March of Saints stirs New Orleans

With all else dismal, team is inspiration

October 28, 2006|By Bill Ordine | Bill Ordine,Sun reporter

NEW ORLEANS -- In the French Quarter, post-Katrina T-shirts tell the story.

Governments, local and federal, are targets of bitter derision. A cartoon of a snail lampooned as the "FEMA Response Team" is one of the less profane.

But the Saints - who play host to the Baltimore Ravens tomorrow - are objects of silkscreen adoration. Gold-and-black tees sporting a football overlaid with a fleur-de-lis and captioned "I believe" and "Faith" are hot sellers. Another has rookie Reggie Bush heroically carrying a Saints flag leading the march home.

"This team means everything to the city of New Orleans," said season-ticket-holder Randy Russell the night before a home win against the Philadelphia Eagles that lifted the Saints to a surprising 5-1. "The effect the Saints have had on this town has been nothing but positive."

"What this team does is motivate the people who have to rebuild here," said Russell's wife, Susan.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco echoed fans, saying on a sports radio show that the team's performance "gives you heart, it makes you want to go back on Monday morning and get to work. ... If they can do it, we can do it."

When the Ravens and their fans head here for tomorrow's game against the Saints, they will find a desperate city, where vast stretches remain abandoned and desolate since the catastrophic flooding 14 months ago. They will also find a team in the Saints that has emerged as one of the few institutions the region's residents feel haven't let them down. The significance doesn't go unnoticed by the players.

"All of this is greater than just football; it's for a greater cause," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said a few days after riddling the Eagles defense for three passing touchdowns in a 27-24 comeback victory nearly two weeks ago. .

"The best thing we can do as a team is to win football games because it gives people hope, it lifts their spirits, it gets them excited, to go to work each day and rebuild their lives each day."

The recovery in New Orleans has been painfully slow; a recent census showed that Orleans Parish has just 187,000 residents, about 40 percent of its pre-hurricane population.

Part of the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the hardest-hit areas, has acres of overgrown fields where houses once stood. All types of neighborhoods, poor and affluent, are eerily quiet, with block after block of deserted buildings - homes, hospitals, schools, firehouses - many still bearing New Orleans' now infamous bathtub ring, where the water crested.

Traffic still sorts itself out at intersections where signal lights haven't worked in more than a year. Help-wanted signs are planted outside fast-food restaurants and other businesses.

In the central business district, some office buildings and shopping malls have never reopened, their fates uncertain. Major hotels, such as the Hyatt near the Superdome and the Ritz-Carlton on Canal Street, are still closed but expected to reopen.

The greatest degree of normality is in the French Quarter, where there was minimal flooding, and such popular haunts as the Acme Oyster House, Pat O'Brien's and the Cafe du Monde are bustling on busy weekends. But other dining spots and bars just a few blocks off Bourbon Street beg for customers.

Tourism, the main prop of New Orleans' economy, is struggling to regain its footing, and, again, Saints home games have provided some of the few bright spots. The reopening of the Superdome on Sept. 25, when the Saints overwhelmed the Atlanta Falcons, 23-3, before a Monday night national TV audience, was a defining moment.

"The Monday night game against Atlanta and the weekend with the Philadelphia people here were the first times I saw any real life downtown in 13 months," said beefy, bearded Jerry Amato, who helps run Mother's, a cozy home-style eatery on Canal Street.

Even Mardi Gras in March and Jazz Fest in late April and early May didn't generate much business, Amato said.

But the football out-of-towners and, just as importantly, the re-energized Saints fans brought a cash surge that was welcomed not just financially but psychologically.

"It represents hope," Amato said of the Saints and their impact. "It represents the hope that the city can turn itself around and be the way it was."

Organizational resources in New Orleans are so stretched that it has been difficult for official agencies to take reliable measures of the city and the region.

The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, which has tried to monitor tourism-related recovery, reports that about 72 percent of the region's pre-Katrina hotel rooms are back in service. But nailing down occupancy rates is a different matter.

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