As tens of thousands of New Orleans residents, many poor and needy, leave the ruined city and pour into the Louisiana state capital, Baton Rouge finds itself facing an unprecedented crisis.
Doctors and nurses are working 20-hour days to care for the sick. Police officials are putting in double shifts. School officials are scrambling to find space for hundreds or even thousands of new students. The city's landfills are stuffed; its sewage system is strained. Exhausted officials working around the clock to accommodate the newcomers are being offered mental health counseling to better withstand the strain.
"How much can Baton Rouge handle?" asked Mayor Melvin "Kip" Holden, who predicted the city's population and surrounding area will more than double -- perhaps permanently -- to 1 million.
Holden said he plans to ask President Bush for $10 billion in federal aid to help pay the costs of the massive growth when the two meet Monday during his visit to the city. The city would use the money for roads, schools, housing and more police officers, firefighters and teachers.
Holden and others believe that, over the long term, Baton Rouge will adapt and perhaps even prosper from the influx. But the immediate crisis is overwhelming, here and elsewhere as local governments struggle to accommodate hundreds of thousands of evacuees.
In Texas, where nearly a quarter-million people have filled the state's relief centers, Gov. Rick Perry ordered emergency officials to airlift some evacuees to other states willing to take them. Evacuees have also been sent to Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Indiana.
But Baton Rouge appears to be the city facing one of the largest influxes of newcomers, and its contours and character may be about to undergo change. By most measures, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, which are about 80 miles apart, are remarkably similar. In each city, about one-quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, and the household income in each city is about $30,000 -- below the national average.
Staid Baton Rouge has always prided itself on being more efficient and more intellectual than its more colorful neighbor to the east. Baton Rouge, it is said, was a good city to live in, but New Orleans was a better city to play in. The racial makeup is also different. New Orleans has a far larger percentage of African Americans -- about 80 percent are black, compared with about half in Baton Rouge.
For some residents where the dislocated have landed, the change ahead is bewildering.
At the Coffee Call shop a few miles from the bucolic Louisiana State University campus, some local residents vented frustration over an influx of newcomers and the strain they will place on the city.
"The traffic's just horrible," said Wayne Gaudin, as he and his wife entered a jam-packed Wal-Mart. "Our infrastructure's gonna take a big hit: transportation, social services, food stamps, the hospitals."
There is also a sharp racial dimension developing in the comments of some residents. A few of the white residents questioned at the coffee shop and the nearby Wal-Mart said they are anxious about changes they believe are coming to their community.
"They are driving me crazy, all these people who are coming in and have nothing," said Barbara Munson, who says she has struggled to keep order at a local hotel where she works. "They want to sit in the lobby all night long. They use the phone and the office computers."
Her husband, Henry Munson, said he went to protect his wife at the hotel one day and found the clientele "rude, obnoxious and violent."
The couple said they have observed strangers roaming around their Port Allen neighborhood, and Barbara Munson complained about "a whole bunch of black people" clogging a stretch near Highway 77 where "they thought there was a Social Security building."
School overcrowding and the potential for an uptick in crime seemed to weigh most heavily on the minds of some residents here.
"It's all right as long as they come here to seek help and not cause trouble," said Richard Johnson, 55, as he took a break from his job making cafe au lait to read from his prayer book. "Every city has its lawless element; we don't need any more."
So many of the displaced newcomers have "lost everything" that crime may be their only option, said Mary Gaudin, 44. "They have no money, no jobs. They have nothing else to lose. They're going to get desperate."
One New Orleans native was more tempered in her reaction to the influx of residents and said some in Baton Rouge were letting their imaginations run wild.
"I saw a news report that people are running off to buy guns," said Melissa Collins, 27, a chemistry graduate student at LSU. "That's kinda ridiculous. It's not that bad."
Indeed, local police say fear of crime increasing is so far overstated. While rumors of assaults and rapes by evacuees have swept the city, police officials say the crime rate is about the same. To ensure order, they have posted 60 police officers at the shelters and have installed metal detectors at the largest in the city's downtown civic center, which is housing 5,000 evacuees. Early last week, authorities slapped a dusk-to-dawn curfew on the shelter after several knives were confiscated.
Officials here say they are also preparing for an increase in social problems. Charles Currie, head of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, said he expects a "surge in terms of demand here in Baton Rouge" to care for people with addictions and mental illnesses.
While concern is rising among some, many others are opening their hearts to the newcomers. Hundreds of Baton Rouge residents are volunteering in area shelters -- delivering home-cooked meals to them, donating clothing and toiletry items and swamping the local Red Cross office with offers of help.
Some residents have driven out to the local airport and taken evacuees home, and evacuees tell of Baton Rouge residents who have handed them money in stores.
The signs of economic growth are also encouraging. New Orleans businesses are relocating to Baton Rouge -- perhaps permanently, snapping up office space and retailing locations. They are expected to bring tens of thousands of employees with them.
The housing market has suddenly turned D.C.-style hot. Before the storm hit, $250,000 could buy a luxury home in Baton Rouge. This week, real estate prices are soaring: Houses that had sat on the market for months suddenly have 50 offers, say city residents, some of them from desperate New Orleans residents paying cash.
The city's competitive high school football scene is expected to be transformed as top-notch players from New Orleans transfer to Baton Rouge schools and upend traditional rivalries.
The long-term effects of the transformation to the city "will be positive in the end," Holden said. "But in the short term, you have some pains and losses."