Shelia Phillips doesn't see the New Orleans that Mayor Ray Nagin talks about, the one on its way to having just as many people and a more diverse economy than it did before Hurricane Katrina. How could she?
From the front porch of her house in the devastated Lower 9th Ward, it's hard to see past the vegetation slowly swallowing the property across the way. Nearby homes are boarded up or still bear the fading tattoos left by search and rescue teams nearly four years ago. The fence around a playground a few blocks down is padlocked.
"I just want to see people again," she said recently, swatting bugs in the muggy heat.
On paper, the city's economy appears to be thriving, with relatively low unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy rates. But in post-Katrina New Orleans, residents' perceptions of their city's recovery tends to depend on where they live, their vantage point of it. Swaths of some neighborhoods are sparsely populated, even desolate, and federal rebuilding dollars have provided much of the economic resilience.
While the recovery has been "stronger than anticipated," the city "will still face challenges to long-term stability and prosperity," according to a report released Tuesday by GCR & Associates Inc., an urban planning and consulting firm.
Feeling less economic pain?
New Orleans's economy is among the healthiest of major metro areas, according to The Associated Press Economic Stress Index, which assigns counties a score of 1 to 100 based on unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy data.
The seven-parish New Orleans region scores 8.6 through June, the most recent month for which figures are available. That's considerably lower than the national average of 10.6 and means the average New Orleans resident has felt far less relative economic pain than people in Los Angeles (15.07), Chicago's Cook County (15.11) or Florida's Miami-Dade County (16.06).
There are other causes for optimism: the overhaul of New Orleans' long-dismal public school system, an influx of college-educated residents, the greening of neighborhoods as they rebuild, and the elevating of more homes to help protect them from future flooding.
After Katrina, the mayor started talking about a new New Orleans. What he meant, he said recently, is a "better New Orleans; an updated New Orleans, one where we basically updated all of our critical assets but respected our history."
"I definitely think we're on track to realizing that," Nagin said.
Some analysts believe the economic resilience powered by tens of billions in federal rebuilding aid is unsustainable. Once the money is spent, they say, the tourism-based economy and lower-wage jobs that dominated before Katrina are likely to re-emerge.
Money follows money
The flow of returning residents has slowed, the cost of living has spiked and blight is rampant. Public investment in neighborhoods has been uneven, much like the pattern of Katrina's devastation.
Water driven by the Aug. 29, 2005, storm flooded 80 percent of the city and essentially destroyed St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. Other areas were spared the worst of the damage and have rebounded more quickly.
Lakeview, which saw some of the worst flooding, has come back stronger than other New Orleans' neighborhoods largely due to its relative pre-storm affluence and residents' will to take charge of Lakeview's recovery.
As Lakeview residents invested in homes and businesses, government dollars followed. The post office has reopened, main streets have been or are being rebuilt and a business district is thriving. It's one of the best examples of Nagin's market-driven approach to recovery, where money follows money.
That said, there's plenty of work to do.
Side streets such as Bellaire Drive, a frequent bus route taking camera-toting tourists to see where a flood wall failed, are pocked with dangerous potholes. The public school is empty. Vacant houses dot many blocks.
Jill and Alvin Miester replaced the flooded split-level brick house that Alvin Miester's grandfather built in the late '40s. Their new home — their dream home — sits 9 feet off the ground, with a carport beneath it and a warm, manicured lot wrapped around it.
"New Orleans, I think, is going to be better and going to be greater," Jill Miester said. "It has to be."
Their elevated house also provides a great view of the cold, cement slab next door.
'It ain't getting better'
By one estimate, 36 percent of New Orleans' housing is empty, and like the lot next to the Miesters, there is no clear indication when or whether it will be rebuilt. While grace periods to many mortgage holders after the storm helped New Orleans avoid the high foreclosure rates other cities have seen, many homeowners haven't yet decided whether to rebuild or, in some cases, don't have the money to finish the work.
Many home construction workers had more work than they could handle in the first two to three years of the recovery. Now, small groups can be found gathered outside building superstores and at busy intersections well into the afternoon, still looking for work.
Flozell Russell, 38, a welder before Katrina, said he's out looking for work around 6 a.m. each day; one recent day, he was among about two dozen men on a patch of grass near a busy intersection, the smells of po' boy sandwiches mingling with the roar of heavy equipment. Seeking work as a carpenter, welder or construction helper, he said he's sometimes lucky to make $50 for a day's work.
"It ain't getting better. It seems to be getting worse," he said, a pencil behind his ear, a spare pair of work boots handy. Russell said he lives in a friend's tool shed because he can't afford rent.
Russell's experience seems contradictory to New Orleans' relatively low unemployment rate — 7.3 percent in June compared to a national rate of 9.7 percent.
But the area's rate is low in part because many of the poor who left after the storm never returned. And because there is a need for engineers, project managers and social workers, New Orleans is attractive to recent college graduates.
Trevor Acy, 24, moved to New Orleans from Mississippi early this year to work as a grant specialist. It was the only place he could find a job after college.
"Coming in I had a lot of preconceptions about New Orleans," Acy said, referring to the city's long-standing reputation for crime, poverty and a roaring nightlife. "But I've found the people to be really genuine, really warm."
'This town hates change'
New Orleans has regained about 75 percent of its pre-storm population, though a recent report by the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program and Greater New Orleans Community Data Center said slowing of school enrollment suggests those moving in are single or childless couples. While Nagin believes the roughly 455,000 here before Katrina can be recovered in the next few years, some experts are doubtful.
Greg Rigamer, a demographer with GCR & Associates Inc., said it could be 20 years before the population tops 400,000. He cites as challenges facing the city a lack of major new commercial development and slow job growth.
Some big-ticket projects could give the economy a long-term jolt, including plans for a $2 billion medical complex. But lawsuits and concerns about the location threaten to derail the project.
"This town hates change, even when it knows it needs change," said Nagin, whose approval rating has plummeted.
This isn't what Shelia Phillips had in mind when she and husband Collins brought their son, six grandchildren and two other family members back to the Lower 9th Ward.
By one recent estimate, less than 20 percent of the Lower 9th's pre-storm population is back. A pocket of new, built-to-last houses in another part of the neighborhood — spearheaded by Hollywood star Brad Pitt and slated to expand — is like a hamlet surrounded by open, vivid-green land.
Overgrown lots and homes that have scarcely been touched since Katrina spill from the cluster of Pitt homes, creating a virtual wilderness. On a recent afternoon, feral chickens scurried across a road that attracted little notice before Katrina but has become a landmark since.
Its name is Flood Street.