updated 9/8/2005 11:03:27 AM ET 2005-09-08T15:03:27

Donald Ashford can't go home. Hurricane Katrina saw to that when it forced his family from their Moss Point, Miss., home 10 days ago. But he and thousands of other workers at Northrop Grumman Corp.'s sprawling naval shipyard can and have returned to work.

"I'm bringing home the bacon, but I got nowhere to bring it to," said the 30-year Ashford.

Finding housing is only one of many challenges facing workers at Northrop Grumman, Mississippi's largest private employer, as they embark on a massive restoration and cleanup from debris strewn across the port where the Pascagoula River flows into the Mississippi Sound.

The former Ingalls shipyard, where the company builds four classes of vessels for the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, has a storied history dating back to before World War II. It's also been a political football in recent years as Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, Mississippi's Republican senators, fought to keep its backlog or orders fat at a time when the Department of Defense is under pressure to cut spending.

Pay for Northrop Grumman employees who have not returned or been called back will end on Friday, but many still can't be found or reached.

The company heightened its efforts on Tuesday by establishing a hot line for employees to check in. Since then, officials received about 2,000 calls, but they still need to hear word from another "few thousand," said company spokesman Brian Cullin.

A feeling of urgency grows each day as crews fill trash bins and dump trucks with items ranging from shards of metal to a pile of computers. For now, about one-fourth of the work force of 12,000 person is back — though the count is growing incrementally — scooping and shoveling.

Each trash pile removed not only means being a step closer to a return to shipbuilding, which the company hopes to resume next week, it also means more people can come back to work.

Given the level of residential and business devastation in the area, Northrop Grumman has brought in an outside caterer to feed two meals a day to the workers, some of who are being temporarily housed on Navy ships that the company was completing finishing work at the port.

Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman has three Gulf Coast yards that build ships or sections assembled elsewhere, one each Pascagoula, Gulfport, Miss., and New Orleans. They sit within about 110 miles of one another, the largest being Pascagoula's 800-acre facility.

Including an onshore facility, the defense contractor employed close to 19,000 people in the Gulf region, which accounts for nearly 10 percent of its annual business.

The regional impact is significant: Northrop Grumman's Gulf operations payroll averaged about $17 million a week, Cullin said.

Nearly every worker who reported to the Pascagoula shipyard post-Katrina was put on clean-up duty — regardless of their job title.

Shipbuilder Jackie Robinson didn't want to drive the Caterpillar front-end loader, but the man known as "Jelly Belly" understood he had no choice. "We need to get more people here, and we will get them," he said, just before hopping in the tractor. "This ain't fun. But you watch me, I'll get it done."

And he did. Robinson first pulled an office trailer out of a pile that included several storage bins and trash bins, an endeavor that took several efforts, the first two kicking up dust and smoke from the wheels spinning in place.

Once complete, he regrouped and got behind the dilapidated structure. He turned it over in sections, finished the demolition Katrina started, and laid it in a truck awaiting a load for hauling.

The new kind of work has also presented unique hazards such as snake bites, which have hit two employees thus far. "We've found anything and everything in here," said J.F. McLeod Sr. just as one worker unearthed a fishing lure he vowed to keep as a souvenir.

"See? But I'm talking rattlesnakes and water moccasins. Not just that. I'm still amazed at what I'm seeing."

On Tuesday, Northrop Grumman Chief Executive Officer Ron Sugar visited the shipyard. "The damage was substantial in size and scope, but the crew has been effectively working to get us back to operations," he said. "They are professionals and they understand what their job is: getting the shipyard up and running."

After he left, word soon spread among the workers that they could be resuming their shipbuilding work by next week. The company plans to phase in production while continuing the clean-up efforts, said Philip Teel, the company's ships system president.

No specific start date has been established, but the news of the potential ramp-up was a much needed boost to the folks working until dark each day. "It gives you some ambition, something to look forward to and some hope," said Arthur Pitts, who has been with the company 18 years.

"When you see something of this magnitude, you know it's affecting everybody outside the shipyard," he said. "The sooner you put it back up, the sooner you can get these people back here into work for their families and for the company. We'll get it done."

Meanwhile, Ashford winces as he recalls the power of Katrina's storm surge and the flood damage that has his home unlivable. "I still can't believe it. I had to save my mom, my sister, my wife and my daughter. They held a fishing pole as I brought them up out of there to high ground. I won't ever forget that," he said.

But after moving in temporarily with relatives, he said choosing between work and home was a no-brainer. "This is what I got to do," he said.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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