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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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This project is evolving. Our daily dispatches coverage has been retired. Click here to see what happened in the area between mid October and January 1, 2006.

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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.

051213_empolymentcenter

Mississippi Department of Employment Services employees Ann Ladner and Roger Berry wait for job seekers or business owners in need of advice at the Business Assistance Center in Bay St. Louis. (James Cheng / MSNBC.com)

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.

Click for related post: Farewell to freebies

"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.

Click for related post: Hispanic work wave

"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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84 COMMENTS

People are not totally out of shock yet, it will take time to feel that there is a purpose to life. It is going to happen soon, they will look around them and the reality of the situation will get them up and moving. Just seeing a bit of progress each day and letting things really "sink" in will happen soon enough.

Beat what pavement Buzz? There isn't any pavement to beat? Why don't Buzz ask the Mayor what the incentive is about going to work. It's the administrative staff that has been running off the employees with the city and heading OUT OF TOWN for jobs. I see Buzz didn't have to BEAT the pavement for his newly appointed position of Economic and community development director?

Why America is in decline, reason number two million: load up on the "free" tax money and watch personal responsibility and initiative evaporate. Nobody advocates throwing survivors out in the street, but benefits – now in their fourth month – should be reduced if people are going to be motivated to rebuild, find work, go back to school, or get out. I never had my house destroyed but I have had my job eliminated, several times in fact. Each time I blamed only myself, and hit the pavement until I found something with which I could pay my own bills.

It's not just the fact that help has been given and people don't need to work. There may be a lot of jobs available but the jobs available are not necessarily those that residents are suited for. For instance, it's pretty difficult for someone that was an accountant before Katrina to now work in construction - you just don't have the skills. Or at a fast food joint such as McDonalds. Sure you'll work at McDonalds if that is all you can get but if you are used to making $70K or more a year is it worth your time to sign up to work for $8/hour especially when you have a lot of other pressing needs to attend to?

Although many need work, it is understandable that it is impossible to concentrate on that right now. Also, I understand many are still living in tents without the basics. How do you go to work when you don't even have showers, clean clothes, electricity, hot water. Seems so overwhelming. God help them all.

Why am i the only one who responds to this story you have 20 or so comments regarding hispanic workers and them stealing the jobs of the LOCALS then you have this story with people sitting around waiting for the LOCALS to arrive to start looking for work well where are they ohh yeah they are enjoying the free stuff. and i dont want to sound heartless neither i know some of them may ned the help and the time to get back on their feet but come on not a single sould there and you have people complaining about immigrant workers come on let be fair now!

Hello... Students of mine (IST 433 - Internet Applications) at Chadron State College (Chadron, NE) created a free Web site that: 1) allows employers to post available jobs in the affected region (LA, MS, AL, etc.), and 2) allows job seekers to search for available jobs in the affected region... If anyone would like to use it, please feel free to do so - it can be found at: http://katrina.elmo-ms.com
Here is a short article about the students who created the Web site: http://www2.csc.edu/news/list.pl?article=1344
We hope it can be a valuable service and help the victims of hurricane Katrina get back on their feet... Thank you... Greg Spranger

I don't think I would be have been able to function after Katrina if I had lost my home, clothes, food, paperwork....My first obligation would be
to my children...find a home...get through the Fema mess...insurance mess...I feel for everyone connected to these hurricanes....I understand depression...it is hard to overcome all of this...my heart and prayers are with them all...

i think Katrin evacuees are getting more hlp than htose with financial strain , and no job before Katrina hit. Put some definite deadlines in FEMA and get them help.. it as I see it as a social worke3r is helping those feed offf the system!

Coming from the Florida panhandle where we were Ivan devastated (as well as the numerous hurricanes this year as well) I am amazed at people not going back to work and getting on with their lives. Sometime, somewhere, you have to stand on your own feet. Whether it is the evacuees who have moved on to other cities or the people who stayed. You have to get back to real life.

3 months have passed, and Mr. Berry,I do blame "the people for feeling like they do". The majority of people who aren't looking for a job are just taking advantage AND there is no accountability - the "freebies" are not free - these are charity and government money (read "government money" as money from Americans who also have bills to pay.)Of course there are exceptions, but truly most people should have plans in place and be out there aggressively looking for a job. The emergency is over, other people have to move all the time for work, so can the refugees of Katrina.

hi,i think the goverment should pay for these people for along time.if they would have done there job and fixed the levees the gulf would'nt be in this mess.so if we can buld over seas we should do the godly thing and do what god want rebuild the coast give the people back there city.let's see god is watching america very close.

I don't own my home, I have to pay rent. I don't have a retirement fund and I can bearly afford health insurance for my family. My wife keeps me on an even teal, but occasionaly I can't help but feel like a fool sometimes. You see I occasionly struggle to donate to relief efforts that target people that apperently don't have the ensentive to help themselves. I'll probably cool down and feel better about it tomorrow, but right now I'm ticked!

It's a catch 22. Yes I'm sure everyone is grateful for all the assistance But was the $$ amount enough to move a family of 5 or 6. to a new state, find a house or apartment. Which require first & last months rent down, purchase furniture, dishes, food or even clothes. NOOOO. They stayed hoping to rebuild, find family. But where the insurance $$? Where's the help to get started? Lumber, food, clothes stores. Not there. You can't work if there's not a place to work. NO grocery stores, resturants, shopping stores.
A CATCH 22. You can't afford to leave and can't afford to stay.
My thoughts and prayers are with all of you. Have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Hang in there

I really disliked some of the language in this article regarding the "freebies" and "give aways". These people need the support of the country, and some financial assistance does not prevent them from the necessity of finding jobs and safe housing for their families. Sounds like more of the same right wing Republician retoric to me. I'm longing for the days of compassion for our fellow american. Where has the path of conservative Christina faith taken Anerican outreach?!

Before those outside the disaster zone start trashing us again - let me point out that A LOT of us now have the responsibility of taking care of loved ones that were either cared for by nursing homes, hospice, or other relatives before the storm. Elderly relatives who have lost their homes too, and have more complicated issues to resolve, like prescriptions, medical treatment, pensions, and benefits that are taking much longer to resolve than our own loss of home and jobs. One example, my sister just returned to work as a bartender this week after taking care of an elderly friend all these months. This elderly women, like another dozen I know of - have relatives outside the disaster zone, or relatives that fled, who refuse to assist their grandparents and parents - leaving those already burdened by the storm with the additional burden of caring for needy people. The shortage of restaurant staff in New Orleans was an excellent opportunity for my sister and a professional chef cousin to move up in rank or prominence of work venue - my cousin did, my sister had to wait it out until she could help this friend get back on her feet. This is by far not an isolated incident. I can name a dozen other right now.

Also, those in blue collar jobs like my brother can not afford to return from Houston, even though the jobs are plenty – where can he stay with the surviving homes leasing at 200% above the original rate? Those in white-collar jobs are served better by relocating. And many who have been left behind are too old for the service and construction industry. There are also those who are SO mentally impacted they can not function yet.

Sure there are some who are just lazy living off the benefits – but they were likely jobless, or otherwise not contributing well to society before the storm. It is a very complicated problem and one that will not be resolved easily.

Oh what a load of baloney. I have three brothers living on the MS Gulf Coast -- one doesn't have a home to live in, and another one is trying to repair the flooded but salvagable home he lives in, in the evenings, after going to work.

Two never stopped working, save for a couple weeks after Katrina when the entire coast didn't know which end was up. The third, working for the Sheriff's Dept and part of the EOC, worked almost 24 hours around the clock for the first two weeks after Katrina, the first three days without any rest entirely, doing search and rescue, and then search and recovery, and unbelieveably heavy hours the following month. I doubt he was paid for it either.

I don't believe this tale of people lazing around living off handouts. This is not an accurate portrayal of the MS Gulf Coast, and not only that, it is shameful of you to try to hurt the process of recovery by presenting this type of picture. What possible good outcome can come from deliberate negative press?

Where are these people who don't want to go back to work? I think if you stopped and asked 100 random people on the MS Gulf Coast about this so-called epidemic of people living off handouts and not working, at least 99 of them would give you an incredulous look and wonder aloud if you were just let out of the nuthouse.

Honestly how can you generate posts like this and ignore the critical issue of the delay in funding from Congress?

The aid for 9/11 was authorized by Congress and paid out to NY 44 days afterwards. Now, over 100 days after Katrina hit, Congress is still stalling. They set themselves a date to complete passing the funding on Nov 17th, and are now about a month overdue from that date. Numerous critical decisions can't be made until the funding has passed.

Let's hear a post on that. Let's see it make the front page.

Did anyone hear that today MS representative Gene Taylor erected a couple of tents outside the doors of Congress to make a point that over 1000 families are living in tents, in the wintertime, in MS and LA? One of the tents was from his neighbor who got a FEMA trailer only a couple days ago. I'd like to know why that isn't on the news. The Katrina aid package is less than what we are spending on the Iraq war in two months. Why are we treating foreigners better than our own? And why isn't this considered news?

At first I was very happy with the your continued blog on these cities on the western MS Gulf Coast. It is at least some minimal payback for the virtual media blackout of what occured along the entire MS Gulf Coast from Katrina, in favor of exclusive coverage of NOLA. But if your blog isn't going to address the real issues then it is counterfeit.

I have several siblings and neices who live in Waveland and Bay St. Louis who lost just about everything but the shell of their homes. During the first few weeks after the storm I witnessed individuals who are usually quite level headed and clear thinkers fluctuate through moods, confusion and even moments of despair. My clear minded, organized brother who is a civil engineer couldn't seem to determine a starting point at which to begin clearing the rubble within the outer walls of what had been a beautiful home. The level of loss for the citizens of Hancock and Harrison Counties is truly beyond imagination. One really has to see it to understand. But thankfully, there are those empathic individuals who are able to grasp the sheer horror of not only losing one's personal possessions, but one's entire community. Our family has been blessed with restored employment. However, without time to cleanup, tear out, and treat a structure, the road to normalcy is slow. One needs income to restore a home for which the insurance companies avoid fair reimbursements if any at all. And for many,one needs the time and energy to do the work himself. If one is to get anything accomplished, time is needed to meet with the insurance adjustors, potential laborers, etc. Communications are still limited, most people don't have operating computers because they have no home or if they do the electrical systems were flooded and they have not been able to get an electrician to do the rewiring. And let's face it, a computer is not high on the priority list. It can take as many a four hours just to make a shopping trip to the nearest supermarket or home depot (about 25 miles away with traffic at a snails pace a mile out from the store). My sister-in-law had to give up her job because with my brother working such long hours, she needed to be available for these long excursions and time consuming negotiations with FEMA, personal insurance companies and contractors. Otherwise, the process of rebuilding may never progress. I don't doubt that most of the people unemployed are either still in shock, overwhelmed with the enormity of rebuilding a home and taking care of a family, still living in a tent or they have no vehicle to get to work. Remember, Hancock county is not a metropolitan area with bus service. Maybe instead of just setting up an office, the workers should create an outreach program: go into the trailer parks, campgrounds and through the communities and begin a back to work program that provides some kind of assitance with securing clean, warm shelter. Identifying work is one thing, but securing permanant housing is a very basic need. Both needs should be considered as programs and assistance efforts are implemented. These people are living in 3rd world conditions in the USA. How can that be happening? I hope most of the readers will think about this as they prepare for hoilday festivities in their warm and comfortable homes.

If you were a single parent would you want your latch key kid to come home to a tent while you worked? It's a scarey thought. These families have been traumatized. It is going to take time for them to get their entire act together enough to work and feed their children.

Bums are in all cities sure,but most of us are working if we can.Like David said,alot of people are taking care of 2 and 3 generations of family that can't take care of themselves.In Bay St.Louis one of the biggest employers was casino magic and it's gone!As far as the emergency being over Emlee, come live with us here on the gulf coast for awhile.I'm sure you'll have more respect.

The unemployment rate of 20% quoted in the article does not account for the folks who are working under the table to contribute to the rebuilding. You don't have a situation where an additional 15% of the population have now decided they don't want to work at all to provide for their families. There are many working off the grid so to speak.

I am down here as a relief worker at the moment. We are putting roofs on houses, tearing out moldy sheetrock and lumber, rewiring, re-sheetrocking, taping, finishing and painting. It is doing a world of good. The folks that we are helping are encouraged, are going back to work, are contributing to society and caring for their families. However, the tasks of completing these repairs on their own with little insurance money, little skilled qualified affordable contractors and the aggravation of snarled traffic, crowded stores and the tight temporary shelters has overwhelmed many. A little compassion please. This is the single greatest natural disasater to ever hit this country. The folks will get on. They are trying.

Maybe we should have thought about TEACHING some life skills (carpentry, electric, etc.) to those people left in New Orleans instead of paying billions to Halliburton to swoop in like vultures. Then they can be earning a decent wage instead of just minimally getting by in service type work. Christ - it's their city...let them have the dignity of rebuilding it. Give me a fish and I eat for a day.

To Peter, Upstate New York,

AHHHH!! So now you want us to have compassion for 15% of the population who have worked "under the table"???

And now they don't want to work at all to provide for thier families??

Let me see,,, i'm supposed to have compassion for these people who STILL only care for themselves??
People who have gone out of thier way to not pay taxes but want HONEST, HARD WORKING people to pay money to help them??

People working "under the table" who fall upon hard times do NOT deserve honest taxpayers money or compassion. They are part of the problem.

There are TWO areas that were hit by Katrina that had very different results. New Orleans was flooded and the Miss. Gulf Coast was obliterated. The national media has failed miserably at getting this message out to the Americaa people. Part of this is due to the ingrained prejuice this country has towards Mississippi, and part of is due to the complete lack of facilities available for journalists to use when they cone tosee what it is like here. Do you actually expect a prominent reporter to sleep on the ground here while visiting? There are no hotel/motel rooms. Mississippi was not flooded, it was destroyed. I resent the tone of the article and Mr. Olson's analysis of the motives of the people here whose lives were destroyed. I have been working full-time since two weeks after the storm. I have also been attending graduate school at night and rebuilding my house by myself because my insurance didn't give me enough to afford to pay for the labor to rebuild. Hundreds of square miles along the Gulf Coast has been destroyed. Think about that word, destroyed. We weren't flooded, or had some wind damage, or lost possession due to rain. Entire communities have nothing left with which to build an economic base. My community, St. Martin, MS, is one of the hardest hit in the entire Katrina-impact zone, but it is one about which you have heard nothing. Our own Jackson county officials do not even mention St. Martin. For much of this community, there are no homes, just slabs or shells, no banks, stores, gas stations, restaurants, or small businesses. All of this is gone along with thousands of vehicles used for individual transportation. I live 1.5 miles north of Back Bay, 4 miles from the Miss. sound, yet the flood line was 100 yards north of my house. It was the new "beach;" everything south of me was underwater. There is no infrastructure to provide jobs. Help wanted signs do exist in the retail sector, mostly fast-food and restaurants. Some of my friends have applied to numerous of these places but have not been hired. I don't why, but none of it is as simple as this article tries to make it. It is beyond my imagination to understand what it must be like in Hancock county. I drive through utter devastation every day and wonder when this country will step up and help us to rebuild. Not rebuild it for us, but help US rebuild. The picture painted of Mississippians sitting on their butts living on handouts because they are too lazy to work is an insult that would not be tolerated in any other part of this country let alone perpetuated by a national media outlet.

still reeling and cant concentrate on work eh?
i bet that sad little story is going to last for a few years...this was my point on every story about this disaster that i made comments on..
and i may be a big meanie but give me a break already!
im not willing to set around and listen to people say they cant do anything for themselves because they are "stunned" "comming to grips" "the jobs arent good enough" etc...
dont want to work? fine...but want me to pay your bills? anyone else see how screwed up some of these comments are?
i bet we are going to hear this BS for the next 2 years or more..i notice "alot" of time people "asking for help" are the last people who are interested in helping themselves..teaching "life" skills? they lose that in the hurricane too?! along with any personal responsability and motivation? must have been one hell of a storm..katrina isnt or wasent the problem. its the peoples outlook on life..
i think im going to stand out in the street and get hit by a car so i can go sue the automaker..its the american way.

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