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Miss. governor says crime has increased in hurricane-ravaged communities

Associated Press Writer

[Related: Front line hurricane reports from Chief Jeff Chudwin]

GULFPORT, Miss.- Crime has increased dramatically in Gulf Coast counties hard hit by Hurricane Katrina, in part due to outsiders looking to prey on the weak, Gov. Haley Barbour said Tuesday.

Construction scams, assaults, and drug and alcohol crimes are among offenses occurring more frequently, law officers in the region said. Barbour told The Associated Press in an interview that arrests for some crimes have more than doubled.

"There are criminals coming down here and preying on weak people. They're looking for people to steal from or sell dope to," said Barbour, a Republican.

Barbour said much of the crime is occurring in counties along the Louisiana-Mississippi line. "There was a significant increase in crime as there was an influx of new population," he said.

Part of the reason for an increase in the number of arrests in Harrison County is that twice as many officers are on the street since the storm, said Capt. Windy Swetman, a sheriff's spokesman. Alcohol- and drug-related crimes in the county increased up to 300 percent.

"The number of transients has gone up," Swetman said. "It's kind of like the old gold rush days. They come here looking for labor and prosperity but what they find is a lack of housing."

Transients are sleeping in tents in wooded areas and under road bridges, he said.

The sheriff's office in Hancock County couldn't give a percentage on the crime increase because Katrina's storm surge destroyed files and computers. But domestic violence calls have increased, as well as assaults, thefts, property crimes and drug arrests, said Bobby Underwood, patrol division chief.

The jail and court were destroyed in the storm and are now operating in a strip mall.

The department lost most of its patrol cars, weapons and even fingerprinting kits but other agencies around the country donated equipment and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is paying for new cruisers.

National Guard soldiers and outside law enforcement agencies helped in the coastal counties in the wake of Katrina but have since pulled out of Hancock County, Underwood said.

"We're standing on our own on now," he said. "But we never lost continuity of government. Our people stayed on the job and some of our deputies actually walked on patrols."

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