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States put Katrina evacuees to work

Federally funded employment programs — as well as hiring campaigns by local businesses and outside contractors — will help many displaced families, economists and local officials say.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The employment agency didn’t open until 8 a.m., but Noel Tabb, a Hurricane Katrina evacuee from New Orleans, arrived at least 20 minutes early and sat anxiously on the edge of a shaded bench.

“I need some income coming in,” said the 57-year-old Tabb, who jumped to his feet the moment the doors opened on a $62 million program Louisiana launched Monday to temporarily hire up to 10,000 evacuees to help in the recovery effort.

At $9 an hour, the emergency work is not as lucrative as the jobs many New Orleanians held before Katrina wiped out their employers. But Tabb, a truck driver since 1968, said he needs to be practical now that his home has been flooded and he and his wife are renting an apartment in Baton Rouge.

“We’re not going to get desperate and just take anything that comes,” said Tabb. “But this is something to hold us over, until we can do better.”

Economists and local officials said the federally funded program — as well as hiring campaigns by local businesses and outside contractors — will help many displaced families, both financially and emotionally. But they said the program intended to help up to 10,000 people over 12 weeks, will need to be expanded to prevent a further exodus of evacuees from the state.

Similar programs are underway in three other states. Texas received $75 million in emergency funding from the Bush administration; Mississippi, $50 million; and Alabama, $4 million.

Loren C. Scott, an economic consultant and emeritus professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, said the federal response was vaguely reminiscent of the Works Progress Administration, an employment initiative authorized by Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression in 1935.

“It’s kind of like a 2005 version of the WPA,” Scott said.

The evacuees who sign up will be put to work with nonprofits, relief organizations and churches to distribute food and clothing and to provide transportation and childcare to others made homeless and jobless by the storm.

The Louisiana program will not place people in arduous and messy cleanup jobs, a segment of the recovery that has been left in the hands of private companies who won lucrative federal contracts, officials said.

“It’s strictly humanitarian work,” said Jacqueline Mims, director of the Division of Human Development and Services in the Parish of East Baton Rouge.

In other states, the emergency grant money can be used for demolition, renovation and reconstruction jobs, said federal Labor Department spokesman David James.

For its part, the Louisiana Department of Labor is using the emergency workforce program to link the private sector with those looking for work. The employment office in East Baton Rouge has put unemployed evacuees in touch with federal contractors, including Shaw Group and Kellogg, Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton Co.

Mims estimated that half of the 800 jobs the state allocated to her parish would be filled by the end of the week. Since Katrina, nearly 3,000 people have made unemployment claims in East Baton Rouge — roughly 10 times the normal pace, she said.

Rory Hayden, who oversees the program for nearby Tangipahoa Parish, said the 600 jobs allocated there would be gone by the end of the week. Because many of the evacuees are without transportation, Hayden said his staff was fanning out across the region to sign up large numbers of people at churches and Red Cross stations.

“We just want to get some money in these people’s pockets because they were virtually penniless when they came over here,” Hayden said, adding that the program will also help relieve some of the pressure on relief organizations.

Labor historians said there are more recent parallels to the federally financed program than the WPA.

Carl Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, said the program underway in Louisiana reminded him of the Emergency Employment Act that Richard Nixon authorized in 1971 to combat a recession by rapidly hiring people.

“You can’t wait three to six months. If you do, that will put people in greater or more extreme poverty and then you have no chance of people resettling in the region,” he said. “If you want them to live there, you’ve got to give them something to do.”