Return To New Orleans Is Urged

By Peter Whoriskey and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 13, 2005

ALEXANDRIA, La., Oct. 12 -- Amid fears that the effort to repopulate New Orleans is stalling, Mayor C. Ray Nagin hopscotched shelters across the state Wednesday to assure Hurricane Katrina evacuees that the city is beginning to operate again and urged them to "come on home."

For the charismatic first-term politician, it was a novel kind of political campaign: not for votes necessarily, but for voters themselves.

It is a daunting task. New Orleans's lower Ninth Ward reopened to residents Wednesday, but few came back. The number of students in neighboring communities has been reduced by half. Business owners are desperate for workers, and city leaders are increasingly concerned that many residents will never return.

Evacuees are scattered across 44 states, and many have vowed to remain where they landed.

Red Cross officials say about 550,000 remain in hotels and motels subsidized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Meanwhile, neighborhoods such as the Ninth Ward and lower parts of St. Bernard, Plaquemines and Cameron parishes "will take months and sometimes longer to create a livable environment," U.S. Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, head of federal Katrina relief efforts, said at a briefing in Baton Rouge, La.

With much of his city still vacant, Nagin launched his campaign. "My big message is: You can come back to the city," Nagin told a group of about 40 at a shelter here, a three-hour drive from New Orleans. He urged the crowd to "get back to the red beans and rice and gumbo and all those things that you love."

The crowd hooted and clapped. Nagin said the city was now rich with jobs and he could help arrange trailers from FEMA for those who return.

It was in a many ways an advertising effort. Crime is lower than it has been in a hundred years, he told the crowd, and city schools will begin to reopen in November and January. He noted that some restaurant franchises are offering $6,000 bonuses to new employees.

"I'm not talking about minimum wage jobs -- minimum wage is out in New Orleans," Nagin said. A shortage of workers has driven up wages.

In recent days, civic and business leaders have become increasingly worried that the exodus may be more permanent than even the gloomiest of the initial projections. A few weeks after the storm, Nagin predicted that about half of the city's 500,000 population would soon return.

At the time, the projections struck many in New Orleans as too pessimistic. But labor is so short now that even fine restaurants -- one of the few business sectors open -- use paper plates and cups because they cannot find people to wash the dishes.

After hearing the mayor at the shelter in Shreveport, Ina Claire Guillory, 41, a homemaker from hard-hit New Orleans East, said she liked the idea of rebuilding. But she said she was skeptical it would happen soon.

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