A week after Hurricane Katrina ripped through Gulf Coast communities, federal agencies in the region continue looking for displaced employees -- and at their options for resuming business operations.
About 91,620 federal civilian employees, a total that includes 28,000 postal employees, worked in counties across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida that were hit by Katrina, the Office of Personnel Management said yesterday.
Officials said they could not estimate how many of the missing employees might be injured or dead but suggested that workers who have not contacted their supervisors are probably relocated and could be frustrated by snarled communication systems in the region.
Yesterday, OPM set up a toll-free number, 800-307-8298, for federal employees and retirees in the Gulf Coast states who need information about pay, leave and other benefits. Employees who have had trouble reaching their agencies can call in and ask OPM to relay information to their supervisors, said Stephen C. Benowitz, OPM's senior adviser for national emergency response.
Agencies described their assessments of the damage caused by Katrina as preliminary and subject to change.
The Internal Revenue Service, for example, said 10 of its 11 offices in the region are closed but that as many as five might open this week. Two offices in New Orleans and one in Gulfport, Miss., are closed indefinitely, and two other offices, in Hattiesburg, Miss., face electrical power and drinking water problems that might keep them closed longer than others.
The IRS set up a command center in Nashville and worked through the Labor Day weekend calling hospitals and emergency shelters in an attempt to locate the 517 employees who worked in areas hit by Katrina. As of yesterday afternoon, the command center had not accounted for 21 of the workers, spokesman Dan Boone said.
The Agriculture Department, which had 1,427 employees at its National Finance Center in New Orleans, also has not heard from all staffers, said Ed Loyd, the department's press secretary. "We are anxious to know they are safe," he said.
The National Finance Center handles a large part of the federal payroll, sending out checks and making electronic bank deposits for about 500,000 government employees. The center, aware that Katrina could swamp New Orleans, worked through a weekend to get checks out to employees before the hurricane hit Aug. 29.
Between 400 and 500 employees have gone to business recovery sites in Philadelphia and near Dallas to get computer systems running before the next major payroll deadline, Sept. 12.
"We have some folks who have a suitcase with them, and they have lost their homes, and they are still working," Loyd said. The department has provided them with debit cards, worth their net pay, so they can have some money even though their banks have ceased operations in New Orleans because of flooding.
Mark Hinkle, deputy press officer at the Social Security Administration, said Katrina had damaged eight field offices in Louisiana and three in Mississippi where citizens walk in to apply for Social Security cards, benefits and other assistance. Five other telecenters and appeals offices were also shut down.
About 500 Social Security employees work in the hurricane zone, and, Hinkle said, "many are still displaced, lost their homes and are affected by the hurricane like others." Where personal circumstances allow, employees are reporting to work in Social Security offices north of the damage zone, he said.
An array of federal installations were damaged by Katrina, including Navy bases in Pascagoula, Gulfport and New Orleans and NASA's Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Miss. About 12,360 Navy military and civilian personnel worked at bases hit by the hurricane, a Navy spokesman estimated.
Benowitz said the government has about 6,000 retirees on the Gulf Coast who get paper retirement checks and may find their delivery delayed because of post offices shut down by the hurricane. He said retirees can call OPM to redirect paper checks or to convert pension payments to electronic bank deposits.
The Thrift Savings Plan urged employees to use the TSP Web site to conduct transactions, but spokesman Tom Trabucco said some employees seeking loans or withdrawals that require spousal signatures might face a few days delay as the post office redirects mail from TSP offices at the National Finance Center in New Orleans, which was closed because of the hurricane.
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