Task of rebuilding gulf coast area only just beginning

Published 12:32 pm Saturday, December 31, 2005

By Staff
Flying into Baton Rouge last week seemed a little different from the hundreds of times I've flown into that airport before.
I hadn't been to Baton Rouge since last Christmas and was curious as to whether I'd notice changes in the city caused by the influx of residents fleeing the Gulf Coast and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It didn't take long.
As we were preparing to land, I looked out the window of the airplane and expected to see the vast open space that once surrounded it. Instead, I saw a field of RVs, too numerous to count. They were surrounded by a high chain-link fence, aligned along make-shift streets made of something that looked like slag. I can only assume they were occupied, although there was nothing visible outside any of them - no barbecues or children's toys - that would indicate that. Maybe they housed prisoners from New Orleans area jails. I don't know. No one I asked knew who, if anyone, was staying in those small campers.
Inside the airport, it was the busiest I've ever seen it. The Baton Rouge airport is just a little larger than South Bend's and I've been there on many holidays, but never have there been as many people in it as last Thursday.
In terms of traffic, I was lucky. The airport is located in north Baton Rouge, very near I-10 and very near the exit to Highway 61, which I take to drive to my mother's home in Natchez, Miss. I met my brother and sisters and their family Thursday night at Don's Seafood in Baton Rouge, a family favorite since I was a young girl. My mother and step-father routinely would pile us into the car on Sunday afternoons for “a ride” and we never knew where we'd wind up. Often it was in Baton Rouge at the zoo, then to Don's for dinner. The restaurant is only about four miles from the Baton Rouge airport and traffic there was heavy but nothing overwhelming.
That was not the experience of my youngest sister, Anna, and her family or my brother, Kelly, and his family, who both were held up in traffic for more than an hour. Before Katrina, that drive would have taken them about 20 minutes, tops.
My niece, Amie, who spent a summer and more than one spring break here with me when she was in college, is working at Talbots in the Mall of Louisiana in Baton Rouge. She lives about 15 miles from that store. But it took her two hours to drive to her job on Christmas Eve.
The city's infrastructure simply isn't equipped to handle all its new residents. Apartment space and housing in general are at a premium, as is office space, gobbled up by businesses seeking to relocate quickly after the hurricane.
In Natchez, the after-effects of the hurricane are evident, too, even though damage there was minimal. The city suffered toppled trees and power outages that lasted for days, but that's really about it. Nevertheless, advertisements herald government-backed loans available to businesses and others who suffered losses during Katrina. I'm sure there are a number of Natchez businesses which relied on customers in New Orleans, but those ads made me wonder how many people would try to fraudulently cash in on Katrina.
It's so sad to see New Orleans officials making treks to cities across the country, begging former residents to come back home. The New Orleans of my youth is no more, and that's so sad. It was a city so vibrant, so rich in culture.
I'm sick of the email jokes that blame the level of destruction and the tragedy that followed on one race or class of people. Nowhere in our country have any people suffered devastation like that suffered in New Orleans. An entire city was basically wiped out. Had it happened in any other metropolitan area, I believe the outcome would have been the same.
How do you prepare for something like Katrina? You simply can't. The task of saving its residents after the disaster is equaled only by the task of rebuilding New Orleans and other communities along the Mississippi gulf coast. That's only just begun.