NEW ORLEANS -- The shrimp po'boys sizzled, the drinks flowed and the laughs reverberated throughout the block of Poydras Street where Jeff Ballero and about 40 of his friends were tailgating before yesterday's game between the Ravens and the hometown Saints.
In that sense, Ballero seemed like any other fan of an NFL team on any other Sunday in any other city.
Except that Ballero's house was one mile from where floodwaters caused by Hurricane Katrina 14 months ago busted open the levee along the 17th Street canal. His home, three feet above street level, was filled with seven feet of water, and Ballero and his family lost many of their possessions.
"That was rough," Ballero said. "But things are different now."
A community ravaged by Mother Nature is healing, and the number of homemade grills, Saints flags and coolers spread across the city is just one example of the revival.
Of course, it helps to have an NFL team that is 5-2 and sharing first place in the NFC South, but New Orleans residents are celebrating for other reasons, according to Judy Walker, the food editor at The Times-Picayune.
"What the hurricane did for everybody was make us all feel glad to be alive," said Walker, who wrote a 2,200-word article on the rebirth of tailgating at Saints home games two weeks ago. "And so any kind of community event where people come together is reason to celebrate the fact that we're here. ... There's just an incredible sense of we're all in this together, that we're depending on each other, and that we're going to make it."
There's still much work to be done. The New Orleans Centre, a retail and restaurant complex attached to the Superdome, is still closed, and a number of restaurants and bars dotted throughout the neighborhoods that surround the stadium have yet to reopen.
The recovery process continues to dominate the talk among Saints fans.
"Unfortunately, that occupies way too much of our conversations," said Gary Delahoussaye, who used to tailgate at the New Orleans Centre. " `How are you? How's your house? What are your plans for coming back? How did your kids cope?' I don't know if it's part of the healing process that we have to go through, but we kind of get updates. That is the topic of discussion."
Still, the opportunity to tailgate before Saints games provides the fans with an outlet, a chance to forget about insurance policies and temporary housing.
"It's united us, in a way," said B.J. Reuben, a chef at a New Orleans restaurant who was deep-frying the po'boys for Ballero and his friends. "Everybody's working a little harder at their jobs, and Saints games give everybody a chance to come out and relax on Sundays. On Mondays, people can't wait for it to be Sunday again."