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.

'This Is Home'

Lydell and Helen Rogers were born and raised in New Orleans. Their Ninth Ward subdivision sits near the lakefront and took on 5½ feet of water when the storm surged through. They spent nearly a year in Texas, first in Houston, then in Austin.

"I do cooking," Helen, 65, told ABC News. "I was in Texas — love Texas and people are warm and friendly — but I could not make a part of a gumbo I wanted to make at Christmas, Thanksgiving or Christmas, because I couldn't find all the ingredients. Austin doesn't have shrimp and crabs. They don't have it! They don't have pate and hot sausage. That's a hot item. People want the real hot sauces for gumbo."

After Katrina, a group of teenage volunteers from Tennessee came and rebuilt the Rogerses' home. Helen says the couple got "a lot of love from young people."

"I've been living in this house for 35 years," Lydell said. "I have beautiful neighbors and they're coming back. We love it. This is our home. New Orleans is our home. I feel that everyone is coming back because they love New Orleans and feel this is their home and where we can be. This is a big home getting back together."

To Miss New Orleans

Anne and Bill Grace, both native New Orleanians, live in the Garden District. The storm did a lot of wind damage to their home, but there was no flooding.

They have a different take of "missing" New Orleans.

"I think a lot of people think New Orleans is just the French Quarter," Anne told ABC News. "So they'll come to the Quarter and stay within that. I think it's about 13 blocks, and they can take the street car up to Audubon Park or to the university section uptown or go up to the lake. So a lot of visitors miss the majority of New Orleans."

"Mardi Gras is not really what you see in the French Quarter," her husband, Bill, said. "That is just a small, small slice of the overall activities that occur. And it is a family activity. On Mardi Gras day, if you're on St. Charles Avenue you see entire families — and I mean three or four generations all together. They'll set up barbecue pits, maybe even bring a sofa out there. Haven't seen any iceboxes, but just about every other item you find in the home. They'll set up and watch the parades go by all day long."

Anne said she feels the bonds of family and community much stronger in New Orleans than in any place she's ever lived.

"People seem to love to stay in New Orleans. You may wander away — we've lived in Boston, we've lived in New York, and always been lured back to New Orleans because of family. And one thing that I've noticed talking to friends that don't live in New Orleans is the fact that when we have gatherings, it's multigenerational. And you don't find that in a lot of other cities."

The Times-Picayune's Rose thinks the city is misunderstood by the rest of the nation.

He talked about watching the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras on cable television, where predictably the cameras gravitated to the French Quarter.

"They'd have photos of women baring their breasts on Bourbon Street and I just picture John and Gladys back in Des Moines [Iowa] and they're going 'Oh my God! Look at what they are doing down in New Orleans!'" he said. "The chances are much greater that whoever was flashing their breasts on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras was from Des Moines than was actually from here."

"That's not really the way we play things down here. Bourbon Street doesn't represent our lifestyle. It's not really jazz. It's not even the blues. It's mostly cover bands, Cajun music. It's fun. It's a place to cut loose and do things you wouldn't do back home. But it doesn't capture the vital element of what New Orleans is, which is really neighborhoods."

ABC News' Lauren Pearle and Nicholas Tucker contributed to this report.