Houses still sit empty, residents are still scattered and streets still echo with the sounds of hammers and power saws. But on the fourth anniversary of the hurricane that redefined its future, New Orleans is no longer talking about mere recovery.
Yes, people are returning: the number of households receiving mail is now more than three-fourths of the pre-Katrina figures, according to the latest estimates, up from fewer than half three years ago. Projects stalled by red tape and the bad credit market, like the Lafitte public housing complex, are finally getting back on track.
But reverting to the city that existed here before the flood is not the goal. For a city that justly if sometimes self-consciously relishes its own nostalgia, there was much about pre-Katrina New Orleans, from the unstable floodwalls to the stagnant economy, that was best left behind. Employment had not grown for the six years before the storm. The population had been shrinking since the 1960s. In 2005, there were only two Fortune 500 companies with headquarters here — now there is only one, Entergy, a power company.
So instead of returning to a decaying economic structure, New Orleans is talking about revitalization, a buzzword behind the new energy in the city, carried by an intensity and idealism that would have bordered on indecent in the old, charmingly carefree New Orleans.