Post-Katrina: New Orleans Reborn through Prayer

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NEW ORLEANS -- Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast seven years ago this week, triggering one of the most devastating chain of events that left New Orleans flooded, hundreds dead, and thousands of residents without a home.

Since then, the city has mostly recovered and tourism is booming.

But the big concern now is whether soon to be Hurricane Isaac will devastate the area once again. Still, New Orleans leaders past and present are confident their city has what it takes to overcome.

The famed French Quarter in New Orleans is once again filled with music, art, and people -- the hub of the city's rebirth following Katrina.

"Now I look at it and I see the population growing. I think in the last report, 97 percent of the people are back. Unemployment is at historic lows. Construction is everywhere," former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin told CBN News.

An Unforgettable Scene

The city has come a long way from August 29, 2005, when destruction was everywhere. Hurricane Katrina hit, leaving failed levees and flood waters in her wake.

"Katrina first came on board here. This is where the eye of the hurricane hit, Plaquemines parish," bayou resident and oysterman Byron Encalade recalled.

He remembered watching the storm as it wiped out his life's work.

"This boat was here, and it winded up a mile up on the other side of the levee, the front levee close to the river in the trees," Encalade described to CBN News. "The levee was full of boats turned upside down, broken up."

Mayor Nagin ordered the evacuation of the entire Crescent City, then scrambled to save those left behind. In the end, an estimated 700 residents died.

"I did not sleep much for a long time," he recalled. "As a matter of fact, I have been out of office now two years, and I am just back to the point where I am sleeping decently. It was quite a toll."

Help from Above

Nagin shares his story in the book Katrina's Secrets: Storms after the Storm. One secret is where he turned for guidance to start over.

"I am trying to figure out how do you recover a city that is almost totally devastated? I am checking the Internet, talking to experts," Nagin explained. "Guess where I find the answer? Nehemiah. When Jerusalem was destroyed," he said.

"So I go and I start reading Nehemiah," he continued. "And it gave me a road map for how to approach the rebuilding of this city."

"For me, God was definitely involved every step of the way because there is no way we could have recovered this city without His hand being involved in it," Nagin added.

The story of New Orleans' recovery is still being written.

A new report estimates 8,000 properties were repaired or rebuilt from September 2010 to March 2011. And for the first time in seven years, the city no longer tops the list of the most blighted in America.

"Certain sections of the city, there is quite a bit of crime," Nagin admitted. "So we're still dealing with our struggles. But for the most part, we are pretty much back."

Struggles of the Lower Ninth

There are many bright spots to New Orleans' recovery. But at the same time, there are still some dark spots, like the difficulty in rebuilding in its historic Lower Ninth Ward.

"I grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward. It was a very, very proud neighborhood. Everybody knew everybody," Southern Baptist Convention President Fred Luter told CBN News.

Luter also pastors Franklin Avenue Baptist Church just blocks away from the area.

CBN News first visited Luter after Katrina buried his sanctuary in more than 9 feet of water. It took two years to rebuild his church home.

However, back in the Lower Ninth Ward, overgrown weeds cover the lot where Luter's childhood home once stood.

"It hurts my heart and sometimes brings tears to my eyes when I think about the fact that a lot of things that were my beginnings and made me who I am today are no longer there, physically," Luter said.

"And I can only think about the memories of them. So it was a tough time," he said.

It will take even more time to bring people back to that part of the city, which doesn't surprise Nagin. He said he "absolutely" has some regrets looking back on it all, but he's optimistic about New Orleans' ability to continue to bounce back.

These days, Nagin avoids the spotlight and the city, but he admits there is no place he loves more.

"[Hurricane Katrina] just strengthened me in my faith," Nagin said. "I am always praying, but I prayed even more during Katrina and the aftermath. And it sustains me to this day."

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Efrem Graham

Efrem Graham

News Anchor & Reporter

Efrem Graham is an award-winning journalist, who comes to CBN News from the ABC owned and operated station in Toledo, Ohio.  He received his master's degree from the Columbia University Journalism School. He also holds a bachelor's degree in English Literature from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.  Follow Efrem on Twitter @EfremGraham and "like" him at Facebook.com/EfremGrahamCBN.