Influx of evacuees raises tensions in Baton Rouge

Katrina's Wake

September 15, 2005|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BATON ROUGE, La. - Two weeks after an enormous relief effort to welcome survivors of Hurricane Katrina, the strain can be seen everywhere in this state capital and laid-back college town, and many are having second thoughts.

The waits at gas pumps are daunting. Grocery stores have trouble keeping food on their shelves, and classrooms are overcrowded. Meanwhile, nearly everyone - from Red Cross volunteers to job hunters to store clerks to TV news vans - is perpetually stuck in traffic.

The ripples of Katrina seem to have left no one untouched. And beneath its delightful Southern hospitality, this has become a city of brewing tensions.

Crystal Brown, a lifelong resident of Baton Rouge, is searching for a new home to rent but can't find any vacancies. Her landlord is forcing her out because she doesn't have a lease and he needs her home for relatives displaced by the storm.

"You hate to complain because you know you are so much better off than a lot of other people," she said. "But I'm fixing to be homeless, and I wasn't even in the path of the storm." Many Baton Rouge residents who are looking for housing or jobs can't find them, she said. "We've been swallowed up by an influx of new people."

No one knows exactly how many Katrina survivors are living in Baton Rouge, but officials estimate the Louisiana capital and surrounding East Baton Rouge Parish have more than doubled in size from about 400,000 to more than 800,000.

The economics worry Brown the most.

"A lot of people who came in are from New Orleans and couldn't get out because they are poor," she said. "I would think that now, East Baton Rouge Parish is the biggest welfare area in the state. And that's not a good thing."

The displaced have picked up on the subtle changes in attitude. Some say the overwhelming generosity has faded, replaced by a humiliating assumption that they're packing in some of the Crescent City's biggest troubles, including struggles with crime and relentless poverty.

Only about 80 miles apart, Baton Rouge and New Orleans are distinct in their demographics and character. The median income of East Baton Rouge is about $5,000 more than in New Orleans. Nearly one in four New Orleans residents live in poverty while the poverty rate in the parish is lower - 19 percent. African-Americans make up nearly 70 percent of the population in New Orleans, versus 43 percent in East Baton Rouge.

Charles Watts, who's living in a Red Cross shelter in Baker, just north of Baton Rouge, said he feels judgment in people's stares.

"People look at us like they think we have always been poor and desperate," said Watts, 21, who evacuated from New Orleans' Elysian Fields neighborhood with his extended family. "The truth is, we made it out during the storm and we're just trying to get our lives together."

"This is a storm that did this," he said. "People need to realize this could happen anywhere to anybody."

Geraldine Walker, who fled New Orleans and is taking refuge at the Bethany World Prayer Center in Baker, said she has come to view the blue wristbands that shelter residents must wear as an added indignity. Sometimes she covers hers when she leaves the shelter for an appointment. People dismiss her when they notice it, she said.

"Their attitude just changes," said Walker, who fears she has lost everything in Katrina and is contemplating a move to Jacksonville, Fla., with her family.

"One day I went to Wal-Mart without it and everyone treated us so nicely. But then one day I was wearing the band and I went to a drive-through and asked for a cup of ice and the lady tried to charge me $1.19 for it.

"It doesn't feel like they want us here."

Some in Baton Rouge fear that a host of urban ills will infiltrate the city. Along with New Orleans' distinction for jazz, gumbo and the French Quarter, many here have long viewed it as a city of crime.

After Katrina, word spread through Baton Rouge that the city was experiencing an upsurge in looting and violent crime, although the rumors proved to be false. City officials say its crime rate is unchanged.

Nevertheless, many believe the newest residents make higher crime inevitable.

"New Orleans is a major urban center with a pretty severe gang problem," said former longtime resident Stewart Clayton, 32, a surgeon at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge. "A lot of these people who are part of those gangs are now here. It's only a matter of time before we see that activity here."

Situations like Katrina "bring out the best and the worst in people," Brown said. "Just like the ones who stayed behind and looted in New Orleans. They did that because they knew there would be no law and they could get away from it. I know the majority are good people, but you're going to have bad people coming here too."

The displacement of so many people is forcing long-brewing issues of race and class to the fore, issues long woven into the fabric of southern Louisiana society but rarely discussed.

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