media over-reported incidents that involved Katrina evacuees, often overshadowing other crimes that were committed by Houston-area residents. Much like an urban legend, the basic facts of the story remained consistent, but the details varied and became more sensationalized by each telling. While there was indeed an increase in the murder rate in Houston, highlighting each individual Katrina evacuee that was involved in a crime, be it perpetrator or victim, was not a fair representation of the truth. Trusted sources, such as the Houston Chronicle, reported that there were “65 Katrina-related slayings”. Another article from January of 2006 reports that, “At least 35 percent of Houston’s December increase in homicides . . . directly stemmed from the presence of Katrina evacuees”. It would be easy for a reader to automatically assume that Katrina evacuees killed 65 people. This is not the case, “as Katrina-related [means] either the victim or the suspect . . . evacuated to Houston after Katrina” (Leahy ). Because of these headlines, the claim that crime had increased by “300 percent in Houston!” was essentially being supported. The media opted for sensationalism in its headlines, and the Katrina evacuees paid the price for it.
The city of Houston received much praise for taking in the evacuees and was hailed as The City of Brotherly Love for its welcome policies toward Katrina evacuees. Reports estimate that between 100,000 to 250,000 of New Orleans evacuees were taken in by the city of Houston. However, the media and news reports did not take into consideration that any city that has a population growth of 150,000 people, nearly overnight, is going to see an increase in the overall rate of crime. Furthermore, the city of Houston recognized that ‘”the homicide rate has been much higher in years past, especially in the 1980’s, . . . Even if the number . . . for 2006 hits 400 it’s not a bleak picture for Houston”‘, meaning that even though the police were not at all alarmed by this slight increase in murder rates, the media continued to add fuel to the fire.
The victims of hurricane Katrina were ostracized because of this negative publicity. The evacuees were no longer welcomed by the citizens of Houston. The National Housing Institute published its findings that, “a survey conducted by the Houston city government in January revealed that roughly one-fourth of the city’s hurricane evacuees were living in FEMA-funded apartments in high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods on the city’s southwest side”. In a document from the Inspector General’s office it is reported that FEMA placed as many as “100,000 evacuees . . . in 34,000 apartment units” in places known to harbor gang and drug activities already, the media also did not take any of that into account in their headlines.
The debate about crime rates in Houston began almost immediately after the Evacuees arrived. Twenty-three days after the evacuee’s stepped from their busses and into the city of Houston, news articles began to appear. The Houston Chronicle quoted Captain Dwayne Ready as saying, “‘we recognize that the homicide rate is up as far as raw numbers and as well as percentages relative to the population, . . . We also recognize that Katrina evacuees continue to have an impact on the murder rate”’ Another article’s headline read, “Louisiana Gangs That Fled Katrina Heighten Houston Murder Rate”. However, a research project was undertaken by five criminologists, and once they took the actual numbers from the FBI’s U.C.R. data into account, they reportedly “found no rise in the rates of auto theft or offenses you’d expect if the dispossessed were responsible for fueling crime”. The same paper that boasted headlines such as “Homicide rate on track to be worst in a decade” was eventually forced to admit that their own grossly overstated sensationalistic headlines were not true. In the end, when the truth was revealed, it got no major front page billings, the articles were neatly tucked away. Perhaps one of the most permanent aspects of this ordeal was that, in the mind of a Houston denizen, what stood out most about the Katrina evacuees was that crime increased by 300 percent. It is not likely that they read the article in the Houston Chronicle that finally stated the truth:
“Gary Blankinship, president of the Houston Police Officer’s Union, said he thought the Houston Police Department had kept track of Katrina-related crime. (Mrs. Weiner, I can’t move this tab over, but this is one quote. I don’t know how) ‘”Seems like there was more crime, and the officers talked about it,”‘ he said, “‘but I don’t have any actual data.’ Varano cautioned media and public officials not to blame evacuees for crime. “‘To say a group came in to a place like Houston and created a crime problem seems to be passing the buck”‘ Varano said.
After all the facts and figures were speculated upon by news organizations around the country, it ultimately reduced to no organization having any credible data.
Others say that the crime rate in Houston during 2005 to 2006 was up by more than fifty percent, without any official data to back those numbers up. Other cities for those years reported increases as well. “‘Many communities across the United States … also reported increases in violent crime between 2004 and 2006′” notes the study, including a 30% increase in aggravated assault in cities such as Baltimore and Detroit”. Moreover, the sociologist Varano goes on to contest, “…if there was any effect, it was a modest one'”. A modest increase in crime rates does not account for the blatant exaggerations reported to the public by the media. To get a more direct idea of the media portrayal, take a look through some of the sources from which I drew my quotes:
Chen, Te-Ping. http://criminaljustice.change.org. 16 Febuary 2010..
Gelinas, Nichole. “Katrina Refugees Shoot Up Houston.” City Journal (2006).
Laundry, Ryan and Elizabeth L. Rankin. Violent Crime Rates In Houston Before and After Katrina. Sowthwestern Econimc Review: reserch Notes. Shreveport: Sowthwestern Econimc Review, 2008.
Osunsami, Steve. http://abcnews.go.com. 16 November 2005..
Pinkerton, James. Katrina’s Impact on crime questioned. News Report. Houston: Houston Chronicle, 2010.
Ready, Captin Dwayne. Homicide rate on track to be worst in a decade Jennifer Leahy. Houston: Houston Chronicle, 21 October 2006.
Roberts, Joel. “Houston Cops Link Crime To Katrina.” 15 August 2006. http://www.cbsnews.com. .
Carlisle, Kristin. “It’s Like You’re Walking But Your Feet Ain’t Going Nowhere.” NHI 147 (2006): 2.