Amid fears that the effort to repopulate New Orleans is stalling, Mayor C. Ray Nagin hopscotched shelters across the state Wednesday to assure Hurricane Katrina evacuees that the city is beginning to operate again and urged them to "come on home."
For the charismatic first-term politician, it was a novel kind of political campaign: not for votes necessarily, but for voters themselves.
It is a daunting task. New Orleans's lower Ninth Ward reopened to residents Wednesday, but few came back. Schools in neighboring communities have had their students reduced by half. Business owners are desperate for workers, and city leaders are increasingly concerned that many residents will never return.
Evacuees are scattered across 44 states, and many have vowed to remain where they landed.
Red Cross officials say about 550,000 remain in hotels and motels subsidized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Meanwhile, neighborhoods such as the Ninth Ward and lower parts of St. Bernard, Plaquemines and Cameron parishes "will take months and sometimes longer to create a livable environment," U.S. Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, head of federal Katrina relief efforts, said at a briefing in Baton Rouge.
With much of his city still vacant, Nagin launched his campaign. "My big message is: You can come back to the city," Nagin told a group of about 40 at a shelter here, a three-hour drive from New Orleans. He urged the crowd to "get back to the red beans and rice and gumbo and all those things that you love."
The crowd hooted and clapped. Nagin said the city was now rich with jobs and he could help arrange trailers from FEMA for those who return.
It was in a many ways an advertising effort. Crime is lower than it has been in a hundred years, he told the crowd, and city schools will begin to reopen in November and January. He noted that some restaurant franchises are offering $6,000 bonuses to new employees.
"I'm not talking about minimum wage jobs -- minimum wage is out in New Orleans," Nagin said. A shortage of workers has driven up wages.
In recent days, civic and business leaders have become increasingly worried that the exodus may be more permanent than even the gloomiest of the initial projections. A few weeks after the storm, Nagin predicted that about half of the city's 500,000 population would soon return.
At the time, the projections struck many in New Orleans as too pessimistic. But labor is so short now that even fine restaurants -- one of the few business sectors open -- use paper plates and cups because they cannot find people to wash the dishes.
After hearing the mayor at the shelter here, Ina Claire Guillory, 41, a homemaker from hard-hit New Orleans East, said she liked the idea of rebuilding. But she said she was skeptical it would happen soon.
Nagin visited shelters in Monroe and Shreveport in the morning, came here in the afternoon and was headed to St. Gabriel on Wednesday evening. Each place the message was the same: urging residents to return.
But Allen's briefing showed just how tough conditions remain in New Orleans and how federal officials are working hard simply to move evacuees to long-term temporary housing, far from the city.
‘A bridge to nowhere’
"We want to make sure those folks move to a better, more secure situation than evacuation shelters and hotels," Allen said. "Right now being in a shelter or in a hotel is a bridge to nowhere. We need to make that bridge complete, even if it is transitional" to more permanent housing, he said, that will be needed for the "six, 12, 18 months" that it takes to rebuild housing.
Allen said the relief effort's "number-one priority" is to place Louisiana storm victims who need government help in long-term housing within Louisiana, unless and until doing so proves unfeasible.
But FEMA must find storm victims, which Allen termed a "daunting challenge."
Victims who seek aid provide their New Orleans Zip codes to FEMA and using that information, officials can estimate how damaged their homes are and how long they will need housing assistance.
People will be presented with a choice of housing options, Allen said, but only after it is determined that they cannot return to Louisiana. Allen said FEMA was following the direction of Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D).
"The premium is going to be placed on putting [people] in Louisiana, because that's the governor's wish, and we support that," Allen said. "Our first priority is to keep people in Louisiana. If we cannot do that, then it will be matter of choice" offered to people to find housing elsewhere through alternatives.
For instance, Allen said that he has tasked the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to refurbish "at best speed" 600 foreclosed properties identified in Louisiana, perhaps by month's end.
But in contrast, Allen said, 200,000 to 250,000 housing units have been destroyed or made uninhabitable.
‘Such a unique place’
The people with the fewest choices will be the poorest residents, analysts said. Areas flooded by Katrina were disproportionately inhabited by low-income renters, according to a study of the greater New Orleans area that the Brookings Institution released Wednesday. About 47 percent of people who lived in the flooded portions of the metropolitan area were renters, compared with 31 percent in dry areas.
"These are lower-income, more vulnerable people in general," said Mark Muro, policy director of the institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. "So maybe there's less cash reserves; many of the people affected may be more susceptible to losing autonomy here."
It may be many of those people who decide not to go back to New Orleans.
Nagin said, "They're frustrated, they're stressed. After a certain amount of time, they'll yearn for it. . . . It's such a unique place."
Hsu reported from Washington.