Friday, October 14, 2005

Where Katrina Met Rita: Allons à Lafayette!

SOUTH OF I-10, LA. -- David Vitter made a funny the other day, or tried to, when speaking in Lafayette, according to The Advocate of Baton Rouge (which we see is billing itself as "The Independent Voice of South Louisiana," it being one of the few dailies left in the state not sucked into the maw of the Gannett chain).

Vitter, the state's freshman Republican senator, observed that Lafayette was "unfortunately ... the crossroads where Katrina meets Rita," then added, after what surely was a pregnant pause, "I always knew I was against same-sex unions."

Nothing like a little same-sex-union humor to loosen up the Lafayette Parish Republican Executive Committee.

The truth is, though, that being at the "crossroads" of the two hurricanes has been somewhat advantageous for Lafayette, which has long fancied itself a sort of mini-Houston, with its French Catholic joie de whatchamacallit balanced out by a fairly rigorous devotion to the money-making subclause of the Protestant Work Ethic. Lafayette developed as the mercantile center for what essentially was an area of small farms, thus avoiding having its economy tied to the large slave-and sharecropper-dependent plantations that dominated nearby parishes, and much later the offshore drilling business was so good to the city that by the late 1970s it was estimated that one in 80 residents was a millionaire (we, unfortunately, knew only 79 people when we resided there). A few years ago residents rejected casino gambling and subsequently lost their horse track to adjacent St. Landry Parish, which is struggling to address many of the pressing issues of the 19th century.

So far Lafayette's luck has held: the city escaped serious damage from both hurricanes, aside from downed power lines and scattered trees falling on to or through roofs, and evacuees from Rita and Katrina apparently are sending a nice little buzz through its economy. According to the local Gannett franchise, the city recorded 570 home sales in September, a 200 percent increase over the same month last year, when it already was in the midst of a construction boom. Not that the benefits aren't coming with costs. Upwards of 3,000 evacuee children have enrolled in the school district, and the traffic congestion in town has gone from onerous to nearly unbearable. We heard the manager of the Cajundome on the radio saying that the evacuees housed there had put 10 years (maybe it was 20) of wear and tear on the facility. While the city of 110,000 has taken in far fewer evacuees than Houston, the impact of the mass relocation is much more evident here.

While Vitter the senator was taking the personalization of acts of nature into previously uncharted territory, our new favorite megalomanic, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, was on a tour of shelters in the state, urging evacuees to get back to the city and assist in its rebuilding. But a Gallup poll for CNN and the Gannett Co. found that almost 4 in 10 residents who sought assistance from the Red Cross say thanks but they won't be returning.

Meantime, New Orleans is keeping its priorities straight: The city council has been engaging in what are no doubt thoughtful discussions on staging Mardi Gras next year.

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