Nov. 4, 2005--Ralph Brennan counts himself lucky. In the two months since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, he's kept two of his three New Orleans restaurants open, serving limited menus to the trickle of residents now returning to the shattered city.

Like many local entrepreneurs hoping to restore once-thriving businesses, Brennan is less concerned with customers, for now, than in luring back his staff.

As he told the House Committee on Small Business on Oct. 7, "One of my biggest challenges is finding employees. Many have not come back to the city or have found employment elsewhere."

One crucial obstacle is a lack of housing -- what Brennan and others are calling the biggest short-term issue in jumpstarting the city's economy. About 70% of the local housing market was damaged by winds, falling debris, or floodwaters in the Aug. 29 storm. And in a city that was once home to 480,000 people, a full 90% worked for small businesses, census figures show.

Until they start returning in any real numbers, local business owners are relying on a mix of personal savings and federal emergency loans to stay afloat. But with both private and public money tight, many are saying they can't hold out much longer.

New Orleans officials see the next two months as critical. Of the estimated 87,000 businesses up and running before the storm, as many as 60,000 are now at risk of closing down or moving out, according to Mayor Ray Nagin's new rebuilding advisory panel. They're counting on infrastructure repairs and federal help to boost business confidence and get the market back on track as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, the Small Business Administration, which oversees federal disaster loans for individuals and small businesses, has taken steps in recent weeks to speed up the application process following growing complaints of delays from both on the ground in New Orleans and in Washington D.C.

As of Nov. 1, the agency had approved just over $292 million in loans for 4,354 individuals and businesses in the region. On the business side, some $21 million went to 307 physical disaster loans, and $12.5 million more to 194 economic injury loans, according to the SBA.

Across the Gulf Coast region and in Florida, as many as 200,000 small businesses were shuttered by the storm, followed by hurricanes Rita and Wilma just weeks later, according to government estimates.

Days after a Congressional hearing last month, in which local business owners complained of drawn-out bureaucratic procedures tying up applications, the SBA relaxed some requirements -- waiving the need to file three-years worth of tax returns and monthly sales analyses. It also pledged to expedite the process for disaster loans under $100,000 for businesses with satisfactory credit, gross income of at least $25,000, and a previous loan history with the agency.

Since Katrina struck, the SBA has hired 3,700 additional workers to deal with the added caseload. On Tuesday, it launched an initiative seeking volunteers from the financial community.

Earlier this week, the Bush administration appointed Donald Powell, former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, to oversee long-term recovery efforts across the Gulf Coast. Powell is expected to "coordinate federal involvement in support of state and local officials in the next phase of recovery on issues ranging from economic development to infrastructure rebuilding," according to a White House statement.

Next week, Bush is expected to reinstate the Davis-Bacon law, which guarantees minimum wages for federal contract workers, in Louisiana and Mississippi. The law was suspended after Katrina to cut rebuilding costs and open opportunities for minority-owned businesses, the administration said. The AFL-CIO, among other critics, said wage cuts were driving local workers out of the region and stalling rebuilding efforts.

To help ensure local small businesses are being included in those efforts, the Commerce Department recently launched a Hurricane Contracting Information Center to help owners apply for federal rebuilding contracts.