Post-Katrina, Baton Rouge adopts big-city role

/ Source: The Associated Press

Mandina’s restaurant used to be in an old pink house by New Orleans’ streetcar tracks. Now, it is 80 miles north, surrounded by strip malls and traffic-clogged roads.

The down-home eatery is the latest post-Katrina transplant from colorful New Orleans to Baton Rouge, the capital city long mocked by New Orleanians as full of bumpkins and bureaucrats, suburbs and shopping centers.

Along with Mandina’s and its oyster po-boys have come tens of thousands of new residents from areas hit by the storm. The influx has brought more business and more traffic to this quiet Mississippi River city.

“In my opinion, there’s going to be a boom here for the next five or 10 years,” said Bobby Arnold, a retirement planner. “This is going to be the new center of Louisiana.”

How big is Baton Rouge? Who knows?
Exactly how many people have moved here is anybody’s guess. Baton Rouge’s mayor’s office said the population has increased by about 100,000 from its pre-storm 227,000. Other estimates are lower. Based on school enrollment, the state health department said the entire metropolitan area has jumped by about 30,000 people; a federal tally found about 60,000 new residents.

“Nobody knows what the long-term population is, what the effects on the city will be,” said Cpl. Don Kelly, a city police spokesman. “I hope by the end of the year we’ll have a much better idea.”

Things have cooled down since the days immediately after Katrina hit Aug. 29. Evacuees streamed in via Interstate 10, grocery store shelves were stripped bare, hotel rooms were full and displaced New Orleanians rented and bought nearly all available homes and apartments.

Kelly said the 623-member police department has hired 20 more officers to help cover the heavier workload. Calls to the police department — for everything from traffic wrecks to violent crime — have jumped from about 550 per day before Katrina to about 730, he said. Rumors persist that New Orleanians have brought more violence to Baton Rouge, but police say the crime rate has remained flat.

Rush hour all day long
Locals mainly complain about the traffic. “We used to talk about rush hour, but Baton Rouge doesn’t have that any longer. We’ve got peak periods all day long,” said Stephen Glascock, a technology specialist with the state highway department.

Dr. Lynn Murphy gave up trying to get to her exercise class, a drive that used to take her 30 minutes. “If I ever get there, it takes an hour or more to get home,” said Murphy, whose parents moved to her Baton Rouge neighborhood after floodwaters ruined their New Orleans home.

Several New Orleans restaurants had eyed Baton Rouge for expansion before the storm. The group that owns Galatoire’s, an elegant Creole restaurant in the French Quarter, recently opened its long-planned bistro in a setting that couldn’t be more different from its New Orleans home: on the outskirts of Baton Rouge, just off I-10, where farmland has given way to strip malls and ranch homes.

‘More robust opportunity’
Jason Doyle, owner of several bars and restaurants in New Orleans, bought a restaurant in downtown Baton Rouge while he was staying in a nearby hotel as a Katrina evacuee.

“We certainly see lots of opportunities here,” said Doyle, who also opened a wine bar in Baton Rouge this month. “Overnight, it’s become a much better, more robust opportunity.”

Mandina’s move to Baton Rouge last month was a true surprise. Mandina’s is a New Orleans institution dating to 1932, known for po-boys and turtle soup. Loclas would drink cold beers at the bar for an hour while waiting for a table.

Floodwaters five feet deep ruined every piece of furniture and kitchen equipment. The owners plan to reopen in New Orleans this fall, and continue operating the Baton Rouge restaurant, too.

Before Katrina, “we’d never even heard of Baton Rouge, as far as Mandina’s was concerned,” manager Martial Voitier said. “That changed after the storm. We’re here to stay now.”