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Leaders worry destruction may extend New Orleans' brain drain

NEW ORLEANS—Joe Ann Clark, the executive director of the Louisiana State Nurses Association, said she gets recruiting calls every day from hospitals across the country desperate to hire away as many of New Orleans' roughly 13,000 displaced nurses as they can.

With the nation facing a nursing shortage, Clark is struggling to keep nurses in the state so they can return to work if and when the decimated health-care system is rebuilt. But it's not been easy. One California hospital is offering $42 an hour and a $13,000 signing bonus, she said.

"My gracious," said Clark, a retired nurse. "It's hard to compete with that."

New Orleans civic leaders and inside observers fear that the near destruction of the city's vibrant university system and the reluctance of an emerging biotechnology industry to return will further extend Louisiana's brain drain. And this time, many fear their city won't recover.

William Frey, a demographer at the University of Michigan and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, a policy-research center, has studied population migration in Louisiana. Long before Katrina, New Orleans and Louisiana both bucked growth trends seen elsewhere across the New South, he said.

"Basically, Louisiana has been a poster child for brain drain, especially whites with college degrees," Frey said.

Experts like Frey and Dean Robert Sumichrast of LSU's E.J. Ourso College of Business Administration attribute the problem to the state's lagging economy, poor image and inability to attract new residents since the mid-1980s.

Losing the city's best and brightest could further damage the limping economy and tear apart the city's social fabric, experts say. But some other professionals, such as lawyers, architects and engineers, have said that Katrina has provided her share of opportunities for them.

Health care is the No. 1 employer in Louisiana, but Katrina almost obliterated the hospital, nursing home and mental health systems in New Orleans. They employ tens of thousands of people, including many at its two medical schools and research institutions at Tulane and Louisiana State University hospitals, said John Matessino, president of the Louisiana Hospital Association.

"The health-care industry was one of the few industries in New Orleans that was growing," said Dr. William "Kip" Schumacher, CEO of The Schumacher Group. His medical staffing company in Lafayette, La., provides physicians to 10 medical facilities within the affected areas. "It's hard to quantify how many are at risk of flight from the state, but it's huge. Just the number of physicians is 5,000."

Schumacher and other experts wonder how the medical centers at Tulane and LSU in New Orleans can retain their nationally recognized scholars and researchers when it might take years to rebuild their classrooms and laboratories.

Many of Schumacher's competitors already are actively hunting for medical professionals, especially for doctors, nurses and technicians who were at a premium even before the storm, he said. Like Clark, the retired nurse, he has seen recent radio and print ads from Florida and Colorado calling for professionals dislocated by the storm.

Sharon Vercellotti is president of the biotechnology firm V-Labs Inc. in Covington, La., and vice president of the Louisiana Alliance for Biotechnology (LAB). LAB's mission since 1999 has been to enhance biotechnology research and business development by connecting the academic and private sectors.

Only a handful of small biomedical companies had sprung up in New Orleans before the storms, but many in the city were banking on the burgeoning industry's future.

"We fear the origin of ideas will simply diminish," if the growth stops, Vercellotti said.

But all is not bleak in the medical and academic communities.

Tulane University President Scott Cowen, who sits on Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission, said he expects the health-care industry to rebound completely within five years. Tulane's hospital will reopen in the next several months, he said. University students, staff and faculty also will be back by mid-January, he pledged.

The Louisiana Academy of Family Physicians said none of its 1,300 members have expressed a desire to leave New Orleans. Instead, spokeswoman Linda Foster said she's heard only that members are excited to rebuild.

While the state will certainly lose some of its most talented and educated people, the out-migration will include many more of the poor and less educated Louisianans, Sumichrast said. Some fear that will lead to a more homogenized New Orleans.

"But for those who stay behind, there is a high degree of rootedness, a great sense of community," Frey said. "I just think they are very reluctant migrants. I believe it will be a while before haze subsides for these people, if it ever does, but then they will try to go back if they can."

However, professionals also are more mobile than most, so when Louisiana took economic and public-relations hits in the past, they were often the first to leave, he said.

"The perception and reality is that there wasn't as many economic reasons to stay (in Louisiana) as let's say in Texas or Atlanta," Sumichrast said.

Because Katrina is unprecedented, the future is difficult to predict, Frey said. Hundreds of thousands were displaced, but—unlike the ཚs Dust Bowl or 1910-30 Great Migration of African-Americans to Northern cities—this was instantaneous and hit all socio-economic levels, Frey said.

Frank Neuner, president of the Louisiana State Bar Association, which has temporary offices in Lafayette, said he doesn't anticipate an exodus from New Orleans' 5,500-member legal community.

The state Supreme Court and U.S. federal court will reopen in the city. And at least two large Houston firms plan to open offices there.

Plus, lawyers have an incentive to stick it out.

"After the storm, there will be a lot of legal issues for us to tackle," Neuner said. "So I don't think there are too many lawyers who will leave."

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NEW ORLEANS AT A GLANCE

The first word on each line is the characteristic, the second number is for New Orleans and the third is for the U.S. as a whole.

NEW ORLEANS USA

Population in 2000 484,674 281,421,906

White 28.1 percent 75.1 percent

Black 67.3 percent 12.3 percent

High School grad or higher 74.7 percent 80.4 percent

Bachelor's degree or higher 25.8 percent 24.4 percent

Median household income(ASTERISK) $27,133 $41,994

Families below poverty level 23.7 percent 9.2 percent

Individuals below poverty level 27.9 percent 12.4 percent

(ASTERISK)1999 dollars

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2000 statistics

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(Hamilton reports for the Duluth News Tribune.)

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): STORMS-BRAINDRAIN

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