tampabay.com

Baton Rouge swells with victims - and problems

By BRADY DENNIS and CARRIE JOHNSON
Published September 3, 2005


BATON ROUGE, La. - Inside the small office on Hyacinth Avenue, the phone lines are sizzling. Same as yesterday. And the day before that.

The four agents at Locations Real Estate usually sell half a dozen houses a month. During the past two days, they've sold 30.

"It's been crazy. It's been more than crazy," said veteran agent Adrian Flaherty. "They're buying everything. They're buying anything they can get their hands on. There's not a whole lot of negotiating going on, either."

She is referring to the exiles. Thousands have flocked here, swelling the population of this town 75 miles northwest of New Orleans and causing fears that the city's population might double indefinitely.

"Baton Rouge is now the largest city in Louisiana, and it's going to be for quite a while, if not permanently," Walter Monsour, the top administrator to the president of the city-parish government, said this week. "Is this going to mean a different way of life here? Absolutely."

Louisiana's capital city already had its share of traffic congestion and jail overcrowding. Now it faces those problems and more, not the least of which is tension. People have rushed to buy safes for their valuables and tear gas for protection.

"I had to order 150 more units (of tear gas) this morning," said Eric Jones, co-owner of Able Key and Lock in East Baton Rouge. "People just don't feel safe with all of these New Orleans people wandering around. A lot of folks have started carrying guns."

Cars now clog Baton Rouge streets, causing delays on Interstate 12 and Airline Drive. Some residents estimated there is triple the usual traffic. Rumors of violence are widespread. Locals claim car-jackings and robberies at gas stations have skyrocketed since the evacuees arrived.

"You've doubled the population here and there's no plan with how to deal with them," said Chuck MacQueen, a janitor from North Baton Rouge. "You want to be kind and you want to be benevolent, but there's only so much you can do for these people."

Even government officials are losing their tempers. When a fight broke out Wednesday morning at the River Center, the downtown convention center where more than 4,000 evacuees are housed, Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden criticized the state for forcing the city to harbor "New Orleans thugs."

"We do not want to inherit the looting and all of the other foolishness that went on in New Orleans," Holden said. "We do not want to inherit that breed that seeks to prey on other people."

But they have inherited all breeds.

They have inherited numerous companies trying to relocate from New Orleans, many of whom are buying homes and entire apartment complexes to house their employees. Almost every rental property was gone by Wednesday, and that's when the buying started, much of it in cash.

They have inherited those without the money to rent an apartment or buy a house or find a room at one of the city's packed hotels, and have landed instead at one of the city's overflowing shelters.

At the River Center, the city's largest shelter, many are settling in for a long stay. Runice Governale, 41, and her family were evacuated from their St. Bernard's parish home by water scooter. They're planning to live at the center for at least three months. On Friday, Governale enrolled her two sons in Baton Rouge schools.

"We just want to go home," Governale said, her eyes filling with tears. "But at least we're safe here and we're getting everything we need."

Kate Hyde, an American Red Cross volunteer, lies awake at night, listening to the cries of children. People with medical problems haven't received treatment. Food and water are inadequate.

"When the dinner bell rings, there's complete chaos," said Hyde, 54. "Adults are shoving children out of the way. It's like a stampede."

Across town, on the campus of Louisiana State University, students milled around, tossing Frisbees and sipping coffee inside the student union.

But across campus, outside Tiger Stadium, a different scene unfolded. Medical crews have set up a triage unit inside the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. Refugees were on the sidewalks atop sleeping bags. Children played games and the elderly and infirm rested in wheelchairs. Volunteers handed out mountains of donations - clothes, food, water, teddy bear, books and shoes.

Raymond Keys, 49, arrived in mid afternoon with his wife and two grandchildren, ages 5 and 11. They fled New Orleans and their home near Lake Pontchartrain on Saturday and have slept in different cities across Louisiana and Mississippi. They ended up at LSU on Friday, thankful for a hot meal.

"I can't get a grasp on that word - refugees - but I guess I got to live with it," Keys said. "Baton Rouge might not want us here, but they've got to live with us."