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New Orleans Creaking Back to Business

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Times Staff Writer

Scott Boswell has all available hands on deck, and even that, he worries, won’t be enough.

He and his mother reopened Stella, their French Quarter sandwich cafe, five days ago, scrubbing the narrow, sunny space down, getting the generator up and taping a handmade “open” sign in the window. The news spread.

The first day brought a trickle of neighbors, weepy with gratitude that something normal was happening, nevermind the chance to eat a cheeseburger. Two days later, about 200 people -- locals, soldiers, journalists, officials involved in the recovery -- were streaming through the door. By that time, the staff had doubled to include the sous-chef and the sous-chef’s hastily recruited girlfriend. But Boswell, who usually works with a staff of 24, was feeling outnumbered.

“My assistant manager came back today, so now there are five of us -- that’s a miracle,” Boswell said Sunday. “But today, I expect the place to be packed -- many more people than the last few days. I know we’ll do it, but I just don’t know how.”

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In small pockets of the city, New Orleans is creaking open for business. Mayor C. Ray Nagin made it official Saturday, announcing that business owners in the central business district, which borders the French Quarter, and in the suburb of Algiers could return today.

“We want to bring New Orleans back. Rita set us back about three to five days,” Nagin said of the latest hurricane to hit the Gulf Coast, “but we are very much on schedule.”

On Sept. 15, Nagin outlined a plan to have one-third of the city, or 180,000 residents, back this week. But last Monday, as Rita approached and the federal government made its disapproval clear, he reversed that decision.

Now, however, as people trickle back into the city and its outer parishes, businesses that sell food, cleaning or rebuilding services face steadily growing demand. The hardy souls who have hung out their shingles say that means coping with debris-strewn roads, curfews, iffy energy supplies and a faltering supply of the goods they sell.

But perhaps the most crucial shortage, they say, is of people to do the work.

When Hurricane Katrina scattered hundreds of thousands of its residents, New Orleans was emptied of its workforce, and it’s unclear how quickly they will be returning. Some have been evacuated to far-flung places, and some may be dead. Some may think they no longer have jobs to come back to, and others may have given up on the city and its losing battle with nature, opting to start anew where they have landed.

New Orleans-area radio stations and newspapers are running advertisements from employers seeking to locate their workers. “It is urgent that all employees of the University of New Orleans ... contact their employers immediately. It is important,” one ad said last week.

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But the blow Katrina inflicted on New Orleans has done damage that will keep some workers away for a while. Gordon Gartman, who runs two E*Z Marts in the city, used to have a staff of 20. Now he and two workers are trying to keep things running.

He says employees with children aren’t likely to return soon.

A few of the 126 schools in New Orleans’ public system are expected to reopen during the next two months, but education officials say that most won’t be up and running until January. By some estimates, the schools, which serve 60,000 children, won’t be fully operational until the fall of 2006.

And the 22-school parochial school system is debating when and how to open its doors, though some of its 20,000 students are expected to be at their desks sooner than those in public schools. Meanwhile, private school teachers, unable to work here, are getting jobs elsewhere.

“If you have kids, you don’t want to come back here right now. You can’t, really,” Gartman said. The toxic sludge left behind in many areas, he said, was another disincentive for parents contemplating a return.

Gartman has his Algiers store running, though he and his one employee there “shoot for 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.,” instead of the regular workday of 5 a.m. to midnight. Flexibility is important, he said. “You don’t want to burn out your only employee.”

He had his other store, near central New Orleans, ready a week before he could open it because he couldn’t hire any help. E*Z Mart sells many of the things people here desperately want right now -- gas, newspapers, soda and cigarettes -- and the thought of the revenue lost makes Gartman sigh.

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“It probably would have been really high because no one else was open,” he said.

At Walgreens, one of the first stores in Algiers to get back in business, manager Ronald Vincent has been forced on some days to let in only a few customers at a time. His workforce is less than 5% of what it was before Katrina. Walgreens brought in managers from out of state to help Vincent clean out the rotting dairy section so the store could reopen, but the shortage of workers hit hard in other ways.

Some of his suppliers haven’t been delivering products that his customers want. “I know it’s happening because personnel is also a problem for the merchandisers,” he said. “They don’t have people to drive the trucks to us, so some supplies are tough.”

Vincent has posted “for hire” signs and has begun interviewing. He sees a turnaround. “There are a lot of jobs to be had here now,” Vincent said. “When people figure it out, they’ll start coming [back].”

Inside a dark, cavernous Loew’s hardware store in the northern part of the city, Maggie Schmit also believes things are changing for the better.

She and a small crew she works with at a liquidating company are emptying the warehouse-sized store of all its damaged goods. They need help.

She posted one sign that told people when and where to be if they wanted a job.

“That first day, 30 people showed up,” she said. “People are ready to go back to work.... More of them are coming back every day.”

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