When the immediate shock from the hurricane had worn off, officials from Shell Oil knew they would need assistance if they were to get the plants and facilities based along the US Gulf Coast up and running as soon as possible. It was not just the damaged plants and equipment that were worrying them. Hundreds of their employees had been affected by the category 4 storm and were feared homeless. Then Shell received a call from LED officials.
“We had begun reaching out to companies in our area as soon as humanly possible after Katrina went through,” Don Pierson, assistant secretary at LED, told fDi.
It was not easy: land lines in New Orleans and nearby areas were not working and all of the offices were shut. But LED had mobile phone numbers and the ones outside of the New Orleans service area were working. “We have always maintained close and continual contact with our corporate constituents,” said Mr Pierson. With these mobile phone numbers LED officials began their outreach work.
“Our contribution to Shell was to stabilise their workforce by helping them to locate and establish living units for their employees,” said Mr Pierson. “They needed an intermediary with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and we provided that assistance.”
Within days of the disaster, the state and FEMA had helped Shell to move about 160 temporary living units from a marshalling yard in nearby Baton Rouge to the plant sites on the Louisiana Gulf Coast, said Mr Pierson. “Now they are building what could be called a temporary mobile home park, with streets and housing units hooked up to the water and sewer systems.”
By mid-September the park had electricity running from generators, with plans to hand it over to the utility provider, Entergy, within a matter of weeks. LED also co-ordinated with the school system to enroll employees’ children in local schools.
Mr Pierson said that LED was offering a range of services to companies affected by the disaster, from locating living quarters for employees whose homes were destroyed, to arranging schooling for their children, helping firms navigate tricky insurance issues and providing guidance on receiving disaster relief loans from the US Small Business Administration. “We’re doing everything we can to cut red tape and help companies get priority assistance from a utility provider or from a transport perspective.”
Many of the businesses, like Shell Oil, are foreign companies with operations in the region. “The economy of Louisiana, and New Orleans in particular, has always been heavily based on international trade,” said Mr Pierson. “We are focusing on helping these companies navigate disaster relief [government processes].”
Once the essentials of finding housing and arranging other services for displaced employees are done, the state will be helping businesses understand what the expected influx of federal funds – specifically, the $200bn package of financial assistance, tax cuts and entrepreneurial zoning initiatives — will mean to them.
Speaking to fDi just after the Bush Administration unveiled its sweeping plan, Mr Pierson said he could not provide specific details about how those funds would be used to attract and retain FDI. However, he said: “I think we will see a wide array of opportunities unfold in the coming weeks. State and federal officials know how important trade is to New Orleans – this area will not be neglected.”