Sept. 21, 2005 12:00
Early gauges of Hurricane Katrina's impact on Lafayette and its surrounding parishes.
Evacuees clung to Louisiana's Interstate 10 as a lifeline in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. People from New Orleans, Chalmette and Biloxi made pit stops in locales like Baton Rouge, Lafayette and Lake Charles. Many were probably expecting a hiatus of no more than a few days. That was more than three weeks ago.

Almost overnight, quiet communities like Lafayette as well as others along I-10 serving as benchmarks on the westward journey toward Texas have nearly doubled in capacity, quickly becoming among the most populated areas in the Deep South. And with that title comes all the challenges of a booming metropolis.

What does it all mean for Acadiana? Unfortunately, predictions and forecasts for the local economy have been few and far between. Like everything else being surveyed in the state ' commercial seafood, water quality, oil pipelines ' it's too early to tell. Yet there is enough anecdotal information floating around to make some educated predictions.

Dr. Sarah Skinner, an associate professor of economics at UL Lafayette, says the influx of people, new businesses and money could cut several different directions. "It could go either way," she says. "The increases of people is good for the local economy in the short run. People have to eat, so restaurants will do better. Then they in turn have to buy more supplies, so some of our stores will do better. There could also be a long-term positive impact if many of these businesses and people decide to relocate here permanently."

It's difficult at this time to produce a precise economic model for Acadiana, Skinner says, because there's no real precedent for the mass relocation. It could be months or years until the true impact is known. The real estate markets alone, however, are enough to suggest an economic boom in Baton Rouge, Lafayette and New Orleans.

In Baton Rouge, office space is being gobbled up at an alarming rate. And there are typically about 4,000 home rental vacancies in the Capital City annually, but now there are none. Even home sales are through the roof. "People are buying homes with suitcases of cash," says Drew Tessier, a spokesman for the city of Baton Rouge.

From Lafayette to Lake Charles, Acadiana is likewise boasting record numbers. "In the Thursday and Friday after the storm, the region did about $250 million in real estate business," says Amy Jones, a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. of Lafayette.

There is a downside to that prosperity. State Rep. Mickey Frith of Abbeville has spent recent weeks hustling to find available housing for the thousands of evacuees stuck in Acadiana. His own son even handed the keys of his home over to a displaced family.

"Primarily, right now, these people need housing," says Frith, chairman of the Acadiana Legislative Delegation. "For rent or purchase or whatever. And we're having a lot of trouble getting [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] and [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] to help pay for some of this."

There's also a problem with current infrastructure in Lafayette, specifically roads and highways. Drives that once took a few minutes now take a half hour. "We already had substantial needs in that area to begin with," Frith says. "Now the roads are congested at every hour."

This is where government aid comes into play. Officials expect Acadiana to be included in future supplemental appropriations bills coming out of Congress, as well as in discussions during the upcoming special session of the state Legislature.

A lack of response from these two deliberative bodies would be completely irresponsible, some say. "It's just that simple," Jones says. "We have to remember, regardless if they're in New Orleans or Baton Rouge or Lafayette, these are still people of Louisiana. We need to make sure that as they come into the community, they come in as full-functioning members of the community."

The pressure is being felt all along I-10. Banks are reporting long waits for withdrawals and new accounts. Loan officers are backlogged with requests for rental deposits. City clerks are being forced to bring in additional administrators to handle new home purchases.

In Acadiana, however, the transition to take on new businesses seems somewhat seamless in certain areas. That's because the lion's share of new economy moving in builds on existing bases, rather than creating new ones. Oil and gas companies are flocking to the area because there's a ready base of workers, access to the Gulf of Mexico and a host of parent companies that have operated in the region for generations. Many displaced artists and musicians have also found a home base in Lafayette, comfortable in its rich tradition of supporting art and culture.

"There's a lot of parity between New Orleans and Lafayette with the culture here and an arts community that is well supported by the city," Jones says. "So, as far as the feeling you have in New Orleans, you can find the same thing here in Lafayette, but only on smaller scale."

Officials are expecting many of Lafayette's new visitors to become permanent residents. If and when that prediction comes true, it would be a watershed moment for Louisiana's Cajun heartland. "I think we'll really start to see the impact of all this when people decide they don't want to go back to their original homes," says Skinner.

Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist based in Baton Rouge. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Dallas Morning News, Gambit Weekly and other publications.

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