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Hurricane Katrina

Who's rebuilding New Orleans?

Locals angrily point out migrant workers, saying they're taking jobs to the exclusion of residents who can't afford to come home.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
Published October 23, 2005

[Times photo: Willie J. Allen Jr.]
Migrant workers rest outside the downtown post office in New Orleans, where they're pressure washing the mold from walls and floors.

NEW ORLEANS - As military helicopters thumped overhead, R.J. Rouzan paced and waved his arms inside an office in City Hall.

National Guard troops that morning last week had blocked him from visiting his property in the Lower 9th Ward. Something to do with needing a permit. City officials didn't know what he was talking about.

Then, in the middle of an argument that seemed to be about red tape, Rouzan veered suddenly toward a subject that has angered many local residents.

"They let trucks full of illegal aliens in there and not the property owners?" Rouzan yelled at a weary-looking receptionist.

Immigrant workers - some in the country illegally - have been pouring into New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city.

While no one knows how many Hispanic workers are in New Orleans, teams of Mexican and Central American laborers drawn from around the United States appear throughout the city. Wearing white protective suits and yellow boots, they pressure wash mold-infested rooms, tear out Sheetrock, rip down soaked insulation and empty rotten shrimp from refrigerators.

They retire at night to downtown or outlying hotels paid for by contractors, sometimes four or more to a room, or in tents in city parks. They are some of the more visible occupants of a half-empty city.

In an address to business owners and contractors during a "Back to Business" forum this month at the Sheraton, Mayor Ray Nagin said he knew what group members were thinking: "How do I ensure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?"

They answered with applause.

Rouzan wasn't there. But he feels their frustration.

Rouzan, a black owner of construction and trucking businesses, said his employees are scattered across several states. Without a place to stay, they can't come back to work. Watching Hispanic workers take similar jobs, Rouzan seethes.

"They are allowing people to come in who are getting jobs while we as homeowners who built this city, they don't let us get access to our property," Rouzan said.

The city has long celebrated its French, Caribbean, African and Spanish roots, a famous mix of cultures that gave birth to jazz, jambalaya and lavish Mardi Gras parades.

But this recent and sudden influx of immigrants seems a little too much, too fast for some who worry the laborers are taking the place of displaced working-class black residents. Those residents wonder, whose city is this going to become?

* * *

Hector Hernandez and his co-workers sprawled across the sidewalk one day last week, taking their 15-minute break in front of the U.S. Postal Service building across from the Superdome.

Their work suits and stained boots reeked of mold. Behind them a nose-burning odor seeped through the vents from the basement of the building, which they had been cleaning most of the past month. A hose pumped out the water that remained.

"We change boots every day," Hernandez, 44, of Honduras, said in Spanish. Inside, they wear respirators as they clear out stinking garbage and pressure wash the walls and floors, he said.

They get paid $8 an hour and labor 11 hours a day, six days a week. Subcontractors pulled them together for Belfor USA, an American subsidiary of a multibillion-dollar international company specializing in restoration after disasters. Before New Orleans, they had separately held construction, farm or factory jobs from Texas to North Carolina, they said.

Hernandez sends the money he earns back to his three children in Honduras, which he left in search of work after Hurricane Mitch pummeled the Central American country in 1998. He spent several years in Mexico before arriving in North Carolina last year.

The men hadn't heard about the mayor's comments. They shrugged.

"There's a lot of work here for everyone," Hernandez said.

Other workers were more indignant.

"It's not fair," said Jairo Lopez, 19, just after finishing a lunch of beef, rice and beans at the Kenner Supermarket y Restaurante, a Hispanic business in Kenner just west of the city. He had heard about the mayor's comments on a Spanish-language radio news station.

"Everyone needs to work, and it's not our fault if (local residents) don't have jobs here," Lopez said. "The people who lived here are in other states."

Relying on Hispanic immigrants to rebuild after major catastrophes is nothing new for the country - Hispanic workers helped reconstruct the Pentagon after Sept. 11 and Homestead after Hurricane Andrew.

But for New Orleans - whose racial tensions were exacerbated by Katrina - the phenomenon of Hispanic day laborer pickup sites dotting streets is entirely new. Just 3 percent of New Orleans' population, or 15,000 people, was Hispanic in 2000, according to the U.S. Census.

Civic and immigration experts say that number will balloon, thanks in part to twin acts by the Bush administration.

After Katrina, President Bush, arguing for rapid cleanup efforts, suspended portions of the Davis-Bacon Act that required construction workers be paid the prevailing regional wage. Also, the Department of Homeland Security temporarily halted punishment of employers whose workers can't provide proof of citizenship.

While most immigrants interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times said they plan to go back to where they were before Katrina when the work is over, the demand for service jobs will remain long after the construction work is done.

In part, that's because residents aren't coming back.

A poll done by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation showed that less than half of the Katrina evacuees living in Houston-area shelters plan to return.

* * *

Renee Langie and husband Burnell walked inside their home across the front door, which lay across the threshold like a plank.

In knee-high rubber boots, they climbed gingerly over the matted sofa blocking the entry way of their home in the Lower 9th Ward, the mostly black section of town that flooded twice - once after Katrina and again during Hurricane Rita.

The visit last week was their first time back after both. A police escort, obtained by some residents, helped them get by the National Guard checkpoint.

The pungent smell of mold - worse than a refrigerator full of rotting vegetables - penetrated their paper masks as they entered the three-story brick home on North Claiborne Avenue.

The neighborhood around their house - the house once owned by Burnell Langie's grandparents, the house where they were raising their two children, the house where they sold snow cones from the front lawn - was ghostly.

Shotgun houses, washed off their slabs, sat on other houses. Cars stood upright against fences. Garbage, refrigerators, random furniture littered yards and empty fields. Gray trees stooped over brown grass, both dead.

"Oh, my God," Renee Langie, 43, kept repeating, taking pictures of soot-covered walls and blackened keyboards, picture albums, laser printers, chairs, splintered wood, all heaped in random piles in the living room where the draining water left it.

"This is unreal. This is unreal. Do you see this?"

Her husband didn't answer. Burnell, 45, made his way up the steps. He had one thing on his mind: his grandmother's diamond Hamilton watch. He reached into the top drawer of his gun cabinet bolted to the wall in his bedroom, where the water level got chest high. There it was, untouched, still in its case. He grabbed it and breathed a sigh of relief.

Back outside the couple said they won't come back here permanently, though they'll keep the five pieces of property they own, four of which are in the Lower 9th Ward. They've already put their teenage children in schools in Texas and don't want to uproot them again. They can run their production business, Rhema Word Enterprises, from there.

They worry about other black residents who want to come back but can't and are now resettling elsewhere.

"From an African-American perspective, we had a lot of history," she said about the area.

Part of that could have been preserved if the federal government had obtained temporary housing fast enough to ensure work for local working-class black residents, they said. They could have jumped on the lucrative construction jobs she and her former neighbors see going to immigrants, she said.

"There could have been jobs right here for people to get," she said. "This is our city, we should be rebuilding it."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees housing for evacuees, says it has procedures to follow. Housing priorities are set by the state and local governments, said FEMA spokesman James McIntyre.

Employers with existing, displaced workers from the area can get help with housing through the Louisiana Economic Development Office and FEMA, he said. But only if they are doing "infrastructure-related jobs." Contractors who bring outside workers into the area must find housing on their own, he said.

"People without jobs have to go through the standard housing process," McIntyre said.

But FEMA estimates that 100,000 families in the region need temporary housing. But only 3,105 families have been placed in travel trailers and another 70 in mobile homes, McIntyre said. The nearest trailer settlement to New Orleans is 80 miles away in Baker.

"We try to house people as close to the area as we can get," he said. "We are not particularly housing people seeking jobs."

* * *

Signs for workers crowd medians all over the city.

Mike Dunbar, a black business owner whose company removes Sheetrock and insulation, put up some of them.

But he won't hire immigrants.

"I'm not prejudiced," he said. He worries if Hispanic workers settle into the area, black residents won't have jobs when and if they return.

So far he's hired only nonimmigrant workers from Georgia and Texas because his former employees have not returned.

"I think some people aren't going to come back," said Dunbar, 42. "I think housing is the No. 1 problem. When we came back, we didn't have anywhere to live. That's holding a lot of them from coming back. You can work, but you need some place to stay."

Those who can't find a place to sleep are missing out on roofing jobs that can pay $25 an hour.

Dunbar houses his 12 workers in rental apartments owned by his father. He stays there, too, while his wife and children are in Alabama.

So far he has resisted the calls offering immigrant laborers. But if he's forced to, he'll hire them.

"I have to feed my family," he said.

Rouzan, the frustrated property owner and businessman at City Hall, said he's going to hold out for his construction employees or other American workers.

"I want people I can talk to and whose money is going to circulate back into the local economy," Rouzan said.

* * *

Mealtimes at the Kenner Supermarket y Restaurante last week were packed.

Diners eat plates of bistec, rice, beans and plantains. They stare blankly at telenovelas or the news in Spanish blaring from the wall television.

In the grocery half of the store, shoppers order beef at the deli. In the aisles, they fill baskets with tortillas, corn mix, milk or sometimes just a six pack.

Immigrants who stay do make a contribution to the city, said 53-year-old Obed Irula, the owner whose business has more than doubled since Katrina.

Irula, from Honduras, arrived in the New Orleans area to join other family members in 1998 before Hurricane Mitch hit. Since then, he's watched the city's Honduran population swell. Many bought homes.

"If Latinos come to work, they work hard," Irula said.

Carlos Banuelos, resting at a bus stop downtown last week after a day cleaning at the Hyatt, said he likes New Orleans.

After leaving Mexico for the United States in 1973, he picked strawberries in Plant City and worked on farms across the country. He lived in Chicago and worked construction before a company hired him at $12 an hour for demolition work at the Hyatt in New Orleans. With so many jobs available, he planned to leave the next day to get his wife in Chicago.

"I'm going to bring my wife here to work for a different company out of Pennsylvania," he said, before taking a stroll along the city's Riverwalk.

"Maybe we'll stay here and buy a house in the future."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which used information from Times wires.

[Last modified October 23, 2005, 01:21:14]


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