Mayors Try to Help Hurricane Katrina Evacuees Return Home to Louisiana

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin met with his Houston counterpart Wednesday to plan ways to help homesick Hurricane Katrina evacuees — and even some criminals — get back to Louisiana.

Nagin and Houston Mayor Bill White said that three centers with information on housing and job opportunities in New Orleans will open in Houston, and that a Return to New Orleans Housing Task Force will be created.

Nagin also said he didn't want the "small segment" of evacuees arrested for various crimes to burden the Texas criminal justice system. Authorities are discussing how some could be moved from jails in Houston to Louisiana, Nagin said.

"We are true partners," Nagin, who was re-elected Saturday, said after meeting with White at Houston's City Hall. "We are working together in ways that are going to be even better to help and facilitate our citizens as they come back."

Evacuees who don't want to return are welcome in Houston if they get jobs, White said, adding that the city will keep providing job training.

"We want people to be looking for work wherever they can," White said. "The purpose is not to have a housing program reimbursed by the federal government forever. It's to get people back on their feet."

Still, both mayors said they hoped the Federal Emergency Management Agency would extend its housing assistance program deadlines, reasoning that people can't find jobs if they are getting kicked out of their apartments. Some evacuees will need financial help until next summer, White said.

Specifics on the mayors' proposals were unavailable because they are in the early planning stages.

Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city, took in more hurricane evacuees than any other city — more than 200,000. About 150,000 remain in the Houston area, which already had more than 4 million people. It's unclear how many intend to remain there.

Nagin said he hoped New Orleans would have 300,000 residents by year's end, down from 462,000 people before Katrina hit Aug. 29 and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing across the country.

Although many New Orleans neighborhoods remain uninhabitable, about 95 percent of the city's electricity and other utilities have been restored, and officials have issued 70,000 building permits, Nagin said.

"Our message is: All New Orleanians need to come together," Nagin said. "There's an incredible amount of work to do."