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The Changing Face of New Orleans


Before Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Louisiana city of New Orleans last August, 60 percent of the city's nearly half a million residents were African-American. Five months after Katrina, it appears the face of the "Big Easy" may be changing.

When Hurricane Katrina forced the evacuation of hundreds of thousands from metropolitan New Orleans, many of those who left were low-income African-American residents. City officials estimate that half of those residents will never return. It is a situation that recently got New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin in trouble when he expressed his hopes that people would come back.

"This city will be chocolate at the end of the day. This city will be a majority African American city, it's the way God wants it to be," said the mayor.

Although he later apologized, the mayor's comments angered many who believed his words could incite racial tensions between African-American residents who have returned to the city, and large numbers of immigrant Hispanic construction workers who came to New Orleans looking for jobs.

Duane Gardner, an African-American carpenter, says Hispanic workers are willing to accept lower wages and are taking jobs that used to go to the city's largely African-American workforce.

"I see a lot of Hispanics eating the jobs up. I mean, hell, you’ve got to be a blind man not to see that."

Gannon Web owns a demolition business in New Orleans. When he was looking for workers in October, he would have preferred to hire local, mostly African-American workers, but they had not yet returned.

"It's whoever wants to make money right now,” said Mr. Web. “If they want to come back in here they can make money, but as you see a lot of Mexicans are coming in here right now."

Looking at the labor force in New Orleans as a race issue isn't all that bad says Audrey Singer, an immigration expert with the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution.

"Even though this was a natural disaster, the social aspect of what's happened after Katrina, the way that race relations are now talked about in public forums, in politics, in every day life. I think that's one effect of the storm. And I think it's actually good for America," she says.

Ms. Singer says New Orleans is a city that has thrived with its ethnic communities.

"The culture there is about mixture, acceptance and change, basically. So I think that New Orleans does have this in its history. And this is going to be a deep marker in its history, but I think New Orleans can adapt and still be New Orleans even though it's going to change a lot. "

The number of African-Americans who return to New Orleans will also affect how the city is rebuilt. Under a city plan, 50 percent of former residents have to come back to a neighborhood. If they do not return, the city may decide not to rebuild that part of New Orleans.