Baton Rouge Struggles with New Orleans' Displaced

Hurricane Katrina drove tens of thousands of storm victims from New Orleans — many of them poor and black — into Baton Rouge, the state capital to the north. The city's population has almost doubled in the past week, and many Baton Rouge residents are ambivalent about the change.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

The city of Baton Rouge might be more accurately called the city of Orleans Rouge, it has absorbed so many displaced people from New Orleans. The new residents live in the homes of their friends and family members and in shelters that house as many as 3,000 people. Baton Rouge has been both generous to and suspicious of the new residents. NPR's Mike Pesca reports.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

BRAND: It's not that Baton Rouge hasn't privately and publicly housed tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians. It's just that the strain is showing. The first weekend after the levee broke, New Orleans City Councilman Oliver Thomas was in Baton Rouge, accusing the rest of the state of not doing enough and asking the governor to get the right message out.

Mr. OLIVER THOMAS (New Orleans City Councilman): She needs to tell our neighbors in this state that everybody out of New Orleans is not a thug, they're not going to rob you. We were at the Centroplex. Remember the other day when they said about the riot at the Centroplex? I was there. Guess what? It never happened.

PESCA: The people of Baton Rouge chafe at Thomas' accusation.

Mr. SCOTT McKAY: You know, he's in Baton Rouge. Are our arms open? Well, I mean, you know, you're here.

PESCA: For 10 nights, Scott McKay(ph) has come for a drink at a local restaurant as an escape valve from the stresses of having his extended family find shelter in his home. McKay reflects a lot of the trepidation that people here have over the poorest of the poor coming to Baton Rouge. He thinks because Baton Rouge filled up so quickly with people who had the wherewithal to flee New Orleans early, this city dodged a bullet. At least he hopes so.

Mr. McKAY: Are we bringing the problems of New Orleans? Maybe not. In other words, the character of the refugees-slash-evacuees-slash-whatever you want to call them that have come to Baton Rouge. You know, they didn't empty the Superdome and bring 'em to Baton Rouge. They emptied 'em and they spread them everywhere. So we may have ended up with--and I hate to say this--but we may have ended up with, you know, the better part of all of this in terms of, you know, the people that come here from an economic standpoint hold their own.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. McKAY: You know, I mean, is that fair to say?

PESCA: McKay says his city is doing all it can and acknowledges that a lot of the rumors of widespread violence from early last week were just that--rumors. He says all that happened was broken windows and some theft at a Chevron station and fast-food restaurant across from the River Center, which is currently housing thousands. But a tour of the area and a walk through the same Chevron station revealed that even that didn't happen. Walking through the river center itself you meet many gracious evacuees, and many with complaints over the treatment that they got in Baton Rouge. Kunta Robertson(ph) is an example of the latter. He was almost not allowed in this shelter.

Mr. KUNTA ROBERTSON: The police officer--he turned me around and say, `Go back the other way; they ain't taking no more damn people.' Right then I was like where's the hospitality. They didn't give us nothing. They told me to turn away find another shelter, and I told him my family was in here already--my kids. He told me he didn't care. I had to find another shelter to go to.

(Soundbite of shelter activity)

Unidentified Man: Can't touch the sign. Can't touch the sign.

PESCA: More than a few residents complained about a type of profiling: having their bags searched by officials when they left the shelter and waiting on long metal detector lines even after shelter officials knew them by face. Last week Baton Rouge Mayor Melvin "Kip" Holden, a black man serving a mostly white electorate, by the way, tried to walk a fine edge. He attempted to tamp down rumors of violence, even as he let city workers off early after deploying police in riot gear to the downtown area. That was last week. This week order has either been restored or never went away, though some crimes like car theft and carjackings did go up. The city's groaning under the pressure. It is secure, but it is stressed. Mike Pesca, NPR News, Baton Rouge.

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