New Orleans: Right of Return

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?

Like a secret for only those in the know, this sultry, insouciant city holds a magnetic charm that draws its sons and daughters back like no other city in America. Census figures from 2005 - the latest available - show that 77 percent of New Orleans residents were born here, the highest resident retention rate for any major city in the nation.

But two years since the worst national disaster in American history nearly destroyed New Orleans, the situation remains grim. The murder rate is by far the highest in the nation, entire neighborhoods are still empty, urban wastelands and the region remains frighteningly vulnerable to another disaster should a hurricane even half the strength of Katrina strike this year, ABC News has learned.

Watch Jim Avila's report on "World News With Charles Gibson" today

The scope of the destruction, the danger of the next big storm and the almost palpable sadness that pervades the region have prompted many outsiders to wonder: Why do people stay, or come back?

American jazz giant Louis Armstrong understood the draw of this jewel on the bayou every time he sang his defining rendition of the 1947 classic "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans," with its vivid references to moss-covered vines, tall sugar pines and the fragrance of oleanders in June. Armstrong was born and raised there.

'We Are the Music, We Are the Food'

Today, as it has been for generations, New Orleanians define themselves collectively as part of a rich, historic tapestry as vibrant and colorful as any America city.

"We are the music, we are the food, we are the spirit, the dance and the tolerance,'' Chris Rose, a columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, told ABC News. "It's a lifestyle, the way we live. We live out loud and we laugh too much and we dance on Sundays and we drink at funerals and that doesn't make everybody too comfortable elsewhere in the country."

"I think that it would be accurate, as a transplant to this city, of 23 years, I think it would be accurate to say the longer you live in New Orleans the more unfit you become to live anywhere else," Rose said, smiling.

Rose's first book, "1 Dead in the Attic," is a collection of stories he wrote for the newspaper in the aftermath of the storm.

"When you walk around since the storm, there is almost a tribal element that's pulling everybody together, despite our very well-publicized racial, political differences, our crime statistics," he said. "Most people here, I think they are on the same mission, on the same page. Everybody knows what everybody else is going through."

Like many people in the region, Rose said the storm brought life lessons to New Orleans along with its fury.

"This may be kind of trite, but I mean, it has occurred to me recently that despite the message that has been sent out over 40 to 50 years of popular music from the Beatles to Hannah Montana, that the most important four-letter word in the English language is love. I think we've come to learn here that it's home."

It's a deeply rooted sentiment that residents all across the Crescent City shared with ABC News.

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