Doubling Up in Baton Rouge

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By Jennifer Moses
Sunday, September 4, 2005

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Shortly after the power was restored on Thursday, my peacenik neighbor Jenny announced that she was going to buy a gun. She was going to buy a gun because she'd heard -- hadn't we all? -- that bands of desperate, sick, poor, hungry, hot, sweaty people were roving the streets of downtown Baton Rouge, not far from our own leafy green neighborhood, committing the kinds of crimes that bands of desperate, sick, poor, hungry, hot, sweaty people commit. Along with the rest of us, she'd also heard that gas, if you could obtain it, was now $5 a gallon, that fistfights were breaking out in grocery stores over the last of the sliced bread and that carjackings had become an everyday event. Eventually Jenny decided against the gun, but in her decision to go gunless she is in a tiny minority.

This is a city that's awash in rumor and armed to the teeth.

But Baton Rouge has always been armed to the teeth, and that's because Baton Rouge has always been, to some extent, a city that lives in fear, the "haves" afraid of the "have nots" and the "have nots" afraid of the criminals. At the same time, this is a town filled with generous, warm-hearted people, most of whom would give you the shirt off their back.

The recent influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Hurricane Katrina hasn't particularly altered the sense here that our whole society is splitting in two, and, at least among people of property, that all those poor (mainly black) people want our (mainly white) stuff. Katrina hasn't changed all that -- it's only highlighted it.

Unlike New Orleans, which may never recover, Baton Rouge, on the western edge of the storm, was largely spared and may even profit, at least in the short term. With a near doubling in population since last week -- making Baton Rouge Louisiana's most populous city -- housing prices are rising, and you can't get a rental, let alone a hotel room. In neighborhoods like mine, the lights (and, more important, the air conditioning) are going back on, and life has more or less resumed its everyday pace. There are the usual "yard men" cleaning up and mowing, young women jogging and people walking their dogs. Less apparent to the naked eye are the heroics: the folks down the street who have taken in some friends of friends; the secretary who is accommodating a family of out-of-town volunteer doctors; the retired nurse who is pulling back-to-back shifts in the maternity section of the nearest shelter. In fact, if you stay in the white sections of the city, all you'll really notice, in terms of Katrina, are the many downed tree branches and the buzz of chainsaws. You won't see a heavy police presence; you won't see teams of people from the Federal Emergency Management Agency; and you sure as hell won't see the Louisiana National Guard.

The problem is, you won't see these teams in the crisis centers either, or at least not in sufficient numbers. Baton Rouge, a city of some 350,000, is now accommodating another 350,000 or so, mainly in arenas that have been converted into shelters. Louisiana State University's field house is now the site of ungodly suffering, a modern Bosch's hell, and more refugees are pouring in by the hour. Next to it, Pete Maravich Assembly Center, where on ordinary weekends the LSU Tigers reign triumphant, is the center of triage units: screaming babies, women giving birth, old people having heart attacks, dialysis, desperation. Beyond the crisis centers, refugees huddle in gas stations, parking lots and any place with shade.

And amid all this chaos, no one is in charge. That's because, so far as I can tell, the state budget was already stretched to the breaking point, and the feds don't seem to be here at all. The people working the shelters, bringing in supplies, swabbing wounds, and rounding up diapers, underwear and bandages are the ones who live here, along with medical volunteers from all over.

The A-Team are people like Margaret Atkison, an LSU grad student who spent most of Thursday "baby-sitting" for the four tiny children of a destitute woman who had gone into premature labor, and my husband's colleague Liz Murrill, who is coordinating relief efforts at her church. It's thousands of different people, including me: We already expect at least one family sharing our house for a month or two.

Because as of now, in Baton Rouge, it's you and me, and if you've got a spare bedroom, or a sofa -- a corner will do it -- would you mind taking someone in?

Jennifer Moses is a writer who grew up in McLean and has lived in Baton Rouge for 10 years.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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