Thursday, September 8, 2005

Businesses from around the United States are assessing damage and making repairs to storm-damaged infrastructure and their own operations on the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

It is a task made all the more difficult for companies that lost contact with local employees after the storm, or are having to hire hundreds of workers for relief and recovery efforts.

“As a lifelong resident of Louisiana, and with nearly 5,000 of our employees in Louisiana, this situation hits home like never before,” said J.M. Bernhard Jr., chairman and chief executive of the Shaw Group, a Baton Rouge, La., construction and engineering firm.

Shaw is providing housing assistance for displaced residents through a $100 million contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as well as temporary roofing and repairs for the Army Corps of Engineers, and logistical support to the U.S. Postal Service.

“We have already mobilized over 2,000 people and have begun hiring craftsmen and laborers, some displaced by the storm, so that they can participate in rebuilding the region and rebuilding their lives,” Mr. Bernhard said.

Northrop Grumman, Mississippi’s largest private employer, still can’t find or reach many employees from shipyards in Pascagoula, Miss., Gulfport, Miss., and New Orleans. The company still needs to hear from another “few thousand,” spokesman Brian Cullin told the Associated Press.

Nearly every worker who reported to the Pascagoula shipyard post-Katrina was put on cleanup duty, regardless of job title.

Halliburton has about 3,000 employees in the Gulf region. The Houston company is trying to find and provide support to employees affected by the storm, while subsidiary KBR is working to restore power, repair roofs and remove debris at three Mississippi naval facilities damaged by the hurricane.

KBR also is assessing damage to New Orleans pumps and infrastructure. And it is establishing and providing services to camps for 1,000 Mississippi Power and 500 Department of Homeland Security personnel.

Other federal contractors are charged with clearing debris, repairing and rebuilding infrastructure, providing temporary housing and solving other short- and long-term problems, though the full extent of damage has not been determined.

“I think we know … a lot more than we used to, but I don’t think we know everything we need to know,” John Hall, a Corps spokesman in Vicksburg, Miss., said Wednesday.

AshBritt Inc., a Pompano Beach, Fla., disaster recovery and engineering firm, is taking a lead role clearing debris from roadsides.

“Our goal is to get on the ground, do assessments, hire resources and get going,” said Ralph Dahlgren, senior project manager.

Randal Perkins, AshBritt’s managing vice president, said the company would hire 3,000 to 4,000 workers for the massive cleanup, often through subcontracts with Mississippi and Louisiana companies.

“We have not encountered any problems getting local contractors and workers in the [affected] states,” he said.

Many of the workers are staying in their own homes, if they weren’t destroyed, or in trailers, hotels and occasionally tents, according to anecdotal accounts.

The federal government is encouraging local hiring. The U.S. Labor Department authorized more than $191 million in grants to Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas to provide temporary jobs, including storm cleanup, for dislocated workers.

Hurricane Katrina’s immediate effect on employment is expected to be severe. The Congressional Budget Office on Tuesday said employment would decline by 150,000 to half a million this month as a direct consequence of the storm.

In Louisiana, “it is reasonable to expect that the majority will be off payrolls at least through September, with only a gradual rebound. That effect will be partially offset by large-scale hiring of construction workers,” the CBO said.

The Labor Department said an estimated 10,000 workers who lost their jobs because of Hurricane Katrina filed for unemployment benefits last week, though the number is expected to rise.

Not all post-Katrina jobs can be filled locally, so companies that need specialized personnel are conducting nationwide searches for workers.

Marc Shapiro, senior vice president for global partnerships at the Wackenhut Corp., on Wednesday said his company had a staff of about 350 in the area, a number expected to grow to 750 in about two weeks, including 400 new recruits from around the country.

The company is hosting a job fair today in Richmond for security personnel who will be tasked with protecting people and property, such as generators and fuel supplies, for a variety of companies, including insurance companies and construction and engineering outfits.

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