Who's Cleaning Up New Orleans?

Workers remove damaged goods from the Whisnant Antique Gallery in the French Quarter of New Orleans Friday Oct. 7, 2005.
They clear rotten seafood from stinking restaurant freezers, wash excrement from the floors of the Superdome, rip out wads of soaked insulation. The work is hot, nasty and critical to the recovery of New Orleans.

And yet, many of the workers are not actually from New Orleans.

Many of those engaged in the huge cleanup and reconstruction effort here — nobody has an exact count — are immigrants, both legal and illegal, from Mexico and Central America.

Meanwhile, as many as 80,000 New Orleanians sit idle in shelters around the country. They are out of work, homeless and destitute.

That irks some civic and union leaders.

"I've got nothing against our Hispanic brothers, but we have a whole lot of skilled laborers in shelters that could be doing this work," said Oliver Thomas, president of the City Council. "We could put a whole lot of money in the pockets of New Orleanians by doing this reconstruction work."

Roman Feher, an organizer with the Laborers Union, said: "It's really a shame. We're trying to get people back on their feet. The last thing we need is contractors bringing people in from out of state."

Mayor Ray Nagin added his voice to the chorus this week, telling local business people: "How do I ensure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?"

With so many locals' jobs washed away with their homes and businesses, CBS News' Drew Levinson reports that being skilled in New Orleans has almost nothing to do with what job one is working right now.

Levinson spoke with one former mortgage broker who rushed for a job at a Rite Aide. She's not alone. Many of the applicants at retail and restaurant jobs in the Big Easy are over-qualified. Teachers are now grading beef.

That's because some residents are growing desperate. Kristen Anderson finally came home a few days ago. Her pet store job is gone.

"I need to bring in money for bills, of course, and I need something to do," Anderson told CBS News.

At the same time, interviews with some Katrina refugees suggest New Orleanians are in no big hurry to return for these jobs. In fact, many Katrina refugees have been landing jobs in communities around the country.

"Other guys out here in Houston and other areas of the state, we have better opportunities to make money here," New Orleans truck driver Wayne Cousin said at a refugee shelter in Houston.

And one restaurant owner told Levinson that he could open up 16 New Orleans restaurants tomorrow, if only he had 900 workers.

The situation in New Orleans is part of a controversial pattern seen across the country: Immigrants are often willing to do the dirty jobs many Americans won't take.

  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for CBSNews.com