Houston After Katrina

Click to Listen to the Show (24 MB MP3)

In the immediate aftermath of Katrina the story in Houston was the instantaneous and effective combination of public participation, private philanthropy, and civic coordination. In a city that was never known for its social capital, Houstonians opened their veins, their pocketbooks, their houses. 85% gave something. The largest homeless shelter in the history of the country was put together in a matter of days. The Dallas Morning News, the paper of the northern rival, named Houston as its “Texan” of the year.

Within a few months the story had changed to worries about the overburdened social services network, concerns over Federal reimbursement for the city’s immediate largesse, and crime. New Orleans gangs had brought their businesses and their grudges with them, and once they had dried themselves off, the narrative went, they were more than happy to carry on where they’d left off. Katrina “donor fatigue” set in. Cops talked about culture clashes: about a New Orleanian crime element that was more violent, more reckless, more fearless than even the worst offenders Houston normally threw at them. Questions of race — and racism — cropped up, as evidenced by a controversy surrounding the meaning of seemingly innocuous “Thanks Houston” bumper stickers. Was this sincere gratitude, Houstonians (and black New Orleanians) wondered, or a thinly veiled message that transferring a hundred thousand poor blacks to Texas was a bonus for the richer, whiter folks who were moving back to New Orleans?

Nearly a year has passed by now. Somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 Katrina refugees have ended up in Houston — a few before the storm, most after — and the vast majority seem to be there to stay. Houston was already an enormous, populous, multi-ethnic sprawl — with something like 5.3 million people in the greater metropolitan area — that has been adding about a million Hispanic and Asian immigrants every 15 years. But even in the Gulf Coast’s megalopolis, a Katrina-sized and nearly instant population bump is hardly insignificant.

Is a year long enough to ask: What will be the effects of this tremendous migration? How much of New Orleans is in Houston? How much of Houston is already in the new transplants? What are the signs that the graft has been successful — or that it’s a bust?

Deborah Campbell

Katrina evacuee in Houston

Stephen Klineberg

Professor of Sociology, Rice University

Founding director, annual Houston Area Survey

Brian Harris

Sergeant and Homicide Investigator, Houston Police Department

Mandy Kao

Houston landlord to hundreds of Katrina evacuees

Chris Doelle

Citizen journalist, Houston-based blogger

Maitri Venkat-Ramani

Citizen journalist, New Orleans-based blogger

Extra Credit Reading

Tara Young, Rolling with Tabitha rose, Post-K: Life after Katrina in Houston, April 12, 2006: “Houston gave so many thousands an opportunity to wipe their life’s slate clean and to start over. It awed and overwhelmed me, the skeptic. Now a recent survey says that hospitality is wearing thin….I’m ashamed of the way some New Orleanians have behaved here in Texas…. At the same time, it bothers me when Texans criticize their behavior.”

Tara Young, I stand corrected, Post K: Life after Hurricane Katrina in Houston, July 24, 2006: “A mother recently told a reporter at the Houston Chronicle that she believes her son was killed here because he hailed from New Orleans.”

Stephanie Fontenette, Katrina Stories, Tulane University Katrina Stories, March 20, 2006: “We were blessed by many from Houston. We were provided a house (no rent required) by someone we met on the street who through conversation found out that we were from New Orleans.”

Tory Gattis, Thoughts on the post-Katrina future of New Orleans and Houston, Houston Strategies, September 5, 2005: “Locally and nationally, I think Houston’s amazing generosity will work wonders for our image.”

Miguel Bustillo, Houston Grumbles as Evacuees Stay Put, Los Angeles Times, August 21, 2006: “Privately, Texas leaders quickly began to fret that the bedraggled masses that accepted their invitation were overwhelming the state.”

Nicole Gelinas, Houston’s Noble Experiment, City Journal, Spring 2006: “Can one city’s good governance help undo what another city’s bad governance helped create?”

Christopher Drew, Drug Problems Escalate After Hurricane Katrina, The New York Times, August 5, 2006: “The drug trade in New Orleans is flourishing again, after its dealers, who evacuated to the regional drug hub of Houston, forged closer ties to major suppliers from the Mexican and Colombian cartels.”

Related Content

  • mcasemo

    Want to upset some folks from New Orleans, the LA coast, and the Mississippi gulf coast? Focus on Houston this close to the anniversary.

  • tbrucia

    Five things: (1) Houston owes a lot to its media outlets. Unlike many cities, Houstonians bend over backwards to avoid the black/white dichotomy common elsewhere. How can folks slip into a racial interpretation of events when one anchor is Hispanic, another is Asian, and the third is black, and a woman is interviewing a black neighbor of a criminal originally from New Orleans about his attitude toward crime? (2) The fact that city politics are non-partisan helps. Since candidates do not identify themselves as R’s or D’s, most Houstonians don’t know (or care) about the political affiliation of their mayor or councilmen. Also, (3), since Houston doesn’t have zoning, various economic, racial, ethnic and other groups are plastered over the countryside in a hodgepodge of enclaves. It looks ugly, but the dynamics of the city are awesome! Slums are replaced by upscale townhouses (and vice versa); businesses plop down beside commercial strips; 1200 square foot shacks sit beside 5000 square foot McMansions. It’s hard to focus any consistent hatred against any group in such a kalidascopic urban mess! (4) The Houston police department has the (almost) universal support of all ethnic groups, and the tradition of law and order is deep in all its ethnic groups. There are so many black officers and black citizens solidly behind the police department (and everyone knows this) that criminals from ANYWHERE get no sympathy based on their skin color. Last, (5) this city is all about work… It’s not where people come for natural beauty, or to relax, or to ‘enjoy the good life’; it’s where folks come to work, make money, and get ahead (and folks come from all over the world in hopes of doing these things!

  • tbrucia

    Oops, another factor: the importance of churches (and synagoges and masjids) in this city. Look at the Houston response to the Louisiana influx, and the fingerprints of churches are everywhere. I’m not a churchgoer myself but most folks are. (Consider this: The largest church in the nation is Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, housed in the former home of the Houston Rockets!)

  • tbrucia,

    thanks for all that information. I’ve never really had a sense of Houston. (though I was born in Waco and live in Abilene for four middle school years.)

    given what you’re saying about the demographics in the area, can you help us make sense of the claims about rising crime and that it is coming from the Orleanians? How are the Orleanians responding to these claims?

  • tbrucia

    No doubt a disproportionate amount of crime involves New Orleans people — both as victims and as perpetrators. Many of these folks (not all!) were dirt poor slumdwellers and have the same problems here as there — but are also adrift in a strange city with no anchors. Since crime is not perceived as a big Houston problem, the rising crime rate is mostly a ‘media thing’ and/or a problem for folks living solely in areas where large concentrations of displaced New Orleans folks live. I suspect most people are more concerned about issues of traffic (with a lot of construction going on!) than with crime among these poor souls.

  • nother

    Are we sure that the rise in crime is not simply proportionate and relative to a rise in population of 200,000 people – a rapid rise at that. I just did a little research and the facts are that Houston’s population rose 10%, it’s murder rate rose 17%, and overall crime actually fell by 2%. Do these stats warrant the multitude of sensational articles I’ve read about Katrina refuges bringing higher crime?

    I am very leery of these higher crime statements. It’s a perfect story for Fox news, the headline reads “Crime rises in Houston� as the camera shows us black New Orleanians milling about. I’m reminded of the sensational reports of black people on the ground shooting at rescue helicopters, It turns out that the helicopter story was never substantiated but I haven’t yet seen any retractions. These kind of stories tap into deep seeded fears many of us have about race and news organizations all too often exploit these fears.

    It also smacks of lazy journalism by many in the media, instead of going into the city and reporting on the complexities of this situation (as ROS is doing here), they simply take the press report from the Police department stating the 17% increase in murder rates and – well, that’s enough, “Katrina refugees raise murder rate� is all the story they need.

  • “It’s a perfect story for Fox news, the headline reads “Crime rises in Houstonâ€? as the camera shows us black New Orleanians milling about.”

    And how do we know they’re Orleanians? Are they wearing something on their sleeves? Or is just that “you can tell”?

    I’d like to see real statistics about the perpetrators of these crimes. Also, murder rates have been rising in many cities. Boston’s is out of control and quite frightening. So, again, is it really the displaced Orleanians or simply a cycle? And do Houstonians really feel this way or is this a national media hype thing?

  • Today’s nola.com speaks of Texas men arrested with their cocaine seized near Covington, LA. Since the storm, we’ve seen a huge spike in cars with Texas plates here, most of them run down and their drivers unaware of directions and road rules in New Orleans. Are these displaced Houstonians or those looking for a new market / jobs? These people, along with the large number of fugitives from the nation over, are raising our crime rate, too, just so you know.

  • nother

    From the Washington Post, one of the few thorough reports I found:


    “Since Sept. 1, when an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 Louisianans resettled in Houston after Hurricane Katrina, evacuees are believed to have been involved in 26 slayings, or nearly 17 percent of all homicides. The cases, according to Houston police, involved 34 evacuees — 19 of them victims and 15 of them suspects.â€?

    “Officials are careful not to blame Houston’s recent rise in violent crime solely on Katrina evacuees, saying such statistics were rising last year before the hurricane. They point to what they call the majority of law-abiding Louisianans now living in the city and say the crime rate per thousand for the evacuee population is not greater than it was among Houstonians before the influx of Katrina survivors.â€?

    “The addition of the evacuee population has dropped the ratio of police officers per thousand Houstonians to 1.9, compared with 2.3 before Katrina and with the national average of 2.8�

    I believe those 26 murders the evacuees were involved in have earned a disproportionate amount of media coverage in this saga. Another factor may be an intent by some to scapegoat the evacuees for a violent crime problem Houston already had, double the national average: http://houston.areaconnect.com/crime1.htm

    And yes Allison, it looks like crime is rising throughout the country�


    “Preliminary figures indicate that, as a whole, law enforcement agencies throughout the Nation reported an increase of 2.5 percent in the number of violent crimes brought to their attention in 2005�

  • fiddlesticks

    I see that Katrina has become another hub of conspiratorial thinking.


    Spike even seems to suggest that the levees were blown up in order to kill black people. This reminds me of the conspiracy theory that the US instigated the attacks on the WTC towers.

  • fiddlesticks

    from the NY Times:

    “The critics and audience will have the final say on whether “Leveesâ€? is the thorough examination that Mr. Lee intends. His views are clear. “What happened in New Orleans was a criminal act,â€? he said, a tragic backhanded slap to poor, black or politically insignificant people. “The levees were a Band-Aid here and a Band-Aid there. In the famous statement of Malcolm X, the chickens came home to roost. Somebody needs to go to jail.â€?”


  • ashley

    Think about the capital that went to Texas and went out of Louisiana. All that eating out, buying food and clothes, buying cars, paying for gasoline and hotels…all that money went to Houston, all that money should have been spent in Louisiana.

    I don’t want to hear another word about how we should thank Houston; Houston should thank us. The infusion of cash to these border states has increased their revenues and tax base to levels they couldn’t have dreamed of.

    Now, to hear them complain about how we’re the ones causing the crime. Thanks Houston.

  • Brian Thompson

    After listening to the show last night, I have one correction. One of the guests, I apologize for not remembering his name or his role, commented about some of Houston’s statistics. I was amazed to hear that Houston is the 4th largest US City and will “soon” be 3rd. However, the guest commented that the official Houston Metro area is larger than the state of Massachusetts. When discussing how amazing this was with an office mate, we decided to look up some statistics. Massachusetts is 10,555 square miles. Although I do not know the offical definition of the Houston Metro area, a quick look on Google Earth tells you that, if the Houston area is bigger than Mass, they must be included thousands (literally) of square miles of farmland and open area in the Houston metro area. I am sure that Houston is large, but realistically looks about 10% the size of Mass.

  • houstonDave

    I came to Houston many years ago when I was 18 and I have never been so proud to be here as I was during our response to Hurricane Katrina. My mom volunteered at the Astrodome. I asked her if I could, too, and she said they had TOO MANY volunteers! We quickly donated lots of clothing and soon afterwards came the word that they had as much clothing as they could handle and stopped collecting.

    ashley: You are one nasty piece of work! We here in Houston have provided a tremendous amount of goods and services to those who came here with nothing or very little. We did not get an “infusion of cash,” we probably lost a lot of money in the process, but we’d be proud to do it again for our neighbors in need. As far as your ignorant remark regarding crime is concerned: The increase in the number of murders that Houston experienced post-Katrina compared to the same period in 2004 was almost exactly the same number that we know were committed by evacuees. That’s just a fact.

    Brian Thompson: If you had gone to Google instead of Google Earth, you would have easily found out that the Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown Statistical Metropolitan Area is only slightly smaller than Massachussetts. Neither of us are qualified to argue the definition of metro area, because I think some of it is pretty bogus and you probably would, too.

    I thought the show was good, but you missed a few points. First, not everyone who came here from New Orleans was poor. Many upper- and middle-class people came, too, and a good number have stayed. Some businesses have moved here as well.

    Another fact about Houston is that an enormous number of people that live here (I’d guess a majority) were not born here. We don’t have the dominating presence of old patrician families like the Kennedys of Boston. This is because it is a relatively new city, while New Orleans was a fairly well-established older city.

    Texans don’t like hand-outs as a rule, but when catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina followed by a stunningly incompetent federal response happens, we have the good judgment to suspend our normal stinginess to those in need.

    And, finally, you forgot to mention that Houston is what it is today thanks to a deadly hurricane. In 1900, Galveston was the major port city of Texas until it got destroyed by a hurricane (6,000 – 8,000 dead) and then the Houston Ship Channel was built and Houston became the major city on the Texas Gulf Coast.

    As Hurricane Ernesto seems to be forming, we may get the chance to do this all over again.

  • Brian Thompson

    Thanks for the clarification, houstonDave. My correction needs to be altered, but is still valid. The guest on the show called the area the Houston Metro Area. If the official area being discussed is, in fact, the Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown Statistical Metropolitan Area, than that’s what needs to be said. Also, smaller than is obviously different than larger than. Anyway, thanks for the clarification.

  • houstonDave

    You’re welcome, Brian,

    I think the guest was using shorthand by using the shorter name, Houston Metro area. If you take Highway 59 to Sugar Land, there is no longer a space in between that might define where one begins and the other ends. About 12 years ago, I lived in Stafford which is adjacent to Sugar Land to the west and Houston to the northeast. At that time there was a small gap between the two, but that has since been erased. I haven’t been out to Baytown in a long time, but I suspect that a similar growth pattern may have occurred.

    I think the fact that the Houston area is on the order of magnitude in population and area of some small New England states may give some listeners some perspective of what that means for Houston’s challenges and capabilities.