Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Bush In Boomtown

There are some heavy ironies lurking behind George Bush's "Katrina" visit to Baton Rouge on Monday.

Everyone knows that White House handlers sent Bush back to the Gulf Coast as part of a hastily-devised public relations offensive. They were hoping to erase the public perception, as Bob Herbert wrote in the New York Times, that Mr. Bush's "performance last week will rank as one of the worst ever by a president" after a national emergency:
"After days of withering criticism from white and black Americans, from conservatives as well as liberals, from Republicans and Democrats * * * Mr. Bush flew south on Friday and proved (as if more proof were needed) that he didn't get it. Instead of urgently focusing on the people who were stranded, hungry, sick and dying, he engaged in small talk, reminiscing at one point about the days when he used to party in New Orleans, and mentioning that Trent Lott had lost one of his houses but that it would be replaced with "a fantastic house - and I'm looking forward to sitting on the porch.

What we witnessed, as clearly as the overwhelming agony of the city of New Orleans, was the dangerous incompetence and the staggering indifference to human suffering of the president and his administration.
Having made a political mess out of his first two tours of the devastated Gulf Coast, Bush came back to see a community college in Poplarville, MI., and Baton Rouge, LA.

Why Poplarville? Well, the eye of Hurricane Katrina passed over the town, inflicting sufficient visible damage to make for some good photo-ops. Still, it was well away from the worst damage along the coastal plain and, as wire service news reports describe it, "Unlike many other places in the hurricane zone, the homes were intact, with downed trees and power lines the only evidence of the storm."

Probably, the real reason Bush was sent there, as Ana Readalot reports in The Hattiesburg American is that Poplarville was "one of the few areas to receive quick federal aid in the form of Federal Emergency Management Agency feeding centers staffed by National Guardsman." It always makes for a better politician's picture if the other people in it aren't pissed off, dying of thirst and hunger, or dead.

Okay, so why Baton Rouge? Being safely away from New Orleans, Baton Rouge has become FEMA's staging area.

Since Hurricane Katrina made landfall and the federal bureaucracy moved in, it's also been experiencing unprecedented prosperity. As CNN International reported, "Baton Rouge, about 80 miles northwest of New Orleans, largely escaped damage. Its population, however, has swelled dramatically with refugees and is experiencing clogged roads and supply shortages."

More than that, National Public Radio reported on Sunday, and again on Monday, that Baton Rouge "has become a boomtown" in the last seven days. You can listen to streaming radio segments on the NPR web site, but here's a partial transcript of NPR reporter Greg Allen's contribution about Baton Rouge to NPR's Sunday Edition:
[Cars and trucks] are everywhere. There are congested roads, long gas lines and residential streets lined with parked cars. Every hotel room is full; every apartment is taken; restaurants are packed--you name it, city officials say they don't have enough of it to serve evacuees who for the indefinite future have made Baton Rouge their home.

Chief administrator for East Baton Rouge Parish, Walter Monsour, says that hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians are relocating here. He's not sure how many will ever go back. `Among those moving quickest to relocate,' he says, `are personal-services businesses.'
[Audio clip] Mr. WALTER MONSOUR: "We're talking about law firms, CPAs, consulting services, engineering. A lot of those companies had offices in Baton Rouge, typically the larger office was in New Orleans, the smaller office in Baton Rouge. That's certainly going to change. The larger offices now are going to be in Baton Rouge and if they re-establish an office in New Orleans at all, it'll be a smaller office.
* * *
Nearly all of the commercial space in Baton Rouge has already been leased and companies are scrambling to find increasingly scarce housing for their employees. Chase Manhattan, for instance, bought up an entire subdivision that's only partially completed to house their workers.

* * *
Needless to say, realty offices are just as busy as stores and gas stations in Baton Rouge. Hank Saurage runs Saurage Realtors. * * * Saurage says two weeks ago, there were nearly 3,700 homes available for sale in Baton Rouge. Today, there are fewer than 500. He wonders what he and his agents will do when there are no more homes left to sell. Houses are selling so fast that the computerized multiple listing service is useless. It can't be updated fast enough to keep up with sales. Saurage says the competitive market is like nothing Baton Rouge has ever seen before.
[Audio clip] Mr. SAURAGE: "We have buyers who are literally buying online, over the fax machine, sight unseen, full price or more. We've seen 10 percent premiums being paid on housing, multiple contracts, bidding wars and, you know, unfortunately we've seen a little price gouging, too, and it's not fazing anybody."
It's a boon that also brings with it challenges. Baton Rouge schools don't yet know how many new students they will enroll. Catholic schools... say they've already received 1,400 applications for relocated students. The city suddenly needs new roads, new schools, new jails and massive improvements to what was a sleepy regional airport. * * * Last year, Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport served some 700,000 passengers. With airports in New Orleans and Gulfport-Biloxi out of the picture, officials expect that number to grow to three million a year.

* * * City administrator Walter Monsour says there's going to be some changes.
[Audio clip] Mr. MONSOUR:"Baton Rouge is going to have to grow up very quickly to become a major metropolitan area, potentially."
Some in town say there may be a precedent. In 1900 when a hurricane wiped out Galveston, it was the largest city in Texas. It was eventually rebuilt, but never again rivaled what became the state's new leading city, Houston, just 50 miles away.
Contrary to the radio report, in actuality the Houston population probably had already exceeded Galveston's before the famous hurricane of 1900. (There is some doubt about that because critical census records were destroyed in a Commerce Department building fire in the 1921.) With the growth of the cattle industry, and being serendiptously situated at a new and important railroad junction, the die was cast in any case: Houston was to become the largest metropolis in the South, not Galveston.

A racialist anti-immigration backlash also played a part. By the turn of the last century, Galveston was well on its way to losing status as an important international port of entry, as Prof. Susan W. Hardwick observed two years ago in her article, "Galveston: Ellis Island of Texas," Journal of Cultural Geography, Vol. 20, pp 69-91 (2003) [no on-line version seems to be accessible].

Still, it is unarguable that the 1900 Galveston Hurricane hastened that city's decline -- and Houston was a major beneficiary. Today, although it is "a few hours' sailing time" from the Gulf of Mexico," the Port of Houston boasts it is ranked "first in the United States in foreign waterborne commerce, second in total tonnage, and sixth in the world."

Could the same thing happen to Baton Rouge? Might it eclipse New Orleans as most important Louisiana port city?

Quite likely. While we shouldn't overlook Houston's boomtown chances, too, when one takes into account the staggering size of the expenditures it will take to rebuild New Orleans; and the stepped-up Homeland Security spending which will be needed to cover anti-terrorism holes exposed by Hurricane Katrina at many Gulf ports to the east like Pascagoula, Mobile, Pensacola, and Panama City; and rising oil prices; and expanding Gulf drilling opportunities; and all the rest, as Josh Marshall says, there's going to be so much money sloshing around for so many years we are destined to see "the biggest slush fund of all time."

And you can be sure a fair amount of it will be sloshing into Baton Rouge, the only state capital where government buildings routinely are named after convicted felons.

Laissez les bons temps rouler.

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