STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Friday morning will mark three years since Hurricane Katrina arrived on the Gulf Coast. Here's what's changed since the flood waters receded from New Orleans. The school system is being reinvented. The city has a new inspector general. The levies are getting new floodgates. And by most estimates, more than two-thirds of the residents have returned out of an original population of about 450,000. Here's what has not changed, according to some residents. One of America's great cities is irreversibly diminished. NPR's John Burnett roamed New Orleans in the days that its streets were flooded, and his words bring alive what it feels like to walk those streets today.
JOHN BURNETT: On one level, the sensuousness of New Orleans is all there: the smell of tea olive blossoms on a muggy summer night, the taste of praline bacon at Elizabeth's Restaurant, the sound of a high school marching band warming up on Napoleon Avenue.
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BURNETT: Three years after the epic storm flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, some hard-hit neighborhoods are recovering better than many expected, and the people have show great resilience.
How's the city doing now? Is the glass half full or half empty still?
Mr. DONALD BENJAMIN: Half full.
BURNETT: Donald Benjamin lives in a just restored blue and white shotgun house with his Chihuahua, Riva. He sits in his driveway under a crate myrtle tree in his Gentile neighborhood visiting with friends. While Benjamin thinks things are getting better, he takes the long view.
Mr. BENJAMIN: They're not going to come back in three years. I don't believe it will be five years. I don't believe it'll be 10 years before this city is back together.
BURNETT: Most of the houses on this block, which took six feet of water, have been renovated and reoccupied, though a few still sit moldering in the tropical sun. Resident Simone Lewis(ph) who lives on the corner says moving away was never an option.
Ms. SIMONE LEWIS: This is our home. This is what we know. We know no other way but New Orleans. We love New Orleans. We have - our heart, our walk, our talk, everything is in New Orleans.
BURNETT: I walked across the street to the home of Greta and Winston Burns(ph). She's a retired clerk for a judge. He's a retired high school coach.
Ms. GRETA BURNS: We're back, and we're happy to be home, but it's not the same. It is not the same. So much is so different. Of course, we've only been back two months, like I said.
BURNETT: But in those two months, she's noticed that the parent's club that used to raise money for St. Augustine High School, where her four boys went, has dissolved. The region track meet Winston used to organize was cancelled. The Chatan(ph) Trump Social Club where Greta and her friends would cook a pot of jambalaya, play cards, and talk about their children...
Ms. BURNS: All that's over. All that's over. We don't even meet anymore because some of the members are no longer in New Orleans.
BURNETT: And why haven't they come back? For one thing, the housing picture remains grim. Residents report rents doubling and tripling. Smoky Johnson, who played drums for Fats Domino for 28 years, was one of the lucky ones. He's paying off a green shotgun built in Musician's Village by Habitat for Humanity.
Mr. SMOKY JOHNSON (Drummer): There's a lot of friends of mine can't get back. There's a lot of them that are musicians. They can't pay the rent.
BURNETT: A recent Brooking study reports that New Orleans's population grew 19 percent from 2006 to 2007, but only 3 percent from 2007 to 2008. The population is slightly older, slightly higher income, and slightly whiter, though the city is still majority African-American. Tulane University biographer Richard Campanella says the flattening curve of the rate of return has a message.
Mr. RICHARD CAMPANELLA (Biographer): This, to me, I would read as stabilization and the emergence of the post-Katrina New Orleans we all wondered about three years ago, what it would look like.
BURNETT: In other words, New Orleanians will continue to return, but the repopulation curve suggests it will be a trickle rather than a wave. What that could mean for the mostly black districts devastated by the storm - such as Gentile, the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East - is deeply troubling to Lynette Cosey(ph), an African American clinical psychologist. She sits behind her handsome, recently rebuild home in New Orleans East, which today has almost no doctors.
Dr. LYNETTE COSEY (Psychologist): We had a great network of African-American professionals, and many of them were in private practice and many of them had to go elsewhere to make a living. And so they're not back.
BURNETT: Yet, Dr. Cosey doesn't want to sound like she's complaining, because she knows the nation is tired of hearing it.
Dr. COSEY: You know the 15 minutes is gone. It's done with. It's over. So what happens is you stop talking about it for the most part, you know, and you just live.
BURNETT: Even for those who were minimally affected by Katrina, just deciding to stay has become something of a defiant declaration, especially if they're in a profession where they can get a good job elsewhere, like Dr. Sissy Sarter(ph), a fertility specialist.
Dr. SISSY SARTER (Fertility Specialist): Now you're throwing your lot with a city that there are many wonderful things that have happened since the storm, but it's still not clear if this is going to be a Phoenix rising out of the ashes or sort of perhaps a slow slide backwards.
BURNETT: And yet, there is hope all over the city. Every person interviewed for this story, most of whom lost everything, said the glass is half-full. Author Tom Piazza feared the worst in his 2005 book "Why New Orleans Matters." The city's spirit is in terrible jeopardy right now, he writes. If it dies, something precious and profound will go out of the world forever. Now, that fear has passed.
Mr. TOM PIAZZA (Author): I realized this spring that New Orleans was starting to recover a certain bounce in its step. It was starting to feel more like New Orleans to me. For the first couple years after the storm, there was a kind of palpable and present sense of loss. Some of that is burning off.
BURNETT: But out of the roughly 130,000 people who've not come back? The largest group, some 100,000 have started new lives in Houston - for better or for worse.
Ms. TYRA WEATHERSPOON(ph): You can't get a po' boy here like you want to. They say it's a po' boy, but it's not.
BURNETT: Tyra Weatherspoon, a 38-year-old bank employee, fled uptown New Orleans with its street cars and ancient oaks and gumbo houses, for the featureless Houston suburb of Cypress. And her life has improved in nearly every way. In the last three years, she's married, she's bought a spacious four-bedroom home for a fraction of what she would have paid in New Orleans. Po' boys aside, she says she's close to good hospitals and good schools for her three children. Will she ever move home to New Orleans?
Ms. WEATHERSPOON: Maybe in a few years. Maybe after they've done some more revamping, and also the levies. They're not fixed to where you could have another Katrina. That's horrifying. So until that is fixed, I don't think I'll go back no time soon.
BURNETT: There's no place like home, unless you find a better place to call home.
John Burnett, NPR News.
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INSKEEP: Later this week on MORNING EDITION, we'll meet an armature filmmaker whose video captured New Orleans's destruction and who has returned to the city.