NEW ORLEANS -- The empty streets and abandoned houses prompt a gnawing question, nearly 17 months after Hurricane Katrina: Is this what New Orleans has become - a city half its former size?
The city's leaders reassure residents that better days and more people are in the future. Their destiny will not merely be to reside in a smaller city with a few good restaurants and curious local customs, the residents are told.
But economists and demographers wonder whether New Orleans will top out at about half its former population of 444,000, which was already in a steep decline from its peak of 627,525 in the 1960 Census.
At the moment, the population is well below half, and future gains are likely to be small.
"It will be a trickle," said demographer Elliott Stonecipher. "Low tens of thousands, over three or four or five years. ... We could start losing people, especially if the crime problem doesn't get high visibility."
The new doubts are not founded on the damage caused by the flood. Rather, crippling problems that existed long before Katrina are mostly being blamed for the city's failure to thrive.
In this view, the storm was merely a grim exclamation point to conditions decades in the making. Before the storm, some economists say, New Orleans might have had more people than its economy could support, and the stalled repopulation is merely reflecting that.
Katrina might have brutally recalibrated the city's demographics, setting New Orleans firmly on the path that its underlying characteristics had been leading it down: a city losing people at the rate of perhaps 1.5 percent a year before Katrina, with a stagnant economy, more than a quarter of the population living in poverty and a high rate of unemployment, in which as many as one in five were jobless or not seeking work.
Political leaders, worried about the loss of clout and a congressional seat, press for people to return, but a smaller New Orleans might not be bad, some economists say.
Most of those who have not returned - 175,000, by Stonecipher's count - are very poor and can be more easily absorbed into places with vibrant job markets, they say.
The smaller New Orleans is almost certain to wind up with a far higher percentage of its population working than before Katrina.
"Where there are high concentrations of poverty, people can't see a way out," said William Oakland, an economist who has studied the city for decades. "Maybe the diaspora is a blessing."
Others, however, worry that permanently losing so many people threatens the city's culture - its unique way of life.
"Culture is people," said Richard Campanella, a Tulane geographer who has written extensively about the city's neighborhoods. "If half the local people are dispersed and no longer living cohesively in those social networks, then half of local culture is gone."