Lanny Keller: Katrina effect in Baton Rouge went beyond population growth, brought unity to ‘super region’

The Advocate

In the wake of the gigantic and long-term displacement of residents of metropolitan New Orleans, the impact on Baton Rouge was so immediate and dramatic that it was overhyped by officials and civic leaders responding to what was, after all, an immensely traumatic national catastrophe.

The capital city of Louisiana would become the state’s largest forever, we would be line for billions in federal aid to cope with our giant growth and so on.

Initial hype quickly deflated into reality, which was plenty dramatic enough. Faith and works mattered. Thousands of families were sorted out and taken in, many of them in churches and synagogues, many in private homes; Mayor-President Kip Holden called it Baton Rouge’s finest hour, not an exaggeration.

Ten years on, metropolitan New Orleans has largely returned to its role as the state’s largest “city,” in the global sense of an urban area. Baton Rouge remains No. 2, but that status doesn’t reflect the transformation of the capital’s region ­­— in its way, as remarkable as that of the savagely damaged Crescent City.

For one thing, the influx of aid workers and volunteers — not to mention the continuing commitment of local caregivers — made Baton Rouge a centerpiece of the national and international response to Katrina and then Rita just a few weeks later. This was the temporary world capital for emergency response, and the city’s leadership and people had to step up their games.

While the number might not seem that great in a metropolitan area, about 17,500 people are estimated to have become permanent residents up the river. Because population changes are typically so much slower, that’s still significant.

But the numbers don’t tell the full story. Unity among the regions is one result: A commonality of interests was probably always there economically, as New Orleans and Baton Rouge in particular shared so many existing businesses and commercial relationships before the storms, as well as the great river ports. Those ties were given immensely more salience in the post-Katrina era.

Three leading business-based organizations — Greater New Orleans Inc., the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and One Acadiana — today share missions focused on economic and community development. One common goal is collaboration in the “super region” that is southern Louisiana.

The policy organizations are directed today by key players who worked together in the public sphere during the Katrina era, including One Acadiana’s Jason El-Koubi and BRAC’s Adam Knapp; the latter worked directly for the Louisiana Recovery Authority, brilliantly led by community leaders like Norman Francis, of New Orleans, and Sean Reilly, of Baton Rouge, and former state official Andy Kopplin, who is now the chief deputy mayor in New Orleans for Reilly’s old friend and legislative seat mate Mitch Landrieu.

With New Orleans in chaos, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation helped organize and coordinate a vital philanthropic response from the nation and the world. That money was spent in the stricken region, but the habit of leadership in Baton Rouge continued.

For the capital city, that is the Katrina effect: The relative growth of Baton Rouge and Lafayette began before the storms, for several decades during the Crescent City’s relative decline among cities of the South. The storms went beyond ratifying some of those trends and shifting around some population. Katrina and its aftermaths reversed the centrifugal forces that tend to pull communities apart and created an utterly unexpected centripetal force, a drawing together of the three cities in unprecedented ways.

We’ll be talking about those effects at the 20th anniversary, probably.

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