Hurricane Katrina: Five Years Later, Progress and Hope in New Orleans

Former first lady Laura Bush: "The differences are huge."

Aug. 27, 2010 — -- Five years after Hurricane Katrina, Kenneth and Jori Dorsey are finally coming home.

Like so many others, the Dorseys fled when floodwater overtook New Orleans after the storm made landfall in southern Louisiana Aug. 29, 2005.

Katrina left a wide path of devastation. An estimated 1,800 people died and about 1 million were displaced.

Watch our Special Facebook Live Web Stream: 'Katrina: Five Years Later' on today at 12:30 p.m. ET.

"We lost everything; our home, all our possessions," Kenneth Dorsey, who lived in the hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward before fleeing to Alabama, said.

But the place they are returning to is very different from the one they left. Five years of rebuilding homes, businesses and morale have buoyed the spirits of those who saw the city at its worst.

Former first lady Laura Bush will head back to the region today to speak at a St. Bernard Parish school system Day of Reflection breakfast. She called the community there an inspiration and an example of the perseverance of the victims in Louisiana and Mississippi.

"The differences are huge now five years later," she said today on "Good Morning America."

"Each time I came there was a little bit of improvement. But I think, now, after five years, things are really starting to look great."

In St. Bernard Parish, where every school was destroyed, along with most homes and communities, there has been a complete about-face. One of the parish schools was just named to U.S. News & World Report's list of best high schools.

"In every case, many of them had lost their own homes, they were living in FEMA trailers themselves or with relatives ... but they rebuilt the schools," said Bush, who has made dozens of trips to the region in the past five years. "They knew kids and families wouldn't come back unless they had good schools to go to."

Eighty percent of New Orleans was flooded when the levees -- the protective barriers designed to protect the city, much of which lies below sea level -- were breached by the storm.

The failure of the flood-protection system, as well as the government's inadequate response in the aftermath of the disaster, became the subject of harsh and ongoing criticism.

President George W. Bush took the brunt of much of the criticism for the government's failure to provide immediate relief to the thousands of Gulf residents seen begging for food and water, while dead bodies littered the streets for days.

He was castigated for flying over New Orleans instead of visiting in the days immediately after Katrina hit, especially after a photo was widely distributed of his reclining on Air Force One, peering out the window.

"He realizes that was a mistake," Laura Bush said. "That he looked like he didn't care. But he did care."

Bush reiterated her and the former president's previous explanation for the flyover: that he was afraid his presence on the ground would take away from the resources needed to save residents.

She compared the flak her husband took to the criticism now faced by President Obama for the BP oil spill in the same region.

"I hope that Americans would just take a step back and take a deep breath and realize that people that are serving in public office are just that, servants," she said. "And they are trying to do the best they can."

1,800 Dead, 1 Million Displaced in Katrina's Wake

In addition to complaints about the federal response to the disaster, much of the city's own social services proved to be unequal to the task of handling the storm's effects.

Scenes and stories of looting, violence in the streets, deaths in hospitals and nursing homes and police brutality ? including the alleged murder of innocent civilians -- have become emblematic of the failures in the immediate response to Katrina.

In addition to New Orleans and other parts of the state, Katrina also caused havoc in Mississippi and Alabama.

Across the Gulf coast, more than 300,000 homes were reportedly destroyed by the raging floodwaters and other effects of the storm.

Still, the vibrant, iconic city known as the Big Easy is slowly making a recovery.

This week, a team of volunteers with the St. Bernard Project is coming together to rebuild the Dorsey's home in another part of town.

"It will be wonderful to sleep in our home, here in New Orleans, once again," Dorsey told ABC News.

The population of New Orleans has rebounded to nearly 80 percent of the pre-storm levels, and wages are up by 14 percent.

There's a new police chief, who is vowing big changes in an effort to repair the force's badly damaged reputation.

"I know we can reduce crime and I know we can increase people's quality of life," Ronald Serpas, the new chief, told ABC's correspondent Bob Woodruff.

Fifteen billion dollars have been spent to rebuild and improve the flood protection system that failed miserably in 2005.

Some residents have returned to areas that were inundated. Among them is Wanda Leigh, who rebuilt her home right beside a brand new flood wall.

"It's an unsettling feeling," she acknowledged, but added with a laugh: "Well, I have flood insurance now."

Devastation in Mississippi

In Hancock County, Miss., not one home on the 7-mile beachfront remained intact. All told, the country sustained $130 billion in damage, and was allocated more than $500 million in aid.

That was the key to its economic renewal and recovery.

In five years, the Gulf has undergone a major transformation.

Like so many Gulf Coast families, Nora and Ed Wikoff decided to stay and rebuild.

"This is a great opportunity, I think, for our community to make some significant improvements. You can see some of that happening," Ed Wikoff told "Good Morning America."

Roberts visited the areas affected by the hurricane for a weeklong series titled "Road to Recovery."

Les Fillingame is the mayor of Bay St. Louis, a Hancock County city that was battered by Katrina.

He said that he's seen the benefits of the federal aid.

"It's an investment that will show returns in this area, and even in the national economy, for generations," he said.

Restaurant owner Jamie Temple is banking on it.

"We're very lucky, I was actually opening the weekend of Katrina and the building got destroyed, took 19 months to actually get it all together," said Temple, who runs The Buttercup, a restaurant on Second Street in Bay St. Louis. "And I'm so glad I did, and even though there was nothing left, it was the town that brought us back."

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