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Houston Struggles to Accomodate Katrina Evacuees

March 2, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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LEE HOCHBERG: The Ragin’ Cajun restaurant has been serving up steaming bowls of crawfish for 35 years. But, since evacuees from Hurricane Katrina landed in Houston, the restaurant has earned an extra $2,000 per week. Of the 150,000 who remain, half plan to settle in the city, new customers for owner Frank Messina.

FRANK MESSINA: A lot of people from New Orleans are trying to get the food they got back home. So it’s really, really great. They love crawfish, and muffalatas are famous in New Orleans. Anything that I have like in New Orleans, they just go crazy.

LEE HOCHBERG: But if the new residents mean more money infused into the economy, their numbers also mean difficult new demands on the nation’s fourth-largest city. Although the evacuees may have blended into Houston, scattered in 35,000 apartments throughout the sprawling city, their impact is evident in the public schools, which are spending $180,000 per school day to educate 6,000 of them. And there are 3,000 more in the neighboring district of Alief, which has provided regular counseling sessions for the evacuees.

DERON FRAZIER: You know, I don’t think it’s fair, us being in a situation coming — having to evacuate to Houston, coming from a disaster, whatever. I really think this is a tragedy, and I’m kind of still stressful from that.

COUNSELOR: Clementina, how are you settling in?

CLEMENTINA NUNEZ: I’m settling kind of very good, but at the beginning it was a new transition for me. It’s just so much different from where I came from. And at the beginning, it was like, “Oh, you’re from Katrina,” and it was all about Katrina, and it wasn’t about, “Well, you know, you’re just another student.” It was all about Katrina, Katrina.

STEFANIE NOBLE: How are you? You look nice today.

LEE HOCHBERG: Alief Assistant Principal Stefanie Noble says teachers and staff are overwhelmed by the problems.

STEFANIE NOBLE: I’m seeing them a little more tired, and just emotionally exhausted, and very, very stressed out. The teachers have kind of grieved, because they don’t feel like they can meet all their needs in one academic school year. And they feel, on top of the fact that those kids have lost everything, the children are struggling so much.

LEE HOCHBERG: Subtle barriers make integrating New Orleans kids into Texas schools difficult.

GROUP OF STUDENTS: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.

LEE HOCHBERG: For instance, all of the kids at this middle school in Alief, including the Louisiana kids, start their day with pledges to the American and the Texan flags.

GROUP OF STUDENTS: I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one and indivisible.

LEE HOCHBERG: Principal Ann Malone says, for the benefit of the evacuees, she’s discovering the importance of mixing Louisiana culture into the school day.

(Band plays “When the Saints Go Marching In”)

LEE HOCHBERG: On the eve of Mardi Gras, the school tried turning the morning announcements over to the Louisiana kids.

TEACHER: And today, they’re going to share some information, brief history of the jazz music.

STUDENT: The very earliest roots of jazz were in the southern states during the mid-1800s.

ANN MALONE: And the idea came from a teacher who was concerned about how the kids from New Orleans, and Louisiana, and Katrina are not assimilating into the school; they’re wanting to stay by themselves and cling to one another.

These kids are going through a lot of emotion. A lot of them are still homeless. Some of them don’t know where they’re going to be next school year. Their families are in turmoil. They’re homesick. They miss where they’re from. They miss their culture. They miss their food.

HEALTH CARE WORKER: Can you move your hand?

HOCHBERG: Houston’s health care system is facing challenges of a more difficult nature. At the West Houston Medical Center, emergency room visits have more than doubled since Katrina, many of the patients Louisiana residents. Lori Litzinger directs emergency room services.

LORI LITZINGER: The nursing staff is overwhelmed. The emergency services in probably all of Houston is just busting at the seams. We have nowhere to put the patients. If the E.R. is totally impacted, your whole house is impacted. The house is totally full all the time.

We can’t move patients into the house, and these are patients that need to be admitted in. The staff, I mean, are on their last legs. I don’t think that they can tolerate too many more months of this constant barrage of influx that we’re getting.

LEE HOCHBERG: Litzinger says the evacuees, many without insurance, jobs, or money, use the emergency room for primary care. On the night we visited, the E.R. was in “diversion mode,” meaning the hospital was forced to turn away ambulances when all of their beds filled.

Some of Louisiana’s other social problems also appear to have become Houston’s. At the Search Homeless Shelter, one of the city’s largest, some who struggled in New Orleans now are looking for help here.

Anden Johnson says she was in a New Orleans jail until she was evacuated to Houston in late August. She’s been homeless since but has no intention of returning to Louisiana, where she says services are inferior to Houston’s.

What kind of services are you needing here, though?

ANDEN JOHNSON: Right, today?

LEE HOCHBERG: Well, yes, since you’ve been here.

ANDEN JOHNSON: I need to get clothes. I need clothes, food, and I need housing, help with housing.

LEE HOCHBERG: Medical?

ANDEN JOHNSON: Medical, yes, and that’s all.

LEE HOCHBERG: Under some criticism for inviting in new problems, Houston’s mayor, Bill White, says his city had no choice but to take all comers.

MAYOR BILL WHITE: We can’t open our arms to our fellow Americans who have the freedom to travel and whose homes have been devastated and say, “Everybody come to Houston, except, if you’re homeless, you can’t come here.” For one thing, that’s illegal. It’s unconstitutional. For another, it’s not the right thing to do.

So what we’ve done is, people from the devastated area, we’ve tried to help them get back on their feet so they can make their own choices. Most of those people are working people who are contributing to the economy, and there’s some small group with special needs.

LEE HOCHBERG: Still, some Houstonians are blaming evacuees for rising in crime, a 20 percent jump in the number of murders last year. That concern is voiced regularly in the Houston media.

TELEVISION ANCHOR: Well, people have been talking about this for weeks, wondering how many Houston murder cases were connected to Katrina evacuees now living here in town. Well, Houston’s police chief says it is double the number that he first told us about earlier this year.

LEE HOCHBERG: The Houston Police Department has begun tracking all crimes in which evacuees were either the victims or suspects. Eighteen of Houston’s 129 murders last year involved new residents from New Orleans.

CEDRIC NICKERSON, HOUSTON POLICE DEPARTMENT: It’s heating up again. You can hear it; 39 is getting another call.

LEE HOCHBERG: This is a typical evening for Officer Cedric Nickerson, who routinely patrols in southwest Houston, an area of town where many evacuees have settled.

CEDRIC NICKERSON: They took your car?

CRIME VICTIM: Yes.

CEDRIC NICKERSON: What color is the car?

CRIME VICTIM: Green.

CEDRIC NICKERSON: Green, what is it?

LEE HOCHBERG: In the 90 minutes we spent on patrol that evening, Officer Nickerson responded to three carjackings and one domestic disturbance involving two evacuees from New Orleans. But Nickerson stopped short of blaming the crime problem on people from New Orleans.

CEDRIC NICKERSON: It’s kind of hard to say. You know, people from New Orleans have been more victimized because we do have, you know, people right here from Houston that have been preying on evacuees, because they know that they’re not familiar with the area. And it can go vice versa also.

LEE HOCHBERG: Mayor White acknowledges criminal activity has gone up, but he says that’s because population numbers have increased.

MAYOR BILL WHITE: Everybody, from the person who is a president of the company at the top floor of the big building to the person who swept the floors, has moved here from New Orleans. And there’s a small percentage in every city who prey on the vulnerable, and we got some of them, too.

LEE HOCHBERG: Still, the city is asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse it for a portion of the $6 million it’s spent on overtime for police officers. For all of its new social needs, Houston expects to bill the federal government between $500 million and $1 billion.

And David Paulison, acting director of FEMA, says the city does deserve some help for all it has done.

DAVID PAULISON: We’re extremely, extremely grateful for the citizens of Houston stepping up to the plate, and not only stepping up to the plate, but doing it very graciously and very lovingly taking these people in. So we are going to help Houston as much as we can, as far as the extent of the law will allow us to do that.

LEE HOCHBERG: Houston could use the help. But in some ways, the migration has had a silver lining: Along with their troubles, displaced musicians have brought their music to town. Bar owner Pete Mitchell now features a New Orleans brass band once a week.

PETE MITCHELL: Sure, there’s problems with bringing, you know, 200,000 people into a city, but overall I think it’s been fantastic. They’re great people, and we’re glad to have them.

LEE HOCHBERG: Mitchell hopes the music eases the adjustment between Houstonians and the newcomers.