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The latest population estimates range between 310,000 and 330,000, compared with about 450,000 before Hurricane Katrina. In the greater metropolitan area, the population remains almost unchanged at 1.13 million people, compared with 1.32 million in 2000, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures released last year. For those of us who lived through the worst of Katrina’s aftermath and feared the population might be cut in half or worse, such statistics are astonishing. They also confirm what we prayed for back then: that the city’s entrenched culture would prove the saving grace in luring people back. And regardless of their hardships, the people of New Orleans haven’t lost their famous penchant for taking good care of visitors. That’s true all over the city, and in the French Quarter to be sure. But it’s true especially -- and perhaps, to many visitors, surprisingly -- in the more authentic neighborhoods, each of which engenders the fierce allegiance of its residents, some of whom rarely travel even across town. These locals are all too happy to show off their neighborhoods to strangers, welcoming them into their regular haunts, trading life stories with them, and inviting them to join intimate gatherings in hidden, lush courtyards.

Curtis Miller is one such friendly New Orleanian. Clad in black-and-gold New Orleans Saints gear, including a hat with a flashing fleur-de-lis, and carrying a bucket full of Miller Lite cans on ice, which he reportedly totes around most days, Miller walks into Sidney’s a few minutes after we do and commences immediately to holding court. Within minutes, he has the whole bar doubled over in laughter with stories about his forced evacuation by plane after Katrina to a tiny town in Colorado.

“National Guard said I had to get out -- I left here in hot pants and a T-shirt,” says the 58-year-old city government retiree. “It was 90 degrees when I left and 20 degrees when I got there. But I’m telling you, they rolled out the red carpet. Not like you people here.” Laughter erupts around the bar.

My friend and I look at each other and smile: There’s always one.

Another day, a different friend and I visit the Mid-City neighborhood, where we both once lived. Though she has since moved to Atlanta, she returns to New Orleans often, and we usually revisit the old neighborhood when she does.

Today, among other delights, we hit Finn McCool’s Irish Pub, one in a tight-knit network of Irish bars dotting the city that are run by Irish immigrants, or the “Irish Murphia,” as co-owner Steve Patterson jokes.

It’s trivia night, and we find a rich mix of people here: Tulane University students; Irish soccer fans; old men sipping cheap beers; black, white, and Hispanic blue- collar types; and dressed-down professionals. A core of regulars rules here, and it represents the same diverse mix that exists in the surrounding neighborhood -- a prideful bunch that rebuilt relatively quickly after the 2005 flood.

“The neighborhood came back quickly because all the carpenters and electricians live here, and they just did it all themselves,” Patterson says, displaying a common Irish reverence for the working class.