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Houston Struggles To Find Workers To Help Rebuild After Harvey


In Houston, it's sunny, and the skies are clear. That's great news for residents beginning the long and hard work of gutting and rebuilding their homes. More than a hundred thousand structures were damaged or destroyed by Harvey. And as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, it's going to be tough to find enough workers for the cleanup and reconstruction.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Usually there are plenty of workers waiting to be picked up for jobs on these street corners near the I-10 freeway in west Houston.

RAMON: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "But not this morning. You aren't going to find anyone left," says this 55-year-old man from Honduras who was too scared to give me more than his first name, Ramon. It's already 7 in the morning, he says.

RAMON: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "There's way more work than workers," says Ramon, who doesn't have legal documents to work in the country. Regulars here say the best workers are picked up early.

VIOLETA ALONZO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Violeta Alonzo rolls up breakfast tacos and pours coffee as fast as she talks. She's come to this corner with her taco truck for 15 years and knows her people well.

ALONZO: Five o'clock, 6 o'clock in the morning, you can see the trucks that come and pick them up.

KAHN: Everyone is gone early because there's a lot of work to do, she says. According to estimates by Harris County officials, where Houston sits, more than 120,000 homes and businesses were damaged or completely destroyed by Harvey.

JEFFREY NIELSEN: I know we're going to be busy (laughter). My members are going to be extremely busy.

KAHN: Jeffrey Nielsen is executive director of the Houston Contractors Association.

NIELSEN: Finding the workers is going to be a difficult job. I mean it's been a difficult job for a long time now. They couldn't hire them before. I don't know who they're going to hire now.

KAHN: Nielsen says before Harvey, there was a severe labor shortage. He wants to see federal workplace rules loosened similar to what President George W. Bush did following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That way undocumented workers already here and immigrants, he says, can come in and do the monumental work Houston needs.

NIELSEN: These guys work hard. They do a good job. I mean there's a reason you see them all over the place.


KAHN: Four workers, all Latinos, are gutting this one-story ranch home two blocks from the Brays Bayou in the Meyerland neighborhood of West Houston. They're removing damaged marble countertops, stainless steel appliances and the drywall up to 6 feet from the floor - 2 feet higher than the flooded water line.

FERNANDO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Americans haven't really wanted us much in their houses before, but now they have to let us in. They need us," says 41-year-old Fernando, who also didn't want to give his last name. He says since the flood, he's had residents drive by and bring him and his crew sandwiches and sodas. He's never seen that before in the 17 years he's lived and worked in Houston.

FERNANDO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We're more accepted now," he adds. If that's true, it would be quite a reversal from the recent political atmosphere. In Texas, lawmakers passed one of the toughest anti-illegal immigration laws in the country barring so-called sanctuary cities and pushed for the repeal of DACA, which gave illegal immigrants brought here as children a reprieve from deportations.

Don Klein with the Greater Houston Builders Association isn't optimistic a political change is afoot. He doesn't believe President Trump will shift his tough immigration stance even with South Texas' enormous rebuilding needs.

DON KLEIN: We're a nation of immigrants. And to see that shut off and the labor set off is - I believe long-term is going to hurt the country.

KAHN: And Klein says without the workers, Houston's recovery is just going to take a whole lot longer. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.