ATLANTA - Ever since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has been drumming up tourist business all over the country, including sending a festive and colorful dance troupe this week to downtown Chicago. And, for a touch of nostalgia, they sent along one of the city’s famed streetcars. The one named Desire, naturally.
“There's a sense of uncertainty about what's really going on in the city,” said Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. “And that's why our job is to get out and really let the world know that the historic New Orleans, the New Orleans they've fallen in love with all their lives is intact and thriving and doing well.”
More and more, though, that message of well-being is getting directed at the estimated 200,000 displaced residents scattered around the nation — part of an aggressive effort to woo them back home to New Orleans.
As the two-year anniversary of the storm approaches this summer, the city population is just slightly more than half its pre-Katrina size. About 255,000 are living in New Orleans today.
A nonprofit program called “NOLA Bound” is behind one of the biggest pushes to pull people in. Phones are ringing off the hook at its Baton Rouge call center, which has created what you might call customized roadmaps for some 5,000 families so far, to help them navigate through the myriad of potholes and stop signs that await their return.
“The purpose of the call center was to provide real information to people because there was a huge gap between people's awareness and the reality of their home, said Raymond A. Jetson, chief executive officer of the Louisiana Family Recovery Corps, which runs the outreach effort. “And so the purpose was to provide information for people, and to assist them in making plans based on their individual situations.”
The No. 1 issue? Housing. There isn’t enough of it, especially the more affordable variety.
“What we're finding from people is that they're concerned about the availability of housing, the availability of schools, and how they would enter their kids in school,” he said. “The great challenge that many people are facing is that they don’t have resources right now to fund a move back to New Orleans and then afford the life they would have to live once they returned.”
To reach these families, Jetson’s organization launched an all-out media blitz in dozens of cities, mostly in the South, through radio ads, direct mail, and a series of billboards with slogans like, “New Orleans is Coming Back. Will you?” and “Fort Worth took you in. New Orleans wants you back.”
But that blitz never quite reached the Simmons family in suburban Atlanta, who are wedged in the financial jam Jetson described. They’re desperate to return, but having lost it all to Katrina — including two rental properties — starting over is much more than just a matter of desire.
Alton and Danielle have found jobs to support their family in Georgia, but say their wages are smaller than they were in New Orleans. Straining their wallet and emotions even further, they add, is the higher cost of living in Lithonia, east of Atlanta.
“We've been planning and planning, but it's been hard,” Alton said. “We’re waiting on my son to finish school, and we’ll see from there.”
Two of the three Simmons children — daughters Dimanelle, 19, and Ashton, 18 — graduated high school here and not in New Orleans where they had hoped. But 15-year-old Alton Jr., finishing up tenth grade, is determined to don his cap and gown in two years in his hometown.
When school is over for him this year, the family hopes their days away from home will be numbered.
The Simmonses make regular trips to New Orleans to visit family, a nearly 500-mile trek they say is a mixed blessing. Thrilled as they are to see and hear familiar sights and sound, Alton says it makes returning to the Atlanta area more difficult each time.
“It's a very emotional drive back,” he said. “We just deal with it.”
There are tears of sadness and frustration on those journeys, he says, especially because what the family thought would be a few days away from New Orleans while the hurricane passed, has stretched 20 months, principally because the family cannot find a place to live.
Alton says his old job as a maintenance worker for the state of Louisiana is still in line, and Danielle says she can easily pick up where she left off as a hairdresser in New Orleans.
“The plans were never to be here this long,” Danielle said. “The plan was evacuate for a little while then go back home. But it didn’t work out that way.”
While they endure the wait, the Simmonses try to fill the sparsely furnished home they’re renting with love and happiness. A feisty nine-month-old, mixed-breed puppy helps in that regard.
Danielle Simmons eventually called “NOLA Bound” and was given contact information for two agencies that soon could have the family NOLA bound indeed.
In the meantime, the family, like untold numbers of evacuees, simply dream of the day when they can pack up their belongings and finally hit the highway — on a one-way trip.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints