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Impact of Katrina exodus felt far and wide

Even if you live far from the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina, the storm may well have changed the face of your community,'s Bob Sullivan reports.

Hurricane Katrina may not have ruined your house, flooded your property or even blown wind through your trees, but it may still have pushed people into your backyard. Even now, one year after the storm, Katrina migrants are spread far and wide across the United States, making the impact of the storm far wider than the hurricane’s path of destruction.

In the days following the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane, refugees from the storm filed claims for emergency assistance from all 50 states, according to data supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Association and analyzed by USA Today.

Exactly where the refugees are now is a matter of hot debate. Various methods have been tried to track the Katrina exodus — one of the greatest displacements in American history, rivaling that of the Civil War — and all have been found wanting. The most authoritative study, published the U.S. Census Bureau earlier this year, is probably also the most criticized. 

But by weighing the available data, some general observations can be made. Clearly, Gulf Coast refugees are everywhere.

The map of hurricane migrants "looks like a map of the U.S. population density," said Ken Hodges, chief demographer at Claritas Inc., a commercial demographic data and market research firm. Nearly every population center took in refugees. "People are going to places where they had resources," he said.

This July, according to data supplied by Claritas to, large pockets of Katrina migrants remained in far-flung places like Maricopa County, Ariz., Los Angeles County, Calif., and Cook County, Ill. According to Claritas estimates, there are 54 counties in 10 U.S. states, where at least 1,000 Katrina migrants still live.

Strain on available resources
In many places where they've landed, Katrina evacuees have added to classroom sizes, strained hospital resources, impacted crime rates and helped clog roads with traffic. So in some areas, an initial surge of generosity is beginning to be replaced by that uncomfortable feeling people get when the relatives stay a little too long.

And the resentment can flow both ways — frustrated evacuees can be heard complaining about the places they’ve landed, how they don’t compare to home in New Orleans or the Mississippi Gulf. The indelicate response they sometimes hear: “Then go home.” As American cities absorb Katrina evacuees — who at some point eventually come to be called migrants — stress on both sides is inevitable.

Nowhere has the strain of the Katrina exodus been felt more strongly than St. Tammany Parish, which sits just on the other side of enormous Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. The parish suffered damage, too, but not nearly as bad as that closer to the coast.

Just one 24-mile bridge ride away from New Orleans, once sleepy suburbs like Covington and Mandeville seemed a world apart from the seething city problems until Katrina’s storm surge brought a tide of people into the area.

Today, the north shore communities are enjoying a post-Katrina economic boom — local officials say the population of St. Tammany Parish has swelled from 200,000 last year to 270,000 now. But they are also trying to deal with the inevitable culture clashes that arise when the city and the country collide.

“What we're dealing with, the biggest things since the storm has been the influx of people from outside, south of Mandeville. They’ve come over here to recover and moved over here to work,” said Mandeville Police Chief Tom Buell. “Our neighborhoods have changed drastically. We are dealing with a lot of people we don't know.”

An ideal refuge
Like Louisiana’s state capital, Baton Rouge, which is dealing with the same kind of population boom, St. Tammany Parish is ideally situated for New Orleans refugees. It’s far enough away from the Mississippi River levees to feel safe, yet close enough to allow evacuees the ability to commute to their old jobs and damaged homes in New Orleans. Some have called areas within this “commutable” distance a “holding zone” or “destination counties.” That’s in contrast to the many evacuees who fled a day’s drive or more away from the city to places like Houston.

The influx into Tammany Parish has led to amazing economic abnormalities. On the one hand, fast food workers are making what some might call exorbitant salaries — up to $12 an hour, and many stores are also giving out $500 monthly retention bonuses just to keep workers from disappearing. Sales tax receipts are up 50 percent and nearly all hotel rooms are booked.

"If you are a worker ... I have one message for you. Come on down. We have good paying jobs," said Jim Heap, business services manager for the Louisiana Department of Labor. 

On the other hand, stores still can't find workers, because the price of housing has skyrocketed — rents are up 30 percent or more — so much that even well-paid service workers can't afford to live in the  area.

“I know plenty of business owners that are acting as chief cook and bottle washer,” Heap said.    

The area suffers strain in other ways. Hospitals are bursting at the seams, and doctors’ offices have lines. Schools are jammed — at one point, some St. Tammany students were on a platoon system, with one set of students attending a morning session, another the afternoon-evening shift.

Schools do ‘Katrina shuffle’
“We call it the Katrina shuffle,” said schools Superintendent Gayle Sloan. “We had a high school move a junior high. We put a junior high into an elementary school. … We had to break a lot of the rules.”

There’s intense traffic congestion now, too. As the gateway to the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, St. Tammany gets drivers from all points north of New Orleans. Covington Police Lt. Jack West says auto accidents have tripled; so has the time required to write up accident reports.

“That’s time now lost from crime enforcement,” he said. “Aggressive patrolling has been cut back because of the high accident rate.”

That’s particularly critical because crime rates seem to be on everyone’s mind in St. Tammany Parish, thanks in part to a gruesome, gang-style quadruple murder that took place in June in a trailer park in the eastern side of the parish.

“There’s this feeling that these kinds of thing never happened here before,” said Erin Moore, communications director of the St. Tammany Parish. 

Law enforcement officials say overall crime rates haven’t spiked, but incidence of certain crimes are on the rise.

The number of felony arrests has tripled in Covington; so has the number of assaults in Mandeville. Last year, there were 17 arrests for aggravated assault in the town. By July of this year, there were 40, said Mandeville Police Chief Terry DeFranco.

The increase isn’t necessarily the result of the parish’s newest residents.

“The majority have been committed by local people, not Katrina evacuees,” DeFranco said. 

Emotional impact hitting home
Some of the strife may be the result of a delayed emotional impact from the storm.

Dr. Janine Parker said that she is only now seeing the lasting effects of the storm on evacuees. Now, two thirds of displaced people she sees in her Tammany Parish office are on prescription anti-depression drugs.

“At the beginning, people were just stunned,” she said. “The ‘cope-ers’ were fine, they had their lists ... now the ‘cope-ers’ are coming back and saying, ‘I'm sad. I'm crying. I'm not sleeping. What am I supposed to do? I still have this list that goes on 40 miles. I don't see any light at the end of tunnel.’”

Parker, a medical doctor, finds herself dealing with patient’s emotional problems because they don’t have much alternative.

“Psychological treatment facilities are minimal. Psychiatrists have waiting lists coming out to the end of time,” she said. “It's scary.”

Fear also surrounds the newfound diversity that’s arrived, and increased talk about police activity may hint at something else. Discussion about crime and culture clash can be a proxy for uncomfortable conversations about racial or ethnic demographic shifts in a community.

There is little dispute that suburbs in St. Tammany face major demographic changes.

“Before, we had essentially no Latinos,” said Moore, the parish’s communications director.  “Now, there are tons of (Latino) work crews on construction sites. Now, the grocery stores have entire aisles for Mexican food.”

Sheriff's comments denounced
The changes have not been without incident. After the June quadruple murder, Sheriff Jack Strain made comments about the suspects, and about hairstyles typically worn by blacks, that NAACP leaders found offensive.

“You plan to walk the streets of St. Tammany Parish with 'chee weez' and 'dreadlocks' you can expect to be questioned by sheriff's deputies,” he said. 

Despite the underlying anxiety about the clash, it’s not clear, however, that the cultural makeup of the parish has changed drastically since the storm. Superintendent Sloan says racial breakdowns at her schools haven’t changed at all. And a recent report on Katrina recovery issued by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government underscores the confusion about ethic and racial changes.

“The other component of the population shift that all of the estimates have not yet quantified is the change in the makeup of the people living in the affected communities,” the report said. “How many Caucasians, how many African-Americans, how many Hispanics? How many low-income, how many working-class, how many wealthy? Again, anecdotally, most local officials have a sense that the demographics of their communities have changed; they just don’t know precisely how yet.”

The lack of hard numbers in Tammany and around the country means communities dealing with an influx of evacuees will likely be making judgments on law enforcement, traffic, schools and health issues based on anecdotes and perceptions for a while longer. There is a hazard in that method, says Steve Murdoch, demography expert at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“People in situations where they are stressed will perceive things differently than they really are,” Murdoch said. As for increased crime, “I’ve heard the same kind of things about crime being up in Houston, but it’s not clear it is. I’ve heard people suggest (the exodus) is going to change the political structure (in Houston) and that's silly.” Houston’s population probably increased by fewer than 1 percent due to the Katrina migrants, he said, adding, “There’s a failure to put things in perspective.”

Permanent population shifts?
Long-term, the impact of the Katrina exodus on population centers around the country — including St. Tammany Parish — might not be as drastic as they feel today. But statistics aside, it’s hard to ignore the long lines of cars trying to get out of New Orleans every night now. They’re headed north.

As for those who moved farther away, scattering around the country, Brookings Institution demography expert Bill Frey says as the anniversary of the storm passes, communities that still house evacuees should really plan for them to stay.

“The longer they stay away (from New Orleans), the less likely they are to return,” he said. “The people who are far away don't know what's waiting for them (if) they come back.”