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Firms look for their workers, offering support

Across the devastated Gulf Coast, big employers are trying to find, house, feed, pay and otherwise care for tens of thousands of workers chased from their homes and workplaces by Hurricane Katrina.
Refugees from Hurricane Katrina mill about near message boards in the Houston Astrodome
Refugees from Hurricane Katrina mill about near message boards in the Houston Astrodome on Friday. Big employers are reaching out to their dispersed workers, offering their own relief efforts. Richard Carson / Reuters
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true"><p>The Washington Post</p></a

Chevron, BellSouth and other companies are setting up tent cities for homeless employees. Northrop Grumman handed out paychecks in a parking lot yesterday. Dow Chemical placed ads in at least 14 newspapers asking missing workers to make contact with the company. Marathon Oil is knocking on doors, looking for employees.

Across the devastated Gulf Coast, big employers are trying to find, house, feed, pay and otherwise care for tens of thousands of workers chased from their homes and workplaces by Hurricane Katrina.

"We are trying to find out where they've gone, what their current situation is and what we can do to help them," said Mickey Driver, a spokesman for Chevron, which has 4,300 employees in the region. "We have gotten lots of calls in, but there are still a lot more people we need to hear from."

In many ways, the efforts are reminiscent of Sept. 11, 2001, when companies in the World Trade Center and elsewhere in lower Manhattan set up and advertised toll-free numbers for their workers to call to report their whereabouts and get help.

And in many ways, such efforts are just as agonizingly slow to unfold as they were after the terrorist attacks. Half a dozen big employers in the Gulf region said that as of late Friday they still had not heard from large numbers of employees.

"A lot of people can't get to a phone or their phone batteries are dead. A lot of people can't get gas to get to a place with a phone," said Brian Cullin, spokesman for defense contractor Northrop Grumman, one of the largest manufacturing employers in the Gulf Coast. "We are going to be piecing this together for several days yet to come."

An executive at DuPont, which has about 1,500 employees in the region, is going from radio station to radio station, giving interviews and imploring workers to call a toll-free number to check in. The company still has not heard from many employees, especially those who worked at facilities in DeLisle and Pascagoula, Miss., both of which the hurricane hit directly.

DuPont spokeswoman Kelli Kukura said the company was trying to find temporary housing for workers displaced by the storm. But accommodations can be hard to find since the storm, and Kukura said the company also was in the process of setting up tent cities to provide food, shelter and utilities.

Several other companies also said they would set up tent cities. Chevron said it would have one open by today for 1,500 workers and family members from the company's Pascagoula refinery. Driver said the tent city would cover 500,000 square feet and would provide water, catered meals, electricity, satellite communications, laundry service and medical care. Chevron also placed ads in newspapers, including the Miami Herald and Houston Chronicle, asking employees to call a toll-free number.

BellSouth said that 13,000 of its employees were affected by the storm and that it would set up tent cities to provide food and shelter. It also will make cash loans.

Getting money to employees remained a top priority on Friday for many companies. Northrop Grumman, for example, flew 3,000 payroll checks to Mississippi from Texas and distributed them in a parking lot at its Pascagoula shipyard. Cullin said the company wanted to fly checks to New Orleans on a helicopter but could not because access to the city's airspace is restricted by the government.

Northrop gave employees a list of bank of bank branches in Pascagoula that would be open through the Labor Day weekend to cash paychecks and said Wal-Mart stores had agreed to cash employee checks.

Wal-Mart said it would cash government, payroll, insurance and other computer-generated checks at no charge at 126 stores in the Gulf Coast region for at least two weeks. The company also made an Internet messaging system available in its stores and on its Web site for employees and customers to post notes and search for information about friends and family in the affected area.

Harrah's Entertainment, which operates casinos in New Orleans and in Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss., and has about 8,000 workers in the affected region, said it was housing some displaced employees in the convention center space at its casino in Tunica, Miss. The company also said it opened at a relief center at its casino in Lake Charles, La.

Marriott Corp., which operates hotels in New Orleans and employs around 2,000 in the region, said it offered bus rides to many employees to Houston and Baton Rouge after the storm and would at least temporarily give workers hotel rooms in those cities until other arrangements could be made.

Some employees went to remarkable lengths to assist colleagues in need. For example, Merrill Lynch financial adviser Ted Longo and his family were trapped in their Slidell, La., home by flood waters, according to an e-mail sent to Merrill Lynch employees.

According to the e-mail, Longo contacted another financial adviser in Austin, Bill Netherton, to see if there was a way Netherton could fly supplies to an airstrip near Longo's home. Netherton found a plane and a pilot and persuaded the Federal Aviation Administration to let the plane fly in without air-traffic control, according to Merrill Lynch.

"Bill and the pilot then flew in the supplies that helped Ted, his family and some neighbors make it through another three days before government relief arrived," the e-mail said.