Wednesday, September 14, 2005 | For some of the Hurricane Katrina evacuees who have come to San Diego, the time has come to start making baby steps toward rebuilding the fabric of their lives.

That means getting driver’s licenses, finding daycare for children and employment for parents. For many of the 1,000 evacuees in San Diego, the top priority is housing, followed by work.

Many of the former residents of Louisiana and Mississippi evacuated to San Diego are wondering what they will do next. They have arrived in one of the least affordable cities in the nation, where apartment rents are almost twice what they are used to and where the cost of buying a house puts home ownership out of the reach of most.

The good news is the evacuees have chosen a city where unemployment is low and where a rising tide of compassion has provided local charitable organizations with a generous pool of funds to draw from.

Local businesses have stepped in to help, offering jobs and raising money for those displaced by the hurricane. One local restaurant chain has even begun cherry-picking talent from New Orleans’ decimated tourism industry, searching for chefs and other workers to staff its restaurants.

In 2005, the National Association of Home Builders released a report that listed San Diego County as the second least affordable area in the country, due to the area’s high housing prices and relatively low wages. The apartment rental Web site

That sort of difference in living costs is going to come as a shock to many of the evacuees, said Alan Gin, an associate professor of economics at the University of San Diego.

“That’s going to be the big problem,” he said. “People coming here will probably have no chance of being able to buy a home in San Diego, and the rents are probably much higher. Housing is going to be the primary issue.”

That message was echoed by Paul Karr, a spokesman for the San Diego think-tank Center on Policy Initiatives.

“San Diego represents a pretty unaffordable market,” he said. “The cost of living here is pretty insane with utilities, with gasoline, with the cost of housing.”

At a processing center in Mission Valley, set up by the Red Cross, there appeared to be some hope for evacuees looking for housing Tuesday.

The county, along with the Red Cross, is providing some financial support to help evacuees pay rental deposits for apartments. The county is also able to process people who lived in section eight housing in their home state, said county spokeswoman Leslie Ridgeway.

Once applicants have their status verified by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, they receive vouchers that show they are eligible for federally-subsidized housing in California.

The city of San Diego’s Housing Commission is playing a supportive role in the process of finding housing for evacuees, said Carol Vaughan, executive vice president of the commission.

“We’re providing information on the availability of affordable housing units in the city of San Diego,” said Vaughan. “We’re also prepared to assist any families who have assistance from other areas.”

Some 28 families who arrived in town courtesy of San Diego philanthropist David Perez are currently staying in hotels paid for by the Red Cross. According to Perez, he has had many offers from organizations and private individuals to house the evacuees. He could not remember any of the names of these organizations.

Once they have found somewhere permanent to stay, many of the evacuees say they will be looking for work. Professor Gin said that when it comes to finding a job, San Diego’s a good bet.

“We actually have pretty good job growth here in San Diego County,” said Gin. “We’re in place to add somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 new jobs by the end of 2005. The San Diego economy’s in a lot better shape than a lot of other metropolitan areas, including probably New Orleans.”

Desmond White, a 19-year-old African American from New Orleans who was sitting in the Red Cross center Tuesday, said he made a good decision in coming here. The young man beamed when he was asked whether this is a good place to find work.

“So far it looks pretty good,” he said. “Right now I’m just trying to get an ID.”

White said he lost his Louisiana driver’s license when he fled his home last week. Inside the processing center, Employment Development Department employees said they are working with the Department of Motor Vehicles in Louisiana to get replacement driver’s licenses to everyone who needs one.

The EDD is working alongside other agencies to provide the evacuees with job listings in San Diego, said Janice Cedano, EDD regional manager. The department has received offers from local temporary employment agencies to provide work for those displaced by the hurricane, she said.

Among the offers are 700 part-time jobs processing forms for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Cedano said she also has a list of dozens of local companies looking for part-time and full-time workers. They have even been contacted by a casino in North County advertising its recruitment fair.

“We’re kind of waiting for folks to settle in,” she said. “Right now, they don’t know where they’re going to live, how long they’re going to be here. Those who want immediate employment, we’re identifying those.”

Local companies said they want to help Katrina victims.

San Diego-based Rubios Restaurants Inc. has jobs available, said company spokeswoman Sue Luessman, and will be contacting the EDD to let them know of the vacancies.

La Jolla-based Ladeki Restaurant Group has gone one step further. Jason Espat, director of recruitment for the company, which owns a chain of restaurants, said the company sees New Orleans’ plight as an opportunity to attract talent to San Diego.

“The moment this tragedy happened, me and the CFO together said ‘There’s a lot of talented people down there,’ ” said Espat.

“It’s not going to be rebuilt anytime soon,” he added.

Espat has been working with company CFO Sam Ladeki to recruit as many of New Orleans’ top chefs as possible. He’s held three phone interviews with candidates already. He envisions the chain possibly setting up a New Orleans-style restaurant in San Diego with some great chefs cooking up soul food and gumbo.

On a practical level, Espat has had to assuage the worries of the staff he might bring from Louisiana for interviews and tastings. He said candidates are very concerned about high living costs, especially the price of housing.

“One guy was paying $825 for a three-bedroom house,” he said. “He was asking me, ‘Where would I stay if I was to make this move?’”

Of course, not all of the evacuees want to stay in San Diego.

Outside the Red Cross center, Torrie Washington, an evacuee from New Orleans, said housing and jobs are not what she came to the Red Cross center looking for. She has been told her job as a medical records analyst at a Louisiana hospital is waiting for her. The only problem is, her car is thousands of miles away and is probably still underwater.

Washington came to the center with her mother, Gerri, Tuesday, hoping to sign up for unemployment benefits. She came out empty-handed and described the EDD contingent at the center as having “no clue.” Her mother expressed their frustration with the aid they have received.

“There is a need for transportation,” said Gerri Washington, “Father Joe (who runs a local charity) can get trains boats, planes, yachts and cars. Give somebody a car, like my daughter, who wants to drive back to her job. The hospital is open where she works, but she’ll be no good if she has no four wheels.”

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