Nicole Guinchard left home with a fine-arts degree nearly two years ago to find work in Alaska. Now she's back, hoping to land a job waiting...

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NEW ORLEANS — Nicole Guinchard left home with a fine-arts degree nearly two years ago to find work in Alaska. Now she’s back, hoping to land a job waiting tables at a top restaurant and support family members who lost their homes.

“The reason I left was because there weren’t many job opportunities in New Orleans,” she said. “It took a hurricane to change all that.”

Jobs are so plentiful and paying so well that some residents are slowly returning after fleeing from Hurricane Katrina. Many are stymied, though, because there are few places to live and rental rates for undamaged apartments have doubled.

Ship builders, fast-food restaurants and construction companies are desperate to find workers, enticing job seekers with free laundry service and signing bonuses.

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It’s like that everywhere along the Gulf Coast.

“People are begging you to come to work,” said Charles Dupre of Baton Rouge, a former salesman who said he was willing to make a two-hour commute each way because the wages are so high. He spoke with recruiters from a shipbuilding yard and from Home Depot about a sales job.

“I can go blue-collar, or I can go white-collar,” he said. “Before Katrina, you couldn’t find a job.”

Guinchard, whose family is living in a trailer, said she should be able to make $300 a night waiting tables. “People in Alaska thought I would be going to a wasteland.”

Instead, signs advertising job openings are nearly everywhere. Ads for debris-cleanup jobs promise a year’s worth of pay for a month’s work. Retailers are setting up job fairs in parking lots.

About two out of every three businesses in New Orleans remain shuttered while one-third are closed in its suburbs, according to estimates from state labor officials. The lack of prospective employees has delayed many restaurants and retailers from reopening.

LaToya Cowert took a job at Mother’s restaurant, making roast-beef po-boys and dishing out red beans and rice. “I just wanted to come over and help,” she said. “I knew they needed it.”

In some instances, the competition for workers is cutthroat. One fast-food chain set up a mobile home in the parking lot of a New Orleans-area Wendy’s restaurant, offering their employees more money to switch sides.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Becky Leone, a human-resources director for Wendy’s International, which has yet to open about a quarter of its 80 company-owned restaurants along the Gulf Coast mostly because it doesn’t have enough employees.

At least 270,000 houses in the New Orleans region were destroyed or are uninhabitable.

“There’s no way they can create a trailer camp for all those people,” said Jim Richardson, an economics professor at Louisiana State University.

Workers will remain in short supply until more homes are available and schools open, he said. “Everything needs to be answered at one time and that’s very hard to do,” Richardson said.

Associated Press reporter Kristen Gelineau in Gulfport, Miss., contributed to this report.