Saints' Return Sparks New Orleans Party

The Associated Press
Tuesday, September 26, 2006; 2:53 PM

NEW ORLEANS -- Come back to New Orleans and have a good time. That was the message the Saints' emotional homecoming in a rollicking, refurbished Louisiana Superdome gave the world, a tourism official said Tuesday.

"When you see that teeming mass of people absolutely enjoying themselves, it sends the message that, yes, the people are alive and coming back," Mary Beth Romig, spokeswoman for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, said.

Thousands, many without tickets, gathered outside the dome before the game. A sellout crowd of 68,000 packed the inside and postgame crowds lingered in the French Quarter past 4 a.m.

"This is what our city needed," said Earl Bernhardt, owner of five French Quarter night spots. "It was a tonic for tourism in our city."

Romig said what has largely been lost in 13 months of news coverage since Hurricane Katrina swamped 80 percent of the city is that the French Quarter was largely untouched, and much of downtown has recovered. The Superdome and the Morial Convention Center, both scenes of gut-wrenching misery as Katrina survivors awaited rescue in the days after the storm, are both open for business again. The dome was completely refurbished after Katrina ripped holes in its massive roof.

Romig credited Monday night's ESPN broadcast of the Saints' 23-3 victory over the Atlanta Falcons with giving a balanced look at the city _ its devastation and recovery _ that will encourage meeting and convention planners to again consider coming here.

"If there's a meeting planner on the fence about 2010 and they watched last night, they'll say, `Why am I on the fence?' " Romig said.

Enthusiasm wasn't limited to the tourism industry.

Unloading bricks for work on a patio early Tuesday after attending the game Monday night, Leo Suane was still elated.

"I cried when they sang the national anthem," said Suane, owner of a bricklaying company. "The Superdome looked great."

But Katrina's harsh realities were still apparent. Suane and his crew were working on a patio for a homeowner who had to relocate after the storm. And there was no thought that any of them might call in sick after the late night out. "My guys are too hungry for that," Suane said. "They have families living in trailers, so they need their paychecks."

And good feelings were not universal. Some storm victims said the $185 million dollar repair and refurbishing of the Superdome, $115 million of which was covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, displayed misplaced priorities in a city where roughly half the population of almost 455,000 remains displaced.

"The federal government's No. 1 obligation should be to its citizens," community activist Leroy Paige said. "It irks me."

But there was no denying the emotional lift the game gave many in the city.

"It was a little tiring getting up this morning," said carpenter Bill Killett, hard at work on a wind-damaged house early Tuesday after a late night watching the game on television. "It feels good though. I'll take being tired that way anytime."


Associated Press writer Mary Foster contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Associated Press