Shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I traveled there with other members of Congress. We flew in helicopters to survey entire neighborhoods submerged in dirty water. Those neighborhoods not underwater were abandoned. We toured the 9th Ward and saw the broken levees. Trash was everywhere. We visited hospitals jammed to over-capacity, and in chaos. We met with students at a local public school.
I knew then that we would have a lot of work to do to restore the community’s trust, respect and confidence in government. When I returned home to Los Angeles, I donated cleaning supplies and clothing to displaced hurricane victims. A small gesture, but I hoped to encourage others to do whatever they could to help, no matter what that was.
During the visit, I was often at a loss for words . . . because the only word that kept coming to my head was “loss” — loss of life, loss of homes, loss of jobs, loss of contact, loss of hope.
The loss of community was something I felt immediately, and something I feared would continue long after the camera crews left. Those fears turning into reality: approximately 1.5 million residents left Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama after Katrina. Only 73 percent returned within a year.
Those that did come back returned to communities that ― despite a culture of perseverance ― faced tremendous challenges. Families returned home to literally pick up the pieces. Employers returned to businesses without employees or customers. And for many, the jobs local workers once held did not return with them.
Over the last five years, the U.S. Department of Labor has mobilized incredible resources to help workers in this area get the training and education they need to rebuild their communities, their livelihoods and their lives. Through a number of National Emergency Grants, the Department was able to assist workers affected by layoffs and help fund the cleanup. Our Career OneStop centers were then ― and remain now, in the aftermath of the BP oil spill ― an invaluable resource for those looking to return to work.
Recently, through the Recovery Act, we were able to invest more than $55 million in Louisiana alone. This money went directly to fund training and education programs that we know work. As a part of ongoing efforts related to the Workforce Investment Act, 85 percent of dislocated workers who complete a Department of Labor-sponsored program find a job within a year.
Not only is the Department of Labor helping to ease the transition from lost jobs to new jobs, we are also preparing workers for in-demand careers in high-growth industries. We’ve invested more than $9 million in community organizations throughout Louisiana to help prepare workers for employment in high-growth sectors like transportation and health care.
True, some jobs that have been lost aren’t coming back. But new businesses, processes, and jobs are surfacing to take their place, and I want to make sure that all workers have the skills and experience they need to compete for and succeed in those jobs.
Five years ago, I went to New Orleans as a member of Congress to survey Katrina’s destruction. I returned there a few months ago, as the U.S. Secretary of Labor, to get a firsthand look at the oil spill cleanup. I’ve come to realize that the story of New Orleans isn’t about loss. At its heart, it is a story of how people find the will to succeed.
Hilda Solis is the Secretary of Labor
Read more from the Hurricane Katrina: 5 Years of Remembering & Rebuilding series.