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Labor crunch stalls Katrina recovery

As people return to New Orleans, they are finding a serious shortage of specially trained laborers to help with rebuilding efforts.
Construction workers with the Rabren General Contractors of Auburn, Ala., place a temporary plastic cover on a duplex home on Gadsen Street in Kenner, La., just outside New Orleans.
Construction workers with the Rabren General Contractors of Auburn, Ala., place a temporary plastic cover on a duplex home on Gadsen Street in Kenner, La., just outside New Orleans.Michel duCille / The Washington Post
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Sidney Beaulieau IV is this city's version of a rock star these days. The handsome 22-year-old drives around town in a stylish van with a superhero clutching a lightning bolt painted on the side. But he is no MTV poster boy.

He is a skilled electrician. And as New Orleanians trickle back in to assess damage to their homes, he is in intense demand.

When Beaulieau shows up at the home of someone lucky enough to get an appointment, he is besieged by neighbors desperate to have him come over and help them get the lights back on.

"Everywhere we go, people come up to us," Beaulieau said this week as he rebuilt an electrical box that Hurricane Katrina ripped off the side of a home in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie. "All I can do is give them a business card and tell them to call the office and make an appointment."

Lawrence Hannigan, who lives in the Uptown New Orleans neighborhood near Tulane University, did just that a couple of weeks ago. Like many New Orleanians, he cannot get his power turned on until a certified electrician inspects his wiring and deems it safe. So he called Beaulieau's company, Stuart Services. And then he waited. And waited some more. When he finally got a call back, Hannigan did not get an appointment, just the promise of one.

As people come back to New Orleans, they are finding they need much more than electricians. Those fortunate enough to own homes that were not destroyed by wind or flood need roofers, air-conditioning technicians, plumbers, carpenters, mold-removal specialists, flooring experts and general contractors. The problem is that while plenty of unskilled laborers are piling into town looking for cleanup and demolition work, there is a serious shortage of specially trained laborers.

A slow, painful process
The lack of such professionals promises to make the reoccupation of New Orleans, and the re-ignition of its ruined economy, excruciatingly slow and painful. "You just can't find anyone to do anything right now," Hannigan said at Fat Harry's on St. Charles Ave., one of the few restaurants open in his neighborhood.

Beaulieau's boss, Jude G. Respino Jr., is trying to do something about the shortage. Respino, who owns Stuart Services, is taking out television and newspaper advertisements seeking trained electricians. He has a full-time staff member dedicated to scouring employment Web sites to find electricians looking for work.

He has found a few willing to make the trip to New Orleans. Beaulieau, for example, goes out on jobs with Larry Simpson, a 34-year-old electrician from Delaware. The two are living together in a mobile home provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and parked in front of Stuart Services. They call it Camp Stuart.

Like other workers coming to New Orleans, Simpson said he hopes to make as much money as he can before heading home. And Beaulieau said electricians who show up can work as much as they want. "You could work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as much as you can take," he said.

Respino said that when he returned to the Stuart Services office in Metairie a couple of weeks ago, there were hundreds of messages on the answering machine. When he reopened for business, Respino said he had to turn on the answering machine during the day for the first time. Even if his small staff of phone dispatchers could have handled the incoming calls, Respino said, "we just didn't enough trucks or electricians to roll on all the jobs. There is just a real lack of enough skilled workers here."

'Overnight' experts
Around New Orleans, it might not seem as if there is such a lack.

Signs offering the services of electricians and plumbers are popping up like weeds in the medians (known here as "neutral grounds" ) dividing many city streets. But several residents said they are not inclined to call those phone numbers, fearing they would wind up with shoddy work done by out-of-town "storm chasers."

"A lot of these people just became experts overnight," said Diane Foss, standing outside her home in the devastated Lakeview neighborhood, as an electrician estimated that her rewiring job would cost $12,000. A fire at a home near Tulane where power had just been restored has added to fears about using unfamiliar electricians. The cause of the fire remains under investigation, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Ed Foss, Diane's husband, said floodwaters destroyed much of the couple's first floor. He said he hoped to salvage the old pine floors but would need a skilled craftsman to do the job. He said scheduling and keeping appointments with contractors is a logistical nightmare because he and his wife, like many middle-class New Orleanians, come into town only sporadically. In the affluent Garden District, which is on relatively high ground and avoided heavy flooding, attorney Earl Perry said many New Orleanians have long-standing relationships with skilled contractors. "But a lot of those guys are just out of pocket right now. Some have left and aren't coming back. Others are doing the big jobs, the FEMA jobs."

Perry said he did not think local firms would jack up prices to reflect the intense demand for services. "They would be remembered for a long time for doing something like that," Perry said.

Farther uptown, Gary and Paula Lee, both lawyers, were clearing tree limbs from their yard on Tuesday. They said they had called their regular air-conditioning repairman. But the repairman's office was flooded. "He hopes he can get out and at least price a repair soon," Gary Lee said. They also need roofers to fix two gaping holes. Right now, they have a bucket under one and a children's swimming pool under another. Like many other residents, the Lees said they had not even tried to get a roofer to come to their house. "That's just going to be a whole different story," Paula Lee said with a groan.