Some things never change
Big Easy hit by crime wave as dealers return
THE wail of police sirens is back and gunfire again punctuates the night. As drug dealers move into flood-damaged houses, alarmed residents say that in the past few weeks they have begun to sense a return to the bad old days before Hurricane Katrina, when crime was an omnipresent straitjacket on life in New Orleans.
In a city that once led the nation in homicides per capita, crime has long been a leading indicator of New Orleans's health and prospects - an unavoidable part of the equation for a walk around the block or a trip to the grocery store.
That diminished greatly after last year's storm, when several hundred thousand people were evacuated. But there are signs that the past may be returning, with a new twist.
Police officials say the abandoned houses, stretching block after block, is being incorporated into a revived drug trade, with the empty dwellings offering ideal shelter to dealers returning from Houston and Atlanta.
Residents agree, pointing to a boarded-up house or an abandoned-looking shed as a place where they have seen young men congregating.
Capt Timmy Bayard of the New Orleans police, who is in charge of narcotics investigations, said: "Crime's coming back, although it's not as plentiful as it was." His men, searching abandoned houses in the Eighth Ward, have found drug stashes, although, Bayard added, it was like "looking for a needle in a haystack".
The popping sound of gunfire can also be heard at night again in the Central City and St Roch neighbourhoods.
"It's started back up," said the Rev AP Williby, who owns a house in Central City. "Shooting and killing - that's what we had before. It ain't gone nowhere."
Parasol's, a classic bar in the Irish Channel neighbourhood, was held up at midnight recently. And a young man was killed after handing over his wallet in the Faubourg Marigny, a neighbourhood of popular bars and restaurants.
New Orleans' loss is at least Houston's gain. In the Texan city, which reported a sharp rise in killings after Hurricane Katrina evacuees moved in, police officials say they have noticed a decline since the beginning of 2006, compared with a sharp climb in homicides - up 24% - in 2005.
Last autumn multiple killings took place in Houston nearly every weekend, but Sgt Brian Harris of Houston police said the violence had significantly eased now that evacuees were returning home.
New Orleans again appears to be drawing the people who wreaked havoc on its streets before the storm. A local murder suspect wanted in Houston drifted back to the city and was arrested this month in a New Orleans suburb.
In the past, even when there were lulls in crime, many residents felt as if they were living in a city under siege. Perception became part of the reality, fuelling an exodus of whites and blacks to the suburbs or out of the state.
But crime is not yet back to pre-storm levels. With the city's population reduced by at least three-fifths, statistics indicate that crime is down by up to 70% overall.
There have been 16 killings this year, compared with more than 60 for the same period last year, but this still works out to an annualised rate of 32 killings per 100,000 people, ahead of Cleveland and Chicago.
A sense of vulnerability, particularly in poorer neighbourhoods, is returning. It may have no more basis than the sight of young men hanging about, but it is there nonetheless.
"They're beginning to surface again," said Alfred Barrow, a newspaper deliverer, painting his porch on an empty-looking block at Third and Magnolia in Center City. "I'm out here throwing papers at 3am and I see them. What reason is there for them to be out there?"
The anxiety is not helped by the Police Department's struggle to return to normal. At about 1,400 officers, it is not far from its strength of just under 1,600 before Hurricane Katrina. But it is operating out of trailers, much of its data-gathering capability is impaired because of storm damage and about 80% of officers lost their homes in the storm.
But there are a few hopeful signs as well. Before, New Orleans was a city virtually awash with guns. The contractor who cleaned up the city's storm drains after Katrina said his crews had recovered at least a dozen firearms.
But guns are not now as prevalent, police say, and officers are enjoying a post-hurricane level of co-operation from citizens who had traditionally mistrusted New Orleans law enforcement.
For years, the police had complained that witnesses and residents refused to help, fearing retribution from gangs and drug dealers. Killings in broad daylight on busy blocks produced few or no witnesses.
Capt John Bryson, who commands the Sixth District in Central City, a high-crime area, said: "It's incredible. People you normally wouldn't believe would want an association with the police department call us up.
"We have control," he added. "We have gained this ground."
Barrow, the newspaper deliverer, remains to be convinced. "It don't take much to improve what it was," he said, "because it was probably the most vicious killing scene in the US."