NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA // "I think they're ugly," Florence Banks said, referring to the ultra-modern houses around her in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, built by the Make It Right Foundation, which is headed by Brad Pitt, the Hollywood actor. "They look more like beach houses." But many people do not agree with her. Vanessa Rogers has been living in one of the "Brad Pitt houses" as they are called, for about six months, and she loves it.
"It's so nice. I think it's wonderful," she said of her new home, which came with solar panels on the roof and is painted in pastel colours. "I hope more people like me come back here and help to make things better." Almost five years after New Orleans' storm system failed to withstand Hurricane Katrina and allowed widespread flooding and destruction, the city is slowly recovering but fearing a big setback from a massive oil spill in the nearby Gulf of Mexico.
The oil disaster overshadowed the inauguration of a new mayor last Monday, but did not dispel the optimism invested in him by many in the city, which remains around 75 per cent below its pre-Katrina population of some 450,000 and where reconstruction continues slowly. Mitch Landrieu, the first white mayor in 32 years, won support from across the city's many divides, including black and white and rich and poor. He must now deliver on promises to speed up housing construction, cut crime and clean up corruption.
Dominating his first week in office was the spill from a BP-contracted oil rig. The Louisiana coast is about 80km away, but it feels closer because New Orleans sits on the looping Mississippi River and a network of canals and waterways, hence the nickname the Crescent City. Mr Landrieu tried to reassure his constituents he represented a sweeping contrast to his predecessor, Ray Nagin, who was widely disparaged as ineffectual in his efforts to get the city back on its feet after Katrina, or "the storm" as locals refer to it.
"Change must come to this troubled yet beautiful, this impractical yet lovely, this gorgeous yet challenged place that we call home," Mr Landrieu said in his inauguration speech. Housing remains one of the biggest challenges, with government agencies reporting uneven progress from the Road Home programme, set up to distribute $13 billion (Dh48bn) in rebuilding cash after the storm. "We've all been waiting with bated breath for the new mayor and for things to change," said Thom Pepper, operations director for Common Ground Relief, a non-profit group that helps residents in the Lower Ninth Ward with housing, legal advice and job-training.
Barely 20 per cent of the Lower Ninth's pre-Katrina population of 14,000 people have come back home. Reconstruction, it is hoped, may attract more people home. Some 1,000 of the more than 1,800 people who died in the storm were in this African-American neighbourhood. It lies below sea level and next to the Industrial Canal levee, which crumbled under Katrina's impact. Flooding and destruction followed.
A federal judge ruled last year that negligence by the Army Corps of Engineers was partly at fault, but New Orleans residents say they are still fighting the lingering notion that flooding after Katrina was a natural disaster, rather than a man-made, engineering catastrophe. The Louisiana Recovery Authority, a state agency, estimated that more than $50bn of government money had been spent on services ranging from homeowner grants to business loans. A further $20bn was allocated for reconstruction.
Charity groups have spent an estimated $1 billion, according to the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation. Pitt's Make It Right foundation is one of many private efforts but receives most of the publicity. About 25 of 150 Make It Right homes, which cost around $150,000 to build, are completed and they sit among empty, overgrown lots - testament to the many people who have abandoned their land, at least for now.
The Lower Ninth stands in stark contrast to the bustling restaurants in the tourist zone of the French Quarter, which escaped the worst of the storm's damage. In the absence of any tourist buses one sunny afternoon last week, the neighbourhood felt sleepy, with a small bulldozer at a construction site making the most noise. "The previous administration said we had to wait for new roads, sewers and infrastructure until the new levee was finished in June," Mr Pepper, of Common Ground Relief, said. "We're hoping the new mayor will be a lot more responsive to the needs of the people."
Although the oil spill raised fears about the effect on the tourism and seafood sectors, many in New Orleans are hoping a new television show set in the city will boost the city's economy by encouraging tourism. Big posters advertising Treme, the new series by David Simon, who made The Wire, were on display at the Louis Armstrong International Airport. People would come to the city to see where various scenes from the show were shot, Clarke Peters, an actor in Treme, told the local Times-Picayune newspaper.
"You have got to be ready to capitalise on that. You have to put things into place, have something to offer people when they come," he said. firstname.lastname@example.org