Storm Evacuees Strain Texas Hosts
HOUSTON, April 15 — To the long list of adjectives used to describe Texans since last summer's hurricanes — munificent, intrepid, scrappy — add one more: fed up.
Seven months after two powerful hurricanes blew through the Gulf Coast, elected officials, law enforcement agencies and many residents say Texas is nearing the end of its ability to play good neighbor without compensation.
Houston is straining along its municipal seams from the 150,000 new residents from New Orleans, officials say. Crime was already on the rise there before the hurricane, but the Houston police say that evacuees were victims or suspects in two-thirds of the 30 percent increase in murders since September. The schools are also struggling to educate thousands of new children.
To the east of here, Texans argue that Hurricane Rita, which took an unexpected turn away from Houston shortly after Hurricane Katrina last fall to wreak havoc from Jasper to the northeast to Sabine Pass near the Louisiana border, has been forgotten in the swirl of attention given to the devastation in New Orleans.
In fact, they say, the nation never really took notice of the 77,000 homes made uninhabitable by Hurricane Rita's force, 40,000 of which were not insured, or the piles of debris and garbage that still fester along the roads. "Personally I am sick of hearing about Katrina," said Ronda Authement, standing outside her trailer in Sabine Pass, where she will live until she can get the money and the workers to put her three-bedroom house back on its foundation. "I would like to throw up, frankly, hearing about Katrina."
In its frustration, Texas has thrown its hat in the great Congressional money game, arguing vociferously for federal money to help pay for new police officers in Houston, where the force has dwindled in recent years, and to repair homes in East Texas, where many poor residents lack the means and the insurance to do it on their own.
Though the state has requested $2 billion in federal aid to pay for law enforcement, education and housing, state officials say they have received $222 million so far.
"We were told we would be taken care of by everybody on the federal level," said Chris Paulitz, a spokesman for Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, who recently helped get $380 million in aid added to President Bush's latest supplemental request for Texas. "But clearly that isn't the case. Texas opened its doors and hearts, and that is something we will continue to do today. However, we need to be reimbursed."
Houston's relationship with its added population is subtle and at times ambivalent. Residents, atomized over a broad swath of land with few interneighborhood connections, seem at one level to be dedicated to helping their neighbors, and are quick to cite numerous examples of continued volunteerism and the improved lives of children who they say are getting a better education than they received in New Orleans.
But they are also keenly aware of spikes in crime, especially in Southwest Houston, where the majority of the poorest New Orleanians settled.
"The city of Houston bent over backwards for these people, and I am glad we did it," said Scott Wilson, 43, who lives in the Montrose section. "But now we are absorbing some of their problems."
Evacuees have been victims of or accused of committing 39 of the 235 murders in Houston since last September, said Houston's police chief, Harold Hurtt. In January alone, there was a 34 percent rise in felonies over the previous year in the city.
"I can't tell you what percentage of that group is evacuees," Chief Hurtt said. "But I am sure they are really represented in that group."
Chief Hurtt said that some of the gangs that once operated in New Orleans housing projects had relocated to Houston, a city plagued with its own gang problems.
In response, the city moved 100 officers working in city jails to high-crime areas, and greatly increased overtime, a tall order for a department that has lost 800 officers to retirement over the last two years.
The city has asked the federal government for $77 million to hire 560 officers over five years. At Senator Hutchison's request, the Department of Justice recently sent the Police Department $20 million to help pay for patrolling high-crime areas.
The Houston public school system, with about 208,000 students, also wants money to pay for more teachers, additional facilities and tutoring help for its roughly 30,000 evacuee children. The New Orleans schools, surrounded by far greater poverty than Houston, are among the nation's most troubled.
Houston's school system has also experienced fighting between local and New Orleans students in its schools — 27 students from the two sides were arrested in one melee — but school crime is down over all.
"It has been a challenge," said Terry Abbott, a spokesman for Houston Independent School District, "but generally the vast majority of the children are well behaved and many are grateful to be here."
But results on standardized tests suggest that "the students from Louisiana were substantially behind the Texas kids," Mr. Abbott said.
"We have asked the state government for resources to get them up to speed," said Mr. Abbott, with an eye toward regulations of the federal No Child Left Behind law. "That will be a concern, but these children are ours now, and we don't look at them in any other way."
In East Texas, state officials are seeking roughly $1 billion in new federal block-grant money to house people whose homes were destroyed by Hurricane Rita.
Texas officials concede that their coast was not pummeled nearly as badly as their neighbors in Louisiana, but they argue that their residents did not evacuate and were now trying to live in squalid, mold-infested conditions.
"I have been to the Ninth Ward," said Mark Viator, chairman of the Recovery Coalition of Southeast Texas, speaking of the most devastated neighborhood in New Orleans. "There is debris in the Ninth Ward, but you don't have people. We say, send the money where the people are."
Henry Bowie, who lives in Port Arthur, a city with high unemployment and many poor residents, is the sort of person Mr. Viator thinks should get federal housing money. His house is a patchwork of broken roofing, and light is visible through the floorboards because the house is off its foundation. Black mold grows up the sides of the walls, but Mr. Bowie, who undergoes dialysis three times a week, remains there with his wife and teenage son.
Not everyone is sympathetic to the needs of Texas, where oil refinery businesses continue to take in millions of dollars in profits monthly, even though state officials say they do not have enough workers because of a housing shortage. In testimony at a recent appropriations hearing, Senator Christopher S. Bond, Republican of Missouri, said he did not believe Texans needed housing money.
"Texas, in the best role of traditional Judeo-Christian charity, provided benefits," Mr. Bond said. "I think it's time we get back to being a good neighbor and not a paid companion."
Senator Hutchison, who spoke next, was not amused.
Mayor Guy N. Goodson of Beaumont, where thousands of homes were damaged, said he would like to see federal reimbursements for debris removal there rise to 90 percent of costs from 75 percent, equaling what it was in Louisiana. Mayor Goodson said his area suffered inattention because its residents had done the right thing: evacuating and rebuilding without complaint after Hurricane Rita cut its path.
"There is a great disjoinder in people's minds about disaster," he said. "You see wildfires, you see a tornado, and who can forget the pictures of the Ninth Ward. A vast majority of our area is wind damage. And unfortunately from a sensory standpoint, people just don't coordinate these two very similar disasters."