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Rising from Ruin is an on-going MSNBC.com special report chronicling two coastal Mississippi towns, Bay St. Louis and Waveland, as they rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

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BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. -- The color of Hancock County is changing. To the blue roof tarps and white FEMA trailers, add this: brown workers.

It’s a trend seen across Katrina country as Hispanics who worked in construction in other parts of the United States were drawn by the prospect of good money.

In this town and neighboring Waveland, the pre-Katrina demographics had been 80 percent white, 15 percent African American and less than 2 percent Hispanic. Since Katrina, however, Hispanics are very visible at the few restaurants now open and especially at the largest debris removal sites.

Workers like Osmin, a Honduran who had lived for years in California before seeking his fortune from Katrina. He acts as the foreman of a group of fellow Hondurans hired to remove debris, drywall and sheetrock from a Bay St. Louis school. The others, too, had come from outside states like Texas and North Carolina. They also asked that their full names not be used because some were here illegally.

Click 'Play' to visit a job site in Bay St. Louis, Miss., where workers originally from Honduras are among the clean-up crew.

After nearly three months of 10-hour days and two hours of driving each way to their hotel, has it been worth the effort?

“Not really,” is Osmin’s quick reply. The crew gets $8 an hour and they’re never sure if they’ll have a job after the current one. Osmin, for one, plans to take off soon for California to see his daughter.

Many of these Hispanic workers are in the country illegally, which means they fly under the radar of social services and employment centers.

But they have become a critical part of the workforce, filling in a gap that most locals are unable or unwilling to deal with.

“The need far outweighs the help that’s available,” says Tee McCovey, a Mississippi Department of Employment Services supervisor. “And it will be like that for years.”

“Help is help,” he adds. “If I’m drowning and the hand is black, white or brown I just want to be helped out.”

Some locals don't want work
McCovey, who supervises job centers along the Gulf Coast, calls it “workforce malnutrition” and says many locals don’t want to work either because they’re too busy dealing with their homes or they’ve decided to live off the cash and other benefits coming from governments and charities, at least for now.

Some 150,000 unemployment claims have been filed since Katrina and many unemployed, he says, have this attitude: “Why do I want to go do that when I’ve been given a whole year’s worth of wages?” That’s especially true of those who didn’t have high incomes to begin with.

Another issue is that many locals haven’t returned, making it harder for businesses re-opening to find workers. Food service jobs used to start at $5.50 an hour, 35 cents more than the state minimum wage, but that’s up to $8, McCovey says. “It’s an employees' market.”

When locals do return to the workforce, the expectation is that many will be working in different areas. Casinos were major employers along the coast and some have shut down for months. Casino Magic in Bay St. Louis, for example, laid off nearly all its 1,100 employees.

“Our primary employment was services,” says Tish Williams, head of the Hancock County Chamber of Commerce. “And now it’s going to be construction.”

Retraining efforts include a $5 million federal program to have community colleges teach construction trades. And Mississippi has its own incentives, such as paying an employer 50 percent of its cost to train an employee over six months.

Until and unless more locals return to the workforce, outside workers appear to have a place here.

McCovey doesn’t know of any demographics on the wave of outside workers. But he puts the overall number at “thousands and thousands” and recognizes a large Hispanic contingent.

Working long days, the Hispanic workforce largely keeps to itself and few have brought their families, suggesting that they’re here not to settle down but make money and move on.

Not much friction
As a result, there’s little visible friction with locals. A derogatory joke about Hispanics by an off-duty sheriff at a Bay St. Louis gas station did nearly spark a fight with a man whose wife is Hispanic.

But McCovey and others haven’t heard of widespread problems, or even complaints like those raised in New Orleans, where Mayor Ray Nagin asked business leaders, “How do I make sure New Orleans is not overrun with Mexican workers?”

At the Hancock Medical Center, the county-owned hospital, administrator Hal Leftwich says “99 percent” of the debris removal crews, which reached a peak of 60, have been Hispanic.

“They’re hard-working,” he says, recalling that more than a few walked around with a worried look when, early on, federal relief workers included folks in Immigration and Naturalization Services.

Brother Ronald Talbot, president of St. Stanislaus College Prep, a Bay St. Louis high school that saw $19 million in damage, had a similar experience. “They’ve been lifesavers,” he says of Hispanic workers. Nearly 70 workers were at the campus at the peak of removal, he says, and 80 percent of those were Hispanic.

“They’re hard-working and pleasant,” he adds of the Hispanics he’s come across. “I’ve a much different view on immigration now.”

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164 COMMENTS

if you don't wanna work ...someone else will!!!!

My Son has been a legal licensed Stucco Contractor in Florida for 26 years, he has very little work because we swamped with illegal Hispanic workers doing stucco for $4.00 an hour under the table!! Is this the American way???

My wife and I employee 6 Mexican workers and they do indeed work harder than my natural born work force. When break time comes my naturals drop what they are doing and take break. My Mexican workers wil finish what they are on and then take break. They work steady and enjoy what they are doing and the quality of their work although lesser in experience is as good and often better than my naturals. By the way we pay them the same as evryone else once the quality is compatible with other workers.

Who else is going to do the work? Someone give me a realistic answer.

I'm so proud to be Hispanic and to see how many of my people are doing so much to help rebuild what Katrina destroyed. I'm just sad and upset that it is only now that people are realizing how valuable we are to America's workforce;we didn't come here to steal anything from anybody, all we want is to be allowed and given an opportunity just like anybody else to work, support our families and try to make this country even better.

If Mayor Ray Nagin would get his fellow New Orleans residents who are getting GOVERNMENT ASSISTANCE to come back and work, he would not have to worry about the hard working Mexicans willing to do the jobs!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I live in Baton Rouge, La. and I can tell you the people on unemployment do not want to work. There are signs all over this city and other that have been hurt by Katrina. If the Mexican men don't do the labor who will?

after living in Florida for almost six years, I saw how the whole state economy is designed to take advantage of migrant workers...being from Michigan, a strong union state, I found it shocking that politicians, employers and criminals make their very living off the backs of many hardworking people who are being victimized...until our country developes a soul to know right from wrong, some people will always be taken advantage of by wealthier people who dont care about making our society better but only care about how much money they can make off the backs of people who can least afford to complain. America is no longer the land of opportunity but the land of victimization of less fortunate people. It's not the people here illegally that bother me so much as the crooks who hire them, victimize them and pretend to be upstanding businesses in their communities, smiling to your face and stabbing you in the back the minute you give them a chance.

I was so impressed with the Hispanic men that put our roof back on our rental house. I told the contractor rebuilding our house that had burned in '03 that if he needed extra guys he should get in touch with this contractor that they worked for. One of the men had fallen off a roof a few days before but yet he was at our house doing what he could to help. Just today I saw that this construction company is rebuilding one of the only remaining houses on Highway 90 in Gulfport. I would hire them again in a heartbeat.

Don't get bent all out of shape, there is plenty of work to go around. The Hispanic men that worked on our house were very nice, dependable, caring people. I got the business card from the construction company that they worked with and I will get in touch when I need more work done. Can't count how many times other people here on the coast (before the storm) said they would do some work and didn't even have the decency to call and say they weren't going to show up. I remember things like this -----

Everybody gets an opportunity in America, but most "Americans" don't take advantage and aren't willing to make the necessary sacrifices to get ahead. The hispanics that are here, legal or illegal, are willing to do the work that most "Americans" won't do or are too proud to do. Who will bus our tables, farm our produce, construct our homes? Americans don't realize how good they have it.

I am Hispanic..Proud to be an american. I dont understand why people get soo upset when soo many people come to the usa from mexico .. I dont think there here to steal jobs.. because a white man would not go and work for min wage and do the work that some of these people do.. most americans are lazy..and wont work for min. wage. too proud to.. so i dont see why not let them in our country to work.

As an employer myself I am torn by this influx of migrants. Although I do agree that they are hard working and willing to give the employer the effort it takes to do the job, they are bad for our industry as well as this country. Many of them lower our standard of living by accepting lower than standard wages for their job positions. I am also faced with trying to compete against companies that are rooted with illegal immigrants. These companies are generally not licensed (as required in California), don’t have workers compensation insurance, liability insurance, and do not offer benefits (such as medical), and sometimes pay their employees cash. This only adds to our countries burdens and offers no tax revenue. I don’t believe it’s about people not wanting to work, its yet another case of “the high cost of low prices” and the American people are to blame.

I'm a us citizen with 100% hispanic origen and to hear such good comments from my people is an honor. I don't understand why so much hate towards the latino community when one day the English was also illegal in this country and took what was not theirs. Please open your minds and understand the need of my people to support there families. I also, being a us citizen, have been discriminated for my racial background; do not make this mistake when we are only trying to better our lives as well as the rest of you....

I'm a landscaper and I paid my hispanic worker 15.00 an hour. I pick him up and drop him off and provide lunch for him. He speaks very little english. He works his a__ off and is worth every penny. He's loyal, respectful, always shows up and never refuses work. Works 7 days a week for weeks at a time. He does good work and I treat and pay him well. We both win.
I will not hire a non-hispanic, my business depends on it.

How many of these Hispanic workers are here illegally? I would suspect not many. They should not be allowed to be in this country let alone be given work, Hmmm, I wonder if the Federal government is turning a blind eye? Could this be about paying the cheapest wages possible! What is happening to my Country?

American citizens need living wages to support their American families thats why Americans "don't want to work" for the peanuts that illegals will work for.

Its as obvious as night follows day.

Hispanics in this country, legal or illegal, have always had to be humble, tolerant, tough and above all survivors. These beginnings will then provide them the initiative to improve themselves as many have and become valuable citizens of this country. Hispanics have always carried their load, be it defense of this country, building this country, and lately in the government, education, political, judicial etc. Hispanics have well proven themselves worthy of the benefits of this country. Recognize that America!!!!!

we the hispanics,are working the way we do in our countries when we can find jobs of course,we are used to it,we dont have social security and unemployment to rely on it ,and we say if you dont work you dont eat,I resent the people that believe we are here to steal the jobs,jobs that they dont wanted in the first place.

Oh Arlene (sounds like a folk song title) perhaps it's time for your son to find a new occupation. First of all, I can assure you that the "illegals" are getting paid more than $4 an hour. Secondly, at least they are working. 99% of the homeless I see are White or Black, those who have been here the longest. Actions speak louder than words in my mind.

A positive article on the stream of Hispanic workforce, either legal or illegal to the post-Katrina Gulf Coast. These Hispanics saw an opportunity to help their families financially no matter what the job would be. They are willing to break their backs for their families. I also saw opportunities a couple days after Katrina, so I called my sister who is a PR for a company that provides security at construction sites in Southern California. She said she was already on it. She saw the financial opportunities, not for herself but for her company and others seeking jobs. It is unfortunate to read that many have become complacent with the Gov't financial assistance. As soon as that money is gone, we will hear them complain that all the jobs were taken by illegals.

Its sad to say this, but most naturals don't want to work on dirty jobs. Hispanic people are hard working people they are not afraid to get their hands dirty. As long as they have a job to go to. All they want is to have the opportunity to learn and succeed just like everyone else. Hemi, Mountain Home, Idaho

I am a first born Hispanic-American and I can see that Hispanics are truly adding to the fabric that makes up this great country. Like the immigrants before us; the Irish, Italian, Chinese, we too will leave our mark!

I live in California and I see gangs, I see a welfare system swamped with Hispanic people, I’m disabled and MUST use medical services and they are swamped with non-residents. We have grocery stores (Ranch Market hires only Spanish speaking workers) that are Spanish speaking and I must get a manager to do business in English. Taxes are not paid by those that are illegal for every Hispanic that is legal there are 15 to 20 that aren't and wages are low because business aren't forced to hire citizen labor. The news NEVER shows the truth that we in the USA are being flooded by illegals and many are criminals. What I have said is the TRUTH but will be considered bigoted or politically incorrect because I’m white even though I said this without any hate what-so-ever as I love all people. The USA is at a breaking point as far as money goes and I want my family fed before “strangers” are fed, am I right?

I am a first born Hispanic-American and I can see that Hispanics are becoming another piece of the fabric that makes up this beautiful country. Like the immigrants before us, Irish, Italian, Chinese, we too will leave our mark!

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