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Big Easy coming back, slowly, but surely?

NBC News' Martin Savidge reports New Orleans on the city' s ongoing recovery from Hurricane Katrina during 2006 and a look at the challenges that lay ahead for 2007.
A new levee has been constructed along the Industrial Canal after the old one failed in two places flooding the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005.  
A new levee has been constructed along the Industrial Canal after the old one failed in two places flooding the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005.  Alex Brandon / AP
/ Source: NBC News

NEW ORLEANS — I was back on Filmore Avenue the other day. We’ve been following the street over time. It runs through some of New Orleans hardest hit neighborhoods. It is our barometer of the city’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina and the barometer is rising.

A look back on what’s happened in the city this past year and you can see a number of highs and lows, as well as some hope for the future.

The year that was: 2006

Mardi Gras and Tourists
Despite the rest of the country thinking the show shouldn’t go on ... it did.

The crowds were smaller and the parades were fewer, but for most in the Big Easy it was the first real sign of life after Katrina. The soothing balm of tradition lifted many spirits and maybe for the first time, more tears than beer were spilled.

Cruise ships and conventions came back to the Big Easy bringing badly needed tourist dollars. But both have their uncertainties. The number of airline seats carrying people into New Orleans is still only 59 percent of what it was before the storm. It’s the main reason Microsoft, one of the biggest conventions, decided to go somewhere else. ( is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)

Nagin again
To the amazement of the rest of the nation, the people of New Orleans re-elected Mayor Ray Nagin. Many outside the city blamed him for poor planning and weak leadership immediately before and after Katrina. Politics, race and one other issue played a hand in the outcome: Many here felt Katrina was so bad it wouldn’t have mattered who the mayor was. And since he was here for the storm he would have a better understanding of what needs to be done now.

Levee ready?
Despite promises by the Army Corps of Engineers that New Orleans’s levees would be ready when the 2006 hurricane season started, they weren’t. In addition other critical elements of the flood protection system were in jeopardy. Storm surge protection gates on Lake Ponchetrain were in place but not functional. A number of pumping stations were still out of action or plagued by other problems — like vibrations nobody could seem to solve. To everyone’s relief, especially the Army Corps of Engineers, no hurricanes threatened.

What was a symbol of the worst of times during Katrina became the place of some of the best of times in 2006. The New Orleans Superdome reopened and the Saints and everyone else came marching in.

I have to admit that when I attended the walk-through several days before the big game, I was flooded with emotion — much of it painful. But the place was new and so were fans’ dreams. For the first time in franchise history, season tickets sold out. Now the team and town have playoff hopes.

Who’s home and who isn’t is still a huge issue here. The numbers break down like this:
There are currently an estimated 200,000 residents within New Orleans city limits. That’s about 41 percent of the pre-Katrina population of the city which was about 484,000. Mayor Nagin predicted that about 300,000 would be home by the end of 2006, but those numbers have not materialized yet.

However, there is some hope in the numbers for the greater New Orleans metropolitan area, which is made up seven different parishes, and had a pre-Katrina population of 1.4 million, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. The greater metro area certainly suffered a loss as a result of the storm, but the population has rebounded and is now estimated to be about 1.2 million — which implies that many who have the city center may still be in the larger area.

New Orleans pre-Katrina racial makeup according to the U.S. Census Bureau was 67 percent Black, 28 percent White. The current population is 47 percent Black, 43 percent White.

What to watch for in 2007

The constant companion for many in New Orleans is only getting worse. Things, even simple things, are more difficult now. Like the grocery store that used to be down the street is still not back, so people have to drive five miles to find another.

Then there are the big things like the grant money. The state is supposed to give out up to $150,000 dollars per household, but the process has been painfully slow and full of red tape.

Trying to find new insurance, something most of us take for granted, in the Katrina zone is another pain. Many insurance companies in the region are refusing to take on more risk — some are even pulling out. For residents who have returned and do rebuild their homes, some can search months for someone to insure them. And if they find a company to insure them, the cost can be 50 percent higher.

Most folks in New Orleans didn’t have flood insurance. Most homeowners insurance didn’t cover flood damage or paid only a fraction of the money needed to rebuild. Homeowners were outraged. They paid premiums for decades and then when they needed the help they were refused.

It should come as no surprise lawsuits have followed. Landmark decisions could be made in the next year which could reverse the fortunes of many and bring the money needed to come home.

Doubts about the corps
The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for the flood protection system that failed and for fixing it. Unfortunately rebuilding the physical structure is the simple part, rebuilding people's faith in the Corps of Engineers is the hard part.

Many people don’t trust the corps or the government to spend the money and the effort to build a system capable of handling another Katrina or an even worse hurricane. It’s another big reason some aren't coming back.

Almost a year and a half after the storm hit, the diaspora of New Orleans that relocated “temporarily” elsewhere are now set wherever they are. Kids are in school, new friends and new jobs have been found.

And New Orleans still has problems. Keep an eye on those population numbers. Look at how they rise or fall in 2007. Because of the above mentioned some folks are giving up. Projections are a third of the population that has come back may actually leave again after finding life too difficult.

And one more thing, if you have a chance, go to New Orleans or the Mississippi Gulf Coast. And don't just visit Bourbon Street, take a walk down Filmore Avenue, or any of hundreds of other streets. Without talking to a soul, you’ll understand a lot.