NEW ORLEANS – Lawmakers and tourism officials on Tuesday urged the federal government to act fast to quell a wave of crime that has hit New Orleans in the first nine days of the new year.
"The situation demands action," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who introduced a 10-point crime-fighting plan Tuesday that would give law enforcement a boost as it combats shootings and other crime.
"All of this must be done without delay, without excuse and without red tape," she added.
A murder spree killed nine a dozen people in recent weeks — with nine killings alone in the new year — prompting officials to ask for help to get the city under control in time for Mardi Gras. The city is depending on the huge, infamous party to bring in much-needed tourism dollars to businesses still trying to get back on their feet after being devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
Officials are also worried the recent crime rash will send a message to hurricane evacuees that it's not safe to come back home
"I don't believe it's a direct threat to Mardi Gras," Landrieu said. But "there's no doubt that this crime wave is putting a damper on our aggressive efforts to rebuild and reimage the city and encourage not only residents to return, but encourage tourists to come."
Landrieu said she plans to send President Bush a letter urging for his support of her plan.
The plan calls for Federal Emergency Management Agency improvements, including turning over records of residents living in its trailers and trailer parks to police, speeding up construction of criminal justice facilities, more FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration agents, federal funding redirected to law enforcement programs and surveillance cameras to monitor crime and oversee police activity.
Landrieu's proposal calls for making the Federal Emergency Management Agency "fully cooperate with investigative inquiries from the NOPD and regional law enforcement agencies." Asked by e-mail if that meant turning over records of who is in FEMA trailers/trailer parks, press secretary Adam Sharp answered, "Yes."
Tourism officials say they spent the past week reassuring convention representatives that the city would be safe, said Stephen Perry, of the Convention and Visitor's Bureau.
"This has done real damage to us here," Perry said. "We're in a multibillion dollar perception and image driven business. Whenever there is a wave of violence here it has an immediate chilling impact on those leisure consumers that don't really know our city."
A group of about 2,000 convention and meeting planners will be in New Orleans in two weeks to see the progress the city has made since the storm.
Adding to the woes of the tourist and business community is discussion of a possible curfew for the city — including the French Quarter where many bars are open 24 hours a day.
"We're very much opposed to a curfew," said Earl Bernhardt, president of the Bourbon Street Alliance, a merchants organization. "For one thing, it would send a terrible message nationwide that would hurt us more than the murder rate. It would look like it was totally unsafe to be on the streets after dark."
The latest spasm of violence came despite the presence of about 300 National Guardsmen and 60 state troopers who were brought in last June to help patrol the streets because of a surge in killings.
On Monday, Police Superintendent Warren Riley said he has not asked for more troops, and is instead considering ways to stretch his hurricane-depleted force. Those could include increasing foot patrols, reassigning officers to front-line duty, and imposing a citywide curfew, he said.
The police force is down from its pre-Katrina level of 1,700 officers to about 1,400. But that number includes about 100 officers on leave for injuries or illness and 40 recruits in the academy.
Mayor Ray Nagin expressed concern over the weekend that the killings might discourage residents from staying in the still-rebuilding city.
"We're going to have periods of time when we feel very comfortable, and we are going to have very tough periods when we are going to feel very uncomfortable," he said.
New Orleans had 161 homicides last year, the lowest total in 60 years. But the population was way down from its pre-Katrina total of 455,000, and is still only about 200,000.
City Council President Oliver Thomas said curbing the uptick in crime is going to require reinstating mentoring programs for troubled youngsters, creating neighborhood watch groups, establishing more of a law enforcement presence and holding speedier trials for criminals.
To some extent Hurricane Katrina is to blame for the spike in killings, said Dr. Howard Osofsky, chairman of psychiatry at the LSU Health Sciences Center.
"The normal support structures for many parts of the community are gone," Osofsky said. "The churches, the community centers, the families and people in neighborhoods that all have a governing affect on residents are gone in many cases."
In turn, the killings affect the recovery from the storm, he said.
"People are already dealing with the slowness of recovery, the destruction of their lives, the loss of so much," he said. "When you add such a huge measure of violence to all of that, people will wonder if it's worth it to try to come back."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.