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Signs of 'Katrina fatigue' in Houston

Survey shows stresses from absorbing 150,000 from storm

09:32 AM CDT on Saturday, April 15, 2006

By BRUCE NICHOLS / The Dallas Morning News

HOUSTON – For property manager Marcia Clark, the thousands of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina still in Houston are "like a relative that came to visit and stayed too long."

"You still feel like they're family," she said as she waited to collect rent for housing some of them. "But ... can we just go back to the way it was? You're tired."

Reports of increased crime, fights in schools and landlords getting paid late have left some in Houston wondering whether Dallas Mayor Laura Miller was right to be cautious in welcoming evacuees.

A recent survey found signs of "Katrina fatigue" among Houstonians, and officials acknowledge stresses associated with an estimated 150,000 evacuees, many of them needy, still burdening public services.

With the Federal Emergency Management Agency pushing to phase out subsidies, local officials – who acknowledge government can't support evacuees forever – express concern about the neediest. "We don't know where they're going to go," said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

That was one of the questions that troubled Ms. Miller as she tried to limit Dallas' response while Houston Mayor Bill White and Harris County Judge Robert Eckels threw open their arms.

"You can't give a long-term solution if you're bringing in more than you can handle," Ms. Miller said. "I admire that Houston took in so many people. I also know that they're struggling."

Houston officials say the city handled as many as 300,000 evacuees at the peak and, given time, will cope with challenges associated with winding down the program.

"I am concerned about it," Judge Eckels said. But if it all happened again, "We'd still be a good neighbor."

Good and bad

The survey by Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg questioned 765 Houstonians from mid-February into early March. Ninety-seven percent said that Houston had come together to help, but 76 percent cited strained city services and 66 percent an increase in violent crime.

Forty-seven percent said the overall effect of evacuees had been bad compared with 36 percent who saw it as good. The margin of error was 3 percentage points.

"There's that feeling of 'enough already,' and there's anxiety about being stuck carrying the economic burden," Dr. Klineberg said.

New Orleans native LaMont Moore, now living and looking for a job in Houston, has felt the negative vibes.

"They heard on TV, you had a so-called criminal element that came ... that these people are taking our resources" he said. "That led to people having a bad taste in their mouth."

Homicides are, in fact, up – whether it's 25 percent as headlined in the Houston Chronicle recently or 14 percent as claimed by the mayor's office.

The Harris County Hospital District is awaiting reimbursement for more than $11 million in medical care for needy evacuees. Schools are struggling to serve storm-stressed New Orleans kids who already were behind.

There's been resentment among the homeless already in Houston that the newcomers have received preferential treatment, which officials deny.

The additional homicides have been concentrated in two of the city's 24 police districts, where many evacuees settled into apartments, but problems aren't widespread, said Frank Michel, spokesman for the mayor's office.

"They were high crime areas before the hurricane," he said. "They continue to be. ... But we have a plan to get hold of this, and we don't think people across Houston need to be alarmed."

Police Chief Harold Hurtt is battling a surge in officer retirements and using overtime and staff realignments to take care of the problem. Mr. Michel said the city expects federal reimbursement to cover the costs.

As for the hospital district, spokesman Bryan McLeod said most of the health-care tab was incurred while evacuees were still in the Astrodome.

"There were 2,000 patients that first 24-hour period," he said. "That's a lot to add to normal operations ... but really FEMA isn't the issue for us because ... we're more confident we're going to get reimbursement from Medicaid."

Since September, when the district's clinics and hospitals were serving 200 evacuees a week, the number has dropped to 30 to 40, he said, "and we've absorbed it pretty easily into our standard patient flow."

School experience

Schools have had a tougher time.

With more than 22,000 displaced New Orleans students in Houston schools, "it's been very, very rough," said Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, who cites the special needs associated with children from a troubled system traumatized by disaster.

Houston school districts have been promised additional federal aid, she said, but "we're talking major remediation to bring them up to speed. We're talking major medical counseling services. And the one that scares everyone in Houston is what happens in August, just when school's starting, and the FEMA money runs out. Thousands of families on the streets is really scary."

The sense of urgency is apparent among the 300 people still working at the Joint Hurricane Housing Task Force to forestall a surge in homelessness.

"It's become personal to me," said team member Belinda Luna, who has worked with landlords and evacuees since September."

Ms. Luna said she's energized by having helped build the equivalent of a $400 million company that within months will be dismantled. "Even though there's a lot of cleanup to do, I think it's awesome the way that we've been able to come to this point," she said.

"A key factor in the response is, 'There but for the grace of God go we,' " said Dr. Klineberg, who did the survey, referring to Houston's own vulnerability to hurricanes.

Apartment manager Kit Snyder said she had some problems with the process. But evacuees filled empty apartments, and her experience generally was good. Would she house them again? "Absolutely," she said.

Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt predicted good feelings will trump bad in the long run. "The fact is there's been a tremendous amount of economic activity ... in the last six months," he said.

Part of it is high oil prices, Mr. Bettencourt said, but much of it is the effect of new residents because of Katrina.

"The vast majority ... are involved in raising a family, starting a business, working for an energy company," he said. "They're going to be part of the Houston economy for years to come."

Staff writer Emily Ramshaw contributed to this report.


Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg has been surveying Houston attitudes for 25 years, adding Katrina-related questions this year.

Survey subjects were asked if they agree or disagree with the following statements:

The Houston community really came together to help the evacuees.

97 percent agreed

2 percent disagreed

1 percent didn't know

Helping the evacuees has put a considerable strain on the Houston community.

76 percent agreed

21 percent disagreed

4 percent didn't know (exceeds 100 percent because of rounding)

A major increase in violent crime occurred in Houston because of the evacuees.

66 percent agreed

26 percent disagreed

8 percent didn't know

Survey subjects were asked their opinion in response to the following statements:

On balance, would you say the overall impact of evacuees on Houston has been a good thing for Houston or a bad thing?

36 percent said good

47 percent said bad

17 percent didn't know.

Do you think Houston would ultimately be better off or worse off if most of the evacuees decided to stay?

23 percent said better off

49 percent said worse off

28 percent didn't know

The survey was sponsored by a consortium of foundations, corporations and individuals. Selected at random, 765 people were reached by telephone between Feb. 13 and March 22. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

SOURCE: Rice University survey