Dec. 2, 2005--A new federal job re-training program is offering Gulf Coast hurricane victims a chance to help rebuild their shattered communities brick by brick.

Pathways to Construction Employment, a $10 million initiative announced Friday by the Department of Labor, will fund construction skills and apprenticeships programs through state workforce agencies and community colleges in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Local small business owners have said a lack of housing, among other problems, is keeping workers away and slowing economic recovery efforts in the area. In New Orleans alone, about 70% of the local housing market was damaged by winds, falling debris, or floodwaters by Hurricane Katrina, government estimates show.

The storm, which crashed into the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, forced over 900,000 people out of the region, according to Labor Department figures released Friday in a separate report.

To date, only half have returned to their homes, the report said. Of those that had, 12.5% were unemployed, compared to 27.8% of those that have stayed away.

"As the Gulf Coast region recovers from the devastation of the hurricanes, there will be a period of tremendous rebuilding and construction activity requiring skilled construction workers," Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao said in a statement.

The funds, split evenly between the two states hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, will establish Reconstruction Centers of Excellence in existing trade schools, offering extra courses in blueprint reading, safety training, and other occupational skills. State workforce officials will assess applicants and refer them to specific programs.

The courses being offered cover a range of construction sectors, including residential, commercial, industrial, heavy highway and shipbuilding.

Emily Stover DeRocco, the assistant secretary of the Labor Department's Employment and Training Administration, said the initiative extends "beyond doing the necessary work of rebuilding homes to restoring the region's diverse economic infrastructure."