Crime hindered evacuation

When the president and Congress begin deliberating the failures of government and leaders attendant to Hurricane Katrina, it is vital that they evaluate the role that crime and lawlessness in New Orleans before the hurricane played in discouraging evacuation of the city.

When the president and Congress begin deliberating the failures of government and leaders attendant to Hurricane Katrina, it is vital that they evaluate the role that crime and lawlessness in New Orleans before the hurricane played in discouraging evacuation of the city.

Liberals will try to steer the blame elsewhere, but rampant crime played a prominent role that merits investigation.

The media’s analysis of residents who refused to leave New Orleans in advance of the storm has focused on poverty, racism and discrimination. Some were thought to be too poor or too old. Others didn’t own cars.

There is undoubtedly an element of truth in these social explanations, but they don’t tell the whole story. Viewers of news coverage from the scene in New Orleans frequently saw interviews with strong, able-bodied men and women with money in their pockets who said they refused to leave the city because of fears about looting.

Pre-storm polls taken by the University of New Orleans provide systematic evidence that New Orleans was saturated by a fear of crime long before the levees broke and the floodwaters rose. A series of Quality of Life polls, conducted biennially since 1986 by the University’s Survey Research Center under the direction of professor Susan Howell, documented a startling rise in crime concerns in the most recent survey, released in April 2004. Subsequently, Howell surveyed area residents in 2004 and 2005 specifically to explore their attitudes toward hurricane evacuations.

The 2004 Quality of Life poll revealed a precipitous decline in citizens’ perceptions of life in their community. Four in 10 residents of Orleans Parish described themselves as dissatisfied with life there. Thirty-six percent of residents said the parish had become a worse place to live during the prior five years. By comparison, just 22 percent of residents said life in the parish had improved during the same period. That represented a sharp decline from the 1998, 2000 and 2002 surveys when, on average, twice as many Orleans residents (40 percent to 49 percent) said things had been getting better.

This drop-off in citizen satisfaction likely had several causes, but poll director Howell seemed to believe that a rising murder rate and perceptions of lawlessness were key factors. Howell’s 2004 survey found that 63 percent of parish residents believed crime was increasing. In the three prior studies, less than half that number ever believed that crime was increasing. In 2000, for example, only 15 percent perceived a rising crime rate, less than one-fourth the 63 percent recorded in 2004.

The poll also recorded that a majority of Orleans’s black residents reported sometimes hearing gunfire in their own neighborhoods. Fully one-third (33 percent) of blacks said they heard gunfire a few times each month or more. Only 25 percent of residents said they felt very safe in their homes, down from 42 percent in the 2000 survey.

These opinions were not without some foundation in fact. A New Orleans Police Foundation report issued in 2004 acknowledged a rising murder rate, emphasizing that “a New Orleanian is now seven times more likely to be murdered than a New Yorker.”

Given these dark statistics, it’s not surprising that 46 percent of Orleans Parish residents thought crime was the most important problem facing the parish. And it should not surprise that only 3 percent of residents rated police services as excellent while 29 percent rated them as poor.

Against this backdrop, Howell surveyed residents in 2004 and 2005 to ascertain their views toward evacuations. She concluded that social status was not a significant factor in willingness to evacuate. Instead, she concluded that perceptions of threat severity and home safety were paramount.

While Howell’s measurement of safety focused on construction integrity, it would logically follow that safety from crime and burglary would have played a strong role in evacuation decisions too. The possibility is too great to ignore.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.