Ten years ago, just days after Hurricane Katrina, I was standing in the Target on Siegen Lane in Baton Rouge, combing picked-over shelves for things I’d need as a hurricane evacuee. I had left New Orleans in a newspaper delivery truck on Tuesday morning, the only practical way to navigate rising floodwaters.
A fellow shopper smiled sweetly, put her hand on my shoulder and handed me a $5 gift card. She told me she had seen many new and haunted faces in the store in the days following the storm and that she hoped it would help. I thanked her but told her I couldn’t possibly accept it, as I was sure others needed it far more than I did. But she waved me off and wandered away, leaving me holding this present from a stranger. That’s when I developed a soft spot for Baton Rouge.
Hours before I arrived, I had reached out to a dear friend’s sister who lived in Baton Rouge. Without hesitation, she gave me keys to a car she wasn’t using and offered me just about anything else I needed. The parents of another great friend let me crash on their couch in Denham Springs for three weeks. The same friend, who realized her household wasn’t going back to New Orleans anytime soon, bought a home in Walker two days after Katrina and let me have a room there until I moved back to New Orleans in October.
In the weeks following the storm, several meals were purchased for me in Baton Rouge by complete strangers, just because. And there was the veterinarian in Denham Springs who let me bring my two dogs to her at 3 a.m. that Sunday before the storm struck, because I suddenly got nervous about leaving them alone. And I’m glad I made that decision. Had I not, they wouldn’t have survived the several feet of water that entered my house. This vet even gave me a “long-term” discount, and it made my life that much easier knowing that I didn’t have to worry with everything else I had going on.
So I moved back to New Orleans two months later, a little in awe of the generosity I experienced that short time in Baton Rouge.
Here was a town overrun by strangers that filled your roads (walking almost seemed faster), overtook your restaurants (an hourlong wait for dinner wasn’t uncommon) and complained about blue laws (I had no idea you can’t order a bloody mary early on Sunday mornings). How you kept patient and sane with all these people, I’ll never know.
Fast-forward 10 years, and here I am, a resident of Baton Rouge for two years now. And it’s been good. I’ve found some pretty amazing, locally owned restaurants, great festivals and good music. There’s a storied and beautiful downtown that is expanding more each month, with a vibrant cultural scene. We’ve got just as much political fodder as New Orleans ever did, and it helps that most political ambitions have crossed through here at some point. And I’ve met some really wonderful people.
Hey, I’m not going to lie — I’m still not fond of the traffic. I now live for the mornings when school is out and a quick drive to work is like hitting the lottery.
Remembering how patient and generous everyone was here in the aftermath of Katrina … well, I hope I never have to extend that generosity to future evacuees. But now, as a resident, I gladly will if that moment ever comes.
So, a big thank you to all you Baton Rougeans who made this place a temporary refuge 10 years ago and a permanent residence for me today. I’m proud to call it home.
Jennifer Brown is executive news editor of The Advocate. Reach her at email@example.com