In a city where tourism and conventions are key to reviving a post-Katrina economy, the murder spree that has opened the year is adding financial anxiety to the heartache and fear.
With Mardi Gras just over a month away, nine killings in the first eight days of the new year had tourism officials scrambling to convince visitors not to skip the city’s biggest party.
“This has done real damage to us here,” said Stephen Perry, of the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. “We’re in a multibillion dollar perception and image driven business. Whenever there is a wave of violence here it has an immediate chilling impact on those leisure consumers that don’t really know our city.”
Members of the bureau spent much of the past week reassuring convention representatives that they would be safe in New Orleans, Perry said.
A group of about 2,000 convention and meeting planners will be in New Orleans in two weeks to see the progress the city has made since the storm.
The latest spasm of violence came despite the presence of about 300 National Guardsmen and 60 state troopers who were brought in last June to help patrol the streets because of a surge in killings.
On Monday, Police Superintendent Warren Riley said he has not asked for more troops, and is instead considering ways to stretch his hurricane-depleted force. Those could include increasing foot patrols, reassigning officers to front-line duty, and imposing a citywide curfew, he said.
Discussion of a possible curfew for the city — including the French Quarter where many bars are open 24 hours a day — would only add to the woes of the business community.
“We’re very much opposed to a curfew,” said Earl Bernhardt, president of the Bourbon Street Alliance, a merchants organization. “For one thing, it would send a terrible message nationwide that would hurt us more than the murder rate. It would look like it was totally unsafe to be on the streets after dark.”
The police force is down from its pre-Katrina level of 1,700 officers to about 1,400. But that number includes about 100 officers on leave for injuries or illness and 40 recruits in the academy.
Mayor Ray Nagin expressed concern over the weekend that the killings might discourage residents from staying in the still-rebuilding city.
“We’re going to have periods of time when we feel very comfortable, and we are going to have very tough periods when we are going to feel very uncomfortable,” he said.
New Orleans had 161 homicides last year, the lowest total in 60 years. But the population was way down from its pre-Katrina total of 455,000, and is still only about 200,000.
City Council President Oliver Thomas said curbing the uptick in crime will require reinstating mentoring programs for troubled youngsters, creating neighborhood watch groups, establishing more of a law enforcement presence and holding speedier trials.
To some extent Hurricane Katrina is to blame for the recent spike in killings, said Dr. Howard Osofsky, chairman of psychiatry at the LSU Health Sciences Center.
“The normal support structures for many parts of the community are gone,” Osofsky said. “The churches, the community centers, the families and people in neighborhoods that all have a governing affect on residents are gone in many cases.”
In turn, the killings affect the recovery from the storm, he said.
“People are already dealing with the slowness of recovery, the destruction of their lives, the loss of so much,” he said. “When you add such a huge measure of violence to all of that, people will wonder if it’s worth it to try to come back.”