NEW ORLEANS – New Orleans has celebrated plenty of milestones on its slow road to recovery from Hurricane Katrina, but arguably none is bigger than hosting its first Super Bowl since the 2005 storm left the city in shambles.
To see the remnants of Katrina's destruction, fans coming to town for Sunday's game will have to stray from the French Quarter and the downtown corridor where the Superdome is located. Even in the neighborhoods that bore the brunt of the storm, many of the most glaring scars have faded over time.
Billions of dollars in federal money has paid for repairing and replacing tens of thousands of homes wrecked by flooding. Gone are the ubiquitous FEMA trailers that once dotted the landscape. Levees that broke and flooded 80 percent of the city have been fortified with the intent of protecting the city from another epic hurricane.
The city's lifeblood tourism trade has thrived despite the double-barrel blow of Katrina and BP's massive 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Seafood is plentiful as the harvest rebounds from effects of the oil spill.
Crowds at Jazz Fest and Mardi Gras, two of the city's signature events, have at least matched pre-storm levels. Lured by tax credits, filmmakers have flocked here in droves. And the hospitality industry has been an economic engine for the city, which has more restaurants now than it did when the storm made landfall.
"The restaurants opened lickety split, as fast as they could," said Tom Fitzmorris, publisher of The New Orleans Menu. "Everybody is doing well. We have very few closings. I don't know anybody who is complaining."
Sunday's Super Bowl is the city's first since 2002, but New Orleans already has hosted a BCS national championship game, a men's Final Four and other major sports and entertainment events in the past 18 months alone.
"That is an extraordinary run of events for a city that seven years ago was 15 feet under water and the last on every list in America that mattered," Mayor Mitch Landrieu said last week. "Now we find ourselves in a city that's on the world stage."
Yet, as far as the city has come, decades-old problems persist. New Orleans remains plagued by violent crime, political corruption, a troubled police department and poverty.
Crime rates briefly dipped after Katrina scattered residents all over the country but quickly soared again as people returned home. Landrieu has made crime reduction one of his top priorities, but the murder rate has remained stubbornly high since he took office in 2010.
After the storm, federal authorities launched a sweeping effort to clean up the police department. Several investigations yielded charges against 20 current or former officers, many of whom were linked to deadly shootings in Katrina's chaotic aftermath. The Justice Department also has negotiated ambitious plans to reform the police force and improve conditions at the city's jail.
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."