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Robert Fontaine returns to the scene of a fire he narrowly escaped five years ago, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The fire started when a dog knocked over a candle while the power was out.

Mario Tama/Getty Images/Mario Tama/Getty Images

It has been five years since Hurricane Katrina's fierce winds sent gigantic sheets of water rolling up the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico, overpowering the network of earthen levees that girds the city, a defence system managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Floodwalls buckled, the water in some places ran eight metres high. Eighty per cent of the city went under, an area seven times that of the island of Manhattan. The city took weeks to drain.

Human error produced the flood. Investigations by the government documented the Corps' shoddy management of the levee system. And the storm surge found a sluiceway after decades of damage to wetlands lining the coast. Oil companies had carved 16,000 kilometres of finger canals to service off-shore derricks, eroding a natural buffer zone.

Katrina lodged in the popular psyche as images from TV news: bodies strewn in flood-swollen streets, looters carrying off food and TV sets, poor folk stuck on rooftops. The country that put men on the moon took five days to rescue people from a flood. President George W. Bush's popularity tanked, and never recovered.

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The recent British Petroleum oil spill generated a new set of apocalyptic images: turtles and pelicans slathered in oil, the subsurface water plume spewing 24/7 like some sci-fi monster. Questions on long-term pollution of the wetlands and on the seabed out in deeper waters will take months, or years, to answer.

What then of New Orleans? Have we devolved into some latter-day Gomorrah, waiting only for the fury of the Lord's final thunderbolt?

Actually, the town's fate is better approximated in the old adage, "The Lord writes straight with crooked lines."

Despite huge problems, New Orleans is on something of a roll. True, the miles of gouged streets, the indictments of 18 cops on various crimes, including murder, after the storm, entrenched poverty and battered infrastructure plant the impression of some charming Third World capital.

But a resilient civic consciousness has emerged, people across the society determined to make a better city, with a big adrenalin shot from the musicians, artists, writers, filmmakers and chefs who have produced a renaissance, rich and deep, suggesting the city's future as an entertainment mecca.

The cultural ferment has a mirror in the HBO series Treme, produced by The Wire's David Simon and Eric Overmyer. The return of 4,500 musicians was a catalyst in the city's revival, and Treme uses cameo roles by such performers as Dr. John, blues queen

Irma Thomas and Troy (Trombone Shorty) Andrews to enlarge a reality of stressed-out people gutting homes and remaking their lives in a melting-pot neighbourhood just after the flood. The plot emulates Robert Altman's Nashville, with a range of characters, some of whom don't meet, yet whose meandering lives capture a mosaic of the whole.

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PUBLIC SERVANTS?

Culture prevailed, post Katrina, but politics failed.

From a pre-storm population of 457,000, New Orleans is smaller by 100,000. The city was 67-per-cent African-American; today that figure is about 61 per cent. Roughly a third of the population lived in poverty before Katrina and now, despite a smaller human footprint, poverty and crime still run deep.

The flood hit hardest in downriver neighbourhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward, which today has pockets of recovery amid a ghost town of empty houses. The brightest spot is a cluster of pastel homes, solar powered and of cutting-edge architectural design, sponsored by Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation. A movie star did more to rebuild the Big Nine than city hall.

After the flood, Mayor C. Ray Nagin, an African-American and nominal Democrat (he gave $1,000 to Mr. Bush's 2000 campaign), failed to use the media as a bully pulpit to gain Congressional support for infrastructure funds. He touted a "market driven" recovery. "The city has made a hash of post-hurricane planning, and the invisible hand of the market is raising its middle finger," Tulane historian Lawrence Powell would write.

Congress eventually released $7.5-billion (U.S.) for homeowners lacking sufficient insurance, but the bureaucratic bottleneck for that money enflamed so many people that Gov. Kathleen Blanco chose not to run for re-election. Mayor Nagin returned to office despite his controversial touting of making New Orleans into a "chocolate city." It didn't hurt that Rev. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson organized the busing of displaced voters from places like Atlanta and Houston, and black people furious at Mr. Bush and Congress voted for him only to maintain black control of city hall.

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Once back in office, the Mayor, in a rank display of social Darwinism, fell in line with the President's initiative to demolish urban housing projects. Residents with bona fide leases clamored to return to their homes. A city council afraid of public anger about crime backed the demolitions, as if structurally solid brick low-rises from the 1940s caused drug crimes, unwed teenage parents and violence, rather than the scandalous lack of decent social services and public education.

Bishop Charles Jenkins of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, who launched an affordable housing program with African-American activists, lobbied the city to halt the demolitions. "I cannot prove the urban myth of a conspiracy to keep poor people from returning, but too much evidence points toward someone not wanting the poor to come home," he told me two years ago. He has since resigned, citing post-traumatic stress disorder.

SOME CASHED IN

Despite its rich African-American cultural heritage, New Orleans is where the civil rights movement all but died. As the Mayor double-crossed many of those who put him back in office, one would-be successor, Councilman Oliver Thomas, went to prison for taking a $20,000 bribe. In a separate scandal, Congressman William Jefferson, in whose Washington, D.C., freezer the FBI found $90,000 in cash, was convicted in an elaborate shakedown scheme involving Internet systems in Africa. He is free pending appeal; his brother, Mose, who milked the pre-K public school board in a sweetheart deal, holds an endowed chair in a federal penitentiary.

The overarching reform since the flood has been public education. The old Orleans Parish School Board was a hive of patronage corruption so bad that some of the crumbling schools that serviced the poorest kids lacked toilet paper. Gov. Blanco, backed by enlightened black legislators, pushed a state takeover of the worst schools, which have been remade into charter schools. The jury is still out, but test scores show solid gains, and education reformers across America are watching New Orleans.

This spring, with Mr. Nagin ineligible to run again, Louisiana's lieutenant-governor, Mitch Landrieu, won the mayoralty by a wide margin supported by people of both races. He has become a healing force in the racial divide, while tackling issues like urban blight, police corruption and inadequate medical services, with intelligence and grit.

At the same time, New Orleans has become a magnet for social activists and Teach for America workers. More than a cause, it is becoming a city of the young.

Every tropical storm is a reminder that for nearly three centuries this place has lived on borrowed time. Yet a life force surged back with the musicians and costumed street dancers who pulse along the debris-littered streets, claiming a territory of myth and memory. From these roots, a cultural economy entwined with booming tourism has emerged, and a burgeoning infrastructure of music clubs, festivals, galleries, theatres, recording and film-editing suites. In view of how much was destroyed five years ago, this entertainment economy is a minor miracle. It is also the town's best shot at redemption. As culture grows, so goes the city.

To learn more about New Orleans writer Jason Berry, whose seven books include From the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II, visit www.jasonberryauthor.com.

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