BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. -- At the Business Assistance Center, two rows of chairs set up in a makeshift waiting area sit empty. Two employees of the Mississippi Department of Employment Services sit at a folding table that doubles as a desk, in front of a big "Employer's Assistance" sign, with only each other for company.
And yet you can't throw a rock here without hitting a "Help Wanted" sign. People ready to start rebuilding their homes can't find contractors with enough workers to begin the job. At the same time, the unemployment rate has hit a staggering 20 percent in an area that before Hurricane Katrina blew through was sitting a statewide low of 5 percent. The math just doesn't work.
The divergent economic indicators, which are visible all along the storm-battered coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi, are best explained by the outpouring of aid that has streamed into the area in the more than three months since Katrina roared ashore, according to some observers.
When the brutal reality of the damage to this Gulf Coast community became known, relief poured in from around the nation to help affected residents meet every need at least at a survival level. Volunteer organizations have churned out a steady stream of free meals, serving thousands per day. Distribution centers daily hand out free food and the basic stuff of life: soap, shampoo, diapers, water, ice and Top Ramen noodles.
Soon after Katrina hit, the Red Cross handed out a maximum of $665 to every family that applied, depending on the number of people in a household. For some, FEMA kicked in $2,000   in emergency assistance as well as $2,358 transitional housing assistance. The state of Mississippi is providing unemployment money and has distributed debit cards worth up to $900 for the affected to spend on groceries.
It's given people here breathing room and perhaps a false sense of comfort, removing a sense of urgency to beat the pavement looking for work, says Buzz Olson, the economic and community development director for Bay St. Louis.
"Where's the incentive to go to work right now?" Olson asks. With all the free assistance, from money to food to federal grants, "that kind of takes you off the hook for a while," he adds.
But he expects reality will hit soon enough. "Now what’s going to happen come January or February, I think that unemployment number is going to start coming down because people will have to start looking for jobs, simply because bills will come due, they’ll start having to paying for groceries," and free services will start drying up as city and county officials begin the delicate balance of shutting down the giveaways, he says.
It's a complex calculus to be sure, Olson said. But something's got to give to provide the incentive for businesses and people to get back to work.
Back at the employment assistance table in the business center, the two representatives from the state Department of Employment Services see the situation a bit differently.
"Right now (the unemployed) have so much on their minds -- having to find food, water, the basic necessities, even though you do need a job, it’s like you just, you just can’t concentrate," says Ann Ladner, a 23-year veteran of the employment agency on the job for the first day since Katrina hit.
"This was a step for me," says Ladner, who lost everything to the storm. "I decided last night that I needed to try and come back (to work) and get something normal back into my life instead of just having destruction everywhere. I don’t know if others have that initiative, or are ready to come back."
Roger Berry, Ladner's colleague, says he was "swamped" last week during a job fair, but that was an unusual spike in activity.
'Our basic need is security'
"I think what we’re running into is our basic need is security, to take care of the family," he says. "There are so many folks here that lost everything; they’re trying to get their home re-established so that they know the wife and children are taken care of, or the single parent is trying to get things straightened around so the children will be settled so she can go work."
Berry says he can't blame people for not hustling to get to back to work just yet and he doesn't expect the lull in job seekers to last long. Once people are settled, they'll start looking again, Berry said.
"I think it’s just a matter of time," he says. "... You can’t blame the people for feeling like they do."
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