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Still Counting Our Blessings

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In this space a year ago, we noted that Hurricane Katrina had taken a lot out of Louisiana, but that our spirit as a people remained unbroken. The year 2006 probably tested our mettle more than any other. The recovery has been, to say the least, a roller-coaster ride of emotional ups and downs. Still, New Orleans today is considerably better off than it was a year ago. Much progress has been made, but much more remains to be done. We must steel ourselves to the task ahead and recognize that New Orleans' recovery will be a marathon, not a sprint. Along the way, at milestones such as the year's end, it's appropriate to count our blessings. In spite of all the hardships, we still have many of them to count.

In many parts of town, there is evidence that neighborhoods are coming back. Some obviously are rebounding faster than others, but even FEMA trailers and gutted homes are signs of hope -- as are demolitions. Hand-in-hand with that is a renewed sense of urgency and purpose among neighborhood associations, many of which have taken the lead in New Orleans' otherwise haphazard planning process.

Citywide, citizens are more engaged than ever. No one could have imagined 18 months ago that southeast Louisiana would have voted to reform and combine area levee boards by the end of 2006, or that New Orleanians would have voted to combine the city's seven assessor offices into one, or that state lawmakers would order the merger of New Orleans' two court systems (along with the separate clerks' and sheriffs' offices). All that happened primarily because citizens demanded change and refused to back down in the face of entrenched political resistance. Our leaders will always disappoint us if we let them, but when we demand better government and speak loudly enough, politicians do listen. That happened this year, and what a blessing it was.

Speaking of things that could not be foreseen, how about those Saints! Regardless of what happens in the playoffs, the Black and Gold have made believers out of all of us -- and all of America as well. From the spectacular victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sept. 25 in the newly renovated Superdome (which reopened to rave reviews) to triumphs over outstanding teams from Dallas and Philadelphia, the Saints have truly been a blessing this year, both on and off the field.

All of our professional sports franchises, in fact, have inspired fan loyalty as well as community respect. The NBA Hornets returned part time in early 2006 and announced recently that the team will be back for all 41 home games in the Arena for the 2007-08 season. Meanwhile, the minor league baseball Zephyrs were the first pro team to return to New Orleans after Katrina, and now the Z's are going to be affiliated with the New York Mets -- a true World Series contender.

On other fronts, the hospitality industry rebounded quickly if not completely post-Katrina. While many conventions canceled dates in 2006 and 2007, the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau scrambled to keep several key conventions this year and next. Successful meetings of librarians and realtors helped turn the tide in New Orleans' favor, and 2007 should see the beginnings of a true comeback in tourism and conventions.

Once again, there's a lot for visitors to see and do in New Orleans. Attractions such as the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the National World War II Museum, Audubon Park and Zoo, the Entergy IMAX Theater, the Aquarium of the Americas and the Fair Grounds Race Course have all reopened for locals as well as visitors to enjoy. Having a successful Mardi Gras and another outstanding Jazz Fest in 2006 helped restore confidence in the city's ability to accommodate visitors, and both events also lifted the spirits of locals. So many of our great restaurants likewise have come back, along with many fine new eateries.

Most private schools have reopened, and a number of charter schools have sprung to life in the public school system, offering hope of more and better educational opportunities to students and parents. Much work remains in this area, but the struggle for better public schools is as noble a cause as any in the world.

Culturally, New Orleans has much to be thankful for post-Katrina. Our musical and artistic communities remain strong and committed to the city's recovery, and the spate of recent Grammy nominations for local artists proves that New Orleans hasn't lost a beat, musically or otherwise.

And just this month, Congress passed landmark legislation (co-authored by U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu) giving Louisiana a share of mineral revenues from the outer continental shelf. Landrieu's bill will produce $200 million over the course of the next 10 years -- about half of it in the first two years -- and then $650 million or more a year starting in 2017. All proceeds have been dedicated to coastal restoration and hurricane protection.

Best of all, America hasn't given up on us. Volunteers and donations still pour into the city, and the media continue to remind everyone that New Orleans, for all its faults, is worth saving. For that we are truly blessed -- and grateful.

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