Hurricane Ike is a tragedy for people whose homes and businesses have been destroyed and damaged. But the hurricane is also an opportunity for thousands of others who are flocking to Texas to make money cleaning it up.

Hurricane Ike is a tragedy for people whose homes and businesses have been destroyed and damaged. But the hurricane is also an opportunity for thousands of others who are flocking to Texas to make money cleaning it up.

One of those seeking an opportunity is Chuck Kilhoffer of Illiopolis. Kilhoffer left central Illinois Saturday night. He is staying in Beaumont and loading trucks in northeast Houston with debris as fast as he can.

“We were supposed to get here and do the push to get the streets cleared so the power trucks could come in,” Kilhoffer says. “I got here Monday morning, and the push was over, and the streets were already open. Now we’re in the cleanup phase.”

Kilhoffer, who did this same thing after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, had an advantage over others going to work in Ike’s aftermath — he had a job set up before he left home. He worked after Katrina for a former central Illinoisan who has another contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to clean up damage from Ike.

Others are going to Texas on a gamble. Kilhoffer sees people flocking into the area from all over the country, hoping for a paycheck when they arrive.

“The thing I find fascinating about this job is the people,” he says. “They come from all over. It strikes me as the American dream. You see people limping in here in vehicles that shouldn’t even be on the road to begin with. They’re down on their luck but  hoping to use this experience to get themselves up out of the rut they’re in.”

People who just packed their cars and went could still find a job in Ike’s aftermath, but what kind of job? The unskilled jobs are filled first. If someone can stand upright and hold a stop sign to control traffic, they can find work in storm-damaged areas. But jobs like that don’t pay much, maybe not even enough to justify the trip’s expenses.

Getting paid in a timely manner can also be a problem. During the Katrina cleanup, FEMA took its time issuing checks. People who are arriving in Texas with little or nothing need to get paid in a hurry.

“Supposedly, FEMA is a little better organized this time,” Kilhoffer says. “I just hear things, and it’s like, after Katrina, FEMA got its act together as far as being ready to move in on a disaster. But only time will tell on that.”

Time will also tell how Ike compares with Katrina.

“Actually,” he says, “we were just having a conversation about that. A lot of people are here that were (at Katrina). I don’t know yet how it compares with Katrina. I just got here.”

Going into the weekend, The Associated Press reported, more than half of Houston still did not have electricity. The north side of Houston, where Kilhoffer is working, is free from the massive traffic jams that developed on the road to Galveston.

Kilhoffer went to Texas with a loader that extends high enough to reach the trucks, many of which have the sides of the truck beds built higher for this job. With higher sides the trucks can hold more debris. Because the government is paying by the cubic yard, the more debris haulers can move, the more money they make.

“My main job,” says Kilhoffer, “is picking up debris. I can grab a huge amount, and all day long I put debris in trucks. In a perfect world, I’ll have another truck ready to load after I get one loaded. I’ll run myself ragged.”

Before leaving home, he used his credit card to make a reservation at a hotel in Beaumont. They accepted his reservation and took his credit card number. But when he arrived, he found the hotel had been closed since the storm hit. He canceled the charge on his card and started looking for some other place to stay.

Kilhoffer slept in his truck for a night, then found a run-down hotel that had a room available. On Thursday, he upgraded to a hotel that is pretty nice, comparatively speaking. It has electricity, which gives it an immediate advantage over many others. Kilhoffer will pay $400-500 a month to the hotel for as long as he is there, which might be a while. He says the first six weeks will be the most labor-intensive — as well as the most profitable.

“I’ll stay until they tell me to go home,” he says. “As long as there’s money to be made and I can turn a profit, I’ll stay.”

Dave Bakke can be reached at (217) 788-1541 or dave.bakke@sj-r.com.