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Nonresidents arriving to work on storm recovery

GULFPORT, Miss.—Workers are arriving in areas ravaged by hurricanes Katrina and Rita to help recovery efforts, collect huge overtime payments and fill jobs left vacant, at least temporarily, by displaced residents.

It may take years to determine the total economic impact from Katrina on the southern United States and the rest of the country. That impact will include the effects of lost sales, the cost of bringing in outside help and the hurricane recovery dollars being spent by workers in their own communities, said Philip Jeffress, a Louisiana-based economist.

Officials aren't counting the number of workers brought into the hurricane-ravaged area from across the country, but anecdotal evidence is abundant: thousands of Bell South workers living and working out of tent cities, about 100 workers brought in to reopen a pharmacy, Veterans Affairs workers converging on Mississippi to clean up the government hospital.

About 2,700 Bell South employees from nine Southeastern states work out of tent cities in Baton Rouge, La., and the Mississippi cities of Gulfport; Covington, Jackson and Hattiesburg, spokesman Jeff Battcher said. The tent communities each sleep up to 600 people who have lost their homes or have volunteered to leave their homes in other parts of the country to spend 12-hour days repairing the region's mangled phone networks.

Those long hours translate into a fortune in overtime dollars. Bell South's total recovery costs are estimated at $400 million to $600 million, most of which will cover labor, Battcher said.

"But it's so massive, the work that has to be done," Battcher said.

It's not just utilities and large corporations that are bringing in outside workers. In Gulfport, CVS Pharmacy manager Gig Gruich said about 100 workers and managers from regions as far away as Tennessee and New York helped reopen the store quickly after Katrina.

"I'm very grateful. It took away a lot of the stress," Gruich said. "There is no way we could have done that on our own."

Coastal Mississippi communities such as Biloxi and D'Iberville are seeing economic benefits from paid and volunteer workers coming to the area, Jeffress said. Engineers, road crews, roofers and debris removal workers fill the few local hotels, restaurants and stores that are open.

Local businesses continue to compete for workers even as outside workers arrive. Many smaller businesses are flying banners asking for new employees. But an untold number of local workers left the area after Katrina and may be settling into lives in different areas, Jeffress said.

That and other factors make it impossible to determine true economic impacts, he said.

"One thing that is fairly certain is the net impact is negative, and it's huge numbers negative," Jeffress said. "There is no way to know how this is going to affect the economy three to five years from now. We don't even know what the population is going to be. Not only job loss, but loss of population."

In New Orleans, the Folgers coffee plant erected a miniature city of campers and trailers, laundry facilities and food production. Employees live in the mobile city while working seven-day shifts.

"It's a huge undertaking and an extremely expensive way to do business," Jeffress said.

Gulf Coast Veterans Administration Health is using a rotating staff of 60 to 80 workers in Biloxi to restore the hospital and grounds, said Dale Allard, a VA supervisor from Chillicothe, Ohio.

Allard said he was managing a crew of VA workers from states that include Florida, Massachusetts, Idaho, New Jersey, Oregon and Iowa. Group members were working 12-hour days in two-week stints, racking up large amounts of overtime.

"The amazing thing is people's attitudes," Allard said. "It's whatever it takes to get the job done. People are coming together in a way I've never seen."


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

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): STORMS-BUSINESS

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