- The Washington Times - Monday, August 14, 2006

NEW ORLEANS — Calvin Ellis’ home bears little resemblance to the one he fled almost a year ago, when Hurricane Katrina chased him and thousands of others from New Orleans.

The walls are the only thing salvageable, and it will be weeks, if not months, before his house is rebuilt. Home these days is a doublewide trailer parked on his front lawn. Much of his Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, hit hardest by the hurricane nearly a year ago, remains a wasteland of debris piles, crumpled houses, weeds and bulldozed lots. The traffic lights aren’t working and most of the street signs are handmade.

With challenges like these remaining across the city, talk of the New Orleans Saints coming back to town seems almost trivial. For residents, though, the return of their beloved football team is a blessed bit of normalcy.

“We need that. We really need that,” Ellis said. “It’s an uplifting thing. It’s excitement. I want to see something from New Orleans come back.”

The Saints already have sold a record 55,000 season tickets, and no single-game tickets are expected to be available. Reggie Bush jerseys are the hottest item in town.

When the Saints march into the rebuilt Superdome on Sept. 25 for a Monday night game, residents say it will be a sign to the entire world that the city is on its way back.

“This season is going to be about more than just football,” said Bush, who set off celebrations around the city when he was drafted and is already so popular he’s known simply by his first name.

“It’s going to be about the city,” Bush said. “Playing for the people here, trying to bring some sort of happiness back to the city and give them something to be proud about.”

Look no further than the Superdome itself, ravaged by wind, water and the 30,000 people who used it for shelter when Hurricane Katrina ripped through the city Aug. 29. Today its roof, a symbol of Katrina’s horror with its gaping holes, is gleaming white again, bright enough to be seen for miles.

A banner on the side of the arena announces, “Reopening 9-25-2006. Go Saints.”

“It was the poster child for misery and suffering,” said Doug Thornton, the regional vice president of SMG, the company that manages the Superdome. “If they see the dome being rebuilt, they’re going to have confidence that the city is going to come back. That my neighborhood, my home can be rebuilt.”

That might sound like a tall order for a building and a bunch of guys who run, pass and tackle. But New Orleans always has had a unique — if somewhat tortured — relationship with its favorite team.

The Saints didn’t have a winning season until 1987 and have produced only seven in their 39 years of existence. New Orleans played host to nine Super Bowls, six of them at the Superdome. But the Saints never came close to playing in football’s biggest game. They have been to the playoffs five times, winning one game.

The Saints were so bad in the early years that fans took to calling them the “Aints.” Legend has it the tradition of embarrassed fans putting paper bags over their heads began in New Orleans.

Still, the Saints are New Orleans’ team.

“I sometimes feel like I’m going to give up on them, but I never do,” said Mike Alaimo, a fan from suburban Metairie. “It’s part of our heritage in New Orleans.”

That fleur-de-lis on the Saints’ helmet is taken from the city’s logo — a symbol now seen throughout town on bright blue flags touting the restoration effort. Cars around town sport bumper stickers with the Saints logo, including one that simply says, “FAITH.”

Games are as much a celebration of New Orleans as they are a sporting contest. Brass bands wander the aisles, and local musicians like Aaron Neville and the Marsalis family have performed at halftime.

“The Saints are an emotional part of New Orleans,” said Archie Manning, who played quarterback for the team for 11 seasons. “There’s no doubt about it.”

And the players realize that.

After Bush was drafted, he and Adidas, one of his sponsors, donated $50,000 to help keep a struggling school open. He and Adidas also sprang for new turf at Tad Gormley Stadium in City Park, where many New Orleans high schools play their football games.

Of the $86,000 donated for the project, $36,000 came out of Bush’s own pocket.

“When I first got drafted, one of the first things I said was I want to help the community get back to its feet,” he said. “I wasn’t just talking for the moment. I actually meant it.”

Running back Deuce McAllister also has been active in the recovery effort, delivering supplies and collecting backpacks for kids. On Sept. 23, he and new quarterback Drew Brees will play host to a benefit to raise money for children who were victims of Katrina.

“We can give them a lot of stuff,” receiver Joe Horn said. “We can give them some stability, hope.”

The city also is counting on the Saints to restore hundreds of millions to the economy. A University of New Orleans study found the Saints had a $402 million economic impact in 2002.

Today, tourists roam the French Quarter, there are waits at some restaurants and music blares from the clubs and bars. The convention center is welcoming visitors again, and 27,000 of the city’s 36,000 hotel rooms are open, said Mary Beth Romig, the spokeswoman for New Orleans’ Convention and Visitors Bureau.

But much work remains to be done in New Orleans, where the population of 235,000 is about half of what it was before Katrina.

“We expected a slowdown after the hurricane. We didn’t expect the slowdown to be as lengthy as it’s been,” said Burt Benrud, whose family owns Cafe Du Monde, the tourist mecca where beignets and cafe au lait are served.

“The Saints will impact our business because it will bring people in from out of town,” Benrud said. “We expect to do more business because they’re back.”

Across from the Superdome, broken glass litters the street, and plywood covers what used to be windows. The Hyatt near the arena remains closed, as does the mall that linked the two.

In the Lower Ninth Ward, rubble is all that’s left of many of the homes. One house is tipped back off its foundation like a deck of cards pushed forward at one end. Another house sits on top of an overturned truck, its frame folded around the vehicle.

Even in neighborhoods where there was little damage, blue tarps dot the landscape.

“Everybody’s just tired. It’s been such a devastating time that any kind of entertainment is welcome,” said Steve Seeber, the general manager at Lakeview Deli and Catering, which opened last month. The restaurant, which was Lovecchio’s for almost 30 years, had to be rebuilt completely.

“It’s getting away,” he said. “For three hours of the week, you go to a sporting event, and it takes away from the stress and anguish of what you’ve been through.”

The numbers seem to bear that out.

The NBA’s Hornets drew 52,455 for their three games in New Orleans last season. The New Orleans Zephyrs, the city’s Class AAA affiliate of the Washington Nationals, sold out their season opener and are on track to surpass last year’s attendance. Attendance at the PGA Tour’s Zurich Classic, which returned to its old home at English Turn because TPC of Louisiana was damaged in the flood, was up 14 percent from the previous year.

“We kind of get up every day in New Orleans looking for good news,” said Manning, who still lives in New Orleans. “Some days we get a little. Some days we get a little good and then we get a little bad.

“The day Reggie got drafted, that’s one of the best days they’ve had in New Orleans since [Katrina],” Manning added. “So I think having the Saints back will give everybody a big lift.”

Getting the team back wasn’t as easy as packing a few boxes and loading up the moving truck. When the Saints fled to San Antonio last season, evacuating like so many of the city residents, many feared the team wouldn’t return.

“The people of New Orleans have had so much taken away from them,” Thornton said. “They’ve had their personal lives altered. They’ve had their homes taken away. They’ve had their businesses taken away. The last thing they want to lose is their football team or their basketball team.

“You can rebuild your house potentially,” he added. “You can’t just go out and get another football team.”

The first step was finding a place for the Saints to play. The Superdome was so damaged during the storm that Thornton wasn’t sure whether it could be salvaged. Seventy percent of the roof failed, and 3.8 million gallons of water had to be pumped out of the dome and its garages. With no air conditioning and little electricity, mold and mildew grew quickly.

Toilets backed up while refugees packed the dome, and 4,000 tons of trash and debris were carted away when the building finally was cleared.

“We weren’t sure if it could be saved,” said Thornton, who spent five and a half days in the dome during the storm. “We just didn’t know.”

Ellerbe Becket, a design firm studying the arena for possible improvements before the storm, did a room-by-room assessment of all the damage — often using flashlights.

A month after Katrina, officials gave the word: The building could be salvaged. In December, after a nudge from the NFL, Saints owner Tom Benson said the team would return home this season.

Some wanted the Superdome knocked down, saying it would help heal the memories of the pain and suffering that occurred there. But a new arena would have cost about $600 million, and the state had $1.3 billion in uninsured losses.

“How do you justify … saying, ‘We’re going to tear the dome down and build a brand-new building,’” Thornton said. “We don’t even know if we’re going to have hospitals here. We don’t know if we’re going to have universities here. We don’t know if we’re going to have health care for our citizens and a place for them to live.”

Although work on the Superdome’s suites and the ballrooms won’t be complete until next season, most of the $185.4 million reconstruction project will be finished before Sept. 25. The rebuilt concession stands and bathrooms are ready to go, and the new leather seats on the club level are being put in.

A state-of-the-art sound system is being installed, the videoboards behind each end zone are being enlarged and a flashy new ribbon board will ring the first deck. The ramps and concourses will get a glossy new finish.

“The retention of the dome and the Saints was part of a bigger mission, and that, of course, was to return the city to better than its pre-Katrina state,” said Tim Coulon, chairman of the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District Commission, the state agency that oversees the Superdome.

“It wasn’t the most important component of the recovery and rebuilding, but it was a major piece because it’s so symbolic of the city.”

As are the Saints. Just ask Ellis.

“All I can say about that is, ‘Who dat?’” the homeowner said, reciting the chant of Saints fans everywhere. “Who dat?”

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