updated 11/30/2005 11:25:41 PM ET 2005-12-01T04:25:41

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said his city will never be totally safe from hurricanes, no matter how much its levees are strengthened, but he urged Hurricane Katrina evacuees Wednesday night to come home anyway.

Nagin spoke to a crowd of more than 700 at a Memphis church — many of them evacuees — as he continued his come-home campaign to rebuild New Orleans. He made the same plea to evacuees in Houston over the weekend and is scheduled to appear Saturday in Atlanta.

The levees that failed after Katrina hit are being repaired to withstand a Category 3 hurricane, a level of threat they were designed for but failed to withstand, Nagin said.

He said the levees must be upgraded to protect the city from a Category 5 hurricane, but it will be difficult to obtain the hundreds of millions of federal dollars necessary. Estimates for strengthening the levees to that extent have run as high as $32 billion.

Regardless, “I don’t think we’ll ever be in the position where when a hurricane is coming, that we’ll be able to sit back and not think about evacuating,” Nagin said.

‘Getting better’
Nagin sought to assure the evacuees that life in New Orleans is “getting better every day,” with utilities being restored and storm debris being cleaned up.

“We’ll be above 300,000 people that could potentially live in the city before the beginning of the year,” Nagin said.

New Orleans had more than 485,000 residents before the hurricane hit, and evacuees remain scattered across the country.

The mayor’s wooing was met with at least some resistance.

Ashley El-Amin, 29, said she was not encouraged by Nagin’s comment that fast-food restaurants and hotels are offering salaries much higher than before the hurricane.

El-Amin, a former counselor for troubled teenagers, said such jobs, despite the higher pay, “won’t even pay half of my college loans.”

‘Not the time to party’
El-Amin said she also was upset by the city’s announcement that Mardi Gras, though scaled back, will take place early next year.

“This is not the time to party,” she said.

Clinton Brown, 67, was also unmoved. Brown said he wants to rebuild his house on the city’s badly flooded eastern side, but dealing with government officials in trying to get started has been confusing.

“I’d like to go back,” Brown said. “But I don’t have any better feeling now about getting back.”

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