updated 8/15/2006 6:17:17 PM ET 2006-08-15T22:17:17

Murders are up more than 50 percent this year in suburban New Orleans’ Jefferson Parish, and the sheriff blames drug dealers who have set up operations here after being driven out of the big city by Hurricane Katrina.

Thirty-five people had been murdered in the parish as of Tuesday night. Through mid-August of last year, the number was 23. Sheriff Harry Lee released statistics showing that 18 of this year’s killings were drug-related, compared with six at this time last year.

“What happened is we cannot get a handle on the drug traffic,” he said Tuesday.

Jefferson Parish includes the bedroom communities of Metairie and Kenner, as well as blue-collar towns and rural areas.

Various estimates put New Orleans’ current population at around half its pre-Katrina level of 455,000. Jefferson Parish suffered a smaller population loss — from close to 453,000 before the storm to about 440,000 now. With less damage from the hurricane, the parish has a larger housing base than New Orleans, and Lee said many people wanting to return to the area have settled here instead of New Orleans.

“I think the population shift has caused the drug market to shift,” Lee said.

Most of the victims and the accused were under 30, and some were as young as 14.

In the latest slayings, a 24-year-old man was shot 11 times Monday night. On Tuesday night, a man was called out of his house by a teenager on a bicycle who demanded money for crack he had sold the man, the sheriff said.

“The guy didn’t have the money, so he shot him in the top of the head,” Lee said. “I think over a $40 debt. How do you explain that? How does a 15-year-old find it necessary to carry a gun?”

The sheriff’s department has lost 45 of its 1,200 deputies since the storm. Lee said that is because construction jobs in the area are paying higher wages.

Lee said overall crime in the parish is down 20 percent.

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