Baton Rouge, a Reluctant Katrina Boom Town
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
I'm Alex Chadwick. This week, the NPR News series Katrina: Where the Money Went has been examining the hurricane's aftermath. Today, what happened to the public money?
BRAND: Right after Katrina hit, thousands of New Orleans evacuees fled to nearby Baton Rouge. Citizens there worried that storm victims would stay, overburdening government services and increasing crime. Well, a lot of them did stay, and what happened has surprised many in Baton Rouge. NPR's Mike Pesca reports.
MIKE PESCA reporting:
Imagine if an earthquake in Los Angeles forced most of the population south through San Diego. Or if a huge flood emptied Seattle, what would happen to Portland Oregon? Now you're getting an idea of the impact of Katrina on the city of Baton Rouge. The winds blew over some trees and then blew upwards of 200,000 people into town. Baton Rouge answered the call. Rick Weil, a sociology professor at Louisiana State University, documents the assistance this city provided.
Professor RICK WEIL (Sociology, Louisiana State University): Half of the households in town housed evacuees. Another thing was the 60 percent of all of our respondents did relief work. Almost all of them more than once, and almost all of them with faith-based organizations.
PESCA: But something strange happened, or at least strange to a sociologist who knows that the more embedded in a community a person is through family, friends, and civic groups, the more that person is able to handle stress. But the more connections a Baton Rouge resident has, the more stressed out he or she's been since Katrina hit, says Weil.
Prof. WEIL: The kind of relief work that people were doing, the kind of hospitality the people were doing - it put a lot of stress on the people who were most active, the most generous. And I think that that eased off somewhat. We're still carrying enormous burdens.
PESCA: Most of the displaced people have left, but a new reality has taken hold. Surveys indicate that there's more depression. On the other hand, the city has seen an economic benefit from the tragedy. Wages are up. Unemployment is down. Housing prices have doubled. In a normal year, sales tax revenue should increase by about three percent. After Katrina, it went up by twenty percent. Jim Richardson - an LSU professor who advises state and local governments on their budgets - explains why.
Professor JIM RICHARDSON (Louisiana State University): You could go into a store, a Target, and there would be families in front of you essentially buying a new wardrobe. Every family in New Orleans almost has to buy a new refrigerator.
PESCA: Right after the storm hit, Baton Rouge Mayor Melvin Kip Holden had to promote his own city without appearing to cannibalize the business base of his devastated neighbor.
Mayor MELVIN KIP HOLDEN (Baton Rouge, Louisiana): We didn't go out and toot our horn to say hey, that place is washed away. Come and stay with us. Because that would really be wrong. I mean, that would really be taking advantage of people.
PESCA: Right and wrong - or as the mayor puts it, moral obligation - has guided much of his decision-making. The window of the mayor's office looks out at the civic center where thousands of evacuees slept on cots after the storm. A riot was rumored to have taken place here in the days right after Katrina. Only there was no riot, and the mayor took to the airwaves to calm the rumors. The mayor - a black man serving the majority white city - also took a hard line, telling the evacuees that he expected them to behave, which directly addressed the overriding concern of the populous.
Mr. STEVEN PROCOPIO (Director Public Policy Research Lab, LSU): Crime itself has not gone up. I think in something like six of the eight categories, actually gone down.
PESCA: Steven Procopio is the director of the public policy research lab at LSU.
Mr. PROCOPIO: Not even looking at the increase in population. If you take that into affect, actually crime is much lower. So while, you know, this sort of idea that, you know, we're being overrun by crime is not exaggerated. It's just wrong.
PESCA: The opinion surveys show that the public isn't fearful of crime per se. They fear the people who live in FEMA trailers on the outskirts of town, though most residents say they have never had any contact with someone who lives in a FEMA trailer. Maybe what residents think of the new Baton Rouge Inns - who are the old New Orleanians - isn't dictated by fear or racism, but by a bit of a culture clash. Baton Rouge lifer Leroy Wilson was waiting in line to see a movie the other day. He says he could tell right away if someone here is from New Orleans. They're a little louder, a little more vulgar. It's not a race thing, says Wilson, who's black. But New Orleanians just seem different.
Mr. LEROY WILSON (Resident, Baton Rouge): You know, they're from a city life. Our city is a city, but it's not a big city. It's not the city that they're from. You know, if you're not used to something, you're not going to come on to it, you know, right away. You're going to be like oh, Lord, you know. Let me stand back a little bit.
PESCA: The city has stepped back and gathered itself a bit over the last year. Kirby Goidel, another LSU researcher, says he saw a lot of worry in the weeks after Katrina. Crime, school, quality of life. But now…
Mr. KIRBY GOIDEL (Researcher, LSU): Now I would say we're probably not normal, but we're close to normal in terms of anxiety level.
PESCA: Which doesn't mean things are back to normal. It's just that people have adapted to the new Baton Rouge called upon to be a bigger city than anyone thought possible. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New Orleans.