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New Orleans Struggles to Revive Economy, Culture

More than two months after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf of Mexico and caused a break in the levees that flooded New Orleans, the city is still struggling. Only a small fraction of the half a million people who lived there before Katrina have returned and Mayor Ray Nagin concedes that his best hope is to build a population of about half that size over the next year or two. VOA's Greg Flakus has been in the stricken city this week and filed this report.

The cleanup continues in some of the neighborhoods where homes and businesses are still salvageable. But large sections of New Orleans have been so heavily damaged that it is unlikely they will ever be rebuilt.

Downtown has the look of a ghost city. There is some traffic and there are people walking about here and there, but the normal hustle and bustle of a large city center is absent. Even the French Quarter, once famous for extravagant partying and raucous behavior, is now subdued. Many bars and restaurants remain closed and the few that are open are not crowded. In fact, there are very few tourists in town. Most of the customers at area shops and restaurants are either here with government agencies or private charitable organizations doing relief work.

Longtime resident and Tulane University architecture expert Ann Masson sees a very tough road ahead for the city. "When you think about the total picture, it is so overwhelming," she says. "All of the people who have lost their houses and their jobs and their families split apart and the buildings destroyed, it is hard to cope with that."

But Ms. Masson believes hope is to be found in the activities of the people who are here now, reclaiming their homes and businesses and working to revive essential industries. "I tend to look at it as everyone has their own little bubble or sphere of influence that they are trying to work on, whether it be a carpenter or the mayor. Everybody is trying to work on their bubble," she says. "If we all try to do that, then, eventually, all these little spheres and bubbles will come together and we will have a whole again, a city, I hope much as we knew it, although it certainly will never be just the same, but a city that is once again very culturally diverse and interesting and unique."

But many people are unlikely to return to the city until they can be assured that they will have a place to live and that problems associated with the levee and canal systems are fixed. A report presented to Congress this week indicated that the New Orleans levee system was inadequately maintained and that, unless it is substantially improved, it cannot withstand another strong hurricane.

Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco is calling for vast improvements to coastal barriers, the levee systems and building codes to help New Orleans and other areas withstand future storms. "Better levees, a protective coastline and stronger buildings will make Louisiana a place where our people can return to sound homes, quality jobs and revived neighborhoods," says the governor.

But many planners and flood control experts say it may not be practical or cost-effective to rebuild in areas of New Orleans that were well below sea level. A map published in the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper Thursday showed that the areas that had the worst flooding in September were uninhabited swamp lands in the 1870s. The population of the city in the 19th century lived along the river and other higher areas that fared much better in the post-Katrina flood. But that flood-safe zone is much smaller in area than the city that supported a 500 thousand-plus population before Katrina.

Officials at every level of government agree that the revival of New Orleans will depend on getting its people back. The problem they face, both in the near term and long term, is where to put them.