When Dwayne Carter left New Orleans the day before Hurricane Katrina hit, he never imagined that five weeks later, he would still be without a home and forced to look for a way to earn a living in an unfamiliar city.
"Normally, when they say a hurricane's coming through New Orleans, we leave for a day or two and then come back, but obviously that didn't happen this time," said the lifelong resident of the Big Easy. "We left with just the clothes on our back."
Carter, 44, worked two jobs in New Orleans before the hurricane -- a full-time position as a handyman at a storage company during the week, and weekend shifts cooking at a restaurant. When he left town ahead of the hurricane, the only money he had was a paycheck for the last two weeks at the handyman job.
He is still unable to see the damage to his second-story apartment and has accepted the reality that it may be months before he can go home.
Carter and his fiancée, Jeane Horton, were able to move in with Jeane's daughter temporarily at her home in Shreveport, La. They bought a few new clothes, chipped in for some household supplies, and spent every day trying to find jobs.
"I'm not the type that can sit around all day, and when you're at somebody else's house, you have to help out. We were out every day looking for work," Carter said.
Unprecedented, Immediate Job Loss
The government has not released any estimates on how many people lost their jobs as a result of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, but some early assessments have put the number at more than 400,000. Many of those people, like Carter, are trying to find work in new cities, making the mass unemployment and displacement of so many at one time an unprecedented problem.
The Labor Department and various nonprofit organizations have pooled resources with local business communities to find available jobs in new cities and make job searching easier. A series of job fairs across the country, focused in major relocation sites like Houston, Atlanta and Shreveport, have been organized to benefit Katrina survivors, and the Labor Department assembled an online job bank aimed directly at displaced workers.
Some have found temporary work to keep a steady income until they return home, while others have signed on for permanent jobs in their new hometowns.
Willing to Do Anything
For the first few weeks, Carter had very little luck. With more than 20 years experience as a cook at restaurants and hotels, he tried to find a similar position somewhere around Shreveport. Most of the jobs he interviewed for were entry level, and he said some employers were scared off by his salary history.
"I think a lot of people thought it was too much and didn't want to pay me, but all I wanted was a job to get my foot in the door," Carter said.
Two weeks ago, he attended a job fair in Shreveport set up by Goodwill Industries International and found booths with more than 1,000 open jobs. Going booth to booth, Carter developed several leads and set up interviews.
He finally landed a job cooking at a senior citizens' home and started work last week. Jeane found a job working on the banquet staff at Sam's Town Casino, a riverboat casino in Shreveport, and the two are now searching for an apartment.
"After spending your whole life working every day, it's pretty hard when you don't have a job," he said. "I don't know how long we'll stay -- it could be six months, it could be a year, but we'll eventually go back. New Orleans is my home, and there's no other place like it."
Many Groups Organizing Hiring Events
Goodwill has held similar job fairs in Houston, San Antonio and Austin, Texas, and has plans for an upcoming event in Washington. The Austin and Shreveport fairs each placed more than 200 people in new jobs.
A job fair in Atlanta hosted by the United Way last week drew more than 15,000 applicants and had to be shut down early because of the overwhelming response. Some of the attendees were local residents looking for work, but a United Way spokesman said there have been talks about organizing another event.
The Labor Department has set up an online job bank for hurricane survivors, called the Hurricane Recovery Job Connection, that currently lists more than 80,000 open jobs. The site can be accessed at www.jobsearch.org/hurricanejobs or through America's Job Bank at www.ajb.org.
The Labor Department has also helped organize more than 50 small job fairs with local business groups and chambers of commerce.
Goodwill set up an online job bank in conjunction with member companies of America's Health Insurance Plans, an insurance industry trade group. The listings can be accessed by going to www.goodwill.org and looking for jobs in a specific area code.
Goodwill spokeswoman Christine Bragale said most of the employers who offered jobs online and at the fairs understand the temporary needs of applicants who have been displaced.
"Some people have walked off of jobs after several weeks and are presumed to have gone home. But employers that want to hire understand that they need to be flexible. They recognize that what people really need is a paycheck," she said.
Some Are Relocating Permanently
But not everyone is thinking short term.
Frank Liberto, 60, a New Orleans lawyer for 35 years, chose to stay behind when his wife and daughter evacuated to Fort Worth, Texas, before Katrina. His home was located just 10 blocks from the flooded 17th Street Canal in the Lakeview section of New Orleans. By the second day after Katrina, water had climbed above the first floor and he realized it was probably time to leave.
Liberto attached a sheet to a pool cue and hung it out a second-story window to flag down help. He was rescued by firemen passing by in a flat-bottomed boat and evacuated to the Astrodome. He caught a bus to Shreveport, where his brother lives.
Realizing that law firms were unlikely to be setting up booths to hire evacuated lawyers, Liberto went to the Shreveport job fair with an open mind.
"I was willing to do anything -- be a teacher or anything else. Really anything," he said.
A local lawyer volunteering at one of the relief events mentioned that if anyone knew of any displaced lawyers, he'd be willing to consider hiring one. A Salvation Army employee got in touch with Liberto's brother, and they set up an interview. He was hired and is now writing briefs and researching plaintiff's cases for the Jack Bailey Law Corp.
For Liberto, the decision on whether to return to New Orleans may not be his own. His home is likely destroyed, along with the two cars in the garage and a beloved family sailboat. The cost of rebuilding and replacing everything, he said, may be too great. But instead of complaining, he said he feels lucky to have a job, making it easier to start over.
"There may not be any place for us to go actually," Liberto said. "The reality is that Shreveport might be my home now. I'm happy just to have a place to be and be working in the law again."