Gulf Coast Mayors Reflect, Look Forward
ALLISON KEYES, host:
I'm Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.
Coming up, you tell us more. You take us you talk to us about this week's stories in our Backtalk segment.
But, first, this Sunday marks the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's landfall on the Gulf Coast. And we're turning inland for this part of our ongoing look at the region. In addition to massive damage from the hurricane itself, the cities of Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Jackson, Mississippi received thousands of displaced people from New Orleans and from other cities near or along the coast.
We're joined now by the mayors of both cities. In Baton Rouge, the office's mayor-president, so, Mayor-President Melvin Kip Holden of the city of Baton Rouge and East Baton Rouge Parish. And Mayor Harvey Johnson of Jackson, Mississippi are here. Welcome to both of you.
Mr. MELVIN KIP HOLDEN (Mayor-President, Baton Rouge): Thank you for having us.
Mr. HARVEY JOHNSON (Mayor, Jackson, Mississippi): Thank you, appreciate the opportunity.
KEYES: Mayor Holden, let me start with you in Baton Rouge. You had just been sworn in a few months when Katrina hit. What happened in the initial impact from your city and what did you think was going to happen after all those people started showing up?
Mr. HOLDEN: Well, in the first week we took in about a quarter of a million people, which...
KEYES: Wait, let me back up a quarter of a million?
Mr. HOLDEN: Yes, a quarter of a million people. We exceeded our 25-year traffic projection in one week. And it was a lot of people who came here because initially the evacuation plan said, start in north Louisiana and work your way back towards southern Louisiana. I think a lot of people just said, you know, I'm going to try to get to the first shelter I can. And Baton Rouge became that first place where we started to take people in.
KEYES: So you thought basically you gained a whole another city within a week.
Mr. HOLDEN: That's correct. But not only did we gain people, like, from New Orleans, we also helped to serve seven other parish government entities all of the parishes, we were able to keep them operating by offering them space in Baton Rouge.
KEYES: Mayor Johnson, you had just left office just before the storm hit. Talk to us about your perspective. What did you think?
Mayor JOHNSON: Well, you know, we just didn't anticipate the level of devastation because we were so far inland, but it was still a category three storm when it reached Jackson. I mean we experienced power outages, fuel shortages. Those things that we just weren't accustomed to experiencing from a hurricane. We also experienced, of course, not a quarter of a million people, but we had a sizeable influx of evacuees. We had about 50,000 people here in the city.
So, you know, we were sort of stretched both from the devastation, from the influx of people. So it was very trying times. And then we had debris all over the place. So these are the kinds of challenges that we hadn't experienced before here in the city. I was not in office. I was observing as a citizen, but the experience...
KEYES: And then you came back four years later, right? You were just reelected last year.
Mayor JOHNSON: Yes, I was just reelected this past summer, yes.
KEYES: Mayor Holden, right after the hurricane, I know you were just saying that your population, I mean, nearly doubled. And then you've got overcrowded schools, you've overcrowded streets. But it also allowed some opportunities. Let's take a listen to what then chief administrator for the East Baton Rouge Parish, Mr. Walter Monsour, told an NPR reporter in 2005.
Mr. WALTER MONSOUR (Chief Administrator, East Baton Rouge Parish): We're talking about law firms, CPAs, consulting services, engineering. A lot of those companies had offices in Baton Rouge. Typically the larger office was in New Orleans, the smaller office in Baton Rouge. That's certainly going to change. The larger office is now going to be in Baton Rouge. And if they reestablish an office in New Orleans at all, it will be a smaller office.
KEYES: Mayor Holden, is that still the case?
Mr. HOLDEN: That's still the case. We have been pretty vibrant in regards to the number of people who still want to locate here, if they're not located here already. We're also watching some new companies that are coming here and doing more. But I guess one of the off shoot is 2005. We had not started a film commission. Mainly the movies were being made for the most part in New Orleans and in Shreveport.
And now a lot of those big players out of California are shooting major movies here, including the last episode of "Twilight" will be filmed in Baton Rouge.
KEYES: Oh my goodness, the Twihards.
Mr. HOLDEN: Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KEYES: Mayor Johnson, talk to us a little bit about how many people first came to your city how many have stayed and what kind of people they were. Are they professional? Are they blue collar?
Mayor JOHNSON: Well, they're mostly blue collar, I would believe. There are some professionals who are here. But for the most part, you know, the people who've stayed here are seeking work opportunities here, housing opportunities here, but I don't think the number is that significant as in other areas.
KEYES: What kind of changes, Mayor Johnson, has it meant for your city? I mean, I've been to Jackson a few years ago and it was a lovely but sleepy little town. And this was around 2007 because I was speaking to a family that actually relocated there from New Orleans.
Mayor JOHNSON: I think the main change that we see is just the way we look at emergency management, emergency planning right now. Setting up these temporary support services that have to be just as effective as permanent support services. Making sure that we bring into our planning churches and nonprofits because at the end the day, they really were the institutions that step forward and provided a level of service that we in government, quite frankly, was not prepared to provide, or could provide.
So it's affected us in the way we look at emergency management, emergency management planning. And we're going to go forward with our plan but making sure that we form the partnerships that can help us accommodate the needs of the people who are coming here for help and for refuge.
KEYES: I'm curious about something 'cause I remember in the immediate aftermath and in the first couple of years, there were a lot of news reports from cities where residents along the Gulf had moved in. People accused them basically of being criminals. They're going, we have this huge influx of people, they're robbing people, they don't have anywhere to be. They're bringing down property values. I wonder if you guys have run into that kind of thing. And let me ask Mayor Johnson to speak first.
Mayor JOHNSON: Well, you know, I think that people just traditionally, I guess, or sometimes are leery of strangers coming into their neighborhoods. But when you have a massive influx like we had, there's even more anxiety, so to speak. I haven't heard and we haven't experienced any, you know, widespread accusations that we have criminals and all that.
In fact, what we've tried to do is to make sure that we can accommodate these people who are coming in. But, you know, that was a little anxiety at first. But nothing, I haven't heard of any reports where people were being accused of being criminals simply because they were displaced by the storm.
KEYES: Mayor Holden, what was your experience?
Mr. HOLDEN: Basically the same as Mayor Johnson, expect, you know, we had to deal with all the rumors back then. Although you had delays on radio stations and their equipment, radio stations here were allowing people to go on the air, basically say whatever they wanted to say and there was no time delay at all. And so what that did was allow rumors to go out. For example, that they had commandeered all of the Wal-Mart stores, that people from New Orleans were walking down the streets with shotguns in their hands.
And that they were pulling women out of the cars at red lights and raping them and all of these different things. And one reporter, I remember, who told me, she says, mayor, there was also a rumor they had kidnapped you. And I responded to her about saying if they had kidnapped me, it would've been bad news because my wife would not have paid the ransom.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HOLDEN: And so, but, you know, but we survived and we've had small incidents, but for the most part, the crime that we're seeing here, most of it is being committed by people who grew up in Baton Rouge. So New Orleans did not have that much of an adverse impact on us and crime in Baton Rouge.
KEYES: Mayor Holden, isn't the Justice Department investigating some complaints against the police department there for the way they allegedly behaved in the aftermath of the storm?
Mr. HOLDEN: They have conducted their investigation and they found no wrongdoing on the part of the police department. They have some problems with I guess how some offices may have talked to some of the individuals. I do not condone that at all. But overall, this department here, for example, has just received the top accreditation of any department in the United States. Twenty-two cities and states received that accreditation. And they have been named a flagship department.
So yet there could've been a few bad apples, but we have indicated and told them we're not going to tolerate this foolishness if you don't take care of crime. Some of it you just you are going to offend somebody.
KEYES: The New Mexico state police forwarded complaints, though, to the U.S. Department of Justice. So you're telling us that investigation is over and done with?
Mr. HOLDEN: Yes, ma'am, I am.
KEYES: Okay, I'm just trying to be clear.
Mr. HOLDEN: Yeah.
KEYES: We spoke with a family who moved from New Orleans to Jackson, Mississippi, Mayor Johnson, and they were saying that while your city is beautiful, they really, really want to go home to New Orleans. And I wonder, both of you - and Mayor Johnson, if you could answer first - have you had to do anything to help families that are trying to relocate back to New Orleans or Gulfport or whatever other city they came from?
Mayor JOHNSON: Well, certainly, we want to try to accommodate their needs as best we can. But, you know, I would be misleading you if I said that we were to try to help people to relocate out of our city. We want to bring people into our city. And so we do not have a relocation program that would assist people in moving back. We'll accommodate them as best we can. But our hope is that they stay here in the city of Jackson and they help us grow and develop the city.
KEYES: Mayor Holden, you feel the same way in Baton Rouge? You would rather that the people that have come stay there?
Mr. HOLDEN: Yes, we would. And I think one of the things that we found out is it's kind of amazing. We're only an hour and 10 minutes away from New Orleans. But the most interesting thing has been people saying, basically, I didn't realize the city was so nice. And so what we had was a cultural and social barrier erected between two cities, and those barriers are now broken down.
As a matter of fact, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and myself have signed a sister city agreement to make sure we share everything with each other. So the bottom line is simply we then take our services that we could offer to help children in school, summer youth programs and other programs we offer to people, including training programs, to help them get jobs.
KEYES: Basically, it sounds to me like both of you are thinking this is the new normal for your city. You're not looking for another, you know, big swash of people going back and forth. Either way, these are the people that are there now. It's been five years, so they're now part of your cities. Am I right?
Mr. HOLDEN: Yes, but I think both of us would agree that everybody is watching the next month-and-a-half to two months, because that's the top of the hurricane season, and we are hoping and praying that we don't have a storm anywhere close to the magnitude of Katrina, because you're going to see massive problems throughout whatever area another major storm would hit.
Mayor JOHNSON: And besides the storm, of course, we have the devastation of what has happened out in the Gulf with the oil.
Mayor JOHNSON: And the coast - Mississippi coast is rebounding. In fact, a lot of it has to do with perception rather than reality as to the devastation there. But because of that perception, they have undergone a downturn in the economy, and certainly a major storm would just aggravate that. And so we're I, too, like Mayor Holden, hope and pray that we don't experience another Katrina this coming season.
KEYES: Mayor Johnson, really briefly, with them basically saying that, okay, the oil is all dissipated, this is all fine, what are you hearing from people that work in the seafood industry in your city?
Mayor JOHNSON: That the seafood is fine, and that, you know, we need to make sure that we get that word out. I think the media did a great job in keeping us informed on the oil spill. In fact, it was a lead story for days and days and days. And now I think people outside of our area are a little leery of the seafood, but it's - the seafood is fine. And we want to make sure and I'm sure that the fisherman and the people involved in the industry want to make sure that Gulf Coast seafood is just as fine as it always has been and that we need people to buy just as they have in the past.
But also, we're getting up to the last major holiday of the summer, Labor Day. And people are still think that there are globs of oil on the beaches down on the coast, and that's simply not the case. And so we're also hoping that people will take the opportunity to spend some time on the Gulf Coast and to have fun and, of course, to help rejuvenate the economy that suffered because of this oil situation.
KEYES: Harvey Johnson is the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi and Melvin Holden is the mayor-president of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They both joined us from their offices. Thank you, gentlemen, for sharing.
Mr. HOLDEN: I thank you for the opportunity, and our prayers go out still to all of those Katrina victims and those who are trying to rebuild their lives.
Mayor JOHNSON: Yeah, thank you so much for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.