Return of the streetcar mirrors New Orleans' rebirth

(CBS News) NEW ORLEANS - In New Orleans, worries of all kinds have been put aside just for this weekend and America's biggest party. People from all over are here to watch the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl. Hosting the game is like a coming out party for a city reborn.

Streetcars rolled on the brand new Loyola line this week in New Orleans, and mechanic Bruce Godfrey says that tells us everything we need to know about the recovery here.

"We're not only back at pre-Katrina levels, I think we're moving forward," he said. "We now have a new line that wasn't here when Katrina hit. So Katrina is behind us."

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When Hurricane Katrina hit seven-and-half years ago, Godfrey's home was swamped by flood waters. He rode out the storm in a repair yard for the transit system. The waters submerged buses and 32 streetcars were lost. "I actually stayed here and watched them go under water," said Godfrey. "It was a helpless feeling. I didn't know if I would ever see them again."

It took a year-and-a-half to replace the wiring and rebuild each mahogany seat by hand. Now the cars -- like the city itself -- are back on track.

Katrina is still more than just a memory in the Lower Ninth Ward. Abandoned homes and empty lots still scar the area. But, tourism, trade and oil have given the city a strong economic foothold.

Sales tax collections are up 15 percent in the last two years -- six percent higher than before Katrina. Louisiana is one of only six states with more people employed now than before the Great Recession. And New Orleans is the fastest growing city in America.

Bruce Godfrey loves the idea of the city's first post-Katrina Super Bowl, but says they don't need a football game to tell them what they already know.

"Everything has been rebuilt," said Godfrey. "Our lives have been restored. We're just looking towards the future."

If you're going to use the iconic New Orleans streetcar as a symbol, then consider this: construction on another line begins next year. About 87 percent of the riders are locals, mostly on their way to work or school.

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.