NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 24, 2006 -- On Monday night, the New Orleans Saints go marching back into the Superdome for a football game that many thought would never happen.
In the days immediately after Hurricane Katrina, the last thing the people of New Orleans could picture was their football team running out of the locker room and onto the field of the Superdome.
The wind from the storm ripped off part of the roof that is a staple of the city's skyline. Water leaked into the stadium and damaged the field, the seats and the concourses.
And of course, there were the images from inside the Superdome, where people arrived to ride out the storm and were stranded as the levees broke and the city flooded around them. The chaotic scenes of evacuees at the Superdome played around the world, causing the facility that hosted six Super Bowls and numerous major sports events to symbolize to critics the failure of government at all levels.
But now, after 13 months and $185 million, the Superdome is ready to welcome back the Saints and their loyal, diehard fans for the first time since Hurricane Katrina.
Two undefeated teams and the spotlight of Monday Night Football -- that alone may be enough to give a city a reason to party. But the Saints' home opener may also give the team's loyal fans a chance to forget those terrible images from last year and the ongoing challenges the city faces as it rebuilds from Katrina.
"The fact that it's in New Orleans is big; the fact that it's in the Superdome is mind-blowing," said Chris Rose, a columnist for New Orleans' Times Picayune newspaper. "It really is, when you think about the last time the public had a glimpse inside of that building and what happened there."
"They can sit in those seats," said Saints wide receiver Joe Horn, "and say 'You know what? Okay, the city needs $200 million. We need some money for something else. But for four hours, I can sit with my kids and I can enjoy my football team.' "
"It means so much because the whole community needs a pick-me-up," said Metairie resident Sue Schwab, after purchasing nearly $250 worth of Saints t-shirts for her family to wear to the game on Monday night. "And the Saints are going to do that for us."
The game will be a star-studded affair with media from around the world descending on the Big Easy. The Goo Goo Dolls, Green Day and U2 will perform before the game, and local singers Irma Thomas and Allen Toussaint will sing the national anthem. Events have been occurring around the city for the last several days, including a charity event tonight hosted by quarterback Drew Brees and running back Duece McAllister called "Cocktails for Katrina."
But to the people of New Orleans, the game and the re-opening of the Dome is more than just a party and three-hour distraction from everyday worries. People around town -- cab drivers, waiters in the French Quarter, the folks at the rental car counter -- all said this is the first real sign of the recovery and rebirth of New Orleans, and that despite all the government red tape, things can get done here.
Joe Horn said that the quick repair of the Superdome should give people a sense of hope that the rest of the city can bounce back.
"If you can rebuild a place that's 1.9 million square feet," Horn said, "you should be able to come back here and rebuild a 3,000-square foot house."
Even with the excitement and anticipation of the game, some critics still question whether that large amount of money spent repairing the Superdome was put to good use when so many neighborhoods are still digging out of Katrina's destruction.
Doug Thornton, who oversaw the renovations this past year at the Superdome, said those concerns are unfounded because the $116 million that FEMA kicked in to repair the facility could not have been used for neighborhood rebuilding, because it was set aside for public facilities like the Superdome.
"This money … in no way took away from money that was being allocated to the home program or the … individual neighborhoods," Thornton said.
Super Fans of the Superdome
At the Black and Gold Sports Shop in Metairie, La., owner Pam Randazza said she is seeing record sales of Saints jerseys and t-shirts. The top-seller? The rookie who has been called "Jesus in cleats" by one diehard Saints fan.
"Reggie Bush -- everybody wants Reggie Bush. He may be our savior. He's dynamite," Randazza said. "We haven't had a franchise player since Archie Manning, and back then that wasn't even considered franchise."
The lunchtime crowd on Thursday stood in a cash register line of about a dozen people. On Saturday, the store was so jam packed that it was nearly impossible to move as fans stocked up on gear, worried that maybe the store would sell out of black and gold apparel.
Jeff Soto is a born and raised New Orleanian who seemed to represent most people here when he said he would be shutting down early on Monday so he could start the celebrations hours before kickoff.
"It's bigger than Mardi Gras and its going to be an unbelievable party," Soto said. "God help the Falcons on Monday night. The Dome is going to be rocking. They call it Thunderdome for a reason. We're going to be thunderous in there."
The Saints will have a ridiculous home field advantage in Monday night's sold-out game. After 13 months of challenges from the hurricane and the wait to see if the team would even come back to the city or move to San Antonio, the team's fans finally will get to see their team back in their city against division rival Atlanta.
"You don't realize how die hard these fans are until you come down here and they you start winning, and it's crazy," Brees said.
Rookie Bush is used to winning from his days at the University of Southern California, and he seemed intrigued at the level of enthusiasm the Saints fans have in only Week 3 of a long NFL season.
"Everybody's excited," he said, "and everybody's so glad that we're 2-0. And they think we're like the greatest thing ever now. But it is great and we're happy that the fans are happy."
Mixed Emotions Monday
But happiness may not be the only emotion Monday, as fans also reflect on what happened in the Superdome last year.
This week we met Glenn Menard, the general manager of the Superdome, spent six days in the Dome before, during and after Katrina, living just like the other evacuees there with no water, no air conditioning and no comforts of home like spare clothing or toiletries.
He has seen Dome go through 13 months of renovations, with workers going around the clock to be ready for Monday night.
Menard dreamed of having the job he has now since the Dome opened in 1975, and when he talks about the Superdome, the affection he has for the building and its history is obvious on his face.
"The community not only loves the Saints but they love the building too," he said as he walked around the field Friday afternoon. "There have been so many other things that happened here -- from popes, to presidents, to maybe high school prom, maybe their high school championship."
Menard may not get to watch much of the game, but he said this is one kick off he won't miss.
"It's going to be very emotional," he said. "Having been here then, being here now, knowing all the work that people put into it to get it back and all the work people are doing in New Orleans is an amazing feeling and its going to be loud in here.
"This roof may rip off again Monday night," he said, laughing.
Not everyone who was at the Superdome last year was ready to make it back. Saints receiver Joe Horn spoke of people he has met who said they just couldn't go back into that building because the memories were still too raw.
"They said, 'Joe, I've been a season ticket holder, I've been going to the Dome watching games, but after what I've seen, baby, after what I've seen and what I went through, I cant step foot back in there,' " Horn said.
No matter where they are on Monday night -- in the Dome, in a bar on Bourbon Street or watching the game with neighborhood friend -- Saints fans will have reason to celebrate how far their city has come in such a short time, but also to reflect on how much more there is to do.