- The Washington Times - Monday, November 28, 2005

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Nicole Guinchard left home with a fine arts degree nearly two years ago to find work in Alaska. Now she is back, hoping to land a job waiting tables at a top restaurant and support family members who lost their homes.

“The reason I left was because there weren’t many job opportunities in New Orleans,” she said. “It took a hurricane to change all that.”

Jobs are so plentiful and paying so well that some residents are slowly returning after fleeing from Hurricane Katrina. Many are stymied, though, because of shuttered schools, few places to live and astronomical rental rates for those that do exist.

Shipbuilders, fast-food restaurants and construction companies are desperate to find workers, enticing job seekers with free laundry service and signing bonuses.

It’s similar everywhere along the Gulf Coast.

“People are begging you to come to work,” said Charles Dupre of Baton Rouge, a former salesman who said he was willing to make a two-hour commute each way because the wages are so high. He interviewed with recruiters from a shipbuilding yard and from Home Depot about a sales job.

“I can go blue collar, or I can go white collar,” he said. “Before Katrina, you couldn’t find a job.”

Miss Guinchard, whose family is living in a trailer, said she should be able to make $300 a night waiting tables. “People in Alaska thought I would be going to a wasteland,” she said.

Instead, signs advertising job openings are nearly everywhere. Ads for debris cleanup jobs promise a year’s worth of pay for a month’s work. Retailers are setting up makeshift job fairs in parking lots.

“It’s capitalism at its best on the employees’ side,” said Jonathan Temple, who works with minority businesses in the city’s Office of Economic Development. The city is working with employers to find homes for new hires.

“We want to put working people in housing first to help build the economy up,” he said.

Fluor Corp., an engineering and construction firm, plans to hire 4,000 workers to set up trailers across the Gulf Coast. Some employees and their families are living in tents while others are staying in motels repaired by the company.

About two out of every three businesses in New Orleans remain shuttered while one-third are closed in its suburbs, according to estimates from state labor officials.

At least 270,000 homes in the New Orleans region were destroyed or are uninhabitable.

Families have been particularly slow to return, but in another sign of renewed life, the first public school reopened yesterday in the little damaged Uptown area.

Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, is accepting about 500 students from pre-kindergarten to 6th grade.

The magnet school accepted only students with high test scores and strong educational backgrounds before the storm and was one of the top-performing schools in the city. The school is now open to students of all abilities.

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