Katrina grows Lafayette population but not crime

Hurricane Katrina evacuees Wilbert and Lorraine Washington stand in front of their home in the Canadian Village subdivision. The couple left their home in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans 10 years ago. (Photo: Advertiser file photo)

Lafayette is a growing city. Census reports — and traffic — tell us again and again that’s true. How much of that was because of Katrina? Officials say we may never know for sure.

But in one way or another, Katrina has left a mark on Lafayette.

Real estate

Hurricane Katrina may have destroyed much of New Orleans, but the ill winds that swept through the Big Easy lifted Lafayette real estate aloft.

Bill Bacque, president of Van Eaton & Romero real estate, said the numbers tell the story: Home sales were on a steady upturn from 2000 through the summer of 2005. But what happened in September 2005, the month after Katrina, changed the story for selling homes in Lafayette.

Closed residential sales in Acadiana soared from 299 in August 2005 to 453 in September, the highest number recorded for a September ever and the highest since. Even sales in September 2014, in a record-breaking year, totaled 438, the closest ever to that September from 10 years ago. Sales more than doubled from September 2004 to September 2005, and the dollar volume — the total for all sales — for closed residential sales in Lafayette in September 2005 more than doubled from the previous year: from $38,182,287 to $79,264,760.

“There were varying estimates as to how many (evacuees) came to town,” Bacque said, but three weeks after Katrina, Hurricane Rita ravaged southwestern Louisiana and still more evacuees arrived. Many stayed.

Nancy Romero, who co-founded Van Eaton & Romero, said the office was on call “around the clock” to try to help people find homes. Bacque said Pat Caffery, a Realtor in Iberia Parish, called him right after New Orleans flooded to try to assist evacuees looking for rental property, although neither company handled rentals. What resulted was a website, Hurricanehousing.net, set up by Van Eaton Romero with Chad Theriot of CMB Technology within 36 hours of that initial call, that linked renters and property owners interested in renting. Numerous public and private agencies trying to help evacuees sent them to the website to find housing.

“It went viral,” Bacque said. “It got traffic from all along the coast: Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas.”

Meanwhile, housing sold at a brisk pace through the autumn; Bacque said about 40 percent of the homes sold in Acadiana that year were sold in the last four months.

When Realtors gathered for an end-of-year gathering in 2005, they all agreed that 2006 would be a down year after the frenetic pace of home sales in late 2005. It was not.

“It was the catalyst for home sales through 2008, when the recession kicked in,” Bacque said. Prices went up along with new homes. But “the craziness” that started the real estate surge occurred in September 2005, with Katrina.

Sales

As real estate sales in Lafayette skyrocketed post-Katrina and Rita, so did retail sales.

According to the Lafayette Economic Development Authority, revenue collected from retail sales spiked by 27 percent in the first quarter of 2006.

When marking the storms’ five-year anniversary, Lafayette City-Parish President Joey Durel said the parish lived in a “false economy” for about 12 months after the storms.

But some of that increase could have been due to growing industries such as health care and technology in a region already leaning heavily on the strong energy sector.

“Between 2004 and 2014, retail sales in Lafayette Parish increased 66 percent, which includes the spike immediately following Katrina and Rita,” LEDA CEO Gregg Gothreaux said. “Overall, retail sales have grown as our population grew and income increased — particularly as we emerged from the national recession and the oil industry saw record profits.”

Increased retail sales collection continued for the next two years, then decline with the national economy in 2009 and 2010.

But new business persisted in the years following the storm.

Despite the country’s recession, new local commercial permits soared, LEDA reported. In 2009, commercial permits totaled $175 million, double the number of permits issued in 2008. By 2011, commercial permits hit a record high of $1.5 million.

Traffic

Traffic congestion doubled in the days after Hurricane Katrina as more and more evacuees sought shelter here. Durel said he heard estimates of congestions times on Johnston Street doubling from 20 minutes to 40 minutes.

Crashes spiked by some 30 percent in the months after the storm, and bus ridership increased to record levels.

The added traffic on city streets was indicative of congestion that could be experienced with five years of growth, said city-parish traffic and transportation director Tony Tramel.

But as evacuees eventually returned to their homes, traffic slowly returned to its pre-Katrina pace, Durel said.

Not all evacuees returned home, however. And new road construction, such as the extensions on Ambassador Caffery Parkway and Camellia Boulevard, helped helped mitigate congestion from the added population after the storm.

“I feel good about how things were handled,” he said. “I was only a year and a half into the job; we were still trying to find the bathrooms in city hall, but we handled this whole thing very well, I think.”

Population

Durel said the cities that sheltered victims fleeing from Katrina’s destruction may never know just how many people decided to stay.

“Nobody will ever know for sure,” he said.

Reports from the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals suggest in the five years after the hurricane, Lafayette gained about 5,000 people.

In the years leading up to Katrina, Lafayette’s population was already on the rise. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the population of the parish had increased by 3.4 percent in the five years before the hurricane, and jumped up by 3.2 percent in 2006 alone from 197,342 to 203,659.

Crime

One area that Katrina did not have a significant impact was crime, but that didn’t stop worries that evacuees would bring a new criminal element to Lafayette.

In the days after Katrina, rumors of carjackings, lootings and robberies ran rampant, stoking fears that a crime wave had hit Acadiana. The rumors proved false, but the panic they caused was real, prompting anxious residents to take steps to protect themselves.

Pawn stores and gun shops experienced a run on firearms and ammunition. Home security systems were in high demand, as residents looked to protect themselves from evacuees. “Besides having to man and staff the shelter at the Cajundome… the second biggest issue we dealt with as a department were rumors and fear of incidents that may have occurred in the neighborhoods close by,” said Lafayette Police Department Cpl. Paul Mouton said when interviewed for the storms five-year anniversary.

“I remember there being rumors about lootings and robberies,” Durel recalled. “But I don’t remember any major spike in crime.”

Mouton concurred. “There were rumors circulating about incidents inside and outside of the Cajundome, but they were found to be false,” he said. “There were special operations put in place for extra patrols because of the influx of people, but there were little or no increase in the calls for service.”

Since then, evacuees from New Orleans and other affected cities deciding to call Lafayette their new home haven’t really had any sort of significant effect on the city’s crime rate, which has been stable over the past 10 years.

“Unfortunately, New Orleans has a reputation, as the statistics show, for having a crime issue,” Mouton said in 2010. “I guess the fear was we were going to inherit some of those issues over here. Fortunately, we did not.”

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