Katrina’s Scars Hidden Behind Super Bowl Sparkle

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Separate probes of City Hall corruption revealed that some officials enriched themselves while New Orleans struggled to rebound from the storm. The latest and most prominent target so far is former Mayor Ray Nagin, who was indicted earlier this month on charges he accepted bribes and payoffs in exchange for steering work to city contractors.

For the city’s poorest residents, life hasn’t gotten any easier since Katrina. Housing costs have skyrocketed while the region’s unemployment rate has risen along with the rest of the country. A months-long moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf after the BP spill didn’t help matters, either.

“A fresh coat of paint hasn’t and won’t drive away the poverty that has existed in our community,” said Davida Finger, a Loyola University law professor who has helped low-income residents with Katrina-related housing problems. “It didn’t go away with the storm, and it can’t go away overnight.”

Although the population hasn’t returned to its pre-Katrina levels, New Orleans is one of the nation’s fastest growing large cities. The population dropped from more than 484,000 in 2000 to an estimated 208,000 a year after Katrina before rising to an estimated 360,000 as of July 2011, according to census figures cited by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.

Allison Plyer, the center’s deputy director and chief demographer, said Katrina gave the city a chance to fix problems that have spanned generations. For instance, notoriously dysfunctional public schools were replaced with privately run charter schools that have been credited with making slow but measurable improvements in student performance.

“Katrina and the levee failures caused a break in the status quo that sparked extensive citizen engagement and intensive reforms,” Plyer said. “For some, there has been a vast improvement. For others, things have gotten substantially worse.”

Few residents are dwelling on the negative, however, as they prepare for the big game, the legions of celebrities it will bring and the annual Carnival parades that culminate with Mardi Gras on Feb. 12.

The matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens will be the seventh Super Bowl at the Superdome and 10th overall in New Orleans since the NFL awarded the city a franchise in 1966. The dome became a symbol of suffering after thousands of residents were stranded there for days without food or water in Katrina’s aftermath. Hundreds of millions of dollars in renovations helped make the Saints’ home a suitable Super Bowl venue again.

Marisol Canedo, whose love for New Orleans inspired her to rebuild after her family’s home was inundated by 11 feet of water, said the Super Bowl’s return shows the world that New Orleans is “open for business.” But that doesn’t mean the city is close to completely recovering, she cautions.

“It’s a struggle to get where we were,” she said. “Everything is not up and running. Everything is not back to what it was pre-Katrina.”

(Photo: AP)

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