Flooded out of La., worker lands at BWI

Displaced by Katrina, but guaranteed a paycheck by TSA, an airport screener relocates her family - and job - to Maryland

September 22, 2005|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,Sun reporter

Simone Brown has a checklist of horrors like so many other Hurricane Katrina victims: She slept in a sweltering shelter clutching her purse and her children, waded through toxic muck to check on her house and subsisted for days on Pop-tarts, Vienna sausages and prayer.

But this New Orleans native can claim one more thing precious few others can in the aftermath of the nation's worst natural disaster. She got paid.

Brown is a screener for the U.S. Transportation Security Administration. When Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport lost power and closed, her bosses still deposited her check, and they told her and about 400 other government screeners that they could walk into any airport in America and go to work.

This week, Brown walked into Baltimore-Washington International Airport and became one of the most far-flung of the 50 or so workers who took TSA up on its offer.

"I'm wearing the same uniform I was wearing Sunday and Monday during the flood. BWI gave me the tie. We didn't wear ties in New Orleans," she said during a break on her first day Tuesday. "I love this uniform. It's feeding me now."

Other companies and agencies have taken similar actions after Katrina. Southwest Airlines allowed about 240 workers no longer needed at the New Orleans airport to move to other cities. Retail giant Wal-Mart logged 2,400 who moved from gulf region stores to others in 30 states. Countless other companies and people, many of them strangers, have reportedly offered displaced workers new jobs.

But the majority of the displaced - about 68,000 so far - became unemployed and made claims with the government. And even though experts say thousands of jobs will be created as the coast is rebuilt, in the short term, they won't likely be the kinds of jobs lost. Jason Taylor, associate professor of economics at Central Michigan University, said in normal times it takes about 3 1/2 months for someone to get a new job - a daunting amount of time for those like Brown who live paycheck to paycheck.

While disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes are a boon to construction-related business, the companies and workers often flow in from outside the affected areas.

Those who held jobs in the local economy, such as in tourism, often have to go to other cities to follow their trade. In time, they can return to their old jobs. The total number who lost jobs in the gulf region is not yet known.

The Labor Department will report new weekly jobless numbers today. For the week ending Sept. 10, the number of new claims was 398,000, an increase of 71,000 from the previous week. The agency attributed 68,000 of them to fallout from Katrina.

The one-week jump in new claims was the highest since the 82,000 logged in January 1996. That jump was attributed to a blizzard that had closed some employment offices and delayed previous filings. Some analysts have predicted that the number of unemployed from Katrina could reach 400,000.

Darrin Kayser, a spokesman for TSA, said all of New Orleans' 400 screeners have been collecting pay even though the airport has just a small number of flights scheduled. Starting screeners make about $27,000.

Some screeners have moved to airports in Houston, Dallas, Baton Rouge, La., and Denver. Some are working at more than one airport or helping federal officials with other tasks. Others are still coping with the loss of family or homes and haven't returned to work, Kayser said.

With weeks sometimes needed to find proper candidates, clear them for security work and train them, the displaced agents aren't people TSA wants to lose.

The jobs are consistent, making a move to a new airport seamless, Kayser said. The agency also maintains a national force that drops in when extra security is needed, such as during the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Trying to be flexible

"We're trying to be as flexible as possible, with work and with time off for screeners who need to address family issues," Kayser said.

Money is one big reason Brown said she didn't leave New Orleans before the hurricane hit Aug. 29. The 36-year-old divorced mother of three from Jefferson Parish was scheduled to work and didn't want to lose her job. The hurricane hit on a Monday, and she wasn't slated to get her paycheck until Tuesday.

On the job since January, she said she brought her extended family to the airport to hunker down for the storm.

Her two youngest kids, Reece, 6, and Lauren, 10, told her they were afraid at first. They are now feeling safe in the home of a friend in Severn, who Brown said she met when she was in the Army stationed at Fort Meade. Her old friends are what drew her to the state.

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