14 December 2005

Regional Attitudes: They Are A Changin'

New Orleans and the rest of the state of Louisiana have not always seen eye to eye. Politically, socially, economically and historically, New Orleans has, at times, been an island within the state. Unfortunately it may have taken the largest natural disaster in the history of the United States to have changed this outlook.

Many New Orleanians have said, and a greater number believe, that Baton Rouge has the most to gain from a failing post-Katrina New Orleans. Prior to Katrina, many people in Baton Rouge may have felt that a Katrina-like scenario could only benefit Baton Rouge. Baton Rouge has always suffered from a second-city syndrome, lacking an identity, poorly planned and defined by urban sprawl and a declining downtown. Most people relate Baton Rouge to LSU and the Capitol, not to culture and history.

Prior to Katrina there had always been a mix of envy, fear and resentment towards New Orleans from the rest of Louisiana and especially from Baton Rouge. Although many Baton Rouge natives loved to sneak into New Orleans to have brunch at Brennan’s on weekends, catch a parade during Mardi Gras, or watch the Saints, few would ever think of leaving Baton Rouge to make New Orleans their home.

However, everything in Baton Rouge and the rest of Louisiana has changed dramatically since Katrina. Instead of bearing the fruits of a declining New Orleans, the rest of the state, and especially Baton Rouge, are bearing incredible burdens. Unemployment rates in many communities have skyrocketed (now over 10% for the state of Louisiana). Infrastructure such as highways, airports, shopping plazas and housing has been stressed to near the point of breaking. And many people have had to become empathetic and patient, providing assistance for their less fortunate neighbors.

Since Katrina the attitude in Baton Rouge towards New Orleans has shifted. Many who loved to sneak away to New Orleans for culture and entertainment now have nowhere to go. Many businesses in Baton Rouge realize that they relied upon businesses in New Orleans for commerce. Now that the New Orleans economy has drowned, Baton Rouge is struggling. Housing stock has disappeared overnight and Baton Rouge has an ever increasing homeless problem and an increasing unemployment rate. The state, the largest employer in Baton Rouge, is missing a large portion of its revenue stream since Katrina and Rita and everyone in Baton Rouge knows that the next step for state government is massive layoffs which will hit Baton Rouge very hard. Also, the medical community is stretched very thin and the New Orleans’ medical centers and clinicians are greatly missed.

On the other hand, many people in Baton Rouge are getting to really know New Orleanians as neighbors. Rich and poor, black and white, the exposure to New Orleanians is changing attitudes of many Baton Rouge natives. Evidence for this can be seen on letters to the editor in the Baton Rouge Advocate, on web logs and from conversation. Initially following Katrina, Baton Rouge and much of urban Louisiana outside of New Orleans were consumed by fear of the unknown. It was obvious that many thought that crime, drugs and a more urban way of life would be exported to their communities. Rumors of crime and riots in Baton Rogue were rampant. However when hundreds of thousands of evacuees came to places like Baton Rouge and reality did not match their initial fears (e.g., crime has not increased in Baton Rouge since Katrina), people opened up their homes, wallets and hearts to evacuees, many of which became refugees. People’s attitudes in Baton Rouge were not changed by politicians or the media, instead they were changed by interaction with their new neighbors and the reality of their situation.

Seventy thousand of the 202,000 small businesses in Louisiana were in the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina. Some will manage to relocate but most of these small businesses will fail. Many businesses elsewhere in the state rely upon commerce with these failing small businesses. In time, these other businesses throughout the state will also fail. Much of the clean-up and reconstruction effort is being done by out-of-state companies and they are hiring many out-of-state workers. Large corporations that historically had a big presence in New Orleans are announcing that they are moving jobs out of the New Orleans community, with many of those jobs going out-of-state. The future for the Louisiana economy is grim.

This is the reality: Katrina has awakened Baton Rouge and other communities in south Louisiana to the importance of New Orleans as the anchor of the Louisiana economy and the Louisiana way of life. The future for all communities will only be strong if New Orleans is strong. This was best expressed by the Baton Rouge Business Report (October 25, 2005):
“But in the end, the fact remains: The best way to solve the problems of Baton Rouge is to get New Orleans and the rest of the state up and running again. It's a solution everyone at the local, state and federal levels accepts, but recovery efforts remain stuck in the planning stage.
Three anchors of the state's economy--health care, tourism and retail--are under threat. Along with the city itself, the devastation of New Orleans has meant a third of Louisiana's economy disappeared overnight. The inescapable ripple effect means Baton Rouge and other urban centers will also feel the economic repercussions.”

Even the political winds are changing. Our U.S. Senators, both from the New Orleans area, went in front of Congress and asked for $250 billion for post-Katrina relief. This bill, which the Governor’s aids helped to draft, included funds for every pet project ever conceived in south Louisiana, most of which have nothing to do with rebuilding New Orleans and its economy (e.g,, $35 million for seafood industry marketing, $25 million for a sugar cane research laboratory, money to deepen the Port of Iberia, paying for a 50 year old plan for a lock on the Industrial Canal, $7 billion for Louisiana highway projects). How does any of this rebuild your flooded home, get you back to work and your kids back in school? Unfortunately they were playing Louisiana politics as usual and were focused on giving a little pork to all voters across the state instead of rebuilding New Orleans. They did not expect that citizens in communities throughout the state would not want these wasteful handouts but instead want recovery efforts focused on flooded New Orleans. As bad as this proposal looks here at home in Louisiana the backlash in Washington from their proposal is slowing real assistance for all of us.

Alternatively U.S. Congressman Richard Baker (R-Baton Rouge), who one would think would have very little to gain politically by a rebirth of New Orleans and everything to gain by the rapid growth of Baton Rouge has come up with the only decent plan for helping to rebuild New Orleans. He has proposed the creation of the Louisiana Recovery Corporation. Although this piece of legislation has its flaws, it is truly the first real plan for helping those that can rebuild New Orleans: private property owners. The bill provides a mechanism for social order in the city while keeping as many homeowners, business owners, banks and insurance companies solvent as possible. Again it is not perfect, but at least it is a realistic plan that gives property owners in flooded areas an opportunity to rebuild.

Why did it take a Congressman from Baton Rouge to come up with the first real plan for rebuilding the social fabric of New Orleans? It could be that Katrina has started to alter old attitudes and political fears. It is quite likely that he has recognized that the attitude of many of his constituents towards New Orleans has changed and that maintaining and growing the Louisiana economy (including Baton Rouge) rests upon a strong, vibrant New Orleans that is a cultural and social center for all of south Louisiana. Unfortunately, it is a shame that it took the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States to start healing the political and social rift between New Orleans and the rest of the state.


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