La. city has its share of blessings amid turmoil

Evacuees influx aids economy in Baton Rouge

City is now state's largest

Katrinia's Wake

September 05, 2005|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

BATON ROUGE — BATON ROUGE-- On the first Sunday since Katrina swept across the Gulf Coast in one of the worst natural disasters in American history, Charity Christian Church here was crammed with grateful worshipers.

Evacuees from New Orleans sat side by side with longtime residents of this once-sleepy Southern capital 80 miles up the Mississippi, just beyond the reach of the violent storm.

Those from New Orleans were grateful for their lives.

"When you know God, and how good he has been to us, there's no way you can't be thankful," said Greg Davis, 39, after the service. Davis evacuated New Orleans a week ago with his family and is now living in the Baton Rouge River Center, the city's largest shelter. "I have my health, my strength and my life. The material things, that's not important."

The natives are grateful for their good fortune. These days, Baton Rouge is being called the `new New Orleans,' now the largest city in Louisiana.

The metro area of 400,000 has thrown open its doors to the continuing influx of evacuees, and the stress is visible on nearly every government agency and service. But the newcomers are also sparking a housing boom and fresh economic vitality.

The steady flow of evacuees is clearly transforming Baton Rouge, and officials, residents and survivors all are trying to wrap their minds around the change.

Real estate agents say those displaced by the storm have been purchasing homes sight unseen. Buyers are bidding over asking price, a practice unheard of in Baton Rouge. And sellers are taking their homes off the market because they can't find a house to move into fast enough.

Danielle McKinley, a real estate agent with ReMax in upscale southeast Baton Rouge, said she has arrived at a house ready to show it, only to see another agent writing up a contract with a buyer.

"I had a doctor call me and say, `Look, I have a check for $400,000 and I need a house," said McKinley.. "He was evacuated from New Orleans and needed a place for his family. He didn't care about specifics."

"It's an economic boon to the city, definitely," said Irma Plummer, an aide to Baton Rouge Mayor Melvin Kipholden. "A house yesterday -- if you didn't buy it, it probably isn't available today. But the collateral of Katrina is so complex."

Meanwhile, evacuees who have lost everything and don't have savings to speak of are filling up shelters, enrolling their children in already at-capacity schools and are in need of emergency food stamps and other social services.

Red Cross shelters have been full since Wednesday, with about 6,700 people taking refuge in the four shelters in East Baton Rouge Parish alone.

At last count, 10,882 people had filled 13 official shelters in the surrounding area, officials reported. And that's not including the numerous churches that have opened shelters and the many people who have taken friends, family and strangers into their homes.

Churches are trying to pick up the slack. The Rev. Tony Foster, an associate pastor at Bethany World Prayer Center, a large compound north of Baton Rouge, is housing 750 evacuees. Besides offering spacious sleeping areas, hot meals and employment services, the facility's sprawling grounds include a playground.

Some have questioned whether Baton Rouge can handle the influx, especially so many people in such dire situations. "Do you stand at the parish door and say, `No more, you can't come in? No," said Plummer. "We have to understand the city that it was last week is a whole new city now."

Plummer is a no-nonsense administrator, urging communication and underscoring efficiency during the numerous daily briefings at the Emergency Operations Center, where Baton Rouge city agencies have set up a round-the-clock central command center.

Power is still out in thousands of homes. About 4,000 people have been treated at area hospitals since the storm hit, including two that opened on the Louisiana State University campus. And the River Center shelter, a tiny town within itself, teeming with about 5,000 temporary residents, could use some more cleaning.

"If you can imagine 100 people coming through your house for a week and your vacuum cleaner is broke and the laundry is piling up, that's how it is," said Plummer. But it's as manageable as you can expect from this situation."

Meanwhile, many evacuees are thankful for Baton Rouge's help and hospitality.

"It's a hard time for us," said Betty Bingham, 61, Davis' mother, who also attended service at Charity Christian Church. "But it's good to go to church. Everyone is so nice."

The church also converted its child care center into a distribution center, where volunteers have assembled food, water and clothing for evacuees. And members have housed strangers stranded from Katrina.

"There is not one of you who is not our brother or sister," the Rev Don Bradford, Charity Christian's pastor, told the refugees at yesterday's service.

Church volunteer Charmaine Carrell picked up a van full of shelter residents to bring them to Sunday service.

"We are barely equipped to serve the people already in East Baton Rouge Parish," she said. "But we have people call, they need a place to go, and we try to help them out. This is a disaster, everyone needs a place to go."

Yesterday, Gelone Hulbert waited for three hours at the city's social service office for emergency food stamps.

"I was at the convention center in New Orleans for two days, this line is nothing," said Hulbert. "There were dead bodies and fights always breaking out. Now I'm just ready to start over."

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