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In New Orleans, one battered community coming back, but different

The population of Orleans Parish has increased by 100,000 since last fall.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 29, 2007


Ronny Bertucci has the tallest house on Lake Catherine island, and that's saying something.

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Measuring 21 feet, six inches, from the ground to the floor, the construction techniques for his new lakeside perch are taken from an oil platform. "She'll hold," the journeyman electrician says from his tall porch as he looks out at the bayous of the Rigolets, the "hurricane highway" that steered Katrina onto the Gulf Coast and into infamy exactly two years ago.

So far, life is clinging to – sometimes thriving on – the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, as rickety fish camps give way to a new crop of colorful modular homes on high stilts, a new crab house clatters with activity, and the fire department has more donated firetrucks on hand than it has firefighters.

"Those who are coming back have come back," says Mr. Bertucci. "Those who haven't come yet aren't coming."

Call it the great Katrina shakeout. The combination of blight and prosperity, hope and despair evident out here on Lake Catherine, the remotest and most destroyed corner of New Orleans, represents a microcosm of the recovery. Like the rest of New Orleans, the rebuilt island community is likely to be sturdier and safer, but less economically diverse, with many of its quirky people and places missing in action.

Katrina survivors generally fall into four categories: those who have completed rebuilding, those who are under way but encountering barriers, those who haven't started, and those who've given up, says Silas Lee, a sociologist at Xavier University.

The recovery from the disaster has been carried out with a pioneer mentality as residents have been maneuvering though thickets of bureaucracy without much leadership, he says.

"It has become a very individualized experience and not something you can broad brush," says Mr. Lee. "But I think people are holding onto optimism. They haven't given up yet."

The population of Orleans Parish has dropped 39 percent since before the storm, but has increased by nearly 100,000 people since last fall. Thousands of old businesses are gone, but thousands of new ones are popping up. The population changes reflect a generational shift, with many older residents and shopkeepers using the storm as a reason to retire elsewhere.

Now, hip 20- and 30-somethings are mixing with the local "Where y'at?" crowd of barstool regulars – a scene that extends from Bourbon Street in downtown New Orleans all the way to Crazy Al's, the lounge that just reopened on Lake Catherine and where things don't get swinging until 2 a.m.

"The people of New Orleans all have stories to tell, and everybody's story is a really good story with all the elements of great drama: uncertainty, last-minute flight to leave the city, and all the problems they've faced since then," says Errol Laborde, editor of New Orleans Magazine. "The problem is there's a million of them."

This year's anniversary also marks a crucial turning point in the city's recovery process. Wednesday is the last day to file an insurance lawsuit. Moreover, recently published flood maps are giving residents more information to determine whether they are able to return.