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New Orleans resilient but still struggling

By Summer Suleiman, CNN
  • Cynthia Morrison is the Salvation Army's community recovery director in New Orleans
  • Morrison had just moved to the city when Katrina destroyed her home
  • Today she helps low-income residents still struggling to rebuild
  • New Orleans has recovered in some areas, but still has a high crime rate

New Orleans, Louisiana (CNN) -- Cynthia Morrison purchased her first home on August 1, 2005. Hurricane Katrina wiped her New Orleans East home off the map before she could make her first house payment.

Morrison evacuated a day before Katrina made landfall, flooding nearly 80 percent of the city. Water already had begun creeping into her neighborhood.

But she didn't stay away for long. Despite losing her house, Morrison returned to New Orleans five months after Katrina to help others who had lost their homes.

And today, she said she cannot leave.

"I felt like New Orleans was a person that I had just let go, somebody that I loved, and I felt like I had to come back," Morrison said. "I really felt like I didn't have a choice. I couldn't see myself happy anywhere else."

Before moving to New Orleans, Morrison went from city to city in search of a new job.

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After the storm, Morrison began working to help the city recover with an organization called Katrina Aid Today. That position led her to the Salvation Army a year later, where she began working as a case manager. Today, she is the organization's community recovery deputy director.

Devastated and emotionally disturbed by the people she witnessed who had lost everything, Morrison said being a part of the recovery saved her.

"It was just this huge relief to me to be able to write vouchers and give people something to help them," Morrison said. "That really helped me heal inside."

Five years later, the scars of Katrina still linger. Since the storm, violent crimes have risen in New Orleans, well above the national rates, according to a recent study by the Greater New Orleans Data Community Center and Brookings Institution.

Today, Morrison lives in an uptown neighborhood known to many locals for its violent crime. Although she said she's lived there for a year without problems, things have changed recently.

A house two doors down from hers was shot at; the bullet holes still mark the bricks beneath the address numbers that hang near the front door. A week later, a neighbor was killed while visiting her grandchild.

Morrison said she sleeps on her bedroom floor some nights, afraid that bullets may invade her home.

Despite the potential danger, she said she doesn't plan on leaving.

"I was never concerned about the crime in New Orleans or being in danger at all. I never have been," Morrison said. "What's the worst thing that could happen? What, that you die? Is that supposed to be the worst thing?"

Her Salvation Army's recovery unit assists New Orleans residents on fixed incomes who are rebuilding their homes. The organization provides them with essential amenities such as water heaters, air conditioners, electrical work or plumbing.

They also allocate money to make their clients' homes more energy efficient.

Veronica Cooper is one of the clients whom the Salvation Army has assisted in rebuilding, but it was a long struggle for her up until this point.

Cooper escaped the rushing waters that engulfed her New Orleans East house by taking refuge in her attic with eight other family members, including her three children. They were saved by a neighbor who heard their screams through the roof and flagged down a rescue boat in search for people.

Cooper and her family took shelter in a retirement home nearby, but they were forced to leave two days later.

They managed to get a ride with a stranger who hot-wired an abandoned pickup and piled people in the back of it. They drove through floods and evacuated to Louisiana's capital, Baton Rouge.

Three days later, while walking to a relief agency in Baton Rouge, Cooper and her son were struck by a drunken driver. She was unconscious for days and remained in the hospital for three months.

Today, Cooper is fully recovered, and she said she is just happy finally to be back in her home.

"They could say what they want about New Orleans, I love it," Cooper said. "And if I had to leave, I would do it all over again."

But Cooper points out the city is still not completely back to normal. Retail in New Orleans East is scarce, and there is no hospital serving the area. Blighted homes and properties stain the scenes of the recovery effort.

"We still have five houses on this block that are empty," Cooper said. "People that try to come back and do something with their homes have to live with the vacant houses that's in the neighborhood."

Despite the litany of vacant homes, more than 90 percent of New Orleans' metro population have returned since Katrina, according to the study by the Brookings Institution and Greater New Orleans Data Community Center.

Read the full report

That figure is so high because so many people fled hard-hit New Orleans to go to the suburbs, according to Tulane professor Mark VanLandingham.

Before Katrina, the city's population was just under 500,000, according to the 2000 census. It's hard to measure Katrina's impact on population figures, VanLandingham said in a recent interview with National Public Radio.

"I think that when the Census Bureau figures come out at the end of the year, that it's going to actually be quite a bit lower than what people have been anticipating," he said. "I'm guessing that [the current city population is] going to be in the low 300s [thousands]."

VanLandingham also said he expects the census figures to show that the city's demographics are quite different than before the storm.

"It's going to be less poor. It's going to be slightly more Hispanic and it's going to be slightly less black," VanLandingham told NPR.

"Perhaps the city might do a better job in taking care of our needy if [they become] a smaller portion of the population," he added.

Since Katrina, the New Orleans metro area has recovered 85 percent of its jobs, according to the Brookings-Greater New Orleans Data Community Center study.

The report outlines some ways in which New Orleans is better than before, with improvements in education, health care and the criminal justice system.

The city is starting to show some good outcomes, with increased wages and household incomes, more high-tech industries and access to better schools, according to Allison Plyer, director of the Greater New Orleans Data Community Center.

But New Orleans still faces major challenges, she added.

"We have a sluggish economy that's relying on just a few industries that are lagging -- tourism and gas ... and these are all are vulnerable to the disasters we've experienced," Plyer said.

Still, there are problems that need to be tackled, including a relatively small work force, economic disparities across races, high rental costs, eroding wetlands and the city's high crime rate -- twice as high as those of the national level, according to Plyer.

"The report is really about where do we go from here? We have strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats," Plyer said.

Morrison said she remains hopeful the strong spirit of her fellow New Orleanians will help the city overcome those hurdles still evident five years after the storm.

"It would have been so easy for so many people to just leave and not come back," she said. "Instead, they chose to come back. If somebody puts a roadblock in their way, they find a way to get around it. To me, that's resilient."