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Baton Rouge swells with evacuees

Population surges 50 percent as displaced ponder next step

By Manav Tanneeru
CNN

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New Orleans (Louisiana)
Disaster Relief

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana (CNN) -- Hurricane Katrina emptied one city of its people and filled another.

Baton Rouge, Louisiana's capital, 80 miles north of New Orleans, is suddenly the largest city in the state, leaving local officials seeking solutions to the growth.

The Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport was the second busiest airport in the nation Friday, according to The Advocate, a city newspaper.

Before the storm, the metropolitan area had a population of about 400,000. In Katrina's aftermath, Baton Rouge has grown by 50 percent, taking in nearly 200,000 people from New Orleans and surrounding areas, said David Guillory, special assistant to the director of the Baton Rouge Department of Public Works. Of that number, 8,000 to 10,000 displaced residents are living in shelters.

The estimates come from gauging variables, such as traffic counts, the amount of property sold and the number of hotel rooms occupied, he said.

"Baton Rouge is now the largest city in Louisiana, and I don't think it will change for another five to 10 years," Guillory said.

State and local officials held a three-day summit this week to discuss "how we go from being a medium-size city to a large-size city in a week's time," he added.

The most visible impact of the evacuees' arrival is the traffic. City officials say traffic counts show there are 35 to 45 percent more cars on the roads, and traffic already had been congested.

"It used to take me 30 minutes to get to work, and it now takes me two hours," said Courtney Finnan, who lives in a suburb and commutes to the city's center.

"My wife relocated her office here, and the other day it took her an hour-and-a-half to go 2 miles," said Charles Macalso, a New Orleans resident who frequently travels back to check on his home.

Guillory said city and state officials are working to solve traffic problems and hope to pass on solutions to federal officials for the necessary funding.

Among the long-term solutions are widening roads and constructing overpasses.

"The quickest solutions we have so far are changing the timing of traffic lights and eliminating left turns," Guillory said.

Student population surges

Buses carrying evacuees to schools will add to the traffic woes starting Monday.

Officials from the East Baton Rouge school system have been registering children from area shelters since they arrived, and late this week began notifying parents that buses will begin arriving next week.

Superintendent Charlotte Placide said the school system has seen a 10 percent increase in students since last week, and that the number likely will rise.

Many of the evacuees at the Baton Rouge River Center, a shelter run by the American Red Cross, said they didn't register their children for school because they hadn't made up their minds whether they are going to stay in Baton Rouge, move back to devastated areas or relocate to another state.

"I'll worry about school later, we're trying to get out of here first," said Andre Christophe, an evacuee at the River Center, and a father of four. "I'm waiting to get some money from FEMA, and then I'll figure out what I'll do."

Tami Head, a mother of four who arrived at the shelter Thursday, was too overwhelmed to think much about school. "[The kids] keep asking when we're going home, when they're going back to school, and I don't know what to tell them," she said.

Placide said many of them likely will settle in Baton Rouge. "I've heard a lot of people say this is home now -- 'I'm not leaving, I'm not going back,' " she said.

Business, real estate landscape change

Walter Monsour, chief administrator for East Baton Rouge Parish, said businesses also are settling in the city after evacuating from New Orleans.

Many businesses had headquarters in New Orleans and satellite operations in Baton Rouge. The arrangement has flip-flopped and rapidly changed the cityscape, Monsour said.

The real estate market is in a frenzy, gas stations sometimes are out of gas, and grocery stores are selling double their normal amount in some places.

"I've been in the business for 30 years, and we've never seen anything like this. The only other time I've seen something like this was when my daughter moved to Washington D.C." said Lara Dupree, the owner of Dupree, Terrell, and Company, a family-run real estate firm. "Any space where builders can build is being taken up."

The rush to build and the booming real estate market can be partly ascribed to the continuing efforts to find some sort of temporary housing for the evacuees, other than the shelters.

Authorities are enlisting a range of options -- cruise ships, travel trailers, mobile homes and government buildings that can quickly be converted into living quarters, said James McIntyre, a spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's housing command in Baton Rouge.

FEMA is working with several agencies -- the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the American Red Cross, the Army Corps of Engineers and some private contractors -- to construct and install those facilities.

Local officials are canvassing the parish for possible sites to erect the mobile housing parks, McIntyre said. Such parks already have been set up in Alabama, and sites have been identified in Mississippi. He said the process should take two to three weeks to complete in Louisiana.

FEMA plans a target purchase of 100,000 mobile housing units for the three affected states. More than 80,000 already have been ordered.

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