KATRINA: Needing Builders, Gulf City Looks to China

D'Iberville, Miss., tired of waiting for Katrina cleanup, wants a pair of Beijing companies to import hundreds of construction workers.

Frustration over the pace of rebuilding is rampant along the Mississippi Gulf Coast some 10 months after Hurricane Katrina. But in the small city of D'Iberville, leaders are hoping to jump-start construction with an unorthodox solution: importing hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of Chinese laborers to build shopping malls, condominiums and casinos.

The idea likely will prove difficult � if not impossible � to pull off, given the debate over immigration and the constraints of American labor law. But it is telling that officials are trying anyway in D'Iberville, a city of 7,600 that saw 35% of its homes and many commercial and public buildings destroyed by the storm.

Starting today, Mayor Rusty Quave plans to open City Hall to a delegation from two large Chinese construction companies: Beijing Construction Engineering Co. Ltd. and Beijing Urban Construction International Co. Over three days, the companies will pitch their ability to build fast and cheaply, according to Ningsheng Chen, a Chinese businessman based in Atlanta who is helping to coordinate the meeting.

The firms, which plan to partner with private developers in the U.S., have proposed using Chinese materials. That way, they can avoid paying higher post-Katrina prices for American materials.

The Chinese also hope to ship over their own workers � who would be subject to American labor laws but paid less than what domestic workers typically demand. The Chinese laborers would live in temporary housing, staffing round-the-clock construction shifts, Chen said. When the projects were finished, they would return home.

Labor and immigration experts say that plan would require a class of temporary visa that is offered in limited quantities, with only 66,000 granted each year. To earn one, a company must show that no American is interested in doing the job in question. Asking for thousands of these visas at one time would be rare, if not unprecedented, said Michael Defensor, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Washington.

Quave, 55, is one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the plan. In a phone interview, the part-time politician and grocery store owner referred to Chinese President Hu Jintao as "emperor," and admitted he was no expert on U.S. labor law.

But he predicted that domestic labor will grow scarce once rebuilding begins in earnest in the Gulf Coast region, where about 1.2 million homes were damaged last year by hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma. Quave noted that many laborers on the coast now are undocumented Latino immigrants.

"The philosophy would be the same," the mayor said. "The only difference would be that these workers would be legal."

Representatives of the construction industry say a shortage of experienced workers is one factor holding up rebuilding. But they don't necessarily believe that Chinese labor is the solution.

"It's a pretty extreme measure, and I don't think we need to explore that at this point," said C.J. "Buddy" Edens, president of the Mississippi Assn. of Builders and Contractors. Edens said that if Mississippi workers couldn't be found to build in D'Iberville, other Americans surely could � an opinion echoed by the city's own building official and fire marshal, Wallace Freeman.

But Quave said he is worried that domestic contractors will only be able to turn to D'Iberville's construction wish list after they first build high-profile projects in places like nearby Biloxi. And he doesn't want his city to have to wait for local building projects that could put residents back to work and restore D'Iberville's tax base.

"We don't want to take any opportunities away from any American company," Quave said. "But if we have to compete for other domestic companies, and they already have commitments working in New Orleans or Biloxi, we don't want to miss out."

As in many Gulf Coast cities, D'Iberville's rebuilding has been slowed by negotiations with insurance companies, questions over federal guidelines and widespread fear of what the next storm might do.

Freeman said about half of the city's 3,000 damaged homes have been repaired, and a number of stores and offices have reopened. Residents whose homes were totaled have been slower to rebuild; and about 300 to 400 former home sites are now empty lots, Freeman said.

Before the storm, D'Iberville was considered a sleepy suburb of Biloxi. Now the city is hoping to capitalize on its location to reemerge as a major commercial force in the region.

D'Iberville is on a body of water called the Back Bay, separated from the Gulf of Mexico by Biloxi's east-west peninsula. That made D'Iberville less attractive to casino companies. Most have located their resorts on the shores of the gulf, and D'Iberville officials watched enviously as Biloxi reaped the financial benefits of a pre-storm casino boom.

But now D'Iberville is gaining cachet as a safe bet for commercial building, with less exposure to large storm surges such as Katrina's. Richard Rose, D'Iberville's city manager, said a number of investors are making serious inquiries about building casinos, resorts and shopping centers in town. Some of them have already begun meeting with the Chinese firms.

Quave said the companies also are interested in building public housing to replace the city's subsidized housing, all of which was flooded and remains uninhabitable.

The two Chinese construction firms recently were ranked among the dozen largest builders in that nation. Chen said each is partially owned by the Chinese government. Both are involved in major building projects in anticipation of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, as well as overseas projects in Guinea, Yemen and Iran.

When the companies build in Third World countries, they typically send in Chinese labor, Chen said. Now they want to bring that model to the Gulf Coast.

The plan is just a concept now. This week's meeting, Chen noted, would allow the Chinese delegation of about a dozen people to see what kinds of projects are being considered by D'Iberville officials and American developers.

If the companies cannot bring Chinese laborers in, Chen said, he would like to see lawmakers in Washington create special provisions to help Chinese companies rebuild the coast.

He and his colleagues know it won't be easy. Raymond Zhang, the assistant manager of Chen's company, Tangdu International Enterprises Inc., likened the idea to putting a man on the moon.

"We're trying to do something impossible, but it's really got to be done," Chen said.

AMP Section Name:War & Disaster Profiteering
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