Five years ago, Hurricane Katrina - the third-largest hurricane to hit the continental United States and its most costly natural disaster - slammed ashore 65 miles east of New Orleans, claiming 1,846 lives and devastating countless homes and businesses.
Everyone knew the road to recovery would be long and difficult. And make no mistake, there are some aspects of the Big Easy that have not fully rebounded - the city's population, for example, is still only two-thirds of what it was before Katrina.
But in terms of its all-important tourism sector (the city's largest employer), 2010 was poised to be the year New Orleans finally returned to pre-Katrina levels of nearly 9 million annual visitors. The hometown Saints won their first Super Bowl, and the city itself had become the supporting star of the HBO drama series "Treme," recently renewed for a second season.
Then, on April 20, came the explosion aboard BP's deepwater drilling platform, 50 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, and New Orleans' tourist recovery - already hobbled by the recession - suffered a new setback, even though it would take another hurricane to push any of the oil 90 miles upstream to New Orleans.
But perception is often reality and the familiarly unpleasant parade of daily news updates from reporters using New Orleans as their backdrop was taking its toll in bookings and enthusiasm. In response, the city recently launched a nationwide ad campaign designed to lure tourists back to the country's undisputed party city with the promise that New Orleans is still New Orleans.
Same as before (almost)
Ironically, New Orleans' main tourist hangouts - the historic French Quarter, the Central Business District and the residential Garden District - were among the 20 percent of the city that wasn't under water, suffering only wind and storm damage.
The beignets and café au lait still flow 24/7 at Café du Monde, the horse-drawn carriages still plod annoyingly slowly along the wrought-iron-balconied streets, and the revelers on Bourbon Street aren't heading home any earlier.
Still, the lines aren't nearly as long for hurricanes, the rum-based drink at Pat O'Brien's, or for vintage jazz at Preservation Hall. Reservations actually are easier to come by at the big-name restaurants, all of which are open for business, although patrons can expect to find a shortage of fresh Gulf seafood, particularly oysters, as about a quarter of the commercial fishing grounds remain closed.
All things considered, there is no better time to visit New Orleans.
Bourbon Street and its hedonistic offshoots have become even raunchier after dark as a result of Katrina. This is because more sophisticated visitors have been spooked by the adverse publicity about increased crime. (True citywide, but not as much for the French Quarter, where the police presence has been beefed up.) As a result, it's the younger, party-hardy crowd that now dominates.
Popular side trips outside the city - the Mississippi River plantations, the swamps of Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes, Cajun Country - also were spared the ravages of Katrina and the oil spill. The only place you might encounter oil is on the beaches of southern Mississippi.
New and improved
While most New Orleans businesses would be content just to get back to pre-Katrina levels, some have used the physical destruction as an opportunity to expand or upgrade. As a result, some things are arguably even better than they were five years ago.
NATIONAL WORLD WAR II MUSEUM
In early 2005, the museum announced plans for a $300-million expansion. The late historian Stephen Ambrose's multimedia brainchild is still growing, but now effectively covers the entire 1939-45 war effort on both fronts. Admission is $18, $9 ages 5-12; nationalww2museum.org.
MARDI GRAS WORLD
Blaine Kern Studios has been the undisputed go-to shop for Mardi Gras crew floats and accessories since 1947, and a popular year-round destination for those craving an off-season taste of the annual Lenten spectacle. Last year, it moved from its site across the river in Algiers into the 400,000-square-foot former Delta Queen Steamship terminal ($18.50, $11.50 ages 3-11; mardigrasworld.com).
After serving as an impromptu refuge for some 25,000 flood victims, the Superdome reopened for its primary business - football - in fall 2006, after $118 million in renovations, the last touches of which were completed this spring. Single-game tickets to see the Super Bowl champion Saints can generally be found, but if you just want to see a game inside the 35-year-old engineering marvel (tours are no longer offered), Tulane University also plays home games there (superdome.com).
AUDUBON AQUARIUM OF THE AMERICAS
Power failures caused by the flooding resulted in the death of thousands of fish and other aquatic wildlife at the aquarium, which relied upon the kindness of other aquariums to reopen in May of 2006. Especially poignant these days are the exhibits on the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River ($18.50, $11.50 ages 2-12; auduboninstitute.org).
Katrina was here
After threatening New Orleans as a Category 5 hurricane for several days, Katrina came ashore as a Category 3 hurricane on the morning of Aug. 29, 2005. The 10- to 12-foot storm surge penetrated the city's shoddily constructed defenses.
Five years later, the debris is long gone. But the scars remain, primarily in the form of empty foundations and boarded-up houses and buildings, many still emblazoned with the red and orange diagonal crosses indicating they'd been searched for victims and survivors.
While some consider it gawking at others' misfortune, for many, coming to New Orleans and not seeing Katrina's legacy and the city's ongoing revival with their own eyes is sacrilegious. A handful of commercial operators offer bus and van tours of the most iconic sites, typically narrated by a New Orleans resident at the time. Among the more respected:
Cost $35 ($28 ages 6-12)
Three-hour narrated bus tour that passes a breached levee and tours neighborhoods affected by the hurricane.
TOURS BY ISABELLE
This 31/2-hour "post-Katrina" van tour begins in the French Quarter.
HISTORIC NEW ORLEANS TOURS
Cost $40 ($20 younger than 12)
"Hurricane/Rebirth Tour" includes comments from survivors and tours through the Lower 9th Ward, past the Superdome and recovery efforts.
If you go
Unless you are planning your own excursion outside the city, there's no sense renting a car, because parking can be difficult and expensive, especially in the French Quarter, and the risk of vandalism is higher than in other cities. You have to pay the cab ($28 for two) or airport shuttle ($20 a person) fares from the airport to downtown. For those on a budget, the E-3 Jefferson Transit bus, $2 to downtown, runs about every 35 minutes from the second level of the airport, near the Delta counter. New Orleans' celebrated streetcars are a bargain at $1.50 a ride.
WHERE TO STAY
After standing vacant for three years, the most significantly damaged of downtown hotels, the Hyatt Regency, is finally being refurbished and is set to open next year. Repairs and renovations at all the others were completed years ago. But even with more than 33,000 rooms in the immediate area, a big convention or festival can claim most of the centrally located ones - and drive up prices at the others - so time your trip accordingly.