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Fear of Criminals Factor in New Orleans Relief Efforts


As the relief effort continues in New Orleans, residents of many areas that have taken in thousands of evacuees worry that criminals displaced from the city may rebuild their illicit enterprises in their new homes. Most of the fears are exaggerated, but authorities are taking steps to prevent criminals from taking advantage of the disaster.

In the days following the unprecedented flight of hundreds of thousands of people from the New Orleans area, people in Louisiana and Texas heard stories of a crime wave accompanying the evacuees. There were riots at the major shelter in downtown Baton Rouge, there were multiple rapes and murders at a shelter in Lafayette and a number of violent incidents in Houston. Many people hearing these stories rushed out to buy guns or special locks for their homes. Gun store owners in southern Louisiana, in particular, have reported record sales.

But law enforcement officials say most of those stories about crime are either untrue or exaggerated. There have been some incidents, but there was no riot in Baton Rouge and officials at shelters in other cities report few problems. Houston police spokesmen say the crime level even dropped slightly during the week that more than 100,000 evacuees from New Orleans arrived here.

Still, law enforcers are keeping a wary eye, not only for criminals among the evacuees, but for outsiders trying to rob or defraud them. Houston Police Lieutenant Craig Williams says his force is paying special attention to fraud cases. "If we see or detect any type of suspicious activity or fraudulent activity, arrests will be made. We are attacking it from a zero-tolerance policy," said Mr. Williams.

Houston police are looking into cases where people from this area tried to get benefits provided for storm evacuees or tried to obtain money from evacuees under false pretenses. Local and federal authorities are also investigating fake charity groups, which have solicited funds for hurricane victims online.

Meanwhile, back in New Orleans, Mayor Ray Nagin is targeting the criminal element that had operated in his city prior to the disaster with a warning not to return.

"We have every possible law enforcement agency known to man patrolling this city. They have night vision equipment, they have M-16s. So if you come back to this city and you think it is going to be like it was before, we have a rude awakening for you," he said.

New Orleans had one of the highest crime rates among major U.S. cities before the disaster, and there had also been corruption scandals involving local police. The city's reputation was further sullied by reports of looting and criminals firing guns at police and rescue workers in the days following the hurricane. But many survivors say the focus on these incidents gave a wrong impression, and that the vast majority of people stranded in the city were not armed and were not involved in looting, other than taking food and water from abandoned stores for survival purposes.

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