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New Orleans - Shortage of Workers, Housing

Six months after Hurricane Katrina caused massive flooding in the city of New Orleans, much of the metropolis remains uninhabitable and far fewer than half its former residents have been able to return. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from New Orleans, part of the problem is that workers are needed and yet there is no place for workers to live.

In the main business areas of New Orleans, workers are on the streets every day restoring services and repairing damage.

Some workers live in mobile homes in camps set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

But FEMA manager Mark Misczak says finding sites for such camps in and around New Orleans has been difficult. "We have certainly seen some resistance in certain parishes and municipalities who say, 'We are not going to allow you to place group parks here.' Sixty percent of the people we are dealing with are renters, not owners. That is a population that is more difficult to help whenever we have a limited ability to create group sites."

FEMA has had some limited success getting homeowners back to the city by providing them with mobile homes temporarily set up on their own property.

Mr. Misczak adds, "It is a way for us to say that in addition to any financial assistance we can provide to an individual, we can give them a unit to stay right there on the property while the work is being conducted."

This has worked well for people living in areas where the city has restored basic services like electricity, water and sewage.

But those services are still not available in most of the city. Only a few kilometers away from downtown, in the Lower Ninth Ward, little has changed in the past six months.

This was once a thriving, mostly black community. Longtime residents like 69-year-old Al Hulbert want to come back. "My parents lived back over here and that is where I grew up. I went to grade school and high school and then went to a little college and then left for the military, came back out and got a wife."

He says his neighbors also want to return. "I've talked to a lot of them. They say they are coming back. All they need is a permit and they have contractors to build their houses back and everything."

Since there are no city services here, an activist group called Common Ground has set up its own rustic enclave to help people who want to camp out on their property while they restore their houses.

Jessica Niederer is from Pennington, New Jersey. She says her group is here to assist people who want to return. "It is not really a matter of us encouraging people to come back, it is a matter of listening to people saying what they want to do. People want to come back. This is their home. This has been their neighborhood for generations. The rate of home ownership is very high. This is where they want to be."

A special commission recently suggested that some low-lying, flood-prone areas might not be viable. Some urban planners have suggested that such areas should be abandoned, but Jessica Niederer disagrees. "Two thirds of the Netherlands is under sea level, so it is possible to build these places back up again."

But she admits most residents of the flood-devastated areas are reluctant to return as long as conditions remain as they are.

"Especially in the neighborhoods that don't have electricity and water, clearly they are going to need that first and then they will come home. A lot of people are willing to do the work on their own to clean their homes out, but they need that to happen."

City officials say they are working to restore services, but that the task before them is challenging. It is now likely that many thousands of people from New Orleans will still be living elsewhere when the first anniversary of Katrina's destruction rolls around at the end of August.