POLITICS SEPTEMBER 19, 2005
On Monday morning in Baton Rouge, Josephine Bell was trying to tidy her family's living area. "Help me sweep up now!" she yelled at one of her sons, handing him a broom and pointing to a pile of spilled cereal beneath a cot. "I want this area clean!" Bell, her husband, and her two sons had arrived in Baton Rouge eight days earlier, when, heeding the call to evacuate New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina approached, they left their home in the city's Uptown neighborhood and headed, on a special bus, 80 miles west on I-10. Now, along with more than 5,000 other refugees--almost all of them like Bell: poor, black, and from New Orleans--she was living in the River Center convention hall. Her family's new home consisted of four cots pushed together on a few square feet of concrete floor inside the huge, hangar-like space. "We've got air conditioning, lights, running water; we can't complain," she said, holding up her broom and twirling it around. "But it's hard to keep clean because of the kids."Bell and the hundreds of thousands of others displaced from their homes by Katrina are hardly the first diaspora in U.S. history. Seventy years ago, several hundred thousand people in the Great Plains lost their farms in the drought and moved to California, where they were able to find work as crop pickers. Around the same time, more than one million blacks were moving from the rural South to the urban North to take jobs in factories and on railroads. But the Okies and the Arkies of the Dust Bowl and the Southern blacks of the Great Migration resettled over the course of many years. The members of the Katrina diaspora are being forced to resettle virtually overnight. This massive group of suddenly displaced persons is unique in U.S. history. And, while national attention is still focused on the horrors they faced during and immediately after the storm, it's the days ahead--as they fan out across the country and start lives anew--that may prove to be some of their most challenging.
For many families like Josephine Bell's, there is no going home again. When Bell lived in New Orleans, she worked as a food server at Harrah's casino, but, with the casino now closed for the foreseeable future, her job has essentially disappeared. Still, even if Bell had a job in New Orleans to go back to, she would not want to return to the city. "With all the dead bodies and disease," Bell said, "who wants to go back to get sick?" Instead, Bell had another plan. "We know what we're going to do," she said, lightly stomping her slipper-clad foot. "We're going to relocate here to Baton Rouge."
Bell's decision to settle in Baton Rouge wasn't based on having spent a lot of time in the city over the past few days. The River Center shelter may be in Baton Rouge--located in the heart of its downtown, along the Mississippi River-- but it is certainly not of it. Access in and out of the shelter is controlled by armed guards, and the facility is locked down from 10 p.m. until 7 a.m. And, while River Center residents are free to venture outside the building during the day, the Red Cross, which runs the shelter, gives them little incentive to do so. Three meals are provided inside the River Center each day and donated clothes and toys are handed out twice daily. The shelter has an on-site medical clinic and pharmacy, plus a counseling center. It screens movies for children, and there are televisions set up in the exhibition hall for the adults.
Life in this bubble has insulated the refugees from a less pleasant reality: Their presence has made many Baton Rouge residents uneasy. Since the mass exodus from New Orleans, the Baton Rouge area has seen its population skyrocket from 413,000 to, according to some estimates, 700,000--suddenly transforming the typically sleepy state capital and university town into Louisiana's biggest and most bustling city. Baton Rouge residents complain about the traffic and about car trips that used to take ten minutes now taking more than an hour. And they fret about real estate prices skyrocketing, as so many businesses flooded out of New Orleans are choosing to relocate in Baton Rouge.
More than anything else, though, Baton Rouge residents worry about the social impact the refugees from New Orleans, which is about 70 percent black, will have on their city, where blacks make up only about half the population. Standing outside a Wal-Mart on the southern side of town, Kathy Ademek, a white woman who has lived in Baton Rouge for 30 years, said that she was most concerned about public safety. "I've had friends tell me that when they stop at red lights, people try to pull them out of their cars," she said. "I see them on the street corners, and they're there all night long, just groups of them. I'm not letting my teenagers drive at night." These rumors and fears have led to a run on handguns and tear gas at some Baton Rouge stores. And even Baton Rouge's mayor (who himself is black) has declared that he won't tolerate "lawlessness" from the New Orleans refugees. The River Center, as Baton Rouge's largest Katrina shelter, seems to have become a flashpoint for these concerns.
Out on the convention hall floor, amid the sea of blankets and cots, many voiced sentiments similar to Bell's: a desire never to return to New Orleans and a hope of settling in Baton Rouge. But that may be a difficult dream to achieve, because the most readily available resettlement opportunities for the Katrina diaspora appear to exist elsewhere.
Out in the River Center's lobby, tacked to an information board, there were numerous notices offering the refugees new lives in faraway places. Space to house 6 families with up to 6 people each. In south Dakota, said one. Columbus, ohio. We have furnished apartments (free/year) and jobs for families interested in relocating. Call dave, advertised another. And, every few hours, an announcement was made over the public address system that a bus bound for a distant city--like Indianapolis, Indiana, or Lansing, Michigan, or Helena, Montana, where jobs would be lined up and housing would be provided--was at the River Center getting ready to roll out. Sometimes, those in the shelter had less than an hour to decide whether they wanted to get on the bus.
In theory, the opportunity to start life over in a new place with a clean slate would seem to be part of the American dream, particularly for people who, even before their current plight, lived lives filled with hardships. But what's romantic in the abstract is far more frightening in reality, and, so far, few River Center refugees have availed themselves of that opportunity. The bus that went to Lansing wound up with only one passenger.
Gradually, though, some are realizing that staying put may be impossible. Shabby Brown, a 20-year-old man from just outside of New Orleans, said that his mother was out looking for a job in Baton Rouge. "Every morning, she goes out and tries to find work," he said. "She hasn't found it yet."
And, as experiences like that become more common, some members of the Katrina diaspora are becoming less resistant to the idea of starting over outside Louisiana. Not far from where a small group was huddled around a television watching Bill Clinton talk about the crisis of displaced persons, a soft-spoken man named Charles Robinson walked up to a table where a Red Cross volunteer was helping people with relocating. "Where are you willing to go?" the Red Cross volunteer asked.
Robinson had lived in New Orleans for all of his 36 years, and, when evacuating to Baton Rouge the previous Saturday, he had fully intended to return to the city of his birth or, at the very least, stay close by. But now he was looking to expand his options. "Anywhere that's not cold," Robinson replied. "I'd like to go to Houston, Texas."
The volunteer told him there was a bus leaving for Houston later that day but that, when he got there, he would be responsible for finding a job and a place to live. Robinson said he thought he could get a job--in New Orleans he had worked as a stock clerk for Lowe's, and he had been told he would be hired at any of the company's stores--but that he would need help finding a home. He put his name on a list for refugees seeking housing opportunities in Houston, and the volunteer said she would let him know if anything came up.
Robinson slumped away from the table and headed back to his cot. "I'll go anywhere where it's not cold," he said again. "I don't have anywhere to go back to."