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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Driven to Rebuild the City

At the end of an 80-mile bus ride is New Orleans, desperate for workers. It's a lifeline for evacuees and others hoping for a fresh start.

November 21, 2005|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

BATON ROUGE, La. — The men assembled in the predawn quiet of the bus depot, jackets buttoned against the chill. They boarded the idling bus, carrying lunch coolers and hopes that they might help rebuild a city -- and themselves.

Napping or swigging sodas to stay awake, they rode 80 miles past trackless bayous and swamp towns and into New Orleans. Once downtown, the passengers were welcomed into the warm embrace of temporary employment agencies and business owners desperate for workers.

The free bus service is striking evidence of the paradox hobbling the Big Easy's rebirth: New Orleans, where 28% of the city lived below the poverty line and thousands had stopped looking for work, now has plenty of jobs but no residents to fill them.

The reconstruction boom has been frustratingly out of reach for evacuees and others in the region without work, many of whom -- car-less, as well as poor -- had no way to get to New Orleans.

Now the bus, departing seven times daily from Baton Rouge, has become a thread of hope.

Eric Broome has spent the months since Hurricane Katrina in a Baton Rouge shelter. He hoped the bus would provide a new start -- for him and the city he loves.

"You have to have people to make a city," said Broome, 43. "If the people aren't here, the city's doomed."

Word of the jobs bonanza reached Baton Rouge resident Clifton Green in jail. Green would not say what led to his time behind bars, but he got out last month and is counting on the bus to get his life back on track.

"I've got a lot of stuff to pay -- lawyer, probation fee," said Green, 48. "There ain't nothing like a dollar of your own."

They, along with most of the other riders, had heard the stories: Fast food restaurants are paying signing bonuses in the thousands. An entire busload -- on the second day of the bus run -- returned from New Orleans with construction jobs. State officials met them at the Baton Rouge depot and gave them work boots.

But many of those who rode into New Orleans with Broome and Green found themselves seesawing between hope and despair as they trudged from one employment site to another.

"The problem is so huge that there's not going to be just one quick fix," said Patty Lopez, a labor market specialist with the Louisiana Department of Labor.

But the state believes that helping its residents get work is a crucial first step, said Mark Lambert, a spokesman for Louisiana's Department of Transportation, which oversees the bus service with the Labor Department. Some evacuees who want to return home are fast becoming dispirited as they learn it will take months, or years, to rebuild their neighborhoods. If they don't find jobs that tie them to New Orleans, it may only be a matter of time until they give up and move out of state.

"These are our people," Lambert said, "and we don't want to lose them."

*

Clouds hid the moon, and the lights were off inside the bus; some of the passengers dozed while others fought off sleep. The few awake were murmuring about the money to be made. Jerrydean Brown marveled that the other woman on the bus had reported earning $1,000 a week in New Orleans.

"There's something down there for all of us," she said, laughing with enthusiasm. "Seek and ye shall find."

The dreamy banter got to Darrow Harrison. "What ethnicity is everyone here?" Harrison asked rhetorically.

All but one of the 47 passengers were black.

A recent federal study found that a third of the Katrina evacuees who had not returned home remained unemployed, and that among blacks who were still displaced, the situation was worse: Half are jobless. Since Katrina, the unemployment rate has more than doubled in Louisiana, the nation's second-poorest state.

Harrison, who lives in Baton Rouge, spoke of how New Orleans' black residents had been kept from returning to their damaged neighborhoods, while business leaders talked about rebuilding a "better" city.

"Who's going to build it up? Who do you see? But when New Orleans is rebuilt, we're going to be few and far between," said Harrison, 56. "That's why they're shipping us here and there. The $13 or $12 an hour is just the scraps from the table."

The bus pulled up to the corner of Elk Place and Canal Street; dawn illuminated the empty streets, and the passengers lined up to exit as if at the start of a footrace. Most had done their homework, compiling a list of hiring sites from fliers handed out in Baton Rouge and from word-of-mouth. They hurried off and dashed into waiting city buses, eager to be the first to the sites.

Eric Broome breezed into a conference room in the reopened Marriott Hotel with a confident air. He had loved his life in New Orleans, but the chronic poverty and scarcity of jobs frustrated him. What work there was, he said, was reserved for those with connections. For a period, he commuted to Baton Rouge to work as a maintenance man in a casino.

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