Monday, August 14, 2006

Houston Has The Blues: Lessons for Leaders During Crisis

Note: Longish post. Go to the end to read the summation.

The Blues Houston sings? The convicts that used to call New Orleans home. In the Big Easy, life was a lot easier for the criminal element. Well, Houston, for some crazy reason, doesn't like criminals to roam free, free as the wind blows, free as the grass grows.

As Houston and the state of Texas pay to put these scumbags behind bars to the tune of millions of dollars, I just have to wonder: WHAT THE HELL WAS NEW ORLEANS THINKING?

Good night! The crimes committed aren't purse snatching. They are rape, murder, robbery, even husband beating. Surely this was happening in New Orleans, too, no? Yes it was. And hasn't the leadership in New Orleans been Democrat for like, ever? And don't Democrats believe in loving social policy? Shouldn't these miscreants be "reformed" by now? Evidently not. The City Journal's Nicole Gelinas has a superb, comprehensive piece on Houston after Katrina and the results of Houston's "Noble Experiment":

In these districts, homicides were up 52 percent for the last months of 2005 over the same months in 2004, and Katrina evacuees accounted for a vastly disproportionate share of the increase. After Katrina, armed robberies in the districts were up 11 percent, after an 11 percent drop during the same months between 2003 and 2004. Assaults, flat the previous year, were up nearly 12 percent after Katrina. Weapons arrests, also flat the previous year, rose 31 percent. In crime reports, police now are directed to identify suspects by their hairstyle and accents, as those from Louisiana often wear distinctive dreadlocks and speak in a unique dialect.

Numbers are one thing, but fear is another. By late autumn, New Orleans’s underclass wars had come to Houston. The Big Easy’s style of crime isn’t what Houston is used to. Houston gangs—which include international drug traffickers—are violent, to be sure, but their violence makes a rough kind of sense, having to do with money, position in the gang hierarchy, and the ruthless protection of turf and of affiliates. Though New Orleans’s gangs, like Houston’s, traffic in guns and drugs, their main concern seems to be violence for the sake of violence. “Murders are just the way this group of individuals resolves conflicts,” notes James Bernazzani, the FBI’s special agent for New Orleans, who has studied New Orleans’s gang culture carefully. “They graduate from theft to robberies to homicide” as they move through adolescence, he reports. One Houston police officer who has done prison details since Katrina mused to me that “hardened Houston criminals” have complained to him of how gratuitously violent the prisoners from New Orleans are. “That’s an insult,” Houston prisoners snarl when someone asks them if they are from New Orleans.

In Houston, criminals are dealt with differently. Perhaps if a few of the violent-for-the-sake-of-violent guys visit Huntsville for the comfortable chair, there, the others will decide that crime doesn't pay. Maybe not. In the hopeless mentality where no life, even their own, has value, a trip to the chair might not mean all that much. The only ones it will mean anything to are the ones not having to be afraid of their violence anymore.
How much more effective is Houston’s criminal-justice system than New Orleans’s? In New Orleans, according to its nonprofit Metropolitan Crime Commission, 7 percent of those arrested for a crime ultimately served prison time, compared with 58 percent in Houston. In New Orleans, only 12 percent of those arrested for homicide are ultimately incarcerated for that crime; in Houston, it’s 47 percent. In New Orleans, 18 percent of robbery and 12 percent of drug-distribution arrestees ultimately serve prison time; Houston’s numbers are 60 and 71 percent. Compared with national averages, Houston’s results aren’t stellar, but the city’s obvious superiority to New Orleans demonstrates how poor policing, poor prosecution, and poor sentencing nurtured the Big Easy’s criminal underclass.
What the flippin' burger, Batman? Did/does New Orleans want crime to define their city? Is the city so racist that the leaders cynically believe that these people are beyond hope? Judging by the way education is dealt with in New Orleans, it would be rational to come to that conclusion.

Elaine Garan said the "No Child Left Behind" standards should be suspended for Katrina victims. Why? Because they moved to another school? The problem is not the standards. The problem is that the students were not being educated in New Orleans. What were the schools in New Orleans doing? The kids got to Houston and they were two years behind inner-city black schools. It should be an apples to apples comparison, race-wise, at least. Hardly.
Texas and Houston have already determined that evacuee students badly trail their new peers when it comes to basic skills. Just one measure of the shocking disparity: on a standardized state reading test administered in February, 89 percent of Texas third-graders could read at grade level, while only 59 percent of evacuee students, most from New Orleans, could do the same. In fifth-grade reading, 80 percent of Texas students passed, while more than half of evacuee students failed. (Texas has not yet released reading scores at the school-district level, but Houston students’ reading scores have been nearly identical to those of their peers across Texas in the past.) The mayor took note early on of the challenge that New Orleans students face in Texas schools, and used a federal grant to help schools hire 100 tutors and teachers from New Orleans beginning last fall to give evacuee children extra help. [emphasis added, Ed.]
So what will happen to the transplants? What will happen to the city of Houston? While some of the transplanted people who stayed were contributing to society, a far bigger chunk of new residents need, well, rehabilitation. After years and generations of hopelessness and helplessness, crime, fear, fatherlessness? This:
In the decades before Katrina, New Orleans was a place where failed urban policies let social pathology fester. Its economy was listless, its population declining. Free-market employers and middle-class residents shunned the city, because its public sector was seen as corrupt, its citizenry was uneducated, and its neighborhoods were crime-ridden. Failed criminal-justice and public-education systems helped perpetuate a large underclass, mostly black, as the city’s productive class, white and black, dwindled. Decades of government mismanagement and private-sector abandonment had turned New Orleans’s once-whimsical local nickname—“The City That Care Forgot”—into a sad epitaph before Katrina.
The Houston answer is not sweeping social anything. It is crime control. Get rid of crime. Free people to work and live safely. This is no small task. New Orleans, unsurprisingly, doesn't want this desperate group of people back in their city. They want to talk about solutions and have someone else fix them. This was how Houston acted:

Houston wouldn’t be the setting for this unprecedented experiment if it hadn’t risen to the occasion as no other government—federal, state, or local—did after Katrina. How did it mobilize so quickly? A social-services expert might think that, being such a small-government town, it would have been overwhelmed by the influx: recently branded one of America’s “meanest cities” by a homeless-advocacy group, Houston spent less than $1,500 per person in city funds last year, compared with New York’s $5,000. It has one public-sector worker to serve every 130 citizens, compared with one for every 22 in New York. About 6 percent of New Yorkers live in public housing; less than 1 percent of Houstonians do. Houston has no income tax, and nearly everyone you meet there boasts that the city is a “business city” with “business interests.”

But that’s no measure of Houston’s generosity. All it proves is that Houston never entwined its budget with radical entitlement politics in the sixties and seventies. Yet when Houston saw a crisis of humanity, it acted.

Don't you love what qualifies as mean? Expectations of hard work and the self-respect that hard work engenders is "mean." Houston pre-Katrina enjoyed a 4.3% unemployment rate. And New York City is boasting a 5.1% unemployment rate, its lowest in years. But it has also lost significant population, while Texas boasts five of the fastest growing population centers. In addition, New York City had 40 planned abortions out of every 100 pregnancies. That is double the abortion rate of the national average. Add to it the spontaneous abortions and 50% of future residents are never born. That surely inhibits population growth. And since 81% of the aborted babies were to unwed mothers, the long-term social needs would seem to be reduced because the low-income population would be reduced. My point? While Houston has a huge influx of low-skilled, low-income wage earners, New York has lost a significant portion of that population because of cost of living problems and just never being born. And yet Houston has lower unemployment and fewer social services outlays.

So how did Houston deal with the New Orleans residents, if the government didn't do everything? They didn't do what the FEMA wanted, that's for sure. And that might be why the plan went better than expected:

The federal government’s answer for evacuees whose homes and jobs had washed away was the one it gives to those displaced briefly by a run-of-the-mill hurricane: motels and “FEMA-villes” of mobile homes in isolated rural spots. But Houston knew that such temporary housing was no answer for the hundreds of thousands who needed to restart productive lives as soon as possible. The last thing America needed was massive Palestinian-style refugee camps on our own soil, filled with people who would refuse to get on with their lives, until, as former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial and the Acorn urban-activist group have already insisted, they are awarded a “right of return.”

For the thousands who did stay in FEMA-paid hotels and trailers after Katrina, at a cost of over a billion dollars, hotel living encouraged dependency and inertia, particularly for those who had been dependent and inert in the first place. Many evacuees in hotels delayed looking for real housing and employment for months, focusing instead on pushing back each new FEMA eviction date (and, at one New York hotel, enlisting the Reverend Al Sharpton to help them achieve “social justice”).

Fortunately, Houston had a better idea. In little more than a week, the city and county designed a mass-scale housing program to give displaced citizens an alternative to sitting in hotel rooms, with nothing expected of them but waiting. This housing program, coupled with the massive job fair Houston held for evacuees, helped its new citizens understand that, despite the traumatic storm and sudden relocation, “there was still a high degree of personal responsibility” expected of working-age adults, Eckels said.

Houston and the county offered any adult from hurricane-ravaged areas a 12-month voucher to rent an apartment at the median local market price—about $700 a month for a two-bedroom—to be paid to participating landlords by the city. In doing this, Houston quickly mastered the tactical rule of disasters: to get the federal government to do something, do it yourself, and then make the feds pay for it. When FEMA later periodically balked at paying the cost of the housing program Houston had devised—as much as $30 million a month, but much cheaper than hotels—and then tried to tinker with the program so that it conformed to its bureaucratically inflexible rules, Houston alternatively ignored the feds and reasoned with them until they gave in. The result was a better use of the federal dollars that would be spent on evacuees anyway.

To direct ground operations for the thousands of families who showed up for their free apartments, Houston hired freshly retired army major Buddy Grantham, who had handled supply logistics for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and had come to the Astrodome to volunteer for a few days because he had figured he could use the same skills to sort out people. Harris County also got help from executives of the Houston-based utility CenterPoint Energy, who helped coordinate everything from deliveries of donated furniture to meals to be delivered by the people from churches and charities who showed up to cook them.

While church-state separtists kvetch about the giving social services power to churches and private organizations, my first hand experience here in Houston was that the churches were very efficient and, and, and this is important, very good at determining needs and meeting them. While I have heard of even churches being taken advantage of, and this no doubt happened to individuals here, too, face-to-face accountability makes a difference. When someone lets you move into their home, it gets very uncomfortable to sit around and do nothing for more than a day or two, right? When ministers and volunteers visit you and bring you food and then read the Bible, which isn't exactly short on personal accountability, you tend to get moving faster. All to the good.

The result in Houston has been that those who want to work are working. Those who wanted a fresh start have one. And they aren't necessarily looped into the social services death-trap anymore. Good for them. Now, the problem that remains for Houston are those who don't want to work or those whose definition of work is a street corner selling dope.

Houston now is faced with dealing with the intractable problems New Orleans gave up on ages ago. Gelinas concludes:

Houston’s openhearted outreach to New Orleans in its hour of need was an extraordinary gesture, and it saved lives. But Houston will have accomplished a truly heroic task if it can redeem the undereducated, underpoliced, and unmarried underclass that made New Orleans a disaster long before Katrina.

Houston approaches this task with a crucial advantage: its leaders and citizens don’t instinctively see big government as the solution—only good government.

So here is my conclusion and summation of how the Government can react to crises:
  1. Do it yourself--Don't wait for the higher-ups to help, it will be too late.
  2. Reach out to churches and the private sector--They already have a chain of command and can mobilize quickly, they also have flexibility with money spending and better financial accountability (they answer to God and share holders, both of whom have rigorous standards).
  3. Give incentives for desired behavior--The temptation during troubled times is toothless charity which causes big problems long-term. People rise to the level expected of them. Expect a lot or you can inadvertantly create or reinforce a sub-class of people.
  4. You can't have enough law enforcement--Bagdhad, New Orleans, Houston, Paris pre-French Revolution (Les Miserable) nearly every city that is destabilized by trauma creates opportunities for criminals. They seize it. A national database of criminals would be good. Why don't we have this, yet? Whole chunks of the New Orleans criminal element are reeking havoc mostly because Houston is playing catch-up in identifying them. This is unacceptable.
  5. Stay flexible. The circumstances change. Even now, Houston leaders have a meeting every two weeks to assess the Katrina situation. The job is not done until Houston is back to where the leaders want Houston to be. A sourpuss might focus on New Orleans. Why? They may or may not get their act together. Best to assume they won't. A good leader deals with "what is" not with wishful fantasies.
  6. Define "done". No doubt Houston leaders want Houston's crime rate to go back to its pre-Katrina levels. To do that, there is a lot more work to do. By all accounts, they're doing it. Some situations like Iraq are even more complicated. Houston struggles only one year out and we have an established public and private sector. We have resources. We aren't being bombarded by terrorists daily. Iraq has none of these things stabilized yet. It has only been three years. Remarkable, really, when you think about it. Iraq won't go forward, though, until the criminal, terrorist element is firmly dealt with. Like Houston, insecurity and crime can undo ages of economic strides in moments. That is unacceptable. See #5.
Strong leadership in a crisis isn't enough. Strong, smart leadership makes the difference. Houston, in my proud opinion, has been a model of how to do it right. If I could vote for Bill White, a Democrat, I would vote for him. (I'm not in Harris county or a City of Houston resident.) He has done a great job, as has Judge Robert Eckels. Both men deserve high marks for leadership in a continuing crisis.


Jessica said...

great analysis... very thought provoking...

Anonymous said...

Bravo to everything you've said! My family and I, New Orleans residents, stayed at my sister's in Houston after Katrina. I have never felt so welcomed in my life. We'll never be able to repay the individual and collective kindness. Believe me, we needed it. Dysfunctional as New Orleans is, it's still home, and watching the scenes of chaos on TV were too much to take. Unlike some, however, we figured the best way we could repay Houston was to not wear out our welcome. To understand New Orleans, a sense of humor is essential, especially for a middle-aged, very conservative white guy. It also helps if you're from here. I mean, I graduated high school with Ray Nagin and voted for him more than three decades later for mayor (the first time). Most life-long New Orlenians pride themselves on living amongst every race, denomination, and political stripe. If nothing else, it keeps life interesting and reminds you to work on yourself instead of trying to control the rest of the world. Reading this blog, though, makes me wonder what point in my life I slipped the blinders on. Houston has no soul? Don't listen to it! I remember a town with more real soul--and charitable, practical solutions--than New Orleans can ever pretend to have. We already owed you so much; now we can thank you for being a good example.