Katrina's scars harder to see as Super Bowl looms

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — 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."