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Counting Our Blessings 

All around us, we see signs of renewed life, even as we struggle to come to grips with the scope and scale of Katrina's destructiveness.

Hurricane Katrina has taken a lot out of Louisiana. It destroyed many of our homes and neighborhoods, scattered our people, nearly broke our spirit, and made the rest of the world wonder if we're even worth saving. Now, as the year winds to a close and we reflect back on all that occurred before and after the storm we always feared, it's appropriate to take stock of things that are still going right in New Orleans. In fact, Katrina may even have brought a few blessings -- and we would all do well, as the old adage goes, to count them.

We have the opportunity to reinvent our city, not just rebuild it. Sure, we all want our old familiar neighborhoods and traditions brought back, and most if not all of them will be back -- as soon as New Orleanians themselves return. Each of us is, after all, a keeper of the flame that is our unique culture. At the same time, we have a chance to throw out things that didn't work well, such as our broken public schools system and our balkanized flood-control system of local levee boards. We also can find new ways to improve our economy and use our land mass -- if our city's going to be smaller (and everyone says it will be), then we will have to find some new uses for areas that are no longer populated. These will involve some difficult decisions, but with the right kind of leadership we can make New Orleans better than ever, if not bigger than before.

No one is on the sidelines anymore. Katrina devastated us, but our leaders let us down -- and that left a lot of people angry. The big change post-Katrina is that people aren't just sitting around bitching about it. They're engaged like never before, from brand-new organizations like the Committee for 1 Greater New Orleans to well-established (but previously lethargic) groups like the Business Council. People have no tolerance for the same old political paradigm, and that's the best antidote to generations of public corruption and official incompetence.

People still believe in New Orleans. One of the most hopeful signs was the reopening of the Audubon Zoo over the Thanksgiving weekend. Hundreds of volunteers got the zoo ready, and park officials expected 5,000 to 10,000 people to turn out for the free admissions. Instead, 66,000 showed up -- at a time when official estimates put the city's population at only 30,000. "People were outside the gate hours before we opened," says Audubon Institute CEO Ron Forman. "They saw this as a chance to be together, to hug one another, to exchange stories, and just enjoy a part of New Orleans they all love. It was a real boost to us all." It sure was.

Parts of our city are already coming back. All around us, we see signs of renewed life, even as we struggle to come to grips with the scope and scale of Katrina's destructiveness. Virtually every neighborhood has been resettled by at least a few pioneering souls with generators and moon suits, some more than others. Canal Street from the river to the lake is largely illuminated now, as is much of previously dark Lakeview and other neighborhoods -- thanks to tireless work by Entergy New Orleans crews and despite the company's recent bankruptcy. Likewise, crews for BellSouth and Cox Communications are hard at work getting New Orleans reconnected as quickly as possible. In addition, the Canal streetcar line has resumed operations, providing not just free transportation but also a "lift" in every sense of the word.

Schools are reopening. True, most public schools remain closed, but just about every parochial and private school is set to reopen in the first two weeks of January. That alone will bring thousands of taxpaying New Orleanians back to town, and once again our neighborhoods -- or at least some of them -- will be filled with the long-absent sounds of children playing. Moreover, the struggling charter school movement has gotten a huge boost in the wake of the Katrina-inspired state takeover of more than 100 New Orleans public schools.

Our hospitality industry is leading the economic recovery. This should not surprise anyone, as the area's hotels and restaurants were largely spared the worst of Katrina's wrath. In the immediate aftermath and ever since, the hospitality industry has been more unified than ever before, speaking with one voice and telling the world that New Orleans will be back. Best of all, restaurants and hotels are bustling with locals as well as visitors who are working to bring the city back -- and enjoying their stay while they're here.

Democracy is returning to New Orleans. After weeks of uncertainty and official foot-dragging, state and local elections officials are finally moving toward an April target date for New Orleans' citywide elections. Originally scheduled for Feb. 4, with a March 4 runoff, the elections for mayor, City Council and various parochial offices were delayed indefinitely after Katrina, but a spate of citizen lawsuits forced officials to aim for the April date.

Add to all those blessings the fact that Mardi Gras is just nine weeks away -- and Jazz Fest promises to be as wonderful as ever -- and we not only have lots of blessings to count, but also lots of reasons to be hopeful as the New Year dawns. Happy New Year!

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