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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 November 2005, 13:08 GMT
Life flickers in dark New Orleans
By Matthew Davis
BBC News, New Orleans

Hurricane Katrina turned New Orleans into a post-apocalyptic city, a scene out of a Hollywood disaster movie. Three months on, what has changed?

Real estate agent signs on damaged buildings in New Orleans
Agents are eyeing up parts of flood-damaged New Orleans
Parts of central New Orleans look almost normal. The traffic has returned, businessmen in suits meet in restaurants, Starbucks is open for cappuccinos.

You can feel the return of order by the re-opened boutiques, the police cars out on patrol and by the fact that no one is driving the wrong way down the freeways any more.

At night, Cajun music drifts out of the French Quarter, and on Bourbon Street the dancing girls entertain customers in neon-lit bars.

But the darkness also reveals just where "normal" ends.

Vast swathes of New Orleans are still unlit and uninhabitable - "nuked" as residents say.

Heaps of rubbish - tree limbs, discarded refrigerators, ruined possessions - sit on the roadsides waiting to be collected.

Once there were looters - now burglars dressed as workmen case abandoned houses only to return at night to steal by the light of their car headlamps.

Rallying call

No-one imagined that getting the Big Easy on its feet again would be a simple task.

Before and after

But with three quarters of the 460,000 people who lived here pre-Katrina now absent, the city is not only short of workers - it is missing its soul.

The question on everyone's lips is whether the real New Orleans will ever be back.

"The city is not the nurturing place that it was," says Eloise Williams, a community advocate from the Algiers district who went to buttonhole Mayor Ray Nagin at one of his "town hall" meetings.

She says real estate developers are snooping around, trying to buy up properties on the cheap.

"The real people are not back," she says. "They need something to come back to."

Officials from Mr Nagin downwards are doing what they can, trying to rally the community and looking to the future.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin at a public meeting
It may not be totally back to what it was pre-Katrina, but every day we make progress
Ray Nagin
New Orleans mayor
This week the first public school reopened. More are expected to open in the coming days. Medical services are slowly improving.

About 60% of the city has an electricity supply and half of New Orleans now has gas as the power company continues to drain floodwaters from a network of supply pipes.

More than 1,100 businesses have reopened, a wireless broadband network is up and running, and tourism chiefs have opened a new centre to promote the city in the US and abroad.

"It may not be totally back to what it was pre-Katrina, but every day we make progress," says Mayor Ray Nagin.

"I'm looking forward to getting back to normal, seeing more New Orleaneans in New Orleans and more importantly more tourists coming in here so we can hire back some of our city workers."

False economy

But big problems remain - not least in getting people to agree on how they want the city rebuilt.

There was consternation this week when a group of experts employed to draw up a reconstruction plan suggested some parts of the city should not be rebuilt any time soon.

Engineer working on New Orleans' power supply
Fixing New Orleans' power and water has proved a laborious task
So far, financial aid to the region from Washington has reached about $70bn (41bn).

Mr Nagin wants the government, which is paying for evacuees to live out of state, to direct that money to temporary housing in the New Orleans area.

Housing shortages have led to such a dearth of workers that factories are doubling wages to lure people back.

Burger King is reportedly offering $6,000 (3,500) bonuses, while busloads of day labourers are being driven in from out of town.

Despite the confident appearance of the neat shop fronts on well-to-do Magazine street, the lack of customers is a worry for small business owners clinging on to their livelihoods.

Christine Vo owns a pawn shop and has given herself six months to turn things round.

"If we are at 5% then I am happy," she says. "But the truth is people are looking but they are not buying. I did a survey of my customers - about 50% are staying, but the rest say they have had enough."

'Celebration of life'

Tourism was the biggest money-earner in New Orleans before the 29 August hurricane.

The sector employed 75,000 people and boasted leading restaurants, hotels and attractions like Audubon Zoo and the Aquarium of the Americas.

The funeral has got to end and the recovery has got to begin
Ed Muniz
Mardi Gras organiser
Now the world famous Mardi Gras, set to go ahead in February, is looming as the next big indicator of how far New Orleans has come.

Tourist officials say that already the "shops are spicing up and musicians are tuning up".

But the real success of Mardi Gras may not be measured in terms of how many hotel rooms are taken by tourists, but in how it helps the city re-establish its identity.

Ed Muniz is founder and captain of the Krewe of Endymion, which holds one of the largest and most lavish Mardi Gras parades.

He says that if not one tourist comes to town, Mardi Gras will still serve its initial purpose - entertaining local people.

"I think the locals need a celebration of life," he says. "The funeral has got to end, and the recovery has got to begin."


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