Baton Rouge became the largest city in Louisiana overnight when evacuees fleeing Hurricane Katrina ballooned the area’s population from roughly 400,000 to 800,000, according to Walter Monsour, the city’s chief administrative officer. Becoming a first-tier city in a single day with no urban planning and no upgrading of infrastructure has resulted in commune-style living, depleted grocery store shelves, and overburdened phone lines and traffic lanes. The only things that seem to be quick in the bursting-at-the-seams populace are tempers.
Officials are still trying to get a handle on urban planning, infrastructure, and housing issues. Monsour is coordinating a committee of business leaders and elected officials to identify the city’s future needs, including planning new zones for development an building a bigger airport, a northern and southern loop around the city, and an enhanced transit system.
“We intend to hire the best urban planner in the country that we can get our hands on to come in and replan,” he says. “We want to make sure we do it prudently and expeditiously. We have to do it very quickly, but we can’t afford to set a ball in motion that is going to be a ramrod.” Baton Rouge-based architect Trey Trahan says he has been asked by the city to put together “an international team of thinkers--including Arup, Urban Strategies, and Michael van Valkenburgh” to address the issues in Baton Rouge.
Meanwhile, because available real estate has been virtually bought out, Baton Rouge is trying to plan a city that will accommodate the still-growing populace. While no new zones have been chosen for permanent development, Monsour says that the city is looking at refurbishing three or four areas. “We are trying to do it judiciously so as not to eliminate one problem and create another. Several pockets will be easier for area communities to absorb, and we don’t want to clog any particular area. He adds that the city has a number of undeveloped lots on which construction will be starting very soon. “Some areas that were being considered for development will get to the drawing board quickly.”
In the meantime FEMA will be “picking up the tab” for temporary housing for those in shelters and those living with family and friends, Monsour says. “They will pay for rental of trailers, modular homes, whatever they bring in. Then some of those will rollover to HUD or Section 8, other federal programs that historically sustain people.”
Meanwhile, city planners are hoping to make the best of an unprecedented opportunity to bring back blighted neighborhoods and refurbish streets, Monsour says. Affordable housing, specifically for the displaced poor, is the largest need in Baton Rouge, says Dr. Sally Soileau, a Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service County Agent. Limited spaces are available in public housing, but evacuees have even filled up student housing and 4-H camps. “Those who can afford to buy homes have already bought what is available,” Soileau says.
Arthur Sterbcow, president of New Orleans-based Latter & Blum Realtors, which owns the Baton Rouge CJ Brown Realtors, predicts that the immediate surge of home sales in Baton Rouge will slow down when residents return to surrounding areas. But “there will still be a tremendous demand for housing in the Baton Rouge area because it will be a staging area for the rebuilding of New Orleans,” Sterbcow says.