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College Students Returning to New Orleans

Thousands of college students have returned to campuses in the still recovering city of New Orleans and their presence is expected to boost not only the city's morale, but its economy. Four-and-a-half months after Hurricane Katrina and the flood that devastated the city, New Orleans is in need of such a boost.

Hundreds of students, faculty and visitors have attended welcoming ceremonies at Tulane University over the past few days. The most prestigious university in New Orleans has had a return rate of about 88 percent and university officials believe it could top 90 percent after all registration is complete.

Tulane University President Scott Cowen says this is important for the city as a whole.

"This is the first thing New Orleans has had to cheer about in many months, because it is a beginning for all of us here at the university and also for our great city," he said.

Tulane is the largest single employer in New Orleans and the return of around 10,000 students will provide a much needed infusion of cash into the local economy. Mr. Cowen says the re-opening of Tulane and the return of students, faculty and workers will boost the population of Orleans Parish by 20 percent.

Most of the city lies within Orleans Parish. Local political zones called counties elsewhere in the United States are called parishes in Louisiana.

Most of the returning students attended universities in other parts of the country last semester, after having had to flee Katrina. Surveys conducted a few months ago indicated that many of those displaced students might opt to stay where they were and never return. But the pull of New Orleans was strong.

Elisa Billie, a freshman student, fled to her home state of Arkansas and attended the state university there. But she says she missed Tulane and New Orleans.

"I enjoyed it up there and I made the most of it, but, at the same time, I could not wait to get back. There is just no other place like this," she said. "I wanted to get back to my friends and my school and this city in general."

Tulane Engineering student and 11th-generation-New Orleans native Clay Kirby says he hopes to apply some of his knowledge to help rebuild the city once he graduates, later this year. He attended the University of Mississippi last semester, but he never saw that as more than a temporary option.

"Being from here, it is a part of who you are when you grow up in New Orleans. That is the best way I can describe it. It is a piece of who you are. When you grow up in New Orleans, you are part of a community with roots that go way, way back," said Kirby. "I grew up in the Quarter [French Quarter] and Uptown. So, when you grow up in Uptown, or Lakeview, or New Orleans East, or the Lower Ninth Ward, or the Quarter, or any neighborhood within New Orleans, it is a part of who you are."

With more than 13,000 students, Tulane provided the biggest chunk of the city's total pre-Katrina college and university student population of about 65,000. But other schools here are seeing a similar return of students, even though some of them suffered much worse storm and flood damage than Tulane.

The campus of Dillard University, whose student body is primarily African-American, is closed for repairs, but classes are being held at the downtown Hilton hotel in the meantime. The nation's only historically black and Roman Catholic University, Xavier, reopened after extensive repairs to several buildings. Xavier sits in one of the areas worst hit by flooding and nearby neighborhoods have yet to recover.

Johnson Cole , who went back to his home state of Georgia just before Katrina struck this area, says he decided to come back because of the intimate nature of the educational experience offered by Xavier.

"I came back because I enjoy the school," said Cole. "It is like the atmosphere of the school is a lot better and something you do not find at other places. Around here it is like people really care about you. Sometimes it is hard to find that at bigger colleges with a lot more students. It tends to be overcrowded."

The return of so many students is bound to have a positive effect on the local economy, but it is only one small step toward full recovery. Housing is in short supply because so many residential areas were damaged or destroyed by the floods. At the University of New Orleans' main campus, near the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, many students now live in temporary travel trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Some Tulane students are staying on a cruise ship docked near downtown and many other college and university students are commuting in from nearby areas that were not as devastated by Katrina.