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Rising from Ruin is an on-going MSNBC.com special report chronicling two coastal Mississippi towns, Bay St. Louis and Waveland, as they rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

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This project is evolving. Our daily dispatches coverage has been retired. Click here to see what happened in the area between mid October and January 1, 2006.

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BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. – Hurricane Katrina didn’t merely toss the lives of law-abiding Gulf Coast citizens into chaos, it disrupted the routines of criminals in ways that law enforcement officials and criminologists are still struggling to understand.

Like the currents and eddies of the storm’s devastating surge -- which at times left one home standing while flattening another next door -- Katrina’s impact on crime rates has been both fickle and hard to quantify.

Edward Shihadeh, a professor of sociology at Louisiana State University and co-coordinator of the university’s Crime and Policy Evaluation Research Group, noted that measuring Katrina’s impact in the storm zone and areas that received large numbers of refugees is impossible because of the massive population shifts it caused.

“In order to calculate a crime rate on a per capita basis, you need to have an intelligent guess what the population is,” he said. “Any calculation based on the (pre-Katrina) population data is worthless.”

Also complicating matters in many of the hardest-hit areas is the destruction of police department computer systems used to track arrests and convictions.

“We’re only now kind of getting back to where we can operate,” said Maj. Bobby Underwood, chief of the patrol division of the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, which has set up shop in an old Dollarwise store miles inland from its wrecked former headquarters in Bay St. Louis.

Anecdotal evidence and interviews with local law enforcement officials in Hancock County, Miss., indicate that crime rates have climbed in some areas and declined in others in the months since Katrina. Certain crimes, such as looting, rose sharply in the storm’s wake and then abated, while others, including domestic violence and alcohol-related offenses, are becoming more pernicious as the months drag on.

Changing the face of crime

Some examples of the varied ways the storm has changed the face of crime in the Gulf Coast:

· The exodus of much of New Orleans’ populace has slashed the violent crime rate in what was annually ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in America. Police Lt. Billy Cerevolo told the Houston Chronicle in December that the city’s Ninth Ward -- once a hotbed for crime -- is now considered a “retirement district” because officers there do very little aside from protecting the badly damaged property of residents who may never return. A citywide decline in serious crime led Louisiana state Rep. Peppi Bruneau to suggest in November that the city should begin downsizing its police department.

· In Houston, home to an estimated 100,000 new residents displaced by Katrina, police said last week that at least 23 people who relocated to the city from the hurricane zone are either victims or suspects in murders. Mayor Bill White has asked FEMA to pony up $6.5 million to help police combat increased crime.

· In Baton Rouge, La., which saw its pre-Katrina population of 227,818 approximately double overnight, police statistics show no significant increase in serious crime in the three months after the storm. “Police officers I talked to … said the one big increase has been in traffic accidents and traffic altercations,” said Shihadeh, the LSU professor. “They said, ‘This is pretty much what we do around the clock.’”

Interviews with law enforcement officials in Hancock County, Bay St. Louis and Waveland support the premise that the storm had nuanced effects on individual jurisdictions.

For example, officials in both cities say that they have been making few drug busts in recent months while the Sheriff’s Department narcotics unit, which lost two of its four officers in the aftermath of Katrina, is now seeing more drug activity than before the storm.

“It was dead, but it started picking up around Nov. 1, and in December, we had a case a day,” said Matt Karl, the department’s director of narcotics enforcement.

Dealing drugs from FEMA trailers

Some recent busts carried out by the squad include the seizure of 7 pounds of crystal methamphetamine from a local dealer and a raid that led to the arrest of 10 suspects who allegedly were selling crack out of a pair of FEMA trailers.

The latter case is a source of frustration in the overtaxed department, since the suspects were released on bail and have returned to selling drugs from the encampment, said Deputy Abe Long.

“They’re still there, and they’re back at it,” he said, adding that calls to FEMA to try to get them evicted were in vain: “They all say, ‘We’re going to get back to you,’ but we’ve had no further contact.”

Other trends, though, are universal among the departments.

All made numerous looting arrests in the first weeks after the storm, and Waveland Police Chief James Varnell said his officers continue to pick up the occasional “accidental looter.”

“A lot of people are sightseeing and just pick something up,” he said. “These are people who never would ever have thought of stealing anything and didn’t look at it as stealing.”

Overall, he said, crime in Waveland is probably up slightly from pre-Katrina levels, “but I don’t think it’s that much more.”

'Crimes of opportunity'

Frank McNeil, police chief in Bay St. Louis, said his department has seen an increase in “crimes of opportunity,” such as residential break-ins and theft of building materials, tools and heavy equipment. But that rise has been offset by drops in drug-related arrests and petty crime, leaving the overall number of crimes reported today at about the same level as before the storm, he said.

But he said his officers do get called out on a lot more calls from residents hearing “suspicious” sounds.

“In those trailers, you can hear everything that’s going on outside,” he said.

All three departments say that one area where they have seen a significant increase is domestic violence, a trend that experts say tracks with what they’ve seen after previous natural disasters.

Kenny Hurt, director of investigations for the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, attributes the rise to frustration among residents over the extended hardships they’ve had to weather and to nerves frayed by extended periods spent in close quarters.

“Everybody’s confined in the trailers, and a lot of neighbors are crammed in so close (in FEMA encampments),” he said.

Waveland’s Varnell agreed with Hurt’s general assessment but said the bureaucracy surrounding the rebuilding process is the biggest source of frustration.

“Everything you do takes an act of Congress. Everything is a task,” he said. “Nobody has any patience, and the officers are on edge, too.”

A matter of control

Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said that while difficult circumstances play a role, they aren’t the underlying reason that violence in the home typically increases after a natural disaster.

“I think for perpetrators of domestic violence, control is a huge issue, and when they have no control over anything else in their lives, control of their family is still available to them,” she said, adding that rape also often climbs after natural disasters. “(The frustration) doesn’t cause it, but it impacts frequency and severity.”

Some of the changes in crime patterns since Katrina are the result of changes in police agencies’ ability to combat it.

All three police agencies in Hancock County have been able to replace most of their essential equipment –– patrol cars, guns, bullet-proof vests and computers -- thanks to donations from out-of-state departments. But all have lost staff since the storm and have had to reprioritize to meet post-Katrina realities.

No place to put drug task force

“We haven’t seen as many drug arrests as before, said Waveland’s Varnell, speaking from a trailer in the parking lot of the city’s wrecked police station on Highway 90. “But that’s probably a result of the (diminished) population and the time dedicated to it.

“We lost all our equipment for our narcotics task force, … (and) now we don’t have a place to put it or to put the task force.”

At the makeshift sheriff’s station, meanwhile, narcotics officer Long is trying to work through a thick pile of backlogged drug cases on his desk.

“We’re not allowed to work overtime, … we can’t hire anybody and we have no relief,” the 35-year-old deputy said, shaking his head. “We’re just taking care of problems as they arise instead of being proactive.”

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i think that this was not what everyone expected it to be. this was a reck. so many blacks lost their life, and it will never be the same. me personally, i think the government itsn't doing what they are doing, like what they did when the Tsunami hit. Black America is going through so much. At least they can rebuild for the poor, and not the rich. Blacks are apart of this nation too. We are apart of this nation. its out home. so lets treat each other like 1 big family.

As a Houstonian, we want the Katrina refugees "OUT", we have seen nothing but an increase in crime including violent crime. Our school kids can't get the help they need in class because some evacuee wants to either cause a disruption or take up precious class time. Our Mayor White seems indifferent to our concerns and the already busy police department is even more overwhelmed, by the way, where is the Federal Government in all this? I hear that the State of the Union is great. What union? The only Union I know are the Angry law abiding Houstonians that want to put an end to this.

I can not understand why we wasted our taxes on these trailers that many do not appreciate and others are using to deal drugs from when the Congress just voted today to cut student loans. It is a very good thing it is not up to me as to who should get our tax dollars. The FEMA handouts have made a group of lazy people even lazier now. When will we wake up and help only those that want to be helped like students and schools. The more that is handed out the more they will want and the less they will do. Let's pay the people in LA, MISS a wage to clean up their mess and make them earn it.

Hey, I didn't vote for him (bush).The mayor of New Orleans is a moron living in a "chocolate" coated world.

Yeah, It's really wonderful to see how all of our tax money is "at work" getting things back to normal there. Really makes me want to rush out and donate even more of my hard-earned money.

I feel for the very much underpaid, under appreciated and valued law enforcement group in Hancock County. The Waveland and Bay St. Louis police groups, along with the County Sheriff's group have always been a dedicated, caring and passionate group. I have no doubt that they will overcome the challenges that they are faced with exhibiting the same diligence, commitment and professionalism that they have approached things in the past. My heart and prayers are with you all daily.

ya gotta admire these guys for staying in a disaster area ...and just doing thier job...but in a small town....i bet the job has become even harder....because most folks know most others...and i bet they have had to arrest some people they thought would never cause any trouble before the storm...a content person...is different from a frustrated person....good job guys!!!


Mr Atlantic City, stay there. Ms. Houston - you are correct - they were confined to the NO public school system - we all put our kids in private school to keep away. And Mr Kansas, we need MONEY to rebuild - or would you like $10 a gas - I do so you northerners with a warped sense of place can figure it out ... you need us.

You only hear the worst of the stories about the FEMA trailers. I guarantee you thousands of good citizens are dependant on those trailers right now. Also, a lot of whites lost there lives! Why can't the whites and blacks be one big family???

I don't mean to be unkind, but as a Houstonian, I feel very unsafe. The condos where I live were a very safe and well kept place, thats why I chose to live there. In the past 3 weeks there have been 3 break-ins and 2 older ladies were mugged at their door! This has been a shock in our community. The arresting officers asserted that all of the men arrested were indeed Katrina evacuees. All I have seen is a dramatic increase in crime...

I read these blogs and must say that a few are rather disturbing. None of these people asked to be in the situation they are in. FEMA and the Government were aware of the conditions surrounding the ravage beaten areas prior to Hurricane Katrina and did nothing. The fact that you so called Houstonians (which I'm sure do not represent the whole) have the audacity to make such statements is ludicrous. These people; my people are not "Refugees" as if they are from some third world country. They are "AMERICANS" who has and have been in the U.S. just as long as if not longer than probably you. Don't be an idiot and crucify the whole just because of a few. Show some compassion for by the GRACE of GOD those refuges that you are referring to could some day be YOU!!

De'Mia your comment troubles me....this is not white or black....all are hurting...2 guys {who happen to be black} work for me ....and i would'nt take the world for thier services....and friendship...you better come to Mississippi...before you speak....we are all One

Hey Ron, how about loaning your place in Mexico to a needy family. I am sure you know what its like to be homeless.

It still amazes me how judgemental and ignorant some can be. Count your blessing and pray you do not find yourself or a family member in this type of situation.

I applaud those who continue to work, support and volunteer in the rebuilding efforts. Mississippi & Louisiana will recover.

can we cut the racial crap?! Black, white, yellow, red, who cares. The rebuiling problems stem from MONEY, not skin. People with Jobs and money (Insurance) are rebuilding, they have something to return to. People who don't are unfortunately stuck inthe position to scratch out a living the best they can. Tehy do not have the means to rebuild, and no decent job to return to. So why would they. I wouldn't. But it is NOT qabout race, so PLEASE grow up and drop the 'Black America' crap.
Everyone talks about 'one nation', but some folks want to identify themselves as 'different'.
Want One Nation?! Then BE A PART OF IT. Don't seperate your self, then whine that you are seperated.

The destruction and devastation of our part of the world can't be understood for folks from other places. The police are doing the best they can, for sure. Here in Baton Rouge, although our infrastructure is overwhelmed, we have adjusted pretty well to our new citizens. I have nothing bad to say about Mayor Nagin - although he may put his foot in his mouth on occasion, he is the one government official who stayed in New Orleans throughout the disaster - without AC in the late August, no less - who begged for help, who actually went out and helped people himself, who is trying to get the city restored to some sort of working order. Way to go to the local governments - the police and the administration: they are the ones who are helping the recovery of the Gulf Coast more than anyone else.

My heart goes out to the cities where the bulk of the Katrina victims have been housed. I was in Dallas and stayed at a hotel where 50 rooms had been blocked for the victims. During my four day stay, I witnessed those "guests" vitimizing the employees of the hotel.I know most of the victims are not like that, but come on, let's stop feeding these lazy, welfare bums with our tax money.

People who deal drugs out of homes are going to deal drugs out of the fema trailors. It's going to happen. I don't think one can generalize everyone affected by the hurricane by the behavior of a relative few. I know someone who is working everyday on those trailors and I know that he has handed over many sets of keys to very grateful and appreciative families. There is so much that has gone on with FEMA and the government related to the hurricanes that I agree with and a lot that I do not agree with. I think that unless you have lived it, you can't really say much about those going through it right now.

Racist and indifferent social policies has created an underclass in this country. And minorities are the target. Disasters like Katrina reveal what's been hidden and the way our country, including governement officials and ordinary individuals, respond to it reflect how we feel about the marginalized. It is not because the majority of New Orlean victims are African-American that they are treated with disdain. Its because of who they represent, the kind of social class this country likes to hide and ignore. American aid policies are always hypocritical: spend trillions abroad where we have an interest in it, and cut spending domestically, because we have no interest in supporting the poor. this is really what Martin Luther King was talking about. The media played it out as a race thing. It wasn't. It was about domestic affairs and the treatment of each other with dignity and respect, because we are ALL made in the image of God.

Katrina victims were forwarned of the extent of the hurricane and chose to stay. Whatever bacame of self reliance. Your choice your problem. Some government assistance is one thing but these people want total 100% suckage at the national nipple.

As far as the Mayor of New Orleans it says alot about demographics down there to elect someone so incompetant. What a crybaby with no problem solving ability or organizational skills. This guy couldn't lead hungry wolves to basted prime rib.

Please don't call them evacuees, they're refugees. They didn't leave New Orleans seeking "evacu".

Blacks will be around as long as people keep differentiating between blacks and whites. People are people no matter the pigment. God didn't hit NO because of black people. The Government didn't hold back help because of black people. 20 years from now people reading the news stories will think that NO was the "black" capital of the world. Concentrate on the tragedy and the humanity itself.

Just wanted to say that criminals are not the only people living in FEMA trailers EVERYONE is living in them, including most law enforcement and other first responders and even politicians. We are living in one and have worked pretty much everyday since the storm because us and everyone we know lost everything. We are doing the best we can and would like to invite you to come down and see us anytime you can.
This is from one family who really appreciates the government loaning us this trailer to live in while we rebuild our home and reclaim our town. Thanks most of all to those of you who see the true heartbreak of this situation on those of us here who are good and hardworking people. We couldn't do it without you. Thank you America! Please keep us in your thoughts and your prayers and find a few moments to look for the real situation here and not just media hype.

Yes this is an issue, and everyone needs to work together to overcome it. Hopefully the businesses will be able to get back up and running within a few months so that those without homes or jobs can go to work to help rebuild the city. As to our officers out there on the streets, keep up the good work. You are dealing with the worst possible circumstances and I'm proud of the job you do and the effort you put into it! WAY TO GO!

As far as the comment on giving lazy people handouts I think it is stupid. These people were in generational poverty before the storm hit so they were selling drugs and living from day to day before they lost the only thing they had which was thier homes. If America doesn't get into the "ghettos" of America, no matter what race they are, and offer services to help people realize that they have better ways of making money and that education is the key to life-long, legal money, then people will continue to loose faith in thier country and do what they can to survive. I was once on welfare and now I am a senior in college working full time, and paying taxes because I had the advantage of getting help from programs at my high school, the county that I live in, and other places that let me know that I could do it. Katrina goes beyond people being displaced. It shows every person who lives in thier sheltered, one-sided, middle and upper-middle class, suburban state of minds that America doesn't treat the poor and "minorities" the same. Poor people and "minorities" have always had an unfair disadvantage of making it in America because of history so I know that it is America's responsibility to dish out social programs(not just money) and help people instead of complaining, especially if you can't relate to them. When you don't step in and clean up the mess you created from racism, slavery, and classism, those who are oppressed are going to continue to do what they've known all of thier lives which is to do what you can to survive and nohting more. Thank you.

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