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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)

On a recent morning, Cora Nixon was fussing around in the front yard of her aunt Dorothy Hamilton's home on America Street. A native of New Orleans, herself black, Nixon scrunches her face when talking about the Katrina effect in Baton Rouge.

"I hate to say it -- we're all black Americans -- but I had to bolt up my house. Ain't nobody ever tried to break in my house before."

She is talking about before the Katrina evacuees arrived.

"They done gave so much to the storm people," she says. "It's not all just money. I'm talking about housing, too."

She points to the padlock on her aunt's gate. "You see this big old padlock? My aunt needs it. They done stole her barbecue pit from the backyard."

Before the storm, the police department here was averaging about 500 calls a day. That number has jumped to about 800.

And while crime, except homicides, is up across the board, police spokesman Kelly says the department lacks hard statistics on the increase on a percentage basis because the city doesn't have an accurate enough count of its population. "To measure crime increases, you need a yardstick in counting the population," says Kelly. "And right now, our yardstick is still broken. We just don't accurately know how many people are in Baton Rouge."

The population estimates given are based on garbage pickups and traffic patterns.

Moreau, the homeland security official, says the city's sense of being overwhelmed persists because it has had to take responsibility for many roles the state and federal government would have usually played. "We've had to do things that were actually state functions -- such as sheltering, long-term care, feeding people," she says. "All those things that would normally be provided by another government agency."

A year ago the Baton Rouge Police Department had 592 officers; that number is now up to 632. But 38 of those officers, says Kelly, are still in the training academy.

Jeff LeDuff, the city's no-nonsense police chief, was credited by many with keeping order in the city. There was aggressive policing, officers rolling en masse to reports of crimes. "I'm willing to be my brother's keeper. That's what I said at the time," says LeDuff now, referring to the immediate aftermath of Katrina. "And I also said, 'While my brother is in Baton Rouge, he must behave.' "

Some assailed LeDuff, who is black, and his police force, saying they were too aggressive. But Mayor Melvin "Kip" Holden, who appointed LeDuff and who also is black, lauded his chief's stewardship of the department during the crisis.


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