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Residents of New Orleans suburbs fleeing home

WESTWEGO, La.—Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters spared Shirley Gonzales' neighborhood just across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, but the family has packed up and left, like so many others who are fleeing the city's suburbs.

Their homes escaped serious damage, but New Orleans' destruction has left many who live in the communities surrounding it without jobs.

"We just can't live here anymore," said Gonzales, whose family has generations-long roots in the area but who's moving to the rural town of Natalbany, just east of Baton Rouge, to enroll her grandchildren in a school that's open. The Gonzaleses' home has running water, electricity and a working phone, but their town has nothing for them, especially jobs.

"Everything is closed," Gonzales said.

Some schools in Jefferson Parish, south of New Orleans, plan to reopen in early October. On Tuesday, the Westwego post office opened for a few hours to lines out the door.

But Katrina wiped out much of greater New Orleans' economic base. From tourism to conventions to international trade at the seaport, the local economy has imploded, and it will be months before there's even a semblance of normalcy, analysts said.

Many of the jobs have been relocated to Houston, Dallas or Baton Rouge, at least temporarily. Yet as the suburbs empty out, recovery and reconstruction firms in New Orleans face a labor shortage and are bringing in busloads of workers from as far away as California.

In the suburbs, many face an unpleasant choice: Do they file for unemployment and wait for their old jobs to return or pack up and make a new start elsewhere?

It's too early to say how long people will stay away. Jefferson Parish is promoting an effort to get business owners back to work. But many of those businesses are serving the needs of an emerging economy shaped around relief and rebuilding.

Gretna City Administrator Susan Percle has friends and neighbors who've already moved. Less than half of the town's 15,000 residents remain, she estimated, and it's anybody's guess how many have gone for good. City government employees, including seven emergency personnel, have left to follow spouses to relocated jobs. The city's engineering contractor has moved to Baton Rouge.

"We got a call from a grocery store looking to open next week, but they don't have employees," Percle said. "It's one of those things, late at night when you are dead tired, you just think, this is far-reaching. The ripple effect keeps going. Things will never be the same."

Gonzales' grandson, Derik Gonzales, and his roommates fled ahead of Katrina to Texas, where they're staying to look for jobs. He used to work in a daiquiri bar in the French Quarter.

"Who knows when the bars will be open again?" he said. "What am I going to do here?"

Shirley Gonzales' son, John Gonzales, worked for a swamp tour company and fished crabs for a living. "We've got no tourists, so we've got no business," he said. "I can't go back to fishing crabs because they're talking about closing the fishing for six months because of the water. My backup plan has backed up."

New Orleans' downtown area thrived on tourism and a booming convention and conference business.

"Could you imagine New York or Los Angeles without tourists? Take Disney World, and take away all the guests, and what are people going to do?" said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst for the NPD Group, a market-research company in Port Washington, N.Y.

Many of those who are leaving have job skills they can use in other metropolitan areas.

"We're looking at a prolonged rebuilding effort, and the question is what do these suburban people do in the meantime," said Harry Holzer, a research fellow at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research center in Washington.

North of New Orleans, in the city of Kenner, Georgi Lozt's family was one of only three on their block to stay, even though the area is livable. Her husband is back at work at a private school where he is facilities director, trying to take care of the damage. But her job selling ceramic tile is on hold.

"How long it's going to take me to get back to work, I don't know," she said.

Hundreds of New Orleans offices and businesses have moved their operations or have offered their employees jobs in other cities. Retailers such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot say they'll employ their New Orleans workers at stores elsewhere.

The exodus of workers, skilled and unskilled, threatens any effort to return New Orleans to its storied past.

"This is going to be the biggest challenge they have," said Cohen, of the NPD Group.

There are some jobs in New Orleans.

Antoinette Dixon stood in line at a makeshift clinic to get hepatitis shots Monday so she could work cleaning up the downtown Hilton hotel. She left a job in Baton Rouge, where she lives, to come work for more money on the cleanup.

Her crew boss, Lupe Castaneda, of American Technologies Inc. and American Restoration, based in Orange County, Calif., said workers would make $150 a day cleaning up water damage in the hotel kitchen, a good bit more than Dixon was making washing hotel linens in Baton Rouge.

"Everybody but people from New Orleans are working down here," Dixon said, noting that one woman on her crew came from California, another from Chicago. "A friend told me they needed people down here and were paying well, because no one is here to do the work."


(Nesmith reported from Louisiana, Hall from Washington.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): KATRINA-SUBURBS

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