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Katrina's Quiet Gift

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Katrina's Quiet Gift
What's the best reason to return to New Orleans -- one that's missing from Mayor Ray Nagin's appeals to Katrina evacuees across the country? How about a sharp drop in violent crime, says University of New Orleans criminologist Peter Scharf.The city ranked No. 2 in the nation for murders per capita in 2004 (57 per 100,000). When the hurricane struck Aug. 29, the city was on pace to finish 2005 with 316 murders (71 per 100,000) -- largely because of the violent drug trade, Scharf says. Since the mass evacuations, however, the city's violence-prone drug gangs are not around and, consequently, the city's murder rate has fallen.As New Orleans re-populates, Police Chief Warren Riley's challenge will be keeping violence in check. "Riley's in the hot seat," Scharf says. "He's got to be able to show that we have the capacity -- consistent with civil rights -- to prevent the redevelopment of this ... crippling drug-murder cycle. The mayor's credibility and political future is linked to (Riley's) success." For now, Katrina has given New Orleans a breather from violence, and Scharf says nobody thinks New Orleans will see 316 murders a year. -- Johnson

Temptation and Tolerance
In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, allocation to Louisiana of $1.5 billion in federal funding for storm-debris removal is testing the state's historical weakness for political corruption. "I'd say 40 percent of the 150 calls we received in the last six weeks on our anti-public corruption hotline involve debris-removal complaints," says Raphael Goyeneche, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Crime Commission. Some of the allegations involve low-level government employees or officials, but some center on "very high-level" officials, Goyeneche says. He notes that all of those complaints were referred to the FBI. Goyeneche also is encouraged by the volume -- and tone -- of complaints since the hurricanes: "The good news is, sure there is corruption in Louisiana, but there is less tolerance of it now than there was before Katrina." -- Johnson

Ethics Check
The Louisiana Ethics Commission this week is bracing for a slew of disclosure reports required of elected officials under a new state law. Recently enacted legislation mandates disclosure by politicians and their "immediate" family members who personally profit from federal hurricane-relief contracts, said ethics attorney Aleisa Ardoin. Legislators recently declined to bar themselves from getting federal hurricane relief contracts, but they did pass a disclosure requirement. The first reports are due Thursday (Dec. 29) and will be available for public inspection. -- Johnson

Coastal Rejects
When Gov. Kathleen Blanco pushed her Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority through the Legislature last month, she touted it as a way to consolidate efforts for hurricane protection, coastal restoration and levee oversight. It was a feel-good measure and meant to be inclusive, but like everything else with a ticking pulse and viable membership, lawmakers jostled over who would be appointed to the authority. Even some committee chairmen wanted a hand in the selection process. Yet it seems one group -- Parishes Against Coastal Erosion, or PACE -- was overlooked. "We asked the governor to let us have a member on it, but she told us no," says Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolph, one of PACE's vice presidents. The organization includes officials representing 19 parishes, including high-profile names like Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, to Lafayette President Joey Durel and Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle. PACE is circulating a petition to increase Louisiana's share of federal offshore oil and gas revenues to 50 percent; the state currently gets nothing. -- Alford

Signing for a Session
A groundswell of support is forming for a January special session of the Legislature. Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, a grassroots coalition of businesses and civic activists, has collected more than 46,000 signatures asking lawmakers and the governor to call the session to address levee board reform. "They are rising in anger against patronage politics and special interest deal-making by the political elite," says Jay Lapeyre, a founder of the group and chairman of the Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region. -- Alford

Threats and Crashes
Cleaning up storm debris in New Orleans has been unexpectedly dangerous work, according to the Army Corps of Engineers."The biggest issue we have, though it's getting a little bit better lately, is car accidents," says John Fogarty, a supervising expert in storm-debris removal and a New Orleans area native. There are 300 Corps inspectors monitoring clean-up contractors in a city that still lacks working signal lights at many intersections. Most of the collisions have been minor; no one has been "severely" injured, Fogarty said.Random threats of gun violence against Corps employees and clean-up workers are another safety concern. "We had four to five instances of guns being flashed at our crews," says Fogarty. One incident in the Lower Ninth Ward resulted in a citywide work stoppage before Thanksgiving. A man blamed the Corps for his mother's death after accusing the agency of "blowing up" an Industrial Canal levee -- a persistent but unfounded rumor. Federal protective services were called in and the workers withdrew from the neighborhood, but returned the next work day. In addition to threats and accidents, the Corps of Engineers is under investigation for its possible role in local floodwall breaches, which caused flooding, drowning deaths and the destruction of thousands of homes and businesses. -- Johnson

Byrd Amendment Shot Down
In a surprise late-night move last week, the U.S. Senate voted to repeal the so-called Byrd Amendment, which provides payments to certain commercial fishermen in Louisiana and elsewhere. Opponents of the payments gutted the amendment in an otherwise mundane budget bill in the Senate -- after they pulled a similar move in the House. The bill could go to the President in February, thus phasing out the subsidies over a two-year period. The Byrd Amendment triggered payments to companies and individuals harmed by the "dumping" of below-cost foreign products on the American market. In Louisiana, dumping has hurt crawfish processors and commercial shrimpers. Both groups had previously won hard-fought trade battles and were the intended recipients of tariffs on imported seafood. Now, says Commissioner of Agriculture Bob Odom, the long-term impact could be the loss of more crawfish and shrimp processors. Money from the Byrd Amendment was seen as a saving grace to that part of the seafood industry; it halted the decline of crawfish processors in the late '90s in the face of cheap imports from China. Sen. Reggie Dupre, D-Bourg, who has worked on trade-related seafood issues, says Congress' decision will add insult to injury. "Our poor fishermen -- first they got hit with cheap imports and then high fuel costs and then two hurricanes and now they get hit again by the U.S. Congress." -- Alford

Nutria, Snails and Armadillos -- Oh My!
It's no secret that nutria are often blamed for erosion of once-solid land -- they love the stuff and have insatiable appetites. Now there's another marsh-eating pest. Researchers from Brown and Louisiana State universities have discovered millions of marble-sized periwinkle snails chomping their way through wetlands buffering the Gulf. It doesn't stop there, however. A 1.6-mile stretch of levee along Bayou Segnette in Jefferson Parish had to be repaired in 1995 because of burrowing armadillos -- and FEMA initially declined to pay for the repairs. That incident foreshadowed other FEMA problems with animals. Take, for example, the day after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August, when former director Michael Brown wrote in an email that he felt "trapped" without a dog-sitter and asked other relief workers if they knew of a good handler or even "any responsible kids." -- Alford

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