Stephanie Riegel: The importance of perspective, 10 years after the storm

There were two types of Hurricane Katrina evacuees: Those who couldn’t wait to get back to their city to rebuild, and those who wanted nothing more to do with it.

I fell into the latter camp.

I am neither proud nor ashamed of that fact. At the time, 10 years ago this month, I had to do what I thought was in the best interest of my then-small children, and that meant getting away from flood-ravaged New Orleans.

Truth is, part of me had been ready to leave New Orleans before Katrina anyway. After more than a dozen years as a TV reporter, I was burned out on overexposure to the city’s seamy underbelly. Crime, political corruption, and public meetings that were a parody of the democratic process all made for great TV but left me cynical about my hometown. After a while, all I saw was blight, income inequality, and the folly of the city’s self-absorbed moneyed class.

When the floodwaters rose, claiming whole neighborhoods and leaving thousands stranded and homeless, I thought New Orleans was done. I was wrong, thankfully. But at the time, I didn’t see how the city would recover better and stronger, as it has. I thought it would be weaker and worse.

So we stayed in Baton Rouge, a city I knew from my years at LSU and, later, covering the Louisiana Legislature. But LSU and the State Capitol are worlds unto themselves, integral yet disconnected parts of the Baton Rouge fabric. In other words, I really didn’t know Baton Rouge like I thought I did.

I quickly got to know it, however, during a few years of discovery and exploration that were, for me, a gift. Emboldened by the opportunity to start fresh and free from the ball and chain that had been life in the city where I grew up, I was able to embrace everything Baton Rouge had to offer.

I became a runner. I became a freelancer, and took all sorts of interesting jobs. I hired an agent and got cast in a movie. I homeschooled two of my three children and we played tourist in our new town, taking endless field trips as part of the hands-on curriculum I invented for their third-grade year.

We went to the museums, the State Capitol, the international grocery stores—yes, Baton Rouge has several—and the LSU campus. We attended local theater, live music events, shopped the farmer’s market, hiked the Felicianas, and walked the LSU lakes. Released from the routine of carpool, ballet and birthday parties that had busied our afternoons before Katrina, we were able to slow down, experience life, and truly live.

We also spent a lot of time in those first few years in Baton Rouge’s public libraries and BREC parks. I was struck by how clean and efficient they were. Even the bathrooms were well maintained, which is the kind of thing you think about a lot when you have little kids.

Looking back on it all now, it’s a lesson in the importance of perspective. Seen with fresh eyes, an open mind and a willing spirit, everything in Baton Rouge looked good. I recognized the city was smaller and more provincial than New Orleans, that it didn’t have a funky vibe or a cache of great neighborhood restaurants. But from my perspective, none of that mattered.

It was an exciting time, too, to be starting out in Baton Rouge. Katrina hit as Baton Rouge was on the verge of a major growth spurt. The Shaw Center and Tsunami were new. So was Towne Center, and Perkins Rowe was on the drawing board. Live After Five concerts had recently begun, and 225 had just debuted, capturing the spirit of the emerging, new Baton Rouge. The growth had started before Katrina and would have happened without it. But in my mind, the two will forever be linked.

Ten years later, Baton Rouge feels as much like home as New Orleans once did. Perhaps because I chose it. Unfortunately, though, as the novelty has worn off, I have come to see some of this city’s more unsavory characteristics.

There is crime here, too. Racism. Bureaucratic inefficiency and terrible traffic. Metro Council meetings don’t exactly inspire confidence, either.

But those are problems that exist in every community. What has come to trouble me most about Baton Rouge in particular is the internecine nature of business dealings that take place in this relatively small community, where so many people are related or went to school together or share a suite in Tiger Stadium.

The power circle here is tightly closed—not that I could have or cared to try to break into it. But others who have tried will give you an earful if you let them. And even those inside the circle, at times, throw up their hands in disgust because so many deals are done before they’re even started. There is but one group of power elites here, and because Baton Rouge is so small they’re the ones calling all the shots.

Here’s hoping that in the next 10 years Baton Rouge will continue to grow and that the circles of power expand and become more inclusive. That way, other newcomers to this community will want to come to Baton Rouge, where they can experience the beauty and wonder of life here as I once did.

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