It took New Orleans landmark restaurant Commander's Palace 13 months to reopen after Hurricane Katrina, and when it did, co-owner Ti Martin said, many diners were long-time residents celebrating one last meal before moving out of town.
"People were coming back into the restaurant and were practically crying," Martin recalls.
Today, those last meals have ended and Martin said groups are coming in to celebrate -- either moving back to New Orleans or moving there for the first time. The newcomers, she added, are an energized group. Many come as part of Teach for America or other civic-minded groups and then stay.
"You can't imagine re-populating a city with a better set of people," Martin said.
It is now five years since Katrina wreaked havoc on New Orleans and while the city is in some senses still rebuilding, for tourists it is stronger than ever.
Old sights are back to their glory and new restaurants and attractions have popped up.
"You can get some of the best food you've ever gotten in New Orleans's history right now all over town. Everywhere I go, I am just blown away by how darn good these restaurants are," Martin said. "The musicians seem to be playing from the bottom of their hearts and the town is just as good as it's ever been."
Residents are also energized by recent progress. A new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, was elected earlier this year with 66 percent of the vote -- "Sixty percent of us have never agreed on if today's Monday before," Marin said -- and it doesn't hurt that the New Orleans Saints won this year's Super Bowl.
"Institution by institution, you just see things moving forward in leaps and bounds. It's just making the whole community have an energy to accomplish things. It kind of gives us this self-confidence that 'we can' because we have," Martin said. "To me, the Super Bowl was an exclamation point where we stopped and said: Hey, look what we've done."
New Orleans VacationsThat energy is pouring into the streets, restaurants and shops of the city today.
It has been a rough five years for the Crescent City.
Just as New Orleans was rebuilding from Katrina, the global economy hit slowing revitalization efforts and causing tourists to stay home. And more recently, the BP oil spill in the Gulf has scared away tourists despite the oil having no direct effect on tourism sights.
As Jim Hutchinson, Louisiana's assistant secretary of tourism points out, people aren't coming to the state to sit on the beach. He adds that there are less than 20 miles of coast that would even be considered beach destinations.
The seafood and sport fishing industries are hurt by the oil spill, but Hutchinson says he's confident that the state, like it always has, will recover.
"We got hit twice here between the economy and the oil spill," he said. "It seems like it's always something. Part of the big attraction of Louisiana is that the people are so resilient."
Tourism is vital to the state's existence. Louisiana hosts more than 24 million people a year and 1 out of every 12 residents is employed as a result of tourism, according to state tourism officials.
But those numbers have never rebounded from the pre-Katrina days.
In 2004, New Orleans saw 10.1 million leisure and business travelers. For 2005, the city was on pace to hit 10.6 million visitors. But then Katrina hit. By 2006, annual visitors had fallen to 3.7 million. That figure has rebounded to 7.5 million last year, but is still well short of the levels before the huge hurricane struck the Louisiana coast on the morning of Aug. 29, 2005.
Katrina and New Orleans
Of course Katrina will always be part of the city's history.
Shortly after the storm, tours started popping up showing tourists the devastated parts of the city, neighborhoods that most hadn't bothered to visit before the hurricane. Needless to say the tours were controversial. Families struggling to rebuild didn't appreciate camera-toting mobs traipsing through the ruins of their streets.
Since then, most tours have found a balance between education and respect, and today they remain part of the accepted tourism circuit.
"Leading up to it, I was questioning it myself," said Greg Hoffman who runs Gray Line's tours in New Orleans, including a Katrina tour. Gray Line started the tour on Jan. 6, 2006, originally as way to keep the company afloat.
"We were bombarded by the media in a very negative way," Hoffman said. "Questions about if we were profiting off other people's disaster."
Hoffman said the tours try to find a balance between being "revealing and still very sensitive to all of those who lived through the storm."
"Initially, they were a bit concerned those tours coming through. Once they realized what we were doing and the information we provide, they grew to accept it," Hoffman said. "Now it's just part of the background."
Initially, 85 to 90 percent of the company's business came that first year from the Katrina tours.
"That's why people were coming in. They wanted to see what happened," Hoffman said.
Today, it accounts for about 45 percent of the tour traffic.
"Certainly, the further we get away from Katina the more things are returning to the pre-Katrina norm," he said, adding, "Obviously it's going to be something that's going to be a part of our history forever."