Saturday, February 28, 2009
NEW ORLEANS -- Three and a half years after Hurricane Katrina, the National Guard is pulling the last of its troops out of New Orleans this weekend, leaving behind a city still desperate and dangerous.
Residents long mistrustful of the city's police force are worried that they will have to fend for themselves.
"I don't know if crime will go up after these guys leave. But I know a lot more of us will be packing our own pieces now to make sure we're protected," said Calvin Stewart, who owns a restaurant and store.
New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren J. Riley said his rebuilt police department is up to the job of protecting the city. "I think we're ready to handle things," he said.
The National Guard troops were welcomed when they arrived in a big convoy days after Katrina struck New Orleans in August 2005 and plunged the city into anarchy. The force grew to 15,000 strong.
The last of the troops were removed in January 2006 as civil authority returned, but then, after a surge in bloodshed, 360 were sent back in mid-2006. By this month, about 100 troops were left in the city.
With Louisiana facing a $341 million budget deficit, state legislators were reluctant to keep the Guard in place any longer.
The Guard was used to patrol the less populated sections of the city where Katrina's floodwaters left most houses uninhabitable. That included the Ninth Ward, where renovated houses are outnumbered by moldy, boarded-up wrecks and weed-choked vacant lots.
"We don't have enough cops. It's not that they're bad, it's just that there's not enough of them. These guys are Johnny-on-the-spot when you need them," said Tom Hightower, 57, who is still trying to get the mold out of his house. "This is still a spooky place after dark," he said.
The troops had full arrest powers but were required to call New Orleans police about serious matters. In their time on the streets, Guard troops were involved in only one shooting, and the district attorney ruled it justified.
They answered many calls involving domestic violence, reported to have increased in New Orleans since the hurricane, and handled car wrecks, house and business alarms, and other problems.
"One of the biggest things we did was keep those places safe so people could rebuild," said Sgt. Wayne Lewis, a New Orleans native who has been patrolling the streets since January 2007. "People would put the things to rebuild in their houses and thieves would come along and take them right out again. We stopped a lot of that."
New Orleans had 210 homicides in 2007, the highest per-capita rate in the country. That number dropped to 179 in 2008.
Nevertheless, "crime continues to be this community's number one concern. Even with the lower numbers it is still unacceptably high," said Rafael C. Goyeneche III, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a nonprofit organization.
Before the hurricane, the police force had more than 1,600 officers. But its ranks were reduced by more than 30 percent after the storm because of desertions, dismissals, retirements and suicides. (New Orleans has about 70 percent of its pre-Katrina population of 455,000.)
The force is back up to about 1,500 officers, and the department hopes by the end of April to add more than two dozen Guard members who liked the work so much they signed on.
The Guard was supposed to leave Jan. 1, but Louisiana lawmakers approved funding to keep 100 troops through February to give the police more time to recruit officers.