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New Orleanians seek to halt escalating crime wave

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The young men who lounge in shiny cars thumping with rap beats, whom locals suspect of drug dealing, seem to move unhindered through this wrecked but still grand old city.

People here see their presence as just one sign of a crime wave that, if left unchecked, will bring New Orleans' struggling recovery to its knees. Funerals of murder victims – too many in too short a time – are another sign. So are protest marches by locals, who trace a surge in crime to both official neglect and persistent poverty.

More than hurricane Katrina itself, last year's spike in holdups, carjackings, and murders – and law enforcement's inability so far to bring crime to heel – is sapping people's resolve to stick with this city, say many residents. If middle-class returnees abandon it, and those yet to return are too scared to come back, New Orleans will face a precarious future, they warn.

"The crime is way worse than the storm," says Charles Cannon, an English professor at the University of New Orleans who was born and raised here.

While New Orleanians could blame other forces – that is, nature and government – for the failures after Katrina, residents today must take an introspective look at the city's longstanding tendency to wink at vice and crime, and chart a new course, says Professor Cannon. "We can't shake our fists and blame someone else for what's happening."

About half the population, or 200,000 people, have returned since the waters of hurricane Katrina abated. As crime has worsened, some have taken extra measures – backyard floodlights, guns, dogs – to protect themselves. But counting 10 murders in the first two weeks of the new year, alarmed residents are putting intense pressure on city leaders and police to crack down on crime – and address underlying issues that contribute to the Big Easy's culture of permissiveness.

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