Changes to Our Landscape
In terms of land size, West Baton Rouge is the smallest parish in Louisiana, but it is truly rich in resources. This parish enjoys a strong sense of shared history that binds the people of its various communities. Agriculture and industry continue to complement each other, creating a unique place to live and work. Residents of the parish have been able to reap the benefits of industry and business involvement in the community while still maintaining ties to friends and neighbors in communities “where everybody knows your name”.
The beginning of the 21st century has ushered in a new vision for growth in West Baton Rouge. Based on the 2000 census, West Baton Rouge is the 11th fastest growing parish in the state with its population up approximately 4%. Even before the turn of the century, non-governmental organizations such as the West Baton Rouge Chamber of Commerce worked to promote smart growth in the parish. Such efforts have succeeded in encouraging new businesses to locate in the parish and existing businesses to expand. The industrial base in the parish was quite strong since the last quarter of the 20th century, and since that time, business growth has increased steadily. Such businesses include hotels, restaurants, banks, and office complexes. In 2006 alone, over 400 residential, commercial, and industrial building permits were initiated. From 2000-2005, thirty-one new subdivisions were approved and developed across the parish, some of which have upwards of 80 lots.
Losses and Gains on the Westside
The southern portion of the parish, namely Addis, has seen the greatest growth in the last few years. Although this area has seen the most growth, the northwestern portions of the parish are catching up due to large plots of land being broken up and sold as individual lots. Much of the western part of the parish is swampland, making it difficult to encourage residential or business settlement and to lay down the infrastructure needed for such development; much of this land remains agricultural in nature.
While the parish has gained many new neighborhoods, others have been lost due to industrialization. Two such neighborhoods are Sunrise, north of Port Allen, and Morrisonville in the southern part of the parish. Sunrise exists now only in the memories of its former residents and is denoted by a lone historic marker. The community began to decline as more and more refineries moved to the area along the River Road. Placid Refinery’s predecessors moved next to Sunrise in the 1970s, and the noises, flares, and smells began to drive people away. Eventually, Placid offered to buy out the homes of the village’s remaining residents as an offer of good will to the community in the 1990s. Morrisonville had originally been located on the Australia Point near Addis as a community of freed African Americans following the Civil War. The community had to relocate in 1931 due to levee construction, forming “New Morrisonville.” Starting in 1989, the community was forced to relocate due to the expansion of The Dow Chemical Company’s facilities. Dow compensated residents for their homes, but the community was lost. At that time, Morrisonville resident split into two neighborhoods: some residents chose to live in West Baton Rouge Parish and others in Iberville Parish.
Impact of Hurricane Katrina
Since the 1950s, West Baton Rouge Parish has been affected by some major hurricanes, including Katrina and Rita in 2005 and Gustav in 2008. Katrina, in particular, did the most to change the future of south Louisiana. The hurricane made landfall in Louisiana on August 29, 2005. Its eye traveled just east of New Orleans and the strong storm surges caused more than 50 breaks in the canals and drainage levees running through the city. The entire southeastern Louisiana region was declared a disaster area. Two days later, 80% of New Orleans was flooded. St. Bernard and Plaquemine Parishes, just south of New Orleans, were also devastated. The storm continued its path of destruction north-east into Mississippi. Hurricane Rita occurred less than a month later, further devastating Louisiana.
The vast majority of residents in and around New Orleans were evacuated successfully, and many have relocated permanently out of their original parishes. Based on numbers from the 2000 census compared to population estimates in 2007, St. Bernard Parish had a 70% decrease in population and Orleans parish had a 50% decrease. The Gulf Coast experienced a massive population shift due to this natural disaster, something that many now refer to as the biggest diaspora in U.S. history. The disaster stimulated significant changes in urban planning, real estate development, job availability, and the economy as a whole. The disaster also brought social issues to the forefront, namely renewed concerns over the role race and class play in the region.
As of this writing, no official census has been taken since the population shifts that occurred after the summer of 2005, so it is difficult for state and local leaders to confirm population changes across the state. Estimates suggest, however, that the population of West Baton Rouge rose almost 4% after the summer of 2005. The number of building permits increased drastically in 2005, presumably due to construction needs following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness was formed after September 11, 2001 to ensure parish safety measures were updated. This office oversees preparations for natural disasters as well. Several shelters were opened for an extended amount of time in the West Baton Rouge community for those fleeing flooding in other areas during Katrina.
Changes in Government Infrastructure
The state of Louisiana has two forms of local government – 23 parishes now operate under a home rule charter and the other 41 parishes use the police jury system. The early police juries of West Baton Rouge parish, as in other parishes, became quite powerful since they were vested with both legislative and administrative duties, but with such power often came corruption. Parishes with rapidly growing populations typically moved toward the home rule system. After 187 years of local government under a Police Jury, voters of West Baton Rouge Parish approved a Home Rule Charter on April 29th, 1995 in a nearly 2-1 vote. West Baton Rouge was the 18th parish in Louisiana to approve home rule, thus discarding the tradition of police juries based on the French Napoleonic Code of government unique to Louisiana in the U.S. The charter set up a Parish Council headed by the Parish President, which was put into place in 1996. The Council is composed of nine elected members, one from each district in the parish.