NEW ORLEANS - The oversize white sign that Karin Rittvo hoisted over her narrow shoulders yesterday was one among thousands at the base of a half-mile protest march. "Six family friends murdered since July," the sign read. "No arrests. It's personal now."

Nearly 17 months after Hurricane Katrina, an old problem in New Orleans has resurfaced from beneath the flattened houses and broken buildings, threatening what remains of beleaguered residents' resolve. Violent crime is back, a recent spate of homicides has left people of every race, religion and neighborhood in this city scared and angry, and officials as far up as the Louisiana governor's office are worried about the city's reputation.

Eight people have been killed since New Year's Day, and not one suspect has been found. Police contend the homicides are connected to a bustling drug trade, but two killings in the city since Dec. 28 involved popular local artists - Dinerral Shavers, a drummer for the Hot 8 Brass Band, and Helen Hill, an animator and filmmaker.

Although there is plenty of excitement over the New Orleans Saints' home playoff game against the Eagles tomorrow night, no one outside City Hall yesterday was talking football. Thousands of people marched from three diverse neighborhoods to demand a stop to the violence.

"We've got these random incidents happening, not unlike other major cities," Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said. "It's just that we work so hard to pull ourselves up to get the work done to repopulate the city, so every incident is painful for us. But the citizenry is gathered together. Every single person is focused [on] getting the city under control."

Although supplemented by Louisiana State Police and the National Guard, the depleted New Orleans Police Department is stretched thin, with tired, underpaid, and often underqualified officers, said a state government official who asked to remain anonymous. He said mistakes during investigations were frequent, which makes prosecuting criminals almost impossible.

There is little fear of punishment in New Orleans, a fact that has empowered and emboldened those wishing to harm others. Arrests are one thing; convictions are another. A faltering criminal-justice system has resulted in what has become known as a lenient "60-day sentence" for criminals - nothing more than time served after an arrest.

Robberies, carjackings, assaults and rapes also are citywide problems. Things are so bad that Mayor Ray Nagin earlier this week contemplated issuing the city's third curfew since the hurricane came ashore on Aug. 29, 2005. He decided against it. For a city that desperately needs money generated by tourism, violence is a very bad problem to have.

The surprising season by the resurgent Saints has helped, if nothing else providing the city's people with a momentary diversion from their daily travails.

"The Saints are truly our Cinderella team," Blanco said. "They represent more than just football to us right now. Their winning ways are giving people hope and heart."

In a way, the Saints are saviors. For three hours each Sunday, fans have been able to escape the destruction and depression of post-Katrina life and enjoy football. Good football. And tomorrow, playoff football.

After posting a 3-13 record as vagabonds in 2005, the Saints won five of their first six games this season and finished 10-6, good enough for a coveted first-round bye in the playoffs. They have a new coach (Sean Payton), an accurate quarterback (Drew Brees), the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner (Reggie Bush), a prolific offense and an adequate defense.

Unlike in years past, many of the Saints players - including Brees, running back Bush and linebacker Scott Fujita - are living in the city. They are visible, accessible and beloved.

"I walk my dogs two times every day, just around the neighborhood, and people are either screaming out their windows or coming up and giving a good, heartfelt thank you," said Fujita, who moved into the city's Warehouse District with his wife, Jaclyn. "I've never gotten that before, anywhere. ... It makes it a lot bigger than football."

For the first time in franchise history, every one of the Saints' eight regular-season home games sold out. Tomorrow's anticipated event will be no different. Reasonably priced tickets are hard to come by, and Saints general manager Mickey Loomis has been inundated by ticket requests, not to mention well wishes.

One e-mail Loomis received on Wednesday said: "I'm a 27-year-old man with a wife and two daughters and . . . all week long I've thought about what it would be like to be in the Superdome during the divisional-round playoff game. Every time I think about it, I get choked up."

Said another: "Everything around me is destroyed, but for a few hours on Sunday I don't think about it. Good work, and go get 'em."

"It's just something positive in a sea of negativity," Loomis said.

In the Lower Ninth Ward and adjoining St. Bernard Parish, much of Katrina's devastation has been cleared, leaving flat, open spaces where many houses once stood. Handmade wooden signs identify abandoned, rocky roads, and the houses that remain are dilapidated and tattooed with the sign of the times - a large X, with codes indicating who, or what, was lost inside.

A brave few are rebuilding, but it is a slow process. They reside in FEMA-provided trailers, have trash as their front-lawn view, and have to drive for miles to find an operating grocery store or gas station.

Pockets of the city remain dark, which fuels the crime. There were 161 homicides last year. In a city that is roughly half its pre-Katrina size of more than 450,000, that is an alarming per-capita homicide rate. Philadelphia, by comparison, had 406 slayings last year and a population roughly seven times that of New Orleans today. (There have been 15 homicides in Philadelphia this year.)

Residents want electricity, light, and a stop to the crime.

"A city that could not be drowned in the water of a storm will not be drowned in the blood of our citizens," the Rev. John C. Raphael Jr. told the crowd at City Hall.

Rittvo, the 53-year-old resident at the rally, is cautiously optimistic. She has lost so many friends or family members to gun violence. "I just think we have a serious drug problem, and guns," she said. "Too many drugs, too many guns. I think if we can get that under control, we'd be a little better. . . . But we're survivors. We survived Katrina. We can survive anything."

Contact staff writer Ashley Fox

at 215-854-5064 or afox@phillynews.com.