NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans has celebrated plenty of milestones on its slow road to recovery from the devastating Hurricane Katrina, but arguably none is bigger than hosting its first Super Bowl football championship game since the 2005 storm.
The Superdome stadium itself became a symbol of suffering after thousands of residents were stranded there for days without food or water in Katrina's aftermath and the streets outside descended into chaos. The hurricane left about 1,800 people dead and exposed a layer of poverty that shocked many in the U.S. and around the world.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in renovations helped make the stadium a suitable Super Bowl venue again. But 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. 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 have paid for repairing and replacing tens of thousands of homes wrecked by flooding. Gone are the ubiquitous emergency aid trailers that once dotted the landscape as makeshift homes. 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 southern 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.
"That is an extraordinary run of events for a city that seven years ago was 15 feet (4.5 meters) 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.
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.
Associated Press writer Michael Kunzelman contributed.