Stroll through the French Quarter and it's easy to forget the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina two years ago.
The streets of the Big Easy are teeming with life, music and revelers still spill out of the bars, there are carriage rides to be had in Jackson Square and "beignet" donuts at Cafe du Monde.
AdvertisementBut stray outside New Orleans' old city, which was saved from the flooding by its higher elevation, and it feels like you're walking into a time warp.
Much of the debris has been cleared but nearly half the homes remain abandoned to rot. Roads remain pock-marked with tire-destroying pot holes.
Blue tarps still cover damaged roofs and some 42,250 families in Louisiana are still living in cramped government-supplied trailers.
While new businesses are regularly opening up, the school system is still in a state of flux and hospitals remain understaffed.
People are still spending hours each day weaving through the bureaucracies of government and insurance companies in order to get the funds to rebuild and frustration levels remain high.
With violent crime up 30 percent over pre-storm levels, New Orleans is on track to become the country's deadliest city.
"It's very depressing to be down here," said Fred Valdez, 38 who moved to the city for work five months ago and is planning to leave well before his contract ends in December.
"It's what I expected after a major hurricane. It's not what I expected two years after a major hurricane."
And the populace, Valdez believes, is just as damaged as the infrastructure. "I think Katrina really took a toll on them, and they're really emotionally distressed, and a lot of these people don't even know it."
A recent government study found that mental illness has doubled among Gulf Coast residents, there is a surge in the number of people considering suicide and there are more people suffering from post-traumatic stress now than there were a year ago.
The stress of living in cramped quarters and among constant reminders of the horrors of the storm -- which killed about 1,500 people and flooded 80 percent of New Orleans when the levees burst -- has also led to an upsurge in domestic violence.
"What we saw right after the storm hasn't stopped," said Dale Standifer, executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Women and Children.
The number of calls to the center stayed the same even as the population decreased by half. More women reported becoming first-time victims of physical abuse.
"We also saw a new kind of brutal rage," she told AFP. "Women showed us bite marks. What's happening when one adult is biting another adult?"
Standifer says that the support networks that help protect women from abuse have been scattered with the storm.
"If you're living in a trailer, you can't go to another room or to the neighbor you used to have. Family and friends may be far away."
The city is organizing concerts, prayer services, candlelight vigils and discussion groups this week to mark the second anniversary of the storm on Wednesday.
It is also opening a recovery center to help still struggling residents with legal assistance and tips on getting insurance money out of the government and private companies.
The American Federation of Musicians is organizing a second-line parade where a brass band will march with silent instruments in a traditional jazz funeral procession to highlight how hard it has been for many musicians to return to the city and make a living.
"Before Katrina, there were at least 3,000 professional musicians," says John "Deacon John" Moore, president of the local musicians' union chapter.
"As of spring 2007, we have 1,800, and a quarter of those live outside the city and commute from as far away as Houston and Atlanta for gigs."
While conventions are back up to about 70 percent of their pre-storm levels, general tourism remains low and there are few jobs for musicians.
The competition is driving wages down and musicians who had managed to live day to day with the cash they were paid at the end of every gig are finding it impossible to pay the skyrocketing rents in a city which has lost much of its housing stock.
But New Orleanians are determined to rebuild a city with a soul and culture unlike any other in the United States.
Robert Green, 52, watched his mother die on his roof as they waited for help and was unable to rescue his three-year-old granddaughter when she fell into the murky waters.
But after a few months recovering from the trauma in Nashville, he came back.
"It's really important to me to have what was," said Green, sitting in the tiny FEMA trailer parked where his home once stood.
"I'm not afraid to be down here. I'm home."
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