After Katrina, Baton Rouge Weathers a Storm of Its Own

William Dickerson, owner of Plank Road Cleaners in Baton Rouge, chats with employee Diane Johnson, a New Orleans evacuee.
In the aftermath of the hurricane, baton Rouge opened its doors to evacuees. William Dickerson, owner of Plank Road Cleaners in Baton Rouge, chats with employee Diane Johnson, a New Orleans evacuee. (Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 25, 2006

BATON ROUGE, La. -- When Hurricane Katrina walloped New Orleans, this quiet capital city 80 miles to the northwest suffered only minor damage from howling winds. There were inconvenient power outages. Townsfolk felt fortunate.

It was, however, a cruel mirage. Things turned chaotic and challenging quickly, as tens of thousands of New Orleanians fled up Interstate 10, taking refuge here. That was nearly one year ago, and thousands of those evacuees are still here.

If the hurricane forever changed New Orleans, it has also permanently transformed Baton Rouge. Katrina has demanded realignments, shaken this city's sense of order and left it struggling to cope with a range of new, daily problems.

A population boom has led to Los Angeles-like traffic jams. A housing crunch has escalated home costs, angering longtime residents. A surge in school enrollment -- there are 3,704 displaced New Orleans students in the local system -- has overburdened teachers, many of whom had already felt overworked. And increased crime has led to daily discussions about race and class.

Baton Rouge -- a formal city, home to the state's government -- had long seen itself as an antidote to the laissez-faire goings-on in New Orleans. But now, after a year of new realities and soul-searching, Baton Rouge has found itself frightened of what the hurricane has thrust upon it, worried that its sense of order has been forever altered.

"Be honest with me," says Cora Nixon, who works as a health-care aide for the elderly and has lived here most of her life. "These New Orleans people aren't going back, are they?"

At times it can feel like a brew of every ill that has flummoxed major American cities in recent decades has come to land in Baton Rouge.

Local officials wake up each morning wondering what crisis might toss their day into turmoil -- a shooting at one of the FEMA-run trailer parks, a car accident that ties up traffic for miles, a neighborhood skirmish over gang turf. A "What next?" feeling is pervasive.

"Yesterday," says JoAnne H. Moreau, director of homeland security and emergency preparedness for East Baton Rouge Parish, "I had five people from my staff over in Alexandria in meetings about Amtrak service. Katrina has stretched our resources to its limits. And it's not anything we'll see an end to soon."

Moreau loathes traveling across the city. A trip that took 20 minutes pre-Katrina can now stretch into hours. "There was an accident yesterday on the highway coming to work," she says. "It added two hours to my getting into work."

Few will deny that there are not many cities the size of Baton Rouge that can cope easily with the arrival of more than 100,000 people. (In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, the parish surrounding Baton Rouge saw its population of 417,000 double. "For about the first 30 days, we did look like we were going to hell in a handbasket," says Sgt. Don Kelly, a police spokesman. "There was fear here. If we did not, from the very beginning, stay on top of things, there was a good chance our city would be overrun.")

While local and federal officials cope with the challenges from behind desks -- or inside trailers with makeshift offices -- a swelled populace has had to learn to cope with one another as neighbors. It has not been easy.

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